About Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum

Author of "A Day of Small Beginnings" (Little, Brown & Co.)

The World’s Biggest Catsup Bottle?

worlds biggest catsup bottle photoAmong the hundreds of roadside attractions strung across the American landscape from coast to coast, the World’s Biggest Catsup Bottle holds a strange place in my heart.  Yup, that’s a real thing – a watertower, trussed up to look like a bottle of the all-American condiment. It’s been towering over Route 159 outside downtown Collinsville, Illinois since 1949 and has even been added to the National Register of Historic Places. At 170 feet , the “Bottle” is about 70 feet taller than another roadside attraction that’s been standing on the outskirts of Collinsville for considerably longer and took a couple of hundred years to build. That would be Monk’s Mound at the Cahokia Indian Mounds.

More years ago than I want to think about, when I began writing a novel I thought was going to be about an American Babel, I discovered the tiered 100 foot high “stupendous pile of dirt,” as it was once called. I thought I’d found my Babel. Monk’s Mound, at the center of America’s First City (circa 950BCE-1300CE) was built by a highly advanced people who we call Mississippians because we don’t know what they called themselves. Before it mysteriously fell to ruin, the city had a population of about 20,000 – bigger than London at the time.

But…getting back to the World’s Biggest Catsup Bottle, as I researched the region for the novel, I thought it curious that it seemed to hold a higher place of pride for the local population than the ancient city at their doorstep. The Bottle was photographed, celebrated, even fully renovated.

The mounds – about 120 of them over 6 square miles, were not.  Until fairly recently, they were routinely shaved and knocked down by local horseWorld's Largest Catsup Bottleradish farmers and business owners and plundered by pothunters – to the horror of the few archaeolgists who worked almost without funding to discover the ancient city’s secrets. Monk’s Mound was even the site of KKK cross burnings, back in the early 20th century.

And then, in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, more mounds got razed to make room for the latest biggest thing to come through – the interstate highways.

The more I read about the secrets uncovered in America’s First City (including peculiar human sacrifices!), the more I thought its defenders, the archaeologists, had a story worth looking into. Turns out, it was a story I never expected to find, and one so current it’s frontpage news pretty much every day.

So if you’re driving by Collinsville, Illinois on July 9, by all means stop by for the Biggest Catsup Bottle Festival. But don’t miss the Cahokia Mounds.



Going to Prison

I never imagined that something I wrote could land me in prison.But writing often takes us to strange places, some planned, some inconceivable. This was one of the latter. As the author of a ten minute play being performed by actors for the Jewish Women’s Theatre, I was invited to spend  the better part of a Saturday in Corona, at California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Frankly, visiting a women’s prison, even by invitation, is a pretty disturbing experience. There was some serious paperwork involved in obtaining permission. Any misspellings were a big deal. Everything was a big deal. We were told we would not be allowed in if we wore blue, or orange, or camouflage patterns, or any patterns. In fact, we were strongly advised to just wear black and white. Presumably this had to do with gang colors or prison guard clothing. Also, no jewelry, no cellphones, no electronics, no purses, no nothing but your government-issued id and a bottle of water. And when we met inmates, no touching except to shake pinkies, not hands. Needless to say, no hugging either, should we be so moved, and stay close to the people who would be escorting us around. Well, that would give anyone pause, right?

The dozen of us – actors, writers, and producers, car-pooled an hour east of  LA to Corona, where it routinely heats up to a toasty 110 or more on a summer’s day (which thankfully this was not). Though suburbia is now encroaching on this once isolated desert landscape, the prison was smack up against a dairy farm (no, not Elsie’s – this was like those stinking grass-less cow lots along the 5 freeway in Central California). We looked at the barb wire fence, the guard tower, heard a loudspeaker barking something to the inmates inside and had a collective moment when we felt we might like to quietly get back into our cars and drive the hell out of there.

But the show, as they say, must go on. We entered the Administration Building, lined up like the good girls we are, or were pretending to be for the occasion. The chaplain who had invited us admonished us to follow every instruction we were given and not to ask questions or to argue in any way. “This is one of the mean guards,” she said of the fellow behind the bullet-proof glass who was processing us through one-by-one. Not encouraging. I was especially nervous of the metal detector, which routinely dings on me at the airport because of my titanium hip. The resulting indignity of the pat down usually gives me time to recite my private curse to terrorists everywhere, but what would they do if I dinged the machine here? Full body cavity search? I informed the guard of my condition; he took my id and motioned me to pass through the detector. No ding! Green light! I was pathetically grateful. From then on, we were instructed that no door would open unless the one behind it was closed. This certainly gave that chipper old saying about one door closing and another opening a whole new meaning, and not a happy one. Once through, we found ourselves outside, in a huge, open area criss-crossed with badly paved paths, crab grass, and lots of women walking around in mostly white-ish baggy clothes, not uniforms, just tee shirts and sweat pants that looked like they’d had too many washings.

