Returning to Baltimore to talk about Imagining Katherine and the process from memory to fiction has been one of my greatest joys this past year. The audience at the Lecture Group and at the Pikesville Library Speakers Series shared many of the memories that I mined for this YA novel. In every laugh, sigh, and question, our bond was palpable. Thank you, Karen Egorin and Ruth Goldstein for inviting me to speak to your groups. I look forward to visiting again when my short story collection is published.
“Mother’s Day” was just recently published in Little Patuxent Review’s Winter 2017 “Prisons” Issue. In this short fiction, Kimmy is trapped inside her closet, while outside, her young daughters face unknown dangers.
The Sydney Taylor Book Awards, sponsored by the Association of Jewish Libraries, honors new books for children and teens that exemplify the highest standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. The award memorializes Sydney Taylor, author of the classic All-of-a-Kind Family series.
For more information about the AJL, see their website: http://jewishlibraries.org
What a joy to talk with readers and potential readers of Imagining Katherine. Yesterday I visited Lakelands Park Middle School and met with English classes in large groups and in a special creative writing session. The students were filled with provocative questions, and I was inspired by the imagination and enthusiasm of the Lakelands Park writers. Thank you Rui-Hung Tsai and Elissa Waldman for making this visit possible.
Today I worked with ESOL students at Blair High School as they began to draft short stories. One of the students has been in the United States for only a few weeks, others for less than two years. I was touched by the poignancy of their stories and their determination to succeed. A special shout-out to Rafealla, Leona, Olly, Nathal, and their fabulous teacher Dr. Dana Simel.
My adult readers have been the greatest surprise. While I set out to write a YA book, adult readers have seen the humor and challenges of their junior high years in Imagining Katherine. During my visit to the Library of Congress Book Club, I was surprised by the intensity of the members’ recollections of their segregated school years.
Our shared stories and life experiences bring us together–young and not so young–and remind me that the diversity of our country is its greatest strength.
Lakelands Park Middle School, December 2015
As Baltimore faces unresolved racial issues, we who love this city can draw inspiration from two local Jewish heroes of the civil rights movement. To Baltimoreans of the 1960s, Malcolm Sherman and Rabbi Morris Lieberman exemplified the ethical teachings of Hillel.
“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Mal Sherman, who moved to Baltimore to be close to his wife’s family, remained at heart a Baltimorean for the rest of his life. It was here that Sherman earned his real estate license, established Mal Sherman Realtors, and began to challenge a segregated real estate market that dictated where Jews, blacks, and white Christians could live. This division traces back to the 1910 Baltimore city law, the first in the nation that prohibited blacks from moving to white blocks and vice versa. After the Supreme Court overturned the law in 1917, home buyers signed covenants promising not to sell their homes to people of a different race, including a separate discriminatory category for Jews. After World War II predatory block busting encouraged panic-selling by white Christians and Jews who feared plummeting housing values when a black family moved into their neighborhood.
When Sherman entered this real estate market in 1949, his goals were simple. As he stated in the Maryland Realtor, “I wanted to help families find a better quality of life.”
Sherman tried to stabilize a white neighborhood decimated by blockbusting by urging white homeowners to stay put. He engaged with another realtor to open up white neighborhoods voluntarily and encouraged other realtors to join them. He found a partner in Mayor Theodore McKeldin, who helped Sherman’s group voluntarily integrate ten apartment buildings. But voluntary measures had limited power. So Sherman testified on behalf of open housing legislation wherever he could.
Throughout this period, Sherman and his family belonged to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, then led by Rabbi Morris Lieberman. This is where the stories of two great men converge. In 1961 Rabbi Lieberman established the Social Consciousness Committee in response to early civil rights struggles. As part of Rabbi Lieberman’s civil rights efforts, he led multi-faith clergy in escorting a distinguished black leader into two segregated restaurants. When their efforts failed, the press coverage resulted in the formation of the Clergyman’s Interfaith Committee on Human Rights. Later, in 1963, Rabbi Lieberman was among several clergy arrested during a massive non-violent demonstration to integrate Gwynn Oak Park, a privately owned amusement park that served only whites.
Rabbi Lieberman used his arrest to speak passionately before his congregation about what he did and why he did it. On Rosh Hashannah 1963, Lieberman acknowledged that some of his congregants might disapprove of him speaking about racial equality, claiming that it was a political topic.
