Chief Justice Stuart Rabner speaks to students from James Caldwell High School and Mount Saint Dominic Academy.
Photo by Ron Kaplan
March 19, 2009
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With the famous adage from George Santayana in mind, the town of Caldwell is enmeshed in a months-long consideration of The Shawl, Cynthia Ozick’s novella about the Holocaust.
Last June, the Caldwell Public Library received an $8,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to host — with the townships of Caldwell and West Caldwell and Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex — The Big Read, an initiative designed to restore reading to the center of American culture.
The program — which began in February and continues through April — features lectures by Holocaust authors, scholars, and survivors, as well as exhibits, field trips, interfaith panel discussions, and film screenings. Local public and private schools have incorporated The Shawl into their curriculum along with 20 area book clubs.
Ozick will participate in a Meet the Author program at Agudath Israel in Caldwell on Sunday, March 22, at 4 p.m. Rabbi Alan Silverstein, the synagogue’s religious leader, told NJ Jewish News, “We, of course, were thrilled. We were very encouraging of the process. Our synagogue was one of the early endorsing institutions for the project, and we’re honored to be hosting Cynthia Ozick’s visit.”
Silverstein credited Karen Kleppe Lembo, director of the Caldwell Public Library — whom he called “the dynamo librarian” — for selecting The Shawl and taking on the arduous grant process. Lembo had conferred with him to see if Agudath Israel would be comfortable with the choice. He said the book has been the subject of “numerous” book club meetings, including a joint program with Notre Dame Roman Catholic Church of North Caldwell.
Lembo could barely contain her excitement over the impact the book has had in the area.
“It has taken on such a life of its own,” she told NJJN. “Caldwell is rich in different histories, which lent itself very strongly to this being a book that could start some incredible discussions.”
Lembo said she had already been to a dozen book groups, including a program with residents of Marion Manor, a senior citizens facility affiliated with the Dominican community, and students from Mount Saint Dominic Academy. “Three weeks running, this intergenerational group met and discussed The Shawl. It was amazing.”
As a Roman Catholic, Lembo — who studied theology at Georgetown University — said she tried to be sensitive when approaching Agudath Israel with the proposal. She said her background made it easy for her to enlist the participation of such local Christian institutions as Mount Saint Dominic, Caldwell College, and St. Aloysius Church and that she was moved to see how the students took the message.
In regard to Ozick’s appearance at Agudath Israel, Lembo said, “I’m just so delighted because I think that will be an exciting and amazing opportunity for so many people in our community.”
The lessons continue
On March 16, James Caldwell High School hosted an assembly on the Holocaust for its juniors and seniors and guests from Mount Saint Dominic Academy.
Dr. Paul B. Winkler, executive director of the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, warned against complacency regarding the Shoa. “Don’t look at it as years ago and miles away,” he said. Intolerance and bigotry are still a part of society, he said, and urged the students to refrain from bullying or ostracizing their contemporaries because they might be different. He also suggested the students share what they learned at the program with their friends, using the current favored mode of communication. “Text someone about what you heard today.”
New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner also spoke at the gathering. He took issue with the message of The Shawl. “I don’t believe Rosa [the book’s protagonist] represents the majority of survivors,” he said. He offered his own family — parents, grandmother, and in-laws — as examples; they would never forget and always bear witness, he said, but they wouldn’t allow the experience to defeat them.
Rabner, a resident of Caldwell, a child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, and a former president of Agudath Israel, nevertheless called the book “great literature” with “fascinating characters,” and said, “I hope it provokes you to think about what we can do to make sure holocausts don’t happen again.”
But they do happen, said Eugenie Mukeshimana, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who addressed the students. “I always wondered why, why, why everyone looked away while we were being killed. Why did neighbors who knew what was going on remain silent?” she said, drawing a parallel to the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis more than half a century ago.
More than 200 communities across the country are participating in The Big Read this year. The Shawl is among such American and international classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Of Mice and Men, and more than two dozen additional titles; the only other town hosting programs about The Shawl is Gadsden, Ala.