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Book Review - Book of Esther

Book of Esther
by Edith Chevat
Sedna (May 2012)
ISBN: 978-0-9837219-4-9

by Leon Wofsy

Published by Portside
May 31, 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."

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Ordering information:
1 book --- $20.00
2 books -- $36.00
3 books -- $54.00

Sedna Books
P.O. Box 682
Church Street Station
New York, NY 10008

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