Case Western Reserve University Think Forum
Essayist and author Daniel Mendelsohn speaks on the Case Western Reserve campus as part of the Think Forum series. Photo credit: Daniel Milner

Cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn paused in Cleveland this October before his written remarks to take in the stunning, restored Temple-Tifereth Israel, repurposed at the heart of a new Maltz Performing Arts Center.

A month earlier, the richly glowing Silver Hall reopened its doors with a performance from the Cleveland Orchestra, occupying the stage where Mendelsohn stood. The musicians played “The Creatures of Prometheus” and “Leonore,” both overtures from Beethoven, on 26 instruments rescued from the Holocaust.

“I am dazzled by the space we are all sitting in,” said Mendelsohn, gesturing toward the burnished wood and subdued golds. The auditorium reminded him of the ruined beauty of many Eastern European synagogues, abandoned with “trees growing in the middle of them now.”

He also wryly noted, as a platter of pink shrimp hors d’oeuvres shimmered past during the faculty reception, “It’s not a synagogue anymore.”

The celebrated writer, a classicist whose essays appear in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, traveled extensively for five years, visiting Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, as well as Israel, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, to report his much-honored memoir, “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million.”

Eli Wiesel reviewed the book in the Washington Post nine years ago, finding it “rigorous in its search for truth, at once tender and exacting.” The New York Times praised its meditations on conflicting ways of storytelling, a thread that Mendelsohn took up in his Cleveland remarks, “’Lost’ Between Memory and History: Writing the Holocaust for the Next Generation.”

Photo credit: Daniel Milner
Photo credit: Daniel Milner

The six relatives in Mendelsohn’s subtitle were a maternal great-uncle, Schmeil Jager, his wife Ester and their four teenage daughters: Lorcka, Frydka, Ruchele and Bronia. For more than three centuries, the family had lived in “a small, pre-Carpathian Polish town” called Bolechow, now part of Ukraine.

The reader enters “The Lost” through the youthful sensibilities of young Daniel, who grew up enthralled by his snappily-dressed, successful grandfather, and who spent part of his childhood provoking tears in Florida from certain elderly European Jews: the great nephew so closely resembled Schmeil. A handful of surviving photos of Jager, reprinted in “The Lost,” capture a strong echo between the two men’s eyes, mouth and posture.

When the Germans marched into Bolechow in July 1941, some 6,000 Jews called it home. In August 1944, as the Soviets’ army arrived, “48 survivors emerged from the forest, the cellars, the haystacks where they had been hiding.”

Some sixty years later, Mendelsohn began searching for this remnant. He also discovered the names of his six relatives in the Yad Vashem database for Shoah victims. Yet the archival information turned out to be “wrong, all wrong, the spelling of names, the dates of births and deaths, the spelling of parents’ names.”

“Why does this matter?” he asked. “It matters to me precisely because we are in a hinge moment: still close enough to care about small things, small inaccuracies that depart from the truth. But in 2000 years, will it matter that a young woman died at 21, not 18?  That large events are made of small details?”

the lostMendelsohn, 55, is deeply interested in the moral drift inherent in storytelling. He is keenly aware that that his own experience – writing “The Lost” – moved what happened into “the story of what happened.”

The book’s raw material was a fragment of a welter of stories – belonging to “perpetrators, victims, neighbors, survivors.”  One such survivor kept her secrets. Meg Grossbard told Mendelsohn, “You think you deserve to know all this because it’s part of ‘history.’ This wasn’t history to me. This was my life. And my life belongs to me . . . If I tell you my story, it will become your story.”

With the perspective of a classicist, Mendelsohn asked his audience – gathered for the first ThinkForum of the academic year – to consider how catastrophic and complex Jewish slavery in Egypt was, now boiled down into the Haggadah, stories reduced to a ritual two hours.

“We today are too close to the Holocaust to assess what it will mean,” he said.  “My own, seemingly big book, is not but a grain of sand. In 2,000 years, Lorcka will have disappeared.”

Mendelsohn seems reconciled to this notion. “People of the future will need room to live their own lives.”

Tom Pantic, a junior at Hiram College in Ohio, wanted to know how poet Eugene Gloria felt about being put in the Asian box.

Gloria, known for his nuanced poems exploring identity, geography and masculinity, took a moment in the college’s wood-paneled Alumni Heritage Room to gather his thoughts on a complicated question.

“I’m OK with being grouped with Asian American poets – I’m very proud of that community,” he said. “It is a problem to be put on the ethnic shelf, with ‘American poets’ shelved elsewhere – that’s a problem for me. I’m happy to represent. I’m a Filipino poet but there are many other identities I inhabit.”

Gloria, now 58, was the youngest of six children when his family left Manila and settled in San Francisco. The first poem in “My Favorite Warlord” is called “Water.” It begins:

              The street when I was five

              was a deep, wide river

              coursing through a shimmering city.

              I had no need for proper shoes,

              no need for long pants.

