A Jewish uncle who was the first mayor of South Tucson, a family past discovered as an adult, ownership of unknown property in Israel — all this, and more, contribute to the story of Nancy K. Miller’s family. Miller, the author of “What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past,” winner of the 2012 Jewish Journal Book Prize, will be the keynote speaker at the opening session of the Jewish History Museum’s Storytelling Festival on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 2 p.m.
Miller’s odyssey started in 2000 with a phone call from a Los Angeles real estate agent who told her that she had inherited property in Israel from her paternal grandparents. “I thought it was an elaborate Jewish scam,” says Miller. She began her detective work, which led to “What They Saved” (University of Nebraska Press, 2011).
“My lawyer father saved everything, even the cancelled checks from his family buying the Israeli property in 1926,” she told the AJP.
A distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the graduate center of the City University of New York, Miller is the author or editor of more than a dozen books. Her father, the late Louis Kipnis, had an older brother, Sam. Under the guise of leaving New York because his son Julian suffered from asthma, Sam and his wife, Rose, moved to South Tucson in 1934, and bought a café called the Shamrock. Prohibition ended on Dec. 5, 1933.
Miller discovered that “Uncle Sam had worked for the New York gangster Dutch Schultz. He took Sam and Rose to the Cotton Club in Harlem,” she says.
She found old resumés of Sam’s son Julian, her first cousin, but he wasn’t very interested in talking. Julian’s daughter, Sarah Castleberry, who grew up in Tucson but now lives in Tennessee, was more willing. “She knew lots of stories about Uncle Sam, who was her grandfather, about whom I knew zero,” says Miller.
After he moved to Tucson, Sam and her father “never saw each other again, although they wrote and my uncle sent snapshots,” she says. “I grew up in complete ignorance of my father’s side of the family. I lived in a family with a very big secret.
“I had a cowgirl outfit when I was 9 or 10. I would have loved going to Arizona,” says Miller. “My mother’s view of herself didn’t include the messy past, an uneducated brother-in-law involved in the mob. “
Miller’s first trip here was for an academic experience in the 1980s. “I had no clue about my uncle. I just thought Tucson was a gorgeous place,” she recalls. But now, Miller’s family story mingles with Arizona history.
Upcoming storytelling sessions will be held Sundays at 2 p.m. at the museum, except for the final session, which will be held at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Anne Lowe will present “Celebrating 100 Years of Hadassah Southern Arizona” on March 4. Barbara Leff will read and discuss her poetry from “And God Said …” on March 12. On March 18, Anna Solomon, author of the novel “The Little Bride,” will discuss her research into the struggles of a Russian Jewish mail order bride on the North Dakota prairie. And Dolores Sloan, president of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies and author of “The Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal,” will speak April 1 at the JCC on the crypto-Jews of the American Southwest.
For more information, call Eileen Warshaw at 670-9073. Storytelling sessions are free to JHM members; $5 for nonmembers.