But for Lieberman, racism was a spiritual issue. He recalled a visit to post-war Dachau, which took him past churches near roads and tracks used by death trains, death trucks, and death buses. Said Lieberman, “I could only think to myself, What did the priests and pastors talk about during those days? What did they preach to their congregations at Christmas time and at Easter?” He wondered if their congregants asserted that the death camps were a political matter, not a religious one, or if congregants said, “But they are only Jews.”
In the Rosh Hashannah sermon, he recalled, too, the Haggadah which explicitly states, “In each generation each Jew must regard himself as though he, in his own person, had been a slave unto Pharoah.” This double memory of Dachau and the Haggadah compelled Lieberman to speak out “for the rights of those who are still in the slavery of discrimination and degradation.”
Sherman approached his rabbi the next day and, according to the book But Not Next Door, asked what he could do to help integrate housing.
Lieberman said, “What do you mean what can you do? You’re more powerful than any priest or any rabbi. You can open up neighborhoods and make it possible for everybody to live wherever they want to live.”
Sherman said, “Rabbi, if I do this, I’ll be run out of town. People don’t want it.”
Lieberman replied, “Well, you asked me what you could do.”
Sherman went home and talked with his wife, who encouraged him to act on his beliefs. He started making open housing sales in white neighborhoods, including the sale of a Pikesville home to John Mackey, a black player for the Baltimore Colts, and later a home for Baltimore Orioles superstar Frank Robinson. Working with Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., Sherman continued to seek sellers in white neighborhoods who would accept offers from black families. But according to Sherman, other real estate companies would no longer deal with him and shunned him, forcing him out of business.
His family also paid a price. In a recent speech to the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism, Sherman’s daughter Wendy recalled that people would call their house and “threaten to bomb it.” But Sherman’s family also received a gift–social action as a way of life.
In 1967, James Rouse, a deeply religious man, asked Sherman to join him in developing a new city, Columbia, which would be open to people of all races and religions. Sherman, too, “felt the power of G-d in my life” as he helped Rouse build this integrated community, today considered one of the most successful planned communities in the United States.
Rabbi Morris Lieberman died suddenly in 1970 at the age of 61, leaving a legacy of social action for his congregation and the larger Baltimore religious community.
After living briefly in Atlanta, Sherman returned to work in the Baltimore-Washington area, where he died in 2009.
May the lives of these men give us all the courage to resolve today’s lingering racial issues.
Also appeared in Baltimore Jewish Times
Lieberman, Morris. The Legacy of Rabbi Morris Lieberman. Baltimore: 1977.
“Wendy Sherman: Iran deal will make world safer” in San Diego Jewish World, April 27, 2015.
Mack, Michael L. But Not Next Door: Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc.: The First Forty Years. 2002.
- Narrow the scope of your story so that you have time and space to provide the details that give truth to your fiction.
- Constantly observe the world around you to collect details that you can access when writing.
- Remember emotions from the past and the physical correlatives of those emotions. Allow yourself to face your emotions honestly.
- Draw on six senses when you write to give credibility: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, kinesthetic sense. Kinesthetic sense is the internal physical sense of your body; for example, your rumbling gut, a piercing pain in your head, a stiff knee, shortness of breath. Emotions are often attached to the kinesthetic sense.
- Everyday exercise your brain by dreaming. The dreaming prepares you to write with specificity that feels truthful.
- In 1910 Baltimore enacted the first law in American history that restricted blacks from moving to white residential blocks and vice versa.*
- Until the 1970s, prejudice against Jews was so strong in Baltimore that there were actually three housing markets: one for white Christians, one for Jews, and one for blacks.*
- Housing covenants against Jews were so prevalent in Baltimore that even some Jewish developers refused to sell homes or rent apartments to Jews for fear that white Christians would not want to live in the development.*
- At least four Jewish congregations and their rabbis participated in the 1963 protests to integrate Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, including Rabbi Morris Lieberman of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, who inspired his congregants to put Jewish principles into action.**
- While sit-ins in southern restaurants and stores drew the headlines in newspapers throughout the country, in the early 1960s black students also conducted sit-ins in segregated Baltimore restaurants and department stores.**
* Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood
** Amy Nathan, Round & Round Together