              I didn’t yet know how to make

              Conclusions and say, “Life’s like this . . .”

Gloria, who won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book award for “My Favorite Warlord,” read “Water” several times over three days in Hiram. He visited high school students, ate dinner with English majors and gave a warm, wry public appearance, part of a Big Read initiative this fall in Hiram. “It took me five or six years to finish ‘Water,’” he told those gathering in what was once the college library.

“The students from both local high schools and Hiram College . . . came away with a new understanding of the power of poetry to convey deep emotions, to comment on social issues, or just to crystallize a moment in time,” noted Gloria’s host, Professor Kirsten L. Parkinson, who directs the Lindsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature at the college.

As he answered Pantic, Gloria made a glancing reference to the eruption this year over the Best American Poetry Anthology, in which a white Midwestern archivist named Michael Derrick Hudson submitted a poem under the false name Yi-Fen Chou to increase his odds of being selected. The subterfuge succeeded and provoked blistering criticism.

“How unfortunate to think I have an ‘in’ because my name is exotic enough,” Gloria in an interview said after his reading. “Mostly I feel sad. This is another instance of – racism is probably too strong – of misperception. Poetry is an opportunity for me to be honest about my identity.  I like what [anthology editor] Sherman Alexie called it, ‘colonial theft.’ ”

Alexie made the controversial decision to keep Hudson’s poem in the 2015 anthology; Gloria plans to incorporate this episode into the discussion of the creative writing workshop he leads at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

“I like to go to Indianapolis occasionally to take care of my Asian needs – fish sauce, good rice,” Gloria riffed in his gentle, mellifluous voice. He then read “Here, On Earth,” adding, “yes, happy poems are possible.”

The October evening in Hiram served as a welcome tour of “My Favorite Warlord” with Gloria providing insights into individual poems.  He began the book sparked by an observation from Susan Orleans, who suggested that boys of 10 define the man they will become at 40.  Gloria realized that at 10 he was a schoolboy at St. Agnes Elementary School in the Haight Asbury neighborhood in 1967, a fascinating spot in a momentous year.  So he began writing poems constellated around 1967, but as he worked, “My Favorite Warlord” developed a parallel meditation on Gloria’s father, inflected with an interest in the 16th century Japanese warrior Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

“It became an accidental book in that I was conflating my thoughts about Hideyoshi with meditations on my father,” Gloria told a DePauw University staff writer. “People assume that ‘my favorite warlord’ is my father, which really isn’t the case. But I don’t mind the mistake, because on some level I was thinking about both of them as one thing.”

For his part, Pantic loved the poem “Allegory of the Laundromat,” also a favorite of Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Pantic quoted the final line in his introduction of Gloria:

Who gives a whit about the indelicate balance of our weekly wash?

misty movie“A Ballerina’s Tale” is a delightfully intimate portrait of Misty Copeland—full of close-ups, uncomfortable silence, and peeks behind the curtain of one of the nation’s most prominent dancers. Documentary-maker Nelson George spent three years filming.

Balletomanes already know much of the biography: As one of six children raised by a single mother in San Pedro, California, Misty found refuge from a sometimes unstable home at the local Boys & Girls Club, where she first took a ballet class at 13. In the 20 years since, she has become the face of modern dance, appearing everywhere from The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to Prince’s Welcome to America tour. But that fame didn’t happen overnight.

When she was 17, Misty moved from California to New York to join the American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) Studio Company. She arrived to find herself the only African-American dancer among a corps of 80. Copeland, a beautiful woman who smiles with her whole face and shoulders, admits she felt inadequate, struggling with racial and body image issues. She numbed herself with sugary vices like Krispy Kreme donuts: “I didn’t want to go to class; I didn’t want to have to look at myself in the mirror.” 

In 2012, the director selected Copeland to dance the Firebird, in Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird, a game-changing role, and her first turn in a principal role as a professional soloist. Her ABT mentor Susan Fales-Hill invited powerful black women to see the performance—BET President Debra Lee attended—and congratulate Copeland on her success. The dancer was in excruciating pain, dancing through multiple stress fractures in her leg. But for Copeland, there was no other choice but to take the stage: “I understood that I had to make it work. I knew that the night stood for something so much bigger than me and beyond what I could even imagine.” 

Her stellar Firebird led to a dinner with George, an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. Copeland’s work was his first ballet experience; he was hooked. He wanted to document the way the ballerina was remaking the art, and the audience. Copeland agreed: “What I’m trying to do is get people in the door because I think once they get in the door of the theater, they’ll see the beauty and just how incredible the art form is.”

George and Copeland started shortly thereafter, filming orthopedic surgeons debating whether to put a steel rod in her leg, and later, her return to the stage.

She triumphed, dancing Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, the first African-American woman to do so. A little over a month later, she smashed another barrier, becoming the first black women promoted to principal ballerina at ABT—a goal a decade in achieving.

