Brooklyn in Love and at War

History of World War Two Told Through Letters

Posts Tagged ‘storytelling

Borscht Belt

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(The last letter is surely one I will need to revisit, there is too much to process all at once.)

In the last letter Sylvia spent a long time talking about what Adrienne ate. She mentions the creamy milk and the quarter of a chicken that “Baby” happily devoured. The letter, written in 1944, indirectly addresses the rationing that the nation was dealing with during WWII. Families were issued ration books and points based on family size which served as a kind of currency for Americans. Meat and dairy products were parcelled out sparingly. Companies like Kraft gained popularity with their boxed macaroni and cheese to substitute for scarce fresh foods.  “The government also printed a monthly meal-planning guide with recipes and a daily menu. Good Housekeeping magazine printed a special section for rationed foods in its 1943 cookbook.” (http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1674.html) It also became a mark of patriotism to “go without.” You were supporting the troops by giving up a portion of the meat you might normally consume.  When possible, families started their own gardens (named, of course, Victory Gardens). Of course, as this picture to the right points out, a good housewife would never complain about her hardships. She is a cute domesticated Rosie-The -Rationer.

It is so difficult, sometimes, to understand how many different ways the war impacted people’s daily lives, how much everyone was forced to adjust.  The very basics –  family, food and shelter – could not be taken for granted. Even when you built a family, had enough food, and made yourself a home – it all teetered on a tentative foundation.

Sylvia also talks a lot about how Adrienne misses her father and is jealous of another young girl who is playing with her dad. This heartbreaking scene must have been as painful for Alex to read about as it was for Sylvia to watch. Adrienne is obviously aware of her father’s absence, even though she couldn’t, at that point, have any tangible memory of him. Sylvia must try to strengthen the bond between father and daughter with her letters  and stories (she even devotes a page of the letter to Cookie’s scribbles), while trying not to make the distance between them feel any more painful.

An unlikely father figure in this letter is the rabbi who sits in front of Sylvia and Adrienne on their way to the Catskills. A lot of Jewish people from New York traveled to the Catskills when they needed a vacation from the city in the middle of the 20th century (it was such a big phenomenon that it was dubbed the “Borscht Belt”).  The rabbi is so good-natured about Adrienne’s actions so it leaves me to ponder, once again, my family’s relationship with Judaism. Once again Sylvia is representing a group of people. She belongs to an era, a culture, a popular movement even though you could read this letter and feel like she is completely alone.

We can’t know what movements in history we are a part of right now.  Nor can we believe that we act independently of the world around us.  But I’m also beginning to understand that doing something that may be commonplace (like being a Jew and going to Catskills in the 1940s or, say … being a 20-something with a blog…) can’t be dismissed simply as a cliché.  An individual’s connection to a community, city, country, or culture makes it possible to relate to – and survive in – the world.

Written by Molly

July 26, 2010 at 8:00 am

Storytelling

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Last night I went to see The Moth Grand Slam at BB King’s Blues Club in midtown Manhattan. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, The Moth is a storytelling organization. They have a podcast and host events at which people tell true stories from their lives. The stories vary widely from funny to tragic to cute to poignant. I recommend you check it out at themoth.org. The Grand Slam was a competition between the last ten storytelling winners.

Last night’s stories were often very moving. I’m often shocked at how willing people are to stand up in front of an audience of strangers and share deeply personal narratives. But it’s true that telling a story is as important as hearing one. Some of the storytellers were trying to pass on lessons that had taken them a long time to learn and process. This, I think, is the most significant function of storytelling. I appreciate that these were not stories that were told off the cuff. They were carefully constructed, which made them all the more powerful. The art of telling a true story is complicated. Decisions like which details to include and omit drastically alter the meaning that someone walks away with. I’m sure that while the events people described were taking place their meaning was not clear. So these narrators were doing us a favor by making parts of their lives into a coherent whole for the rest of us to understand.

There isn’t always a lot of room in our daily lives to hear a complete story. These narratives were only about 5 minutes long but they enabled me feel like I knew a complete stranger. I was glad to be part of a forum that blurred the line between the personal and the public. And, because the show was in New York City, it felt more like it was a showcase of people fighting against anonymity.

So keep sharing stories everyone!

Written by Molly

May 25, 2010 at 2:40 pm

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