Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Q&A with Marlene Trestman




Marlene Trestman is the author of the new book Most Fortunate Unfortunates: The Jewish Orphans' Home of New Orleans. She also has written the book Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin. Also an attorney, Trestman lives in Baltimore.


Q: In our previous interview, you said, “After writing Bessie Margolin back into history, telling the Home’s story is the second (and last!) book I feel obligated - and uniquely qualified - to write.” Can you say more about that?


A: When I wrote Fair Labor Lawyer, my 2016 biography of pioneering New Deal lawyer and 24-time Supreme Court advocate Bessie Margolin, I called myself her reluctant biographer.


That’s because it was only after I realized no one else was going to tell her remarkable story that I left my very satisfying three-decade government law career to rescue Margolin, a mentor with whom I shared childhood experiences, from undeserved obscurity.


Similarly, while researching Margolin’s childhood in the Jewish Orphans’ Home of New Orleans for her book, I realized that no one had written or was likely to write the comprehensive history of that remarkable institution, the first purpose-built Jewish orphanage in the nation, in which a total of 1,623 dependent children and 24 indigent adult women resided from pre-Civil War years to WWII.


Writing Margolin’s story deepened my curiosity and expanded my knowledge about the Home, which had played a profound role in both our lives.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I was delighted when LSU Press approved the title, which I had selected. “Most Fortunate Unfortunates” captures how I feel about my life.


I was orphaned at age 11 in New Orleans. Had the orphanage in which Bessie Margolin grew up remained open for about two more decades, I surely would have lived there.


Instead, I became a client of the Jewish Children’s Regional Service, the Home’s successor, which provided me lifechanging opportunities: my foster care placement with a wonderful, loving family; social worker guidance; and scholarships to summer camp and college.


The JCRS also paved the way for the superior junior and high school education I received at the Isidore Newman School, which the orphanage had founded in 1904, under the terms of an agreement the two entities reached upon the Home’s closure in 1946: that the school would continue to educate “any qualified child who shall now or at any time hereafter be a ward” of the Home’s successor.

The title, which occurred to me almost as early as my decision to write the book, also captures my fundamental question: did the Home’s wards also consider themselves “fortunate unfortunates”?


Imagine my surprise, during my later research, when I came upon a newspaper article written in 1980 by a man who lived in the Home in the 1930s titled “Fortunate Unfortunates.”


Although I was initially disappointed to learn that my catchy phrase had been coined more than three decades before I thought of it, I now consider my choice of the same title as a sign that I was on the right track in telling the Home’s story.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially intrigued you?


A: As I explain in the book’s bibliographic essay, the Home’s official records were primarily dispersed among three major archives in Cincinnati and New Orleans.


And, because nearly all of the children’s case files had been destroyed in the early 1980s, I not only collected oral histories located in several historical societies and libraries, I had the privilege of conducting interviews of more than 100 alumni, staff, and their descendants, many of whom reached out to me through my website, eager to tell their stories.


I was especially surprised and intrigued by the extent to which the orphanage and its children were chronicled and identified in public newspaper accounts (accessible today by online databases), providing rich, primary material that evidenced both community support for the institution as well as changing norms about disclosing personal details of dependent children.


Q: The writer Kim van Alkemade said of the book, “With narrative empathy and scholarly rigor, Trestman gives readers insight not only into one specific orphanage, but also into the larger challenges, triumphs, and dilemmas of an American Jewish community determined to care for its children.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m honored to have garnered the praise of NYT bestselling author Kim van Alkemade, whose historical fiction portrays the lives of Jewish children in orphanages (Orphan #8) and the Holocaust (Counting Lost Stars).


She’s referring to the fact that although my book focuses on the Jewish Orphans’ Home of New Orleans, I explore many other Jewish and non-Jewish orphanages, which (for better and for worse) shaped the lives of tens if not hundreds of thousands of former residents across America.


For this reason, my book should interest anyone who wants to learn about the evolution (and cautionary tales) regarding dependent childcare, education, social work, and philanthropy.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Because the Home’s colorful history greatly exceeds what I could fit in my book, I have created an Online Supplement which contains extensive appendices (including a searchable spreadsheet of all Home residents) as well as a Photo Gallery with rare images and alumni profiles.


In addition, to supplement the permanent exhibit about the Home I co-curated for the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in New Orleans, I’m looking forward to mounting a larger, temporary exhibit at the MSJE within the next two years.


Finally, I’m also excited about working with JewishGen, a nonprofit organization that offers an international electronic resource for Jewish genealogy, to make my American Jewish orphan and orphanage research available to a national (and international) audience.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The list of people and organizations to whom I am grateful for helping me research, write, finance, and announce this book is long and keeps growing. They each represent one more reason why I consider myself “most fortunate.”


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marlene Trestman.

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