by Edith Chevat
(Sedna, May 2012)
This is a novel, I have to be reminded, and a good one. There is such a feeling of authenticity, of honesty, in Esther’s telling of her life’s story. Absent highlights of extraordinary adventure or achievement, the experiences she recounts are fascinating, and so is Esther.
For thirty years, Esther has been under FBI surveillance. The book is punctuated throughout with copies of highly redacted FBI reports garnered through the Freedom of Information Act. It all began when she went to the historic Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill in 1949, made infamous by vigilante mobs that violently attacked and injured hundreds as they were leaving the concert. Throughout the decades of FBI interest in her, suspicion is focused on one main observation: Esther, who is white, “lives in a mixed neighborhood. She has several Negro friends who come to the house. Subject seems unusually friendly to Negroes.”
Esther has a social conscience that is inescapable in everything she does or doesn't do. It permeates her view of friends, how she tries to bring up her children, her marriage and eventual divorce. It's present in the way she sees herself as a secular Jew. It's as much a part of the "personal" as of the causes that move her, primarily the civil rights and peace movements. Yet it doesn't keep her from being honest with herself and with others, seeing her own ambivalence and confusion on many problems. This is noteworthy in her attitudes and relationships involving race, where honesty and self-understanding are not common.
A strong conscience is not completely a blessing. We see that in the way she sometimes pushes her priorities on her reluctant children, and in judgmental attitudes toward the foibles of friends. Still Esther is remarkable in her adaptability to changing circumstances, unexpected change in her children and family as well as in the whole wide world. There is little if any bitterness, a lot of insight, and the courage to keep growing.
Chevat's writing is best in the latter half of the book. Highlighted at the end of most chapters are capsule stories in italics of heroic women, often not well known, who capture Esther's imagination. The selections are inspired and are integral to a full appreciation of the book.
Esther's attraction to Jewish roots and experience, especially heightened by the horrors of the holocaust and the heroism of the Warsaw ghetto, is an evolving part of her story. For the deep love of a son, Esther adjusts to his conversion to an ultra-orthodox Jewish religious sect, but she has a visceral aversion to the ritual separation and humiliation of women.
The first part of the book may seem somewhat strange to many readers. They may wonder, "What was that all about?" when Esther and her husband hosted a "safe house" in the early 1950s, the time of McCarthyism. With literally millions of Americans deemed subversive, liberals and leftists alike, some feared that fascism and war were imminent. In such times, there are individuals and families who seek refuge, and dissident groups who seek to preserve their organizations by hiding those who may be targeted for arrest. People going in and out of "safe houses" were trying to carry on the same activities for civil rights and world peace that they were engaged in before they felt forced temporarily to go "underground."
As an organizer for the Labor Youth League, I personally experienced something similar at that time, including months of difficult separation from wife and children. But Esther's experience was different and worse than mine. She chafed, with very good reason, at being used essentially as a housekeeper, excluded from consultation and consideration. Bringing up very young children in such circumstances was painfully complicated, afraid that they might say or do something to attract unwanted attention to the "safe house."
Esther's Book is a good read, an intriguing novel. Beyond that, it tells a story that is more than a memory of times gone by. Today, in an age where surveillance has outstripped the imagination of Orwell's 1984, it's worth gaining perspective. Amazing as it may seem, preoccupation with race and color has always been cardinal for the "security" establishment — from the Dixiecrats and Joe McCarthy, to the FBI spying on Martin Luther King and civil rights activists, to the timeless and current stop-and-search police practices against Black and Brown.
I must confess a warm feeling of kinship with Esther. Her first FBI entry was Peekskill. The first entry on my FBI file was a sentence from a letter sent to me while I was in the Army in 1943, in which a friend bemoans the fact that the Armed Forces are still segregated.
Borrowing a page (173) from Esther's Book: "How many people were there in the world who shared the same history? No matter how far apart they were, they'd always be tied.... because of their past, their old dreams, who they were."