Brant, N.Y., 1952...
Daniel Mendoza, son of a Jewish professional boxer on the verge of his first title shot, blames himself for the terrible events that befall his family. However, while sheltered on an Iroquois reservation, he is counseled through a series of rituals and tests both physical and spiritual that urge him toward manhood and a life-changing discovery.
This novel was originally inspired by a newspaper article, “Joined Tribes: Jewish Indians Are Ultimate Outsiders,” written in 1994 by Jonathon Tilove (Newhouse News Service), which featured Sharon Skolnick, an Apache who married a Jewish husband and whose daughter Debbie was a Chicago Indian Princess. The article also contained a quote by Suzan S. Harjo, a Cheyenne poet and former head of the National Congress of American Indians who compared Indians and Jews as “survivors who have lived life on the run…and who have been the victims of the most hideous kinds of politics and personal attacks.” In the novel, these words are repeated.
I was also inspired by Joseph Campbell’s concept of “the collective unconscious,” and two books: Human Universals
by Donald E. Brown (1991), anthropology professor emeritus at U. C. Santa Barbara, and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
by Edward O. Wilson (1998). Brown challenged the assumption that human behavior is determined by individual cultures; instead, behavior, ideas and concepts are shared by virtually all human cultures. Wilson called for a synthesis of information and unity of the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities. Or, as one reviewer put it: “The goal of consilience is to achieve progressive unification of all strands of knowledge in service to the indefinite betterment of the human condition.”
As a community college English instructor, I used to teach multicultural literature. What that meant in the late 1980s and early 1990s was using a course reader containing articles by American writers of various races and ethnicities or, for example, teaching two coming-of-age novels (Rumors of Peace
by Ella Leffland, and Fools Crow
by James Welch). Unconsciously, I reinforced the idea that America is a salad bowl and not a melting pot; I unconsciously reinforced the concepts of difference
and eventually I became uncomfortable with this approach
With a recent change in the way the U.S. Census categorizes bi- or multi-racial and ethnic citizens, and with the election of Barack H. Obama as president, a new concept of American diversity has come to prominence. Perhaps this reality—that American identity is the result of commingling races and cultures—will do more to create a sense of national unity for the betterment of us all. It is in this spirit that I wrote my novel.
For Jewish spiritual aspects of the novel, books I relied on include: Kabbalah: Tradition of Hidden Knowledge
by Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi (1979) which contains images of the sefiroth
or divine tree, Kabbalah
by Gershom Scholem (1978), and Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics
by Joseph Dan (1977) which discusses divine will, law, communal responsibility, and “the cosmic struggle between good and evil that no Jew can refrain from taking part in.” I also read When Bad Things Happen To Good People
by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner (1981).
For Iroquois aspects of the novel, I read: Apologies to the Iroquois
by Edmund Wilson (1959), an edition that included a study, “The Mohawks in High Steel” by Joseph Mitchell (1949); The White Roots of Peace
by Paul A. W. Wallace (1946) which discusses the legend of Handsome Lake and the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy; Onondaga: Portrait of a Native People
featuring the photographs of Fred R. Wolcott (1986); The Role of Games, Sport and Dance in Iroquois Life
, a master’s of arts thesis by Karen Lynn Smith (1972) including description and images of snow snake (ga’-wa’sa) and lacrosse; Iroquois Ceremony of Midwinter
by Elisabeth Tooker (1970); Costumes of the Iroquois
by Robert Gabor; The Iroquois Book of Rites
ed. by Horatio Hale (1883) including description of the condolence ceremony which I adopted in a modified form to include in a scene in the novel; The False Faces of the Iroquois
by William N. Fenton (1987); Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World
by Jack Weatherford (1988), especially Chapter 8, “The Founding Indian Fathers.” I also read a number of New York Times religion columns written by Gustave Niebuhr pertaining to Iroquois spirituality, and a number of Herald-Journal columns on Iroquois life written by Doug George-Kanentiio.
Special thanks go to Lorraine Shenandoah for giving me an intimate tour of the Onondaga Nation, including stories growing up there, and to Judy Lewis, a tribal judge for the Oneida Nation of Oklahoma during the mid-1990s when I was researching the novel. Judy told me many stories about growing up on the Onondaga Nation, participating in ceremonies, and going to school there and at Valley Academy.
