When you’re a debut author from a tiny new press, not everyone will be willing to take a chance on you for a reading. At least, that’s what I figured. Which explains why, as soon as I knew that I’d be heading to Washington, D.C., for the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in early February, I didn’t bother to query the Library of Congress or Politics & Prose (even if I’d once lived a block away from the latter, and spent many happy hours–not to mention significant chunks of my first-year-after-college-paychecks–on its premises).
I don’t recall exactly where or how I discovered the National Museum of American Jewish Military History (NMAJMH), but as soon as I saw its listing, I knew I was on to something very special. And I suspected that this relatively small museum might be receptive to hearing from me.
I am a granddaughter of an American Jewish army veteran. More to the point, one of the stories in my new collection, Quiet Americans, is inspired by my grandfather’s military experience. That story, “Lebensraum,” is set primarily in Clarinda, Iowa, the site of a World War II prisoner-of-war camp. My German-born, Jewish grandfather–who was drafted into the army well before his naturalization was complete–supervised German prisoners in a camp kitchen. That unusual circumstance is the kernel that sparked “Lebensraum.”
Several months ago, I sent my first email to the NMAJMH. Then, I gladly supplied the review copy that was requested. After that, a series of e-mail exchanges and a phone call with Assistant Administrator Mary Westley finalized the plan: I’d read from Quiet Americans on Sunday, February 6. I’d be able to sell and sign books at the museum, too.
I arrived at the museum–located just off Dupont Circle–early enough to tour the building and its exhibitions. My mother had already alerted me to the fact that one of our fellow congregants had a special connection with the place: The NMAJMH has mounted a poignant exhibition honoring the memory of our co-congregant’s brother, Sanford (“Sandy”) Kahn, who was killed in Normandy in July 1944. He was nineteen years old. (I was especially moved to see a copy of Sandy Kahn’s Confirmation Class photo from 1938, as I know that back in our Temple, the wall that holds the original also includes pictures of my own Confirmation Class, and my sister’s.)
Ms. Westley had arranged a number of comfortable chairs in one of the museum’s cozy rooms, and she’d also set out refreshments for the reading’s attendees. As delighted as I was to see my cousins Dennis and Sherry and my college buddy Brian among the audience, I was also very pleased to see plenty of unfamiliar faces.
I read “Lebensraum” in its entirety, which took about a half-hour, and then I answered a number of questions. (One question came from a young woman who was seeking advice about where she might try to publish some Jewish-themed writing, and I was glad to be able to point her to a resource right here on this site.)
Books were sold and signed, refreshments were consumed, and a good afternoon was had by all. (At least, that’s my impression!)
Dennis and Sherry gave me a ride to Union Station, and as my train rolled back toward New York City, I thought about what a wonderful afternoon it had been. And I knew I’d have to post about it, not only because my hours there had added another segment to my post-publication journey, but also because I hope that the next time some of you find yourselves in Washington, you’ll pay a visit to the NMAJMH, too.