2,000 women live in this place, and hundreds more are coming, owing to a prison closure in Northern California. we were told. The bungalows they live in look a lot like the ones they’ve jammed into our public schoolyards, only worse. The original buildings look a bit worse for the wear too. Metal is rusted. Things look sparse, colorless. We pass inmates who say hello. We stop and shake pinkies with someone who recognized the chaplain  escorting us. People seem to walk in twos.

Then we arrived at the chapel; another prefab bungalow. A Shabbat service was in progress. It was immediately apparent that this rabbi knew his congregants well, many of whom, we realized as we settled in, were not Jewish but must have been drawn to his compassion and the way he linked the week’s Torah portion to issues that spoke to the heart of what it is to be someone who has lost their freedom. Some of the Jewish women there had made their prayer shawls. He called them the Women of Light. We listened, we sang along, and then it was our turn.

The production we were presenting is called Eden According to Eve. The original “mission” for the writers was to take a female biblical character and place her in a contemporary setting.

The show has seven pieces. There is the recounting of Eden from Eve’s point of view by comedienne Shelly Goldstein (there was only one man in the world, a good one, says Eve – and I had to go pick the snake…). My play, After These Things, is about Sarah painfully confronting Abe about the horrifying thing he did to make their 40 year old son finally grow up and leave home. 89 year old Sarah Hershberg sang her Rebecca’s Song with guitar; about knowing how quickly life passes. Artistic Director Ronda Spinak’s piece, The Living Child in Two is about a woman, Judge Solomon, questioning the wisdom of joint custody as she presides over her Family Law courtroom, given her own child’s experience. A hilarious piece by Monica Piper; Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful subtly questions our universal disdain for Delilah. Rabbi Lynne Kern wove a connection between the rape of Deena and the rape of CBS Senior Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan in Tahrir Square last year. And finally, Saved by a Song, by Arlene Sarner, recounts how repeatedly singing the prayer Oseh Shalom allowed her to survive the suicide of her mentally ill son and made her realize that, like Miriam leading the women in song at the Red Sea, there is a connection between music and hope.

Context, as they say, is everything. Eden According to Eve has been performed in homes, in synagogues, and other venues, but it’s never had quite the impact it had at the women’s prison that day. As I watched those women, many of whom were openly weeping, I was stunned to realize whole new meanings in each of our pieces. As the rabbi later said, during our Q & A, these women know our stories intimately. Their questions and comments were, in our group’s view, the most profound and forthright of any audience we have met.

Afterwards, we talked, and laughed and they gave us a small glimpse of what their lives are like in prison, which was deeply moving for us.

It was nearly time for lock down and we had to leave. They would spend the next two hours in their cells, a king-size bed space with a bunk bed, toilet and sink. We crossed the yard, clustered together by our escorts. The doors opened and shut again. We lined up in a hall and waited to be processed for our exit. One missing badge, unclipped from our clothing, and the whole prison would have to go through a count.

I turned in my badge, signed myself out, was buzzed through the final locked door and was free again, or at least, on the other side of the chain link fence and barbed wire. As someone said, many people live their lives more incarcerated out here than some of these women who have wrestled with the nature of their freedom while in prison.

And where does this lead? To Egypt, naturally. We have been invited back for the prison’s annual Passover Seder in April. I cannot think of anything more holy than to share that holiday, which is essentially a meditation on the meaning of human freedom, with these extraordinary women.

Chicago “Agora”

Agora Sculpture 3I have been a fan of the Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz from the first time I saw her massive sculptures of crouched figures, with their backs turned to the viewer, filling an entire room at a UCLA exhibit many years ago. They were riveting. Her work is large in size and powerful; full of movement, texture, and deeply evocative about important things.