In the novel I pay homage to Oren Lyons, Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper, by creating two characters (one an adult, one a boy) based on aspects of Lyons’ life and, while I was unable to interview him, I did read several fascinating articles: “Keeping the Faith for the Iroquois” by Robert Lipsyte (New York Times, Jan 29, 1993) which contains the anecdote about Lyons, a teenage goalie playing in a Red League game and being hit by a “heavy shot” from Angus Thomas. From that article, I borrowed a Lyons’ quote to give to a character in my novel, Jesse, who tells his nephew about how that incident proved a boy’s manhood. In another Lipsyte profile of Lyons that appeared in Esquire magazine (February 1994), “R.I.P., Tonto,” I borrowed an anecdote spoken by another character, Sonny, when his dog is shot by a curmudgeonly farmer. I was also inspired by Lyons’ painting, Tree of Peace
, which has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Another painting which inspired me was Haudenosaunee Creation
by Arnold Jacobs (no relation) Onondaga Nation, Turtle Clan, which represents his understanding of the Haudenosaunee creation story.
I also pay homage to Audry Shenandoah, Onondaga Eel clan, who taught a daily course, “Onondaga Language and Culture,” at the Onondaga Nation School, and who was very kind to give me a tour of the school in 1995. I also read her article, “Women: Sustainers of Life,” which appeared in the Turtle Quarterly, Summer 1990.
For aspects of lacrosse, especially box lacrosse, Red league lacrosse, and intercollegiate lacrosse, I owe a deep sense of gratitude to Roy Simmons Jr., acclaimed lacrosse coach emeritus at Syracuse University. He told me many stories about his own days of playing, about playing with Oren Lyons, and about his father, Roy Sr., one of the greatest athletes and coaches in S.U. history (lacrosse, boxing, football), who coached me in 1963. It was through Roy Jr. that I came to read American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War
by Thomas Vennum Jr., a brilliant history of the game published by Smithsonian Institution Press. I also read, Tewaarathon (Lacrosse): Akwesasne’s Story of Our National Game
published by the North American Indian Traveling College (1978) which included creation stories, an account of Colin Chisholm’s lacrosse stick factory located at St. Regis, and a photo of the legendary Angus Thomas who played Red League box lacrosse for the St. Regis Indians. In the novel, I create scenes and situations based on Roy Sr., Chisholm, and Thomas.
For boxing, I read The Jewish Boxers Hall of Fame
by Ken Blady (1988), A Pictorial History of Boxing
by Sam Andre and Nat Fleisher (1981 edition). I also read several articles: “I Say The Boxing Business Smells” by Dan Parker (1953, Ring magazine); “My Story,” Pt. 1 and 2, by Joe Louis (1952, Life magazine; “My Rugged Education in Boxing,” by Robert K. Christenberry, chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission (1952 Life magazine), and several news articles from the New York Times 1952-55 regarding federal civil anti-trust lawsuits against the International Boxing Club.
I also pay homage to my father, David Jacobs, a renowned high school athlete (Vocational High School, Syracuse, N.Y. and The Manlius School) and a New York State heavyweight boxing champion in the early 1920s, and to my mother, Mary King Jacobs, that red-haired Irish beauty who could cook a kugel with the best of ‘em.
Other characters in the novel will be recognizable to many readers, like Dick Tobin, a former boxer and endearing ring announcer at the Syracuse War Memorial Auditorium durng the 1950s; Jacques Shure, a quarterback at Nottingham H.S. who led one of the city championship teams (1956-58) I played on; Pat Testa, a coach who most inspired me to play my heart out which, occasionally, I did; and Si Simpson and the All Stars who performed at the now-defunct Club 800 on East Fayette Street,
Some places will also be recognizable to many Syracuse readers, such as the late night diner, Poodle’s and Jim’s; city taverns, The Open Door and Tippin’ Inn; and Andre’s Tic-Toc Club, a burlesque club in downtown Syracuse which epitomized genteel strip-tease.
I am grateful to many people who read and/or helped edit portions of the manuscript before publication, including Clark and Barbara Sturges of Devil Mountain Books; my writing coach, Mike Sirota, from San Diego, CA; Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Congregation Beth Chaim, Princeton Junction, N.J.; Roy Simmons Jr.; and Kevin Lynch, who writes about the San Francisco Forty-Niners for SF Gate.com, a website belonging to the San Francisco Chronicle. Special thanks go to my typesetter, Carol Yacorzynski of Encore Design and Type; and my graphic artist, David Johnson from Berkeley, CA. Final editing kudos go to my dear wife, Susan Springer, whose keen eye and sense of aesthetics greatly improved the final product. She wouldn’t let me stop working until the novel met her highest standards and my debt to her is immeasurable as is my love.
Finally, although I extensively researched elements of Iroquois and Jewish religion and rituals, and boxing history (including the career of Daniel Mendoza, English champion, 1791-1795), and included parts of some scenes from historical documents, this book is a work of fiction and should be construed as nothing but. I am solely responsible for everything portrayed.