Connections Writing Contest Winner

Dark haired woman in amber bead necklace
Martha Gershun
5
Monday, Apr 13, 2020

Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Martha Gershun has won our Essay writing contest on the theme of Connection with "Emma Goldman's Amber Necklace."

Martha Gershun is a writer living in Fairway, KS. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, the New Yorker, Kveller, SELF magazine, and The Kansas City Star. She is currently working on her second book, with co-author John Lantos, MD, based on her experience donating a kidney at the Mayo Clinic to a woman she read about in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. It will be published by Cornell University Press later this year. Gershun is married to Don Goldman, Executive Director of Jewish Family Services (JFS) of Greater Kansas City. Their children, Nathan Goldman and Sarah Goldman, are both writers.

Emma Goldman’s Amber Necklace

My junior year in high school, not long after I turned 16, my mother gave me the necklace for keeps. The elegant strand of opaque Baltic amber beads was her most prized possession. Sometime after my Bat Mitzvah she had started to let me wear it for special occasions; I always understood that someday it would move from her jewelry box to mine. And now it had.

Passed down from her father, the amber necklace had belonged to his father, my great-grandfather Morris, for whom I am named. Before that, the necklace had an even more exotic provenance. The family story, also passed down from my mother to me, held that the necklace had belonged to Emma Goldman, the infamous feminist, workers’ rights advocate, and proponent of free love and free speech that Herbert Hoover once called “the most dangerous woman in America.”

According to family lore, Morris met Emma when she traveled through the Midwest by train in the early 1900s, stopping to speak at numerous towns, including Coffeyville, KS, where Morris managed a ready-to-wear clothing store. Like Goldman, and many other liberal Jews of that time, Morris was an anarchist. The two had become lovers, my mother intimated, and Emma had given Morris the necklace before she was deported to Russia by Herbert Hoover in 1919.

The story was titillating, and I embraced the notion that my ancestral namesake, who appeared in family photos as an austere, upstanding businessman, had, in fact been a passionate political revolutionary who had carried on an illicit affair with one of the country’s most notorious women. My mother had always been a bit of a firebrand, flirting with the outrageous even as she lived the ordinary life of a middle-class suburban housewife. I liked to think that I, too, had inherited a willingness to pursue the unconventional and to speak my mind, consequences be damned.

I wore the necklace proudly, and used it as a conversational entrée and an excuse to tell others about Goldman, whose story had winked out over time. It made me feel special and interesting and risqué, a way to proclaim my own progressive values and open approach to sexuality.

I became an Emma Goldman devotee, reading everything about her I could get my hands on. My fascination with the anarchist coincided with a broader resurgence of interest in her work. Her autobiography had recently been re-issued, along with a new collection of her writings and speeches. A printer looking for quotes to use on an Emma Goldman T-shirt, was referred to a selection from the autobiography upholding “everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." This was re-cast as a quote that Goldman never actually said, but which has found its way onto thousands of bumper stickers, buttons, T-shirts, and coffee mugs: "If I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution."

As Goldman’s popularity grew, she had cameo appearances in the 1981 film Reds and two Broadway musicals, Ragtime and Assassins. But, mostly, she remained a rarified taste. When I married a man with the last name of Goldman (which I did not adopt), no one but my mother remarked on the coincidence. When our daughter did her 4th Grade Religious School “Hero Project” on Goldman, no one, including the teacher, had ever heard of her. And when I named the family cat Emma and referred to her as Emma Goldman at every opportunity, no one even blinked.

I went on to a career in nonprofit leadership, and I often thought of Goldman as I worked to help children and families living in poverty. I joined the Board of our local Planned Parenthood and helped organized the Women’s March in Kansas City. I retired from paid work and became increasingly active in politics, campaigning for progressive candidates on the local, state, and federal levels. And I began research for a book about Emma Goldman, based on the unverified story of my great-grandfather’s liaison with the fiery orator and political activist.

As my husband has pointed out, and my children have reluctantly confirmed, there are some questions that make the story suspect. Why would Emma have given Morris a necklace, rather than a gift that was more suitable for a man? How would Morris have explained the necklace to his wife? How did the necklace come to belong to Morris’s son, my grandfather?

I have combed through newspaper archives and read every book I could get my hands on about Emma Goldman. There is no mention of Morris or of an amber necklace. Archives from the Coffeyville Daily Journal show that Emma Goldman, the “high priestess of anarchy,” spoke to a large crowd at the town’s community auditorium on April 18, 1913 and again the following night. Later, she wrote that the three-month tour was "dreadfully uneventful and dull."

But we also know that by that spring Emma’s longest and most important love relationship, with fellow anarchist Ben Reitman, was unraveling. Could that have opened the door for a brief interlude with Morris?

I continue to dig, but I am coming to terms with the realization that I might never know what actually happened. Did my great-grandfather really sleep with the notorious Emma Goldman? Did she really fasten this necklace, smooth and luminous, the most precious thing I own, around her own neck?

In the absence of concrete proof, I choose to cling to something even more true. Like the Jewish concept of zachor, memory, which we hold to be even more important than history, I choose to hold on to what matters most in my family story. The certainty that this bold, articulate woman crossed paths with my great-grandfather. The certainty that her story put a sparkle in my mother’s eye, and gave me a model for a life built around social justice and political advocacy. The certainty that wearing this treasured amber necklace, regardless of its historical provenance, will always remind me of the woman who inspired my family through the generations.

Written by Helen H.

Fun fact: I adore furry faces.