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Recently the Museum of Danish America, where my daughter Cheyenne is the Archives Manager and Outreach Associate, received the donation of 41 original letters from Christian Peter Andersen, a Danish immigrant and Union sergeant in the 6th Volunteer Missouri Cavalry, to his immigrant sweetheart, Annie C. Jessen, (later married). Cheyenne was the one who accessioned the letters, and she knew I might be interested in translating them. Translation is like solving puzzles, in fact, it often literally requires puzzle solving. It also draws on my linguistics background and my skills as a writer. I love doing it, and it's also a lot of work. These letters are in Danish, in faded Gothic script, which is challenging for a first-language speaker of Danish to read, let alone for a second-language speaker like me. 


Enter Anders Bo Rasmussen, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Southern Demark (SDU) and author of Civil War Settlers: Scandinavians, Citizenship, and American Empire. Because the intersectionality of Scandinavian immigrants and the American Civil War is a specialty area for him, I thought he could be interested in what the letters might teach us about the Civil War and that period in history through the words of a specific soldier. I thought Anders and I might collaborate in a transcription/translation project, in which he would do the transcription and I would do the translation, as translation can best be done by a native speaker of the language into which the work is being translated. Anders and I met at a conference this summer and agreed that we would like to work together. 


We had already started by using this process with a sample letter, the first page of which appears above. It was important to know if these letters were simply romantic communication, or if they were of historical value. It was clear from the sample that, although there was certainly romance involved, coming from the battlefront, they contained a soldier's views on military engagements and also advice to his beloved about how the war could impact her personally. 


Because the translation would involve a tremendous amount of work, I decided to apply for a Bodtker Grant from the Danish American Heritage Society to pay for my work. Anders was on board with the project and would not need to be paid because he would be on salary at SDU and would not have teaching responsibilities next semester.


This morning, when I opened my laptop at 5 a.m., I was greeted by the news that I had received the requested grant! I'm grateful and excited. We will be starting work in January, and I look forward to keeping you updated from time to time. One requirement of the grant is that I write an article that can be published in the historical society's journal, The Bridge. Anders will also write an article. 


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Photo by Mark Abramson, NYT

The war between Israel and Hamas brings untold pain, death and destruction to people in such varied positions, including us who are physically far removed, and there isn't much good to be heard. In the midst of the devastation, I was heartened by a New York Times article telling the story of New Ground, "a nonprofit fellowship program that has helped more than 500 Los Angeles Muslims and Jews learn to listen, disagree, empathize with one another — and become friends." Run by Aziza Hasan, a Muslim with Palestinian roots and the associate director, Andrea Hodos, a devout Jew who spent her post-college years living in Jerusalem.

The women describe their relationship as much deeper than that of coworkers. "Aziza is like a sister to me," said Ms. Hodos. "She is family."

"We're so connected," said Ms. Hasan, "that sometimes Andrea can complete my thought or start a sentence and finish it for me."

On October 15, a week after Hamas's attack on Israel and a week before this article appeared, Hasan and Hodos met with a circle of other Jews and Muslims, all members of New Ground, in a Los Angeles park. The meeting began with Ms. Hasan speaking of loved ones who had died in Israel and Gaza, then quoting from the Quran, asking God, "Show us the straight way, the way of those whose portion is not wrath and who go not astray." Then Ms. Hodos sang a Hebrew song and translated it, "On my right side is Gabriel, God's strength, Behind me, God's healer, Raphael. Above my head is God's divine presence." Following this dual introduction, the New Ground group in the park broke into small groups that shared their fears, their losses, their love.

One thing that struck me about this story was how these two women began their life-changing friendship––which has reached out to encompass many others in peacemaking and understanding through honest listening and telling––long before the present war that has so impacted them began. It tells me something about how important friendships across differences and disagreements are to the healing of our world––to tikkun olam, to use the Hebrew phrase. And that we can and must make this effort before such devastating tragedy strikes because then we will have the foundation that can take us through the great troubles that arise.

Writing this brought me up short as it occurred to me that I need to make such an effort with one of my brothers. He reached out to me a couple of weeks ago after a long silence. It was yet another overture to turn me from what he considers ways that will lead me to eternal destruction. Hell, in other words. I'm so over all this that I don't feel I can engage with him and other family members on the intersectionality of my sexuality and religion. But if I'm so affected by the story of these Jewish and Muslim women and how they come together for support and deep conversations, walking through the fear to friendship, shouldn't I be at least willing to try with my brother, with whom I share family ties and a history of once having a close relationship, at one time spending every single day of our lives together? We've tried unsuccessfully before, and I know we need some agreement about how to go about it, so I hope we can take a page from New Ground's values, placing curiosity over assumptions, relationships over beliefs, for a start. 

After the attack on Israel, Ms. Hodos was reeling. Her son's friend had been taken hostage. She received a text from Ms. Hasan, "How are you holding up?" Then Hasan expressed anger that these actions had been taken in the name of God. She texted her fears that there would be violent retaliation and loss of innocent lives. Then, " I love you. I am sorry."

One of Ms. Hodos's fondest memories is of the two friends making cookies together in her kosher kitchen––pinwheel cookies from an old Palestinian recipe.


I've linked to the NYT article, but if you don't have a subscription, you may hit the paywall. If you want to read it, let me know in the comments, and I can probably share it with you directly.

How does this post touch you personally? Please share in the comments.


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