This month, when I heard she had a piece in Grant Park in Chicago, just a few blocks from where I was going to be speaking at the Spertus Institute, I rushed over to have a look. I came upon a large group of massive, headless, walking figures, each about 8 feet tall. They were all “moving” in different directions, a left foot forward on one, a right foot forward on another. They each had textured  “clothes” on their hollowed out frames. I wandered among them, feeling dwarfed and enthralled and delighted. At the south end of the park, where the “crowd” ended, there was a  large stone and a plaque that said “Agora.” Of course, I thought. The perfect place for a sculpture that stands in the foreground of a magnificent view of the Chicago skyline. A sculpture about the urban man and woman,  indifferently hurrying by one another to get to wherever the city requires them to be but…a sculpture set in a place where people with heads can stop, and look, and  where I watched a little girl play hide and seek with her father. Magnificent!

Here are some other of Abakanowicz’s pieces, with Agora as the last entry. Have a look!  http://www.abakanowicz.art.pl/permanent/-permanent.php

One Book/One Community and Me!

There is nothing quite like learning your novel has been chosen for an all-community read, especially when the community is the whole of city of Chicago and its environs. This summer I received an invitation to inaugurate the Spertus Institute’s One Book/One Community Program. As it was explained, this would be their way of celebrating Jewish Book Month (during the month before Hanukkah). They were going to model their program on those of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read and One Book/One Chicago.

I had heard of Spertus, which like the Skirball Center in my hometown of Los Angeles, is a center of Jewish culture and learning. The thing is, I have even never been to Chicago (O’Hare doesn’t count) and was a little surprised that my five year old novel, A Day of Small Beginnings, was their choice.

It took a little while to find out why, but when the program materials started to arrive, I read that the Spertus staff and local Jewish librarians had chosen it because of, “the book’s mystical and sometimes surprising plot lines, the intertwined stories of characters across generations and circumstances, and the truly vivid portrait the book paints of what life was like for many eastern European Jews in the early years of the 20th century.  A Day of Small Beginnings addresses ideas about Jewish faith on both a very personal level and through the wide lens of political and social change. It examines loss of Jewish family history and cultural heritage against the backdrop of increased freedom and opportunities in the secular world. We have found A Day of Small Beginnings to be meaningful and enjoyable for adults from the 20’s to their 90’ (and beyond).” That pretty much made my day, even with the admonition that this is not a book for children (which I suspect had to do with the sex scenes between my young American modern dance choreographer and her Polish musician).

In no time at all, it seemed, the Spertus program organizers had invited award winning experts to talk about the Jewish storytelling tradition, the art of paper-cutting (featured in the story), “Revolution and Tradition in Modern Jewish Literature,” and a dancer/choreographer to give a lecture/demonstration on “What Makes Jewish Dance?” I was invited to come in for the final event on December 4th to speak there (from the website, the building is a gorgeous modern architectural work with a really interesting use of glass for its façade) and at the library in suburban Wilmette. Throughout the month-long program, they’ll have a display of “Remnants from Freidl’s Poland” at the Spertus library. I’m pretty curious about that.

This week, I opened my mail and found posters, bookmarks and an extraordinary Resource Guide with details about the events, book group Discussion Questions, notice of the “Freidl” exhibition, and best of all, a time-line of Polish history with separate “Time Capsules.” They list what was happening in the world when the story opens in 1906, and when the character of the son visits Poland in 1991, followed by his granddaughter in 1992. There are photographs of places mentioned in the book, including a picture of a pre-war couple strolling the streets of the fairly obscure town of Zwolen, which I fictionalized as Zokoff in the novel. They even included a pronunciation guide for Polish (I could have used that when I visited in 1995 to do research) and a suggested reading list. This kind of attention to understanding the historical context of the story so that people will be prepared to discuss it in their book groups with greater depth, really impressed me.

In a world where we are all distracted by so many types of media and publishers give most novels about six weeks to fly or fall, such gentle care is a great gift not just to me, but to a whole reading community. Ten years ago, when Piper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was chosen to inaugurate the One Book/One Chicago program, she said, “When the people of Chicago assemble in various parts of the city there is no greater honor the novel could receive.” I couldn’t agree more and wish this honor upon Jewish writers for many more years to come at Spertus. In the next few weeks I will be spending some time with my old characters in preparation for this lovely event. I’m looking forward to being with them again and brushing them up for their Chicago debut!

If you know anyone in Chicago who might be interested, feel free to forward this link: http://www.spertus.edu/OneBook. And if not, you can check out the photo of the Spertus building and some other pretty neat things they’re doing!

