Author Julie Orringer discussed her family’s Pittsburgh roots and her latest novel, “The Flight Portfolio,” on Sunday, Feb. 16, at Congregation Beth Shalom.
In addition to her latest work, Orringer is the author of “The Invisible Bridge” and the award-winning short-story collection “How to Breathe Underwater.” She is the winner of The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Stanford University and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.
Orringer was the inaugural speaker at Beth Shalom’s 2020 Speaker Series, funded by Seth Glick and Carolyn Slayton and sponsored by the Jewish Book Council and Classic Lines. The free series is presented by Derekh, dedicated to enriching lives through community, lifelong Jewish learning and spiritual growth.
The writer opened her talk by discussing her Pittsburgh family history: Great-great-grandfather Jacob Orringer, owned a grocery store in Pittsburgh on Beechwood Boulevard in the 1920s and ’30s. His son, Harry, bought a house on the same Squirrel Hill street. Orringer’s father lived in the home until he was 15 and moved to Florida.
The stories the author’s father told her — Colfax Elementary School, the Jewish Community Center, Temple Sinai and Mineo’s Pizza — were familiar to audience members. Her father’s Pittsburgh stories were “part of the fabric of my childhood,” she said. “They were a kind of vision of an ideal Jewish life in this country, one that felt like an aspirational goal of how you really wanted to live.”
The first time she came to Pittsburgh, Orringer wanted to see her old family home but couldn’t bring herself to knock on the door, so Glick went with her. To her surprise, Judith, the wife of Beth Shalom Senior Rabbi Seth Adelson, answered the door.
Even though her family has been gone from Pittsburgh for a long time, Orringer said the shooting at the Tree of Life building affected her.
“The Invisible Bridge,” Orringer explained, is a fictionalized account of the real-life Varian Fry, an American journalist who helped more than 2,000 Jews escape France during World War II. He was the first of five Americans to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by the state of Israel.
As Orringer recounted, Fry was motivated to action after learning of a policy called Surrender on Demand (which later became the title of the journalist’s memoirs). The law, Article 19 of the Franco-German armistice, required France to turn over any Germans living in the country. Because of the policy, German Jews faced the possibility of deportation and murder.
Fry’s original mission was to rescue 200 Jews from the country under immediate risk of deportation by the Gestapo but stayed to help others. The American offered not only money and advice but falsified papers and found a means of escape.
He achieved these daring escapes through the Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization he founded with several friends. The committee was supported by Eleanor Roosevelt and other powerful Americans.
Numerous artists and notable names were saved by Fry, including Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Sophie Taeuber.
Orringer explained that the committee’s original intent was to simply rescue the artists and authors it had identified in the country. Fry, however, “realized the work had to be expanded, that people’s situations were so dire, and everyone’s case was important, whether or not they happened to be famous.”
The novel also discusses Fry’s homosexuality. For a variety of reasons, this aspect of Fry’s life was the most difficult for Orringer to convince people was true. In fact, she said, it “actually took a letter from his son to The New York Times to clear up this issue once and for all.”
The talk concluded with a question and answer period and a book signing by the author.
The 2020 Beth Shalom Speaker Series continues March 4 with Yousef Bashir, author of “The Words of My Father,” who will speak at 7:30 p.m. Marra Gad will discuss her book “The Color of Love” on March 25. Steve Israel closes the series on May 6. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.