I grew up in Topeka, Kansas, in a divided world. One was the optimistic, innocent, and good-spirited Christian Midwestern world of my neighborhood and school. The other was the ironic, often dark Central European world of my parents and their friends, Jewish refugee psychoanalysts hired by Karl and Will Menninger to create an internationally famous psychoanalytic clinic.
My mother, who had been unable to complete high school under the Nazis, took her high school exams and slowly proceeded to take courses at Washburn College. Anxious to prove to that we were “good guests” in America, she would say, “We Jews are not safe until everyone is safe,” and she courageously joined Topeka’s chapter of the NAACP, which in 1951 began building the landmark case, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which would rise to the Supreme Court in 1954.
My father had come of age in “Red Vienna” and still believed in the dream of a rational, egalitarian, and secular society. (A European patriarch, despite his egalitarian principles, he wanted my mother to stay at home as a housewife, and worried that I was too articulate and sarcastic to find a husband) When Hitler marched into Vienna and stripped his family of their home and factory, ending his father's life, my father's atheism turned bitter.
For many years, the experiences of my parents and their generation of European Jews overwhelmed my apparently placid Kansas existence, and nothing in my life seemed worthy of a story. Yet I did write.
Grief, fear and confusion surrounding my father’s sudden death in 1965 were amplified by the end of an early marriage three years later. Graduate school seemed safer than a mental hospital—I’d seen too much of them to trust their care. Yet I continued to write poems, short stories and even a play, and began publishing in small literary magazines.
As the sixties turned to the seventies, protests against the war in Vietnam expanded to critiques of racial and gender inequities inside our own society, all of which became a rich vein for my writing. I began to publish personal essays--about soap operas, Tupperware parties, women’s clothes, women’s friendship, and even how women treated each other in academia, where I was coordinating an early women’s studies program.
In 1978, I helped organize a Second Wave Conference in honor of Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex: Thirty Years Later, drew speakers from all over the country, and filled a large hall at NYU with energized and lively women. SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: A LIFE OF FREEDOM, my critical study of this great feminist, came out of this Conference.
My work on Simone de Beauvoir led to BETWEEN WOMEN, a collection of essays I co-edited with Sally Ruddick and Louise De Salvo. The essays were by women biographers, novelists, critics, teachers and artists whose work focused on women, and who described their attempts to create balanced--though not necessarily objective--work.
About to be remarried at forty, I was still using the name I’d acquired with my first marriage. I knew I didn’t want either to assume my future husband's name or to return to my father’s name. Against the advice of friends, who worried that I was losing an already substantial list of publications, I changed my name to Ascher, my mother’s family name, and the name of a beloved uncle.
Using the doctorate I had earned in Anthropology at Columbia University in 1974, I spent several decades in university institutes, studying issues of racial and economic inequality in public education. While my days were spent observing and writing about schools, I spent my early mornings, weekends and vacations writing out of more personal needs, including the lingering effects World War II
THE FLOOD, first published in 1987, describes a fictionalized ten-year-old in a refugee family in Topeka in 1951, the year Oliver Brown sued the Topeka Board of Education, and the town was overrun by floods. As the novel evolved, it managed to combine my personal conflicts as a child and my ongoing concerns with prejudice. The novel was revised and republished in 1995, when it was featured in a multi-school and college “Ethnicity in America” program in the North Country of New York State.
AFTERIMAGES, my memoir published in 2008, reworks from an adult’s perspective what it was like to grow up in Kansas in the shadow of the Holocaust, as well as describes a long stay in Vienna in which I discovered more about my father’s life before his forced flight from Austria.
In 2015, I published A CALL FROM SPOONER STREET, a novel about the reconciliation of an adult daughter and her aging refugee father, a former German literature professor. Most important, this novel allowed me to imagine a reconciliation I had never had with my own father.
For nearly a decade I've lived in the Connecticut woods with my husband and a loving but bossy cat. I give writing workshops, read voraciously, and enjoy gardening. For the past five years I've also co-led a book group focused on religious and spiritual issues with Eileen Epperson, a Protestant minister. And this past year I've taken a couple of courses at Hartford Seminary, which has led to the formation of Abraham's Daughters, myself, Eileen Epperson, Nancy Latif, and Vjosa Qerimi. We offer presentations aimed at helping people talk more openly and comfortably about their religious traditions and faiths.
This year I also curated a three-room exhibit at the Sharon Historical Society. A CHANCE FOR FRESH AIR: RUSSIAN-JEWISH IMMIGRANTS IN ELLSWORTH AND AMENIA describes one community's experience with what for a time was a national movement funded by the great Belgian philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, to turn Jewish immigrants into farmers.
I also continue to write regularly, both for local newspapers and magazines and for Jewish periodicals.