Occupy LA (for about 45 minutes)

IMG_3161On a sunny Sunday, my husband, my 17 year old daughter and I drove downtown to have a look for ourselves at the much reported about Occupy LA. While people in Portland, Austin and Denver were getting the stuffings knocked out of them (in inclement weather no less), we were treated to the sight of Los Angeles’ City Hall ringed with tents and abuzz with peaceful activity. We stopped by the Welcome Tent and were invited to attend any one of the meetings listed on the board.Coursework in Basic Economics, Nonviolent Tactical Training and yoga weren’t exactly what we were expecting to find, but there they were. We saw a few pairs of police officers patrolling the sidewalks, but everyone seemed perfectly willing to let the peace prevail. Even the strong whiffs I got of marijuana didn’t seem to turn their heads. How do you know what marijuana smell like, my daughter asked testily. I changed the subject. My policy is, the less my children know about my youthful indiscretions the better for them to make a fresh start on their own.

We made the trek downtown because there’s been so much talk about the rowdiness and general wierdness of the folks who populate the tents of the Occupied cities. But on their 30th day, the LA Occupants seem a colorful but well organized, diverse and remarkably cheerful bunch. Whatever your politics, you had to be charmed by their signs: the confident We are the 99% and so are you – Occupy the World, Inquire Within and This is Modern Democracy; or the slightly more aggressive One Day the Poor Will Have Nothing Left to Eat But the Rich, the politically philosophical What type of country is it where money speaks louder than the voice of the people? I liked the new take on the apocalyptic: The Beginning is Near.There was a man walking around with a sign that read Imagine Fairness and another man in a beret who’d wrapped a sign around his dog’s middle that read No War Yes Jobs Health Care. There was the tent with the curious offer Free Bike Repair or Therapy, and the Jewish tent calling itself A Just Sukkah.

All that and a concert of reggae music, calm, inspirational speakers, a man who’d laid out a Buddhist shrine with flower petals, flowers, candles, water and, for some reason, a shell studded belt. I loved the tent with the soccer mom chair in front of it beside a nice, new cooler. There were new moms with babies, a kitten and a guy walking his two pit bulls on ropes.

OK, after 45 minutes we were ready to head back the comfort of our westside home. But it was good to get a first hand look at how things really looked downtown. If our mayor is seriously considering the removal of Occupy LA to save the grass,  I’d say he should  refer to one of the signs posted on the corner of Temple and Spring which says, The 1st Amendment is our Permit.

In the meantime, for those of you who might also like to get your news about this extraordinary national phenomenon in person, here’s a posted list of the Needs of the Occupation: tents, canopies, blankets, clamps, photopaper, showertent, receipt tickets, accordian file, paper clips, commercially prepared food, indivdually prepared food.

Or just pitch your tent for a spell. It’s a lovely thing to be among people who would not otherwise cross paths, sitting and talking and dancing and laughing without fear of one another. In fact, that would be a pretty terrific way for the rest of us to occupy LA.

Writing For His Life

My father, Ted (Terry) Rosenbaum, is 93. Recently, he handed me a hundred page document he’d titled, “A Life Journey – Working for Social Justice.” It’s not quite a book; it’s more like a booklet, with a plastic cover and a spiral spine. He’s been mailing it to people across the country which, given his short term memory loss, is a much bigger challenge than it used to be.

For my dad, this book has been an act of defiance. He has decided it’s time to speak out about a period of his life which, for the last 57 years, he had kept relatively hidden from all but family and close friends.

In 1954, he was fired from his job as a public high school teacher in Brooklyn, New York and never taught American history again. As a civil rights activist, he supported a community protest against the killing, by a police officer, of an unarmed local black man who had dented a parked car. The New York City Board of Education demanded that my father submit to questioning about his political affiliations. Like many teachers, he was eventually summoned before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate investigating committee and asked if he was a communist. He never was, but if he answered, the next question would be, who do you know who is a communist? Not to “name names” meant he could be found in contempt and threatened with a jail sentence. He took the Fifth, the Constitution’s right against self-incrimination. After he was fired and blacklisted he became almost unemployable. Later, when he worked his way back into the work force and up the ladder, he changed his unusual first name and told no one why he was no longer a teacher.

It is hard to imagine the atmosphere of fear that pervaded American society during the Fifties. Lillian Hellman called it the Scoundrel Time. Terrified of what would happen to his family if he went to jail, my father’s good friend, a high school French teacher named Max Gilgoff, died of a heart attack in the street just before he was to testify. He was 38 years old.

