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North Carolina author's new memoir explores anti-Semitism in the 20th century South

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First-years Elias Horowitz (left) and Kaela Curtis (right) speak about their experiences with Southern Judaism after reading Mirinda Kossoff’s "The Rope of Life: A Memoir". Photos courtesy of Horowitz and Curtis.

Mirinda Kossoff’s "The Rope of Life: A Memoir" is a powerful story over 20 years in the making.

"The Rope of Life: A Memoir" tells the story of Kossoff’s father, Hugh Kossoff, and the challenges he faced as a Jewish man in the gentile South. Kossoff initially felt driven to tell the story in the early 2000s for herself and others who have experienced discrimination or being “othered” in several different ways. 

“These threads of systems of oppression, identity and anti-Semitism formed an evil braid that eventually brought my father to his knees,” Kossoff said.

Kossoff’s father married a Southern Baptist and moved to Danville, Virginia after serving in World War II. During his lifetime, he was the target of severe anti-Semitism that led to declining physical and mental health.

He was failed by the North Carolina Dental Board because “they didn’t want another Jew practicing in Winston-Salem.” He also ran for local government positions and lost twice.

“I can remember sitting at the Woolworth’s counter in Danville, and a man said to my mother, ‘I don’t know who I'll be voting for, but it won’t be for that Yankee Jew,'’’ Kossoff said. "My father felt that very keenly. He was an intelligent man with wonderful business acumen. His patients loved him. From all outward appearances, he was a great success. But, he had so much self-hate that wasn’t expressed.”

Kossoff questioned how her father’s failed assimilation affected his mental health.

“I also wondered how forsaking his heritage affected him,” Kossoff said. “He saw what happened to Jews in WWII, and I wondered if he didn’t want to be a Jew anymore because he didn’t want that persecution.”

Jewish students at the University have been able to connect with Kossoff’s story of Jewish marginalization in the South. First-year Elias Horowitz grew up in a similarly blended household with one Jewish parent and one Christian parent.

Horowitz said the memoir discusses an important topic: the existence of Jews in the South. 

“Most institutions and people didn’t seem to think that we existed,” Horowitz said. “They would talk as if we were a people of the past, and I would be sitting right there.”

First-year Kaela Curtis wonders how her life would have changed if she had attended college in New York.

“There are big thriving communities there, but here it’s very different — different but beautiful in its own way,” Curtis said. “One of the beautiful things about Southern Judaism is that you have to be intentionally Jewish, as well as the communities being incredibly tight-knit.” 

Hannah Larrew, Kossoff’s publicist, said in a press release that Kossoff is an impeccable observer of the rampant anti-Semitism, racism and sexism in the mid-to-late 20th century South.

“Ultimately, the intention behind 'The Rope of Life' is for readers to come away with insight into the ways in which they can hurt or heal,” Larrew said. 

Although this is Kossoff’s first published memoir, she is continuing to learn and develop her skills as a writer and inspire other authors. In particular, Kossoff wants “young women coming out of universities to be flexible and willing to take on new skills – to be willing to fail and willing to take risks.” 

There will be a virtual book launch at FRANK Gallery in Chapel Hill on Feb. 21 at 2 p.m. 

At the virtual launch, Kossoff will be discussing her memoir with North Carolina author Nora Gaskin. It will be livestreamed to the Frank Gallery Facebook page. Copies of the book can be bought through McIntyre's Books.


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