Passionate Justice: A Progressive Memoir in Essays
by Jonathan Wolfman
The essay might be one of the most enduring literary art forms, yet it can be the most challenging. Students are introduced to the essay form in high school with the prolific Transcendentalists, and the classics, Plato, Aristotle et al.
Writing a fine essay is as difficult as cooking a gourmet meal.
If the essay is a fine dining experience, then the modern memoir is a food cart.
Since the Hunter S. Thompson-driven “new journalism” evolved 40 years ago, memoirs are everywhere, written by anyone with a pulse and an overarching view of themselves. (And this writer pleads guilty to her own charges.)
This is not the case for Jonathan Wolfman. In his new book Passionate Justice: A Progressive Memoir in Essays (The Educational Publisher, 2013) Wolfman does the nearly impossible: He focuses on his passion for social justice within the classic essay form and marries it with stories from his own life.
Wolfman has worked as an educator in the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China all of his life, and he weaves marvelous lessons from his own experiences into current events that illustrate his salient and progressive points about social issues.
In his introduction, Wolfman writes, “Since I understand justice to be an eternal idea—a sentient potential existing from the onset of time and living on after us – I see events, historical and personal, as justice’s continual invitation to us to enact iterations of itself.”
Wolfman offers that view of justice as a challenge to the reader – and perhaps to himself as the writer. Because his view of justice is not static, he does an interesting thing with his chapter titles, adding the date that he initially became engaged with the particular issue or cause, followed by the date he writes about it. The result is that readers understand that Wolfman – like us – is always evolving in our concepts and journey towards justice.
Wolfman is always a teacher, willing to show us his own foibles so that we can learn along with him. An early essay in the book deals with his own pre-judgments of the state of Mississippi.
“I have come to my early 60s largely unable – and possibly unwilling – to shake what I have come to realize is a nearly inborn disgust and utter distrust of Mississippi, both based on what the state symbolizes for me and despite what I know of it today. It now has, for example, more black elected officials than any other state. And yet, as a six-year-old, I listened to news at night and actively hated governors and other officials who stood at schoolhouse doors, mutely observing the horrors their fellow citizens were inflicting on the least of us.”
He comes to his epiphany. “On the other hand, I was taught – to a fault, perhaps – to see the good in people, as many people as possible and in as many ways as I could.”
Another noteworthy story comes from Wolfman’s time as a camp counselor in “Why I Invited a Neo-Nazi to Jewish Sleep-Away Camp.” The title does give it all away.
In an act of bravado that could have easily cost him the job, the young Wolfman engaged an actor to play a neo-Nazi and present to the children attending camp. Among the mostly Jewish children at camp, Wolfman noticed ennui about the Holocaust, as he describes, “They had heard it all before.”
“Hans,” the actor, read from a script and called the Jewish people “inferior” and then denied the Holocaust. After twenty minutes of a diatribe that ended in Hans’ suggestion that African-Americans and Jews be put in “camps,” Hans sat down. Another counselor yelled at Wolfman, “How could you?”
Wolfman then explained that Hans was an actor from a theatre company.
“In the winter, I act in a group at Allen’s Lane Theatre Company, in Philadelphia. Hans is also an actor in our group at Allen’s Lane. He’s actually a Jewish man named Jerry Goldberg, and he and I and your camp director thought this would be something you would remember and tell your families about. And, if we’re lucky it will stick with you in a good way, in a way that will feel better than some of you will feel right now. Some of you will have kids of your own within ten years, you know.”
Wolfman kept his job; no complaints were lodged by campers or parents.
That bravado that counselor Wolfman showed as a twenty-something is still present in the sixty-something writings.
While space limits discussing other essays, the reader will be mesmerized by Wolfman’s retelling of his time teaching at a Chinese university and how he and his wife Tamar Weiss helped a young Chinese teacher gain her freedom from the repressive life. “Fingers in a jar” discusses the responsibility a school has in the rearing of a child. Wolfman does believe it “takes a village” and shares that thought in his own unusual way. Wolfman is also a strong ally for the LGBT community as evidenced by several essays on the subject.
Perhaps my favorite essay in the book is “The Meteor: The Whale, Hubris, and Awe” 1969-2013.
Wolfman describes his encounter as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania with a professor who delighted in terrifying students with the challenge of reading and understanding and regurgitating on paper and perhaps in class Moby-Dick (“all 599 pages in a week,” says Wolfman) and Ahab’s sin. In one of his shortest essays, Wolfman takes on human hubris – in war and peace – and equates Ahab’s stalking of his white whale for revenge as the ultimate human sin. “We really ought to recognize and perhaps say aloud what Ahab would not –say it aloud at least every so often, such as when, from above and behind, eleven-ton chunks of galactic rock visit us –that killing the white whale, particularly for something as small and venal as revenge, ought to be beneath us, and that the only proper human posture is awe.”
I wish Wolfman had chosen to end his book with this essay, because throughout his works he looks with a microscope at the evil that we have thrust upon each other, and this essay ends in hope. While Wolfman is a truth-teller, there is throughout his writing a sense of good humor and understanding.
Passionate Justice: A Progressive Memoir in Essays is a superlative read for anyone who cares about the state of our world as Jonathan Wolfman does.