One day last week I went downstairs to the Spertus Shop. (Never thought about it quite this way before, but I work "upstairs from the store" since my office is on the fifth floor at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.)
I was looking for a fairly obscure book relating to a project we did several years ago, but that's irrelevant. What's important is not what I was looking for, but what I found. I left the store with an armful of new books, feeling just like I used to in grade-school, when I would check out a stack of books from the public library and impatiently take them home to explore. The difference (besides the decades that have since past) is that this stack was comprised of new Jewish memoirs (very loosely defined), all of which are generating lots of positive buzz, and that I get to share my "insider access" with you.
Balanced on top of the pile was Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family, written by noted bioethicist Ezekiel "Zeke" Emanuel, big brother to Chicago Mayor Rahm and Hollywood talent agent Ari (inspiration for Ari Gold on the HBO series Entourage). It's hard to resist wanting to know what was going on at home when these three were growing up, and Emanuel says he wrote the book to answer a question he's often asked: "What did your mom put in the cereal?"
While I can imagine the story of the Emanuel brothers being conveyed as an epic tale of sibling rivalry and big operatic themes (one brother embraces science, one the halls of government power, and one makes a fortune feeding the public's insatiable appetite for entertainment), in fact the book is a personal story of one particular Jewish family, its members struggling and succeeding against the backdrop of rapidly-changing Chicago in the 1960s and '70s. If you're familiar with Zeke Emanuel's writing from his op-ed columns in the New York Times, you won't be surprised by the straightforward style. His emphasis is on the years when the brothers were young, so I'll need to wait for someone else to pen "Brothers Emanuel: The Opera" for the drama of their careers. But the book conveys a detailed history of Jewish life and concerns that will feel familiar to many who grew up or raised children during the years of civil rights protests, the migration of Jewish families to the suburbs, and the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars.
If the Emanuels watched the local evening news while growing up, they would no doubt have been watching Walter Jacobson. In Walter's Perspective: A Memoir of Fifty Years in Chicago TV News, Jacobson, the winner of more than 40 Emmys for his work as an investigative reporter, news anchor, and commentator, tells the story of his career. He writes about being the first local reporter granted a visa to visit Communist China, recollects his interactions with Chicago mayors Richard J. and Richard M. Daley, Jane Byrne, and Harold Washington, and talks about covering political stories from the 1968 Democratic National Convention to the election of Barack Obama.
Moving on to the story of a completely different kind of Chicago icon, Mark Cohen's Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman argues persuasively for Sherman's legacy as a touchstone of postwar humor and a turning point in Jewish American cultural history. In a review in Tablet magazine, Josh Lambert says "Sherman has been rediscovered as often as he has been forgotten, but Cohen's book is exhaustively definitive, offering enough detail to satisfy even the most annoyingly punctilious comedy nerd."
Mark Russ Federman's Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built is a memoir to the almost-100-year-old institution that the New York Times Magazine called a "hallowed shrine to the miracle of caviar, smoked salmon, ethereal herring, and silken chopped liver." I'm only midway through the book (because I had to stop and make mushroom barley soup from one of the recipes included) but I already love the family members (both past and present). As a devoted fan of local, independent businesses, both for their unique character(s) and the way they anchor communities (check out the 350 project, if you aren't familiar with it), this passage really resonates: "We may take orders over the Internet, but the fish is still sliced by hand, wrapped by hand, and packed for shipping by hand. We still give personal attention to our customers. We know many of them by name, and we know the names of their spouses, children, and pets. We remember their joys and sorrows, and we listen when they tell us about both….But you don't need to be a New Yorker - nor do you need to be Jewish - to understand and appreciate our family's story. Every immigrant group has a similar story: first the struggle to survive and then to make its way into the American mainstream. And each community cherishes its own specialty food stores that have helped it retain and celebrate a part of its unique culture."
As a sweet sign-off, here's Russ & Daughters' recipe for Egg Cream:
½ cup chilled whole milk
¾ cup chilled seltzer
3 to 4 tablespoons Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup
Pour the milk into a tall soda or pint glass. Place a long spoon in the glass. Pour in seltzer to 1 inch from the rim (the mixture will foam). Pour the chocolate syrup into the foam and stir until blended. Remove the spoon through the center of the foam.