Editor’s Note: This commentary by Fredric Price, publisher of Fig Tree Books is part of an ongoing Foreword Reviews series called #IndieVoices, in which we invite small publishers and indie authors to address the 2016 US presidential election and its aftermath.
When I decided to create a niche publishing company that combined my interests in Jewish literature with American civilization, I wanted a name that blended these two pursuits. So I traveled back more than two centuries, to August 21, 1790, and a letter from President George Washington. Although the experience of Jews as a group in America had been markedly different from and superior to their lives in Europe, it wasn’t until that long-ago summer day that America’s Jews could begin to internalize the favorable effects of the Enlightenment in practical terms. Responding to an earlier congratulatory missive written by the head of a Rhode Island synagogue, our first president wrote, among other things:
“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.“
Simply stated, I could think of no better metaphor for the beneficence of the Jewish experience in America than George Washington’s reference to the vine and fig tree, and I wanted to celebrate this event in American history that captures the spirit of our democracy in which Jews and other previously religiously-persecuted groups have flourished … in no small part due to the wisdom of our first president. Washington set the stage for a milieu of tolerance and acceptance, enabling Jews to thrive in this country.
Once we announced ourselves, manuscripts flowed in. Had I received one in the first three years that had at its core a narrative that pivoted on a news headline such as, “Media issue of campaign 2016: Anti-Semitism directed at journalists,” or “Anti-Semitism is no longer an undertone of Trump’s campaign. It’s the melody,” or “Anti-Semitic Posts, Many From Trump Supporters, Surge on Twitter,” or “Jew-S-A!’ chant is latest reminder of white supremacist support for Trump,” or “KKK Celebrating Donald Trump’s Victory In A Parade—“Make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump! #MAGA.“ I would have categorized it as fantasy fiction. I would not have expected such work to resonate with readers who, without burying their heads in the sand when it comes to anti-Semitism, nevertheless would have considered such a book as being out of kilter with their America.
But not now. So what happened? Did the good old U.S.A. suddenly become anti-Semitic? Or rather was it that a political campaign that maligned immigrants and members of other minority religions, mocked those with disabilities, challenged the equality of gender preferences, and sought to portray white Christians as a grievously wounded and neglected group unintentionally unearthed beliefs about Jews that had been kept under the surface for at least two generations? There is such an irony that the genesis for this was the candidacy of a man whose daughter is an Orthodox Jew.
Now, many American Jews are on edge. Some are recalling the “It can’t happen here …” mantras whispered nervously in Berlin in the 1930s. Others reflect on the more publicly evident expressions of anti-Semitism au courant in Europe that are being exported to the United States.
But once a virus such as anti-Semitism starts to spread, no magic antidote can combat it. Of course, organization such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, among others, will generate position papers, offer op-ed responses, take to social media and work behind the scenes with lawmakers and others with media influencers to push back vigorously, both privately and publicly. These efforts are important.
In the past, the arts helped bring to light issues of anti-Semitism. A book such as Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson (later made into a film starring Gregory Peck) and a movie such as Schindler’s List, directed by Steven Spielberg (inspired by a book by Thomas Keneally), are but two examples that exposed wide audiences to the insidious nature of anti-Semitism; until recently, they were cited by many Jews as examples of art that is historically significant but irrelevant to the current experiences of twenty-first century American Jews.
Jews, as well as other Americans, eagerly devour editorials, essays or speeches by prominent commentators of the state of American Jews. And, too, authors such as Dara Horn (A Guide for the Perplexed, The World to Come and co-author of What America Owes the Jews, What Jews Owe America) grapple in fiction and nonfiction with the current complex mosaic of living as an American Jew.
It was Dara Horn, in fact, to whom I turned to write a Foreword for the new Fig Tree Books edition of Edward Lewis Wallant’s classic novel The Pawnbroker, which deals with the ultimate horror of anti-Semitism—the Holocaust—as told through the cold eyes of a survivor in post-World War II New York. And I enlisted Tova Mirvis, author of The Ladies Auxiliary and other novels to write a foreword for the late Alan Cheuse’s novel Prayers for the Living, a story about a Jewish family that escaped the pogroms of early twentieth century Russia. And cultural celebrity, author, and attorney Marcia Clark wrote the foreword for our re-issue of Meyer Levin’s chef d’oeuvre Compulsion, the fictionalized account of the 1920s “Leopold and Loeb” case, when two Jewish teens committed murder—and exposed anti-Jewish sentiments within the seemingly placid upper crust of Chicago.
Now I wait, patiently, for the delivery of a manuscript that will enlighten the world of American Jews now living in a new age. In the meantime, of course, there remains much to celebrate and be grateful for. In these uncertain times, I am especially proud of our next title, Abigail Pogrebin’s My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, which will be out in March of 2017. Not only does this book mark our company’s first foray into nonfiction; it also returns readers to the spiritual heart of Judaism through one American Jew’s free, thorough, and joyful exploration of her religious heritage. How timely it has turned out to be. How well it manifests Washington’s promise.
Fredric Price is publisher of Fig Tree Books. He has spent the better part of his career as the CEO and/or chairman of seven biotech drug companies; he has degrees from Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania.