Two novels that have been on my radar for many years by Hoosier Jewish women writers became my summer reads this year. Rock of Refuge by Betty Tigay and published in 1953 by Vantage Press, and Pageant by Kathryn Lasky, and published in 1983 by Macmillian. Both novels chronicled the experience of two very different Jewish women both from Indiana.
Beverly in Rock of Refuge was from Hammond very early in the 20th century long before the theater and department store architect Henry Newhouse put up the Kneseth Israel Synagogue on Sibley Street. By the time the story opens, just prior to the United States entering WWII, Beverly is an assimilated divorcee in Chicago’s South Shore area hob hobnobbing with establishment ladies that know nothing about her humble and Jewish origins and she has no intent of revealing her ethnic past. The local Chabad rabbi enjoyed my humorous telling about the story and the character Beverly so anxious for her only daughter to return to Chicago to live with her, but opening the door to find daughter Shirley has embraced orthodoxy and is dating a rabbi. This vintage story brought to mind Rachel Cowan the wife of the late Paul Cowan who wrote his autobiography An Orphan in History, how she wasn’t sure if her in-laws were more horrified of her being from a Mayflower family or the gentleman their daughter married that was orthodox. The elder Cowan had changed his name from Cohen and then married a Spiegel heiress who was raised as an Episcopalian. The Spiegel’s by the way originated in Ligonier, Indiana.
The author of Rock of Refuge was from early Hammond and she was a niece of the Nagdeman and Winer families, both which became quite prominent in haute cloture ladies apparel and also manufacturing respectively. Nagdeman’s had been one of the prominent ladies’ store in down town Hammond, and the Winer’s manufactured the Stratojac coats and were nationally famous for designing the Eisenhower jacket; a fashion icon of 1950s Americana. Those two families led the Hadassah movement in Hammond and our author Bess or Betty Tigay was the first chairperson of the Hammond chapter that was hosted in the Meyer Nadgeman home in the Forest Avenue district. The Winer teas were annual events for the Hammond Hadassah and it was at one of those elegant fundraisers in January 1943 that Betty Tigay was an honoree, coming back to town for the occasion. Hence the story line of Rock of Refuge has a heroine well-endowed with clothing and the reader notices zippering up dresses, closets full of hat boxes and matching accessories. The story takes place when American Jewry was coming of its own, mostly native born and either religious or not, and before the Israel experience captured their imaginations in a universal tidal wave and also after recognition set-in of the total loss of the European Jewish communities in the Shoah.
Bess Tigay’s story is the spiritual journey of a urbane assimilated divorcee who seems to have no encumbrances being divorced but whose daughter’s spiritual journey strengthens that of the parent.
Pageant by Kathryn Lasky of Indianapolis is the next generation and takes place in the days leading up and after John F. Kennedy’s election as President. The heroine of the story, Sarah Benjamin, is the Jewish daughter of a successful plastic surgeon in the Indiana state capital who is attending an exclusive girls school of mostly Nixon supporting WASPs. This is the journey of Jewish teenager during Camelot. Her mother volunteers for Planned Parenthood, Meals-on-Wheels, and leads the anti-censorship campaign with do-good-er moms that try to ban Catcher in the Rye from their school library. When Sarah finally gets a date, the touchy-feely advances of her escort aren’t nearly as offensive as his referring to the folks who fish in the White River using the N-word. Whereupon she gets out of the car and walks all the way home. Central to the story is that every year Sarah must play the shepherd in their school Christmas Pageant. It gives her an idea for a school project to query the student body, the mayor of Indianapolis, Martin Luther King Jr and several others what color eyes and hair do they believe have angels? Except for MLK all come back as blond with blue eyes. When Sarah and her older sister who comes home from Park Avenue talking about the twinkle lights on the Big Apple’s Christmas trees, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin allow their daughters to have a tree because they see it as a national and no longer as a religious holiday and theirs will only have clear bulbs, twinkle lights, candy canes and angels with brown hair!
In the background to the story is Sarah’s very cosmopolitan and jet setting auntie, the road manager for world famous ballet dancers and stage musicians, refugees from behind the iron curtain and new prodigies from Israel. The auntie’s nurturing comes across to Sarah often as condescending but she also is the sounding board mocking the stuffy environment of conservative Indianapolis. Eventually, Sarah can no longer take her Hoosier setting and runs away to New York City the very week Camelot was gunned down.
Both women from different eras portray the insider-outsider perspective of the Jewish experience in Indiana and in America itself. Beverly and Sarah have privileged lifestyles yet look out for the underdog. In a sense, they are that underdog but they each have money that affords them certain comforts and survival. Both women leave Indiana as did their authors. That too seems to be the Indiana Jewish experience. Wander Indiana that was once the theme for our state license plates ironically is what so many of us do, Wander away from the banks of the Wabash.
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