Tag Archives: Sue Eisenfeld

Sue Eisenfeld

Shenandoah_SueEisenfeldShenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal
by Sue Eisenfeld
Copyright: 2015
Press: University of Nebraska Press
ISBN: 2370000169860
216 pages, paper

Reviewed by: Donna M. Crow


Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal by Sue Eisenfeld is not merely a tribute to a National Park and how it came into being. It is not a lone description of the difficult terrain or the beautiful views found deep within the 181,547 acres of the largest national park in the East. It is not the traditional travel memoir of a seeker as she embarks upon the uncharted territory of self. This small book, filled to the brim with vivid images and human insight, like the park itself, is so much more than meets the eye.

Sue Eisenfeld knows herself and she knows the trails of the Shenandoah National Park because she spent fifteen years as a bushwhacker and backpacker along with her husband Neil exploring overgrown Virginia back country. By acknowledging her elementary perceptions of the National Park system, and with a writing style of definition by negation, she grants readers permission to acknowledge their own blissful ignorance toward the hardships rendered upon thousands of residents disemboweled by a governmental practice known as eminent domain, the legal taking of personal property for public good.

In these few easy to read pages, separated by chapters that could be stand-alone essays, Sue Eisenfeld shows us a much deeper view of what the Shenandoah really is, a realized dream that painfully dismantled generations old family farms. She illuminates the narrative of days gone by with a photographer’s eye. Her anthropological dig into a lost culture creates an adventure for the reader beyond the virtual tour. Her quest is to appreciate how the park came into being from the viewpoint of both the takers and from those whom land was taken. Eisenfeld’s endeavor to realize the human spirit is triumphant.

Being a girl from center city Philadelphia where “we didn’t have to push ourselves physically beyond our comfort zone,” yet falling in love with “A science and outdoor educator and naturalist, a hiker and backpacker, a birdwatcher, and somewhat of a loner,” who “finds joy in scanning the skies for hawks and black vultures, turning over rocks looking for salamanders (21)”, Eisenfeld felt it a natural choice that she learn to push herself, one foot in front of the other on trails she would likely never have seen otherwise. What she saw was more than salamanders and snakes.Like her, once readers embark on the footfall of truth, some comforts are sacrificed. As she forewarns in her prologue, “I hiked blindly for nearly two decades…” but, “once you begin to know something… you can’t unknow it (xvi)”.

While her husband might have been looking for “some kind of hornwort slime on a log” (21), Eisenfeld trailed along unwittingly until one day she began to notice other things. “I wanted to know what happened here,” she explains, “to feel viscerally the stories that would explain the headstones and shoe leather and washbasins and China shards that we have found throughout these wild woods”(xiv, prologue). In other words, Sue Eisenfeld was looking for signs of the dead, and she takes us with her as she explores the lives lived and lost, and buried deep within the Shenandoah National Park, all but forgotten by the thousands of tourists who trek through with hardly a notice of days gone by. Eisenfeld’s journey is not so much a hunt for lost treasures as it is a search for lost souls.

With one foot booted for hiking and rooted on the briar entwined earth, while the other lifts and steps toward the ethereal, Eisenfeld becomes our tour guide to another world, a past lived, loved and lost in the conflict over what is best for the public good, a conflict between the government and the God fearing, constitutional loving people being governed. For example, many of the people removed from the park were “tenants or squatters on land they didn’t own—and those who had nowhere else to go. Of the 465 families remaining in 1934 (2,200 people), 197 of them owned their own land, and 268 of them, or 58 percent, owned no equity in their house or land and would not benefit from any payouts from the government or resettlement housing” (126).

Like so many of our gifts and freedoms in this world there is a price to be paid that should not be overlooked or taken for granted. People were devastated, and their lives destroyed. In a survey of the land proposed for the dream park, land surveys stated the area was free of commercial development with no mention of the people living in the area, although at least forty percent of the potential land grab consisted of farmland and orchards. An early estimation of perhaps 1,500 residents grew to possibly as many as 15,000 displaced by the project’s end.

While we can agree that National Parks are a treasure to behold, we need also to know about the many lives and livelihoods sacrificed. This story is of social and economic importance in understanding the making of this fine country that many of us take for granted. Through thoughtful probing into who these people were, searching high and low through the many unkempt and unremembered graveyards held within the park to pay them homage, Eisenfeld’s inquisition into what kind of people it took to extract the residents from their land and what kind of people were removed reveals a whole story, both kind and unkind about the human condition on both sides of eminent domain.


Donna M. Crow lives in Irvine, Kentucky on her family farm. She writes fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. Her non-fiction has won such awards as the Emma Bell Miles Award for Essay, the Wilma Dykeman Award and the Betty Gabehart Prize (2007). She received the 2008 Sue Ellen Hudson Award for Excellence in Writing for her fiction and her poetry has won the Gurney Norman Prize. Her work has appeared in Kudzu, Now and Then, Literary Leo, The Minnetonka Review as well as anthologized in We All Live Downstream, Outscapes: Writings on Fences and Frontiers and The Notebook among others. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University.

