(New York Jewish Week) — James McBride’s latest novel began as a book about a Jewish camp, and “ended up being a book about equality.”
Set in the small town of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” opens in 1972 when construction workers discover a body and a mezuzah at the bottom of a well. To unfold what happened, the narrative travels back to 1925 in the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, where immigrant Jews and struggling Black families find common cause in a town sharply divided by racial, ethnic and religious differences.
“Anytime you start talking about Black-Jewish relations, you’re dealing with dynamite,” said McBride, who told the story of his mixed-race childhood and his white Jewish mother in the classic 1995 memoir “The Color of Water.” “You say one word and people are ready to throw you out the window. But there was and there remains a lot of love, a lot of getting along that happens. There’s a lot of cooperation, and there needs to be given the times we are living in.”
There’s a glancing reference to a Jewish summer camp near the end of the novel, but, as McBride explained last week at an event hosted by the New York Jewish Week and UJA-Federation of New York, the book was inspired by his experience working at The Variety Club Camp for Handicapped Children, a Jewish-owned summer camp for children with disabilities outside of Philadelphia, while on his summer breaks from Oberlin College. Indeed, its late Jewish director, Sy Friend, receives a grateful acknowledgement from McBride in an foreword.
“The camp was open to everyone,” he told interviewer Sandee Brawarsky at the event. “The camp was very, very integrated… racially and religiously. The way Sy ran things really changed my life. It was a camp for handicapped, so-called ‘disabled’ children. The way he did things was just extraordinary. The staff was like the United Nations; it was very diverse, long before that word became a part of American vocabulary. He loved the kids. He was gay and hid it. He was just a unique person and we all loved it.”
Although Friend does not appear in the book, his spirit infuses its pages. Its central characters, Moshe and Chona (which McBride said is pronounced “Sho-na”) are a Jewish couple who own a theater and a grocery store, which loses money because Chona extends easy credit to her Black neighbors. When they take in a 12-year-old deaf Black boy whom the state wants to put away in a notorious institution for people with intellectual disabilities, they bring together the community at large to protect him.
“I wanted to write a book about that for many years, and I tried unsuccessfully for a long time. Chapter after chapter wasn’t any good,” McBride told the virtual audience of more than 1,200 people. “When I put things together and looked at it, the only chapter that seemed to work was the chapter about this guy, Moshe, who in the book, and in real life, was a Romanian Jewish immigrant and theater owner who donated the land for the camp. So I scrapped all the other chapters and just went dove right in at Moshe. That’s how the book was born.”
A Washington Post review of the novel described Chicken Hill as a place “where Jewish immigrants and African Americans cling to the deferred dream of equality in the United States.” McBride said he long wanted to tell the overlooked story of “poor immigrant Jews and poor Blacks living in the same part of town.”
“That’s an old story that’s happened in America, especially on the East Coast of America, probably from Maine all the way to Georgia. But it’s never really been told in a way that I can tell in terms of how people lived,” he said. “These men and women fanned out into America and they had these experiences that are largely not documented in the commercial literary world, at least in my opinion. I wanted to show how that worked out within the framework of the Black American experience and the immigrant experience overall.”
McBride grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the eighth of 12 children. “The Color of Water” tells the story of how his mother, who immigrated from Poland and was the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, raised him and his siblings. Born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska, Ruth McBride Jordan and James’ father, Reverend Andrew Dennis McBride, founded the Brown Memorial Baptist church in Red Hook in 1954, where the author is still an active member. His previous book, 2020’s critically acclaimed “Deacon King Kong,” is about the deacon of a small Baptist church in the southwest corner of Brooklyn.
McBride based Chona, who runs the Heaven and Earth Grocery Store and is deeply admired by the Black residents of Chicken Hill, on his Jewish grandmother, who also owned a grocery store in a Black part of town. “My grandmother didn’t have a lot of love in her life beyond her children. She wasn’t really loved in life and her marriage. So I put her on the page and I made her loved,” he said. “I wanted her to have the things on the page that she did not necessarily have in life. And then once Chona became a real person, she simply evolved into this character that moves the whole novel.”
Brawarsky asked McBride about his personal relationship with Judaism, religion and spirituality, and that of his siblings and children. He said that while he does not study Judaism, the Torah — or even the Christian Bible — very deeply, he was raised in New York and had many Jewish role models throughout his life. “I’m more interested in Jewish things than the average Black guy walking around on Broadway,” he said. He added that “I am alarmed and to some degree outraged, I suppose, by the level of antisemitism there has been… let’s be thankful that we all have the same wall to push against, and let’s get to pushing.”
When asked what he wanted people to take away from the book, McBride said, “We are all much more alike than we are different. Those of us who are right-thinking people, we have to be strong in our belief and in our will to show how those of us who want to live right can live. This is proof that we know how to live together.”