Guest Author Stacey Agdern: Thoughts on History and Jewish American Heritage Month

Hi friends! Please welcome Stacey to ALBTALBS! She’s our first JAHM guest ever! This is really exciting. 😀

Thoughts on History and Jewish American Heritage Month:
By Stacey Agdern

Jewish American Heritage month was established in 2006 by presidential proclamation.  Which means that it’s the most recent of the heritage months, now sharing space with an already well established month.

Which means it’s hard to talk about it. 

It’s not that Jews aren’t proud of who we are. We are.  

It’s that we don’t want to take away from the important conversations that surround  AAPI history month. These days, as anti Asian prejudices increase, it’s even more important to focus on and celebrate the history and achievements of East Asians, South Asians, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. 

But at the same time, these days, a great deal of conversation in Jewish spaces involves putting ourselves back into the narrative and reframing conversations where we’ve been erased.  It’s happening in so many different spaces, for so many different reasons.

Putting ourselves back into the narrative and telling the full breadth of our stories ties into a question I keep asking myself as we get closer to the June 24th release date of my next book.  The book is History of Us and the question I keep asking myself is ‘Why exactly did I think it was a good idea to write a Jewish Billionaire Hero?’  A trope that’s constantly and consistently at the forefront of conversations about the worst of the romance genre that also ties directly into very specific anti semetic stereotypes?  Why did I think that writing that trope was a good idea?

Or more specifically, why did I want to actually do this?

I’m a born and bred New Yorker, someone who considers myself somewhat well-educated on matters of my own local and cultural history.  But in the last few years I learned about three different events:

-The story of the St. Louis 

-the Bund riot at Madison Square Garden

-The History of Oheka castle

The first two events took place in 1939 and serve as a reminder that the United States didn’t need to learn anti Semitism from the Nazis after all; they were already here. Artisanal home grown anti Semitism was something that both the United States and Europe had in common, and is often overlooked when discussing American involvement in World War 2.

But the third?

As a teenager, I poured through ‘Our Crowd’, Stephen Birmingham’s chronicles of the Jewish elite that existed in a parallel world from Mrs. Astor’s 400. The stories of the German Jews who populated New York’s Gilded Age fascinated me. They were powerful, wonderful and so completely different from any other depiction of Jewish life I’d ever seen.  As an adult, I wondered where these characters were in the historical romances I’d read about the gilded age (and found them in Felicia Grossman’s books ). 

I even scoured Lyndhurst for traces of Jay Gould’s presumed Jewish heritage, but found nothing.

But when random discussions with a friend from Long Island helped me to turn up the remarkable story behind Oheka castle, a beautiful property in Huntington, I found what I was looking for. American Jews persevering despite anti Semitism; documentation of American Jews prospering in ways that don’t usually get portrayed in romance novels.

But I write contemporary romance, not historical.  

Which meant the historical event had to be tied into something contemporary. To contemporary people.  

Which meant there had to be a frame where this story mattered, an idea where I could base someone’s family off of this fantastic story. 

The story’s female main character became someone who worked at a museum that reminded me of the Center For Jewish History, who was inspired to shed light on the parts of Jewish history that most people didn’t think about. The ones that centered social justice, and people who worked to ensure the stories of Jewish people endured. 

And then my main male character became someone who I saw as the personification of the American Jewish value of tikkun olam, someone whose driving force in life was twofold : making the world better, and working every day to be worthy of the woman he loves. This was the character through whom I’d make the tie to Oheka, to the history that inspired the story. It was to be his family that was living these particularly Jewish values my female character wanted to create exhibits about, despite the very particular type of anti Semitism they face.

Because in the end, what I wanted was to tell a uniquely Jewish American story, set in the center of Jewish American culture.  I wanted to hang the spotlight on both the kinds of Jewish American stories we don’t talk about, and put Jews into the center of a narrative I’d read before, a story of two people who can’t help but end up together despite the wild impossibility of their circumstances.

So why a billionaire? 

Quite simply, I wanted to fill the empty spaces, not only by means of reclaiming them, but also by showing people that Jewish American heritage isn’t just about the small sliver of stories the media or mainstream conversations about history allow us to see . It’s so much more, the same way Jewish American Heritage has always been.

Do they have a future together, or is their relationship ancient history?

Anna Cohen, perpetual assistant at the Manhattan Museum of Jewish History, lands a golden chance to curate her own exhibit when her boss sends her to Rockliffe Manor, New York. She’s to assist an influential Jewish family as they organize an exhibit of their own in time for the town’s Summer Days Festival. While she’s there, Anna just needs to convince them to part with some of their archival history for an upcoming exhibition—something they’ve always refused—and not get involved with her ex, the family’s heir. Again.

Jacob Horowitz-Margareten wants to help save the world. Despite having no time to spend organizing his family’s archives, he’s always had a soft spot for Anna. The chance to spend more time with her intrigues him, but he doesn’t trust her boss or the museum she works for with the tangible bits of his family’s rich history.

As they work together, Anna and Jacob need to decide what’s more important: their history or the story their hearts are telling them.

Thanks so much for sharing with us, Stacey, and congratulations on your upcoming release!

2 thoughts on “Guest Author Stacey Agdern: Thoughts on History and Jewish American Heritage Month

  1. dholcomb1

    This sounds like a wonderful book, and I love that Stacey found something historical to tie-in, and it’s a subtle teaching moment in the American Experience which includes Jewish American History.



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