My father never really talked about the toll his blacklisting took on him personally, but this week, as he began to distribute his book, he confided something that surprised me. His fear didn’t end with McCarthy, who died in 1957 after being publicly discredited. It didn’t even end in 1972, when the US Supreme Court reinstated him and other blacklisted teachers for their unconstitutional firing. “Twenty, thirty years later,” my father said, “I was still looking over my shoulder. I had made a life. I had a wife and two children, but anybody could come along – maybe someone who wanted to move up, or someone who didn’t agree with my politics – and say, hey, he’s that guy who was blacklisted, and I could lose my job. In my position as director of development at a major medical center, I couldn’t have a questionable reputation. It wouldn’t just hurt me, it could also hurt the institution.”

I wondered why now, 57 years later, my father had decided it was time to compile his old leaflets and documents outlining the injustice done to him. He still has misgivings about people knowing he was blacklisted. He wouldn’t even include the official transcript of his hearing before Senator McCarthy, which I had found online. In it, he sounds just like the man I grew up with, telling the Senator, “I stand with those patriotic Americans who wrote the Bill of Rights as a protection for innocent people against inquisitions of this kind.”

I asked him, why tell your story now? He said, “I never thought I’d see another time when people are so obviously being frightened into giving up hard won freedoms. What I did, standing up and speaking out, cost me a lot. Looking back, I realize the most important thing I can do at this stage of my life is to accentuate the positive by sharing my experience. If what happened to me can reach people and make them think, if I can teach American history again this way, then I’ve done my job as a citizen.”

This past month, people who call themselves the 99% ers have been staking their claim on the American political landscape. Their message has won the support of the majority in this country. To me, this says we are still a nation which remembers its aspirations; that we have not only individual rights but also social responsibilities to one another. In Laguna Woods, California, there’s a former American history teacher who would give them an “A.”

600 Drums

There is something about a drum that makes people happy. This past week was Tashlich, the Jewish ritual of tossing a year’ s worth of sins into a body of water. Every year my highly unorthodox Reform congregation meets at Ocean Park beach for yet another version of ridding ourselves of our secret shames. For some years now, we’ve  been dancing around the time-honored tradition of writing our sins on paper to avoid polluting the bay.  One year we brought a goat to the beach to eat our papers, another year a guy in scuba gear came out of the sea with a bag to collect them. There was the dreadful experiment of the doves (well, pigeons, I think) brought to the water’s edge. When they were let go, they were so freaked out they wouldn’t fly. One perched on my 4 year old daughter’s head, because she was sitting high on my husband’s shoulders, and couldn’t get its talons out of her curly hair. Much profanity marred the spiritual mood as child and bird were separated. Some years we build a western wall and write our sins in it.  Nice touch that, a western wall at the edge of the western world. This year, it was drums. The sound of waves, the rhythm of the drums beating out the sins. Re-interpreting tradition reinvests it with meaning! Ba-da-boom!

Why The Write Stop?

I’m not good with titles. My novel was already at the publisher before I decided on A Day of Small Beginnings. At the last possible moment, I nabbed it from the mouth of a minor character, desperate not to have to go with The Gravestone, which sounded like a horror story instead of one about a family returning to Poland to discover its hidden history (ok, so it begins near a cemetery and yes, there’s a ghost involved but she isn’t scary, just full of regret at her own life).

I have a few pages of titles for the novel I’m working on now. I’m not proud of this. It seems to suggest that I haven’t found the heart of the book yet, which might be why it’s taking so long to write.

But when I needed a title for this blog, The Write Stop just popped into my head. It’s not poetic, or edgy, but it says just what I want this blog to do – be a place where I go when I need to stop working on the novel. Every writer knows when they’ve reached that time. They’ve lost the thread, the language is flat, the story’s gotten lost in the research, the pace is off, or they just don’t know where to go next. But instead of giving ourselves permission to just stop, we keep digging ourselves in deeper to material that, at the next sitting, will be deleted.

That’s why I think we all need a Write Stop. It’s for the time we need, away from the work we love, to let things settle unconsciously, and let us look around a bit. This is where the observation that was too tortured to fit into the novel (but mattered somehow) might go, or some tangential research that took me somewhere interesting and might be useful to someone else. It might be a piece of information about the writing world that’s worth noting, or just something deliciously wise or funny. Like any blog, it’s a progressive work; a place to stop, for a short visit, before returning to what we do.