Viewers mark the mental and physical fortitude it takes Copeland to reach the top—Copeland is on her feet (excuse me, on her toes) for hours a day, running between class, rehearsal, physical therapy and work as a spokesperson for Under Armour, Dr. Pepper and Coach.

An informal city sidewalk gathering of Copeland friends and fellow dancers to toast to her massive new Under Armour billboard is perhaps the most touching moment. The “I Will What I Want” campaign signaled a shift to ballerinas glorying in athleticism and strength, right alongside NFL quarterback Tom Brady and NBA point guard Stephen Curry. A moment I was waiting to see—Copeland speaking about achieving her dream of principal ABT dancer—went missing. George just tucks in a simple note toward the end.  

While the film is solid on Misty’s professional endeavors, the documentary fails to flesh out Misty the person. Outside of a cameo from Leyla Feyyaz, her best friend and a former dancer, viewers don’t see who makes up Copeland’s inner circle. The same gap occurs with her family, although Copeland has explained that the narrow focus on ballet was intentional: “I didn’t want this to be a ‘Misty movie’—I wanted to show people what ballet was,” she told Jezebel.

None of this would have been possible without the trailblazing black ballerinas who came before Copeland. Viewers should stay through the credits for the ‘black ballerina curtain call,’ which includes Raven Wilkinson, Janet Collins and Carmen de Lavallade. “It’s my favorite part of the whole documentary, the end,” Copeland says in Elle magazine. “I always get teary eyed.”

“A Ballerina’s Tale” is now available in select theaters and on iTunes. 

 

 

 

This past September, Jericho Brown, Marlon James, Marilyn Chin and Richard S. Dunn accepted their 2015 Anisfield-Wolf awards at a sold-out ceremony at the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square, while David Brion Davis addressed the crowd in a pretaped acceptance speech. Peek into their magical evening with this 2-minute highlight clip:

 

Highlights of the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Ceremony from Anisfield Wolf on Vimeo.

 

 

As I approached the ballroom of the Cleveland Convention Center to reach the Open Doors Academy luncheon, I heard a commotion that seemed a bit out of place–more like a pep rally. Students flanked both sides of entrance to the ballroom, arms outstretched, giving enthusiastic high-fives to each guest. “No one asked them to do that,” executive director Annmarie Grassi shared with the audience. “That enthusiasm is all their own.”

More than 500 attendees filled the ballroom to support Open Doors Academy, a 13-year-old enrichment and leadership nonprofit serving some 400 students in Northeast Ohio. These students, buoyed by academic tutoring, volunteer projects and summer camps, boast a 100 percent high school graduation rate and 97 percent of participants pursue post-secondary education.

These are astounding and encouraging numbers when nearly 90% of the students enrolled in programming live below the poverty line. It is a population that writer Jonathon Kozol, keynote speaker for the event, knows well.

With his sleeves rolled up and blue sneakers on his feet, Kozol, 79, looked like a man of action. For the past five decades, Kozol has become known as one of the most respected education writers in America, with 13 books investigating America’s racial and class disparities both inside the classroom and out. He won the Anisfield-Wolf book award for nonfiction in 1996 for Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, a 300-page treatise on living conditions of poor children in the South Bronx.

“Why did I give a book about destitute children that optimistic title?” he shared. “Here’s why: because in the midst of all the desolation in which those children lived, I came upon a little miracle: a beautiful afterschool program in a small Episcopal church called St. Ann’s.” This program, he noted, was not unlike the origins of Open Doors Academy, which got its unofficial start as a drop-in program at a Cleveland Heights church.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1958, Kozol began teaching in the Boston Public Schools, where he was later fired for teaching a Langston Hughes poem. He moved on to another district, before shifting his attention to writing about his pupils, the young men and women living in the poorest, most segregated cities in the country. Cleveland, unfortunately, bears striking resemblance to the South Bronx.

“As central cities start to shine again…it is very easy to lose sight of those we left behind. Fifty-four percent of children in this city live in poverty,” Kozol told the crowd, as a recent U.S. Census Bureau report now puts that number closer to 60 percent.

The gulf between adequately funded schools and its struggling counterparts is getting wider, Kozol said, thanks in part to “pathological” testing standards that are driving out good teachers in schools that need them most. Whereas wealthier parents feel empowered to opt out of testing, lower-income families hesitate to make such a move.

“Critical thinking is flourishing still in top suburban high schools, schools that have plenty of money,” Kozol said. “Well-educated parents in those districts want their kids to grow up with the ability to ask discerning questions, to interrogate reality so that in their adult lives they can take a real role in the workings of democracy and they can help shape the future of our nation. It’s less common in the inner-city schools, especially in the schools that serve the black and brown and very poor. Poverty is not the only issue at stake here.”

Education analysts have projected more than 2 million teachers will hit retiring age in the next decade, which is why Kozol said we need to recruit passionate educators and respect the ones in the trenches every day with our students: “I still think teaching is a wonderful profession and there are so many marvelously creative teachers. I don’t want to lose them.”