December 8, 2019

Mightier Than the Sword

In southern Sudan, a quiet holocaust is now underway. Since 1983, millions of Dinka and Nuba tribespeople have been massacred, tortured and enslaved by their Muslim neighbors. While much of the world averts its eyes, a small interfaith coalition is working tirelessly to save those who would otherwise be doomed to a life of slavery. One passionate activist is Sonia Levitin, an award-winning writer of young adult fiction who has long made her home in Los Angeles.

Levitin’s contribution is her newly published novel, “Dream Freedom.” Her goal is to rouse the consciences of her young readers, so that — like the Colorado schoolchildren portrayed in her book — they will join the crusade to save the victims of this genocide in the making. As Levitin writes in her foreword, “Stories are my art and my solace. And they are also my weapons.”

Levitin has taken on the cause of the Sudanese because of an outlook that is profoundly Jewish. As she put it, “My own people were enslaved in Africa.” And Bible stories are not her only connection with human suffering. Although Levitin today lives comfortably with her husband in a house with a breathtaking view of the Los Angeles basin, she was born in Nazi Germany. Her family’s escape in 1939 was the subject of her first novel, “Journey to America.” Levitin wrote the book, still in print after 30 years, “so I could describe for my children how I grew up, and how courageous my parents were,”she said. She wanted, moreover, to let her son and daughter know that “there’s evil in the world, to run from it, to never perpetuate it themselves, and to remember that for all the evil, there’s also tremendous goodness.”
As her family grew and her writing career progressed, Levitin found ways to use her Jewish heritage in her fiction. Among her 39 books, there are also many on non-Jewish topics, like her novel about the lost colony of Roanoke and her picture books that explore the Old West. But no book has done more to shape her soul than “The Return,” written in 1986 as a response to Operation Moses.

Levitin had long been fascinated by Africa, possibly because her very first friend in America was Black. When she learned that Black Jews from Ethiopia were being airlifted to Israel, Levitin was overwhelmed by a sudden urge to meet them. She felt that “if these people could walk out of their villages, I can pick myself up and go to Jerusalem and just shake their hands.” After all, as a refugee herself, she knew what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land. And so, at 50, she traveled to the Jewish state: “It was for me a total spiritual homecoming. My whole life turned around.”

“The Return,” which power- fully chronicles a young Ethiopian girl’s struggle to reach Eretz Yisrael, won its share of plaudits, including the 1987 National Jewish Book Award in Children’s Literature and the PEN Los Angeles Award for Young Adult Fiction. It also led Levitin toward a return of her own. Belatedly, she began to delve into religious Judaism, studying the Torah and the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel with a zeal she had hitherto reserved for her writing. Over time she and her husband Lloyd adopted the rituals of Orthodox Judaism. Connecting with her ancestors has been profoundly meaningful, because “I know that I’m doing what my great-grandparents did.”

As a woman with workaholic tendencies, she also finds that a strict observance of the Sabbath can be delightfully liberating: “You wake up refreshed, knowing there’s nothing you have to do to change in the world in any way today.”

Since “The Return,” Levitin’s use of Jewish themes has become increasingly ambitious. She went back to Israel to research her 1994 book “Escape from Egypt,” a retelling of the Exodus as seen through the eyes of a young Hebrew slave. In 1998, she published “The Singing Mountain,” in which an American Jewish teenager outrages his family by exploring ultra-Orthodox belief while on a visit to modern-day Jerusalem.
“The Cure”(1999) is perhaps Levitin’s own proudest achievement, the work in which she acknowledges that she “took risks, did things quite differently, but with a sense of control and confidence.” “The Cure” begins in the future, then whisks its hero to Strasbourg, France, in the year 1348. In his new role as Johannes, son of a Jewish moneylender, he runs up against the virulent anti-Semitism that is a widespread response to the Black Plague.

Beginning with “The Return,” Levitin has dedicated 10 percent of the royalties she earns on each novel to an appropriate charity. The beneficiary of “The Return” has been the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. Proceeds from “The Cure” have gone to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where Levitin and her family have endowed the “Once Upon A World Children’s Book Award” to honor those works for young readers that best promote tolerance, diversity and social justice. It was at a symposium sponsored by the Wiesenthal Center that Levitin first heard about — and was galvanized by — the crisis in Sudan. Now she is an integral part of the small network of activists (among them scholars, businessmen, journalists, ministers and a gutsy Denver schoolteacher) who are battling for the redemption of an enslaved people. “I’ve always wanted to be where things were happening, to fight the good fight,” Levitin said.

When she first came to America, Levitin hated being perceived as a foreigner. “Most of my youth,” she said, “was spent trying to be like everybody else.” Today she understands that human beings are not so different under the skin. When she became a writer, she said, “I wanted to tell stories and I wanted the stories to be a bridge. I wanted people to see how all of us are alike.”

Sonia Levitin’s “Dream Freedom” can be purchased in all major bookstores or through the Simon Wiesenthal Center by calling (310) 772-7606. Upon request, Levitin will personally autograph copies sent out through the Wiesenthal Center.