Sue Eisenfeld

Sue Eisenfeld’s essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Hunger Mountain, Under the Sun, Ars Medica, Virginia Living, Blue Ridge Country, and other publications. Her essays have been listed twice among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays (2009, 2010). She is the recipient of the 2010 Goldfarb Family Fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a 2011 residency as well. She holds an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, where she currently is on the teaching faculty. www.sueeisenfeld.com.


Finding Grandma 

We hadn’t thought to look for bialys. We were in Manhattan primarily to visit the Lower East Side, to learn about the Jewish immigrant experience and how I imagine my great-grandparents once lived. After spending nearly three hours on tours of old tenements, where thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe made their new home in America, and strolling through the neighborhood for a taste of the unique Jewish culture that’s so absent from my life in Northern Virginia, we were definitely ready for lunch.

Scanning my Internet printout of restaurants in the area, my husband spotted what I think God intended us to find: standing out amongst descriptions of notable Jewish delis and specialty pickle shops was a listing for Kossar’s Bialys—“one of the last bastions of homemade, classic New York-style bialys.” We made a beeline to the oldest bialy bakery in the United States.

Two women worked the otherwise empty store at a makeshift counter while a man in the back spread flour on baking boards. Rows of fresh bialys and bagels lay waiting on stacks of large metal trays. Having never eaten a just-out-of-a-brick-oven bialy, I salivated while waiting to try a hot one on the spot. After one bite of this sort-of like-a-bagel, sort-of-like-an-English-muffin yeasty roll—so fresh, the ground onions patted into the center were still moist—we took a dozen to go in an unmarked brown bag.

My first bialys (and all bialys thereafter) were consumed in my grandparents’ Florida kitchen during my yearly winter visit, beginning circa 1980, when I was about 10. Grandma would call from the bedroom—she was handicapped by a stroke many years earlier—with her raspy Brooklyn-accented voice, giving me instructions on where I could find the bialys, how to use the toaster, and a list of all the condiments I could spread or melt on them.

“We have butta!” she shouted in a slow, strained voice.

“We have cream cheese!”

“We have muenster cheese!”

“We have whitefish salad!”

I had already determined that butter worked best—moistening the bialy adequately, but not drowning out its subtle flavors. I re-tested my hypothesis several times a day, though, in between trips to the clubhouse to visit my grandfather, who would be playing cards with the men.

My grandparents knew well to stock up on these bready treats whenever I came to visit; they knew I couldn’t get them anywhere else. Originally baked in Bialystok, Poland, the bialy was brought to New York City by Jewish immigrants. Because Jews tended to move to Florida later in life, the sunshine state became the bialy’s second home. Not even baked anymore in Bialystok—home to only five Jews, down from more than 60,000 before the Holocaust—the New York bialy apparently differs from the original creation in Eastern Europe, but in ways that only a few historical Epicureans know.

They say bialys are meant to be eaten whole and within six hours of baking, but my family has always eaten them sliced like a bagel and toasted. Because of their asymmetrical shape and center depression, one bialy becomes two different bialys when sliced: the top half acquires a hole with a thin inner circle of onions surrounding it that browns and crisps when toasted. The bottom half still retains a smattering of onions in the center but is otherwise flat and dense. It is hard to say which half is better.

So there we were in New York City with my treasured bag of bialys: the smell of my grandmother’s kitchen wafting under my nose, her warm memories tucked under my arm. I loyally carried this bag, separate from our suitcases to protect them from getting crushed, through town on our way back to the hotel at Washington Square, in the cab to Penn Station, through the train station at rush hour, on Amtrak all the way to DC’s Union Station, to the red line metro train headed home.

When we reached Metro Center and began transferring to the orange line—the last leg of our trip—amidst our returning-home slump, suitcases heavy on our shoulders, the realization came: we were empty-handed. The cherished brown bag remained sitting on a Union Station platform, not destined for our toaster at all. I had left them behind in a moment of absent-mindedness.

The immigrants brought the bialy all the way to America from Poland and kept the tradition alive for nearly 100 years, but I couldn’t manage to bring them back to my house after less than 12 hours of discovering Bialy Central. Trying my best not to explode, I mustered up the most positive attitude I could: perhaps some homeless person would find them—breakfast, lunch, and dinner for four days, just like I used to eat them at my grandmother’s place.

After a few “goddamits” and “oy veys,” I realized that I had invested a bit too much faith in my bag of bialys, with notions of reinvigorating my interest in the Jewish religion, bringing a piece of my New York Jewish heritage into my below-the-Mason-Dixon-line home, and reliving part of my childhood with my late grandmother. Though I can still hear her deep voice shouting from the other room, I can’t expect that a dozen bialys would have given me back all that I have lost and missed.

So I did the next best thing any grieving, bialy-poor Jewish granddaughter would do in this day and age: I got online to Kossar’s web site and ordered a dozen: “baked fresh daily” and shipped overnight. Six bucks for the bialys and twenty-five dollars for the shipping, at the time. But what’s money? And when they arrived, I did what I knew how to do: I sliced one in half and popped it in the toaster. And in my heart, I heard the voice telling me to slather on the butter, to eat three a day if I feel like it, and to revel in these soft, round relics of our history.

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“Photosynthesis” Photo by Gin Conn


“Gray with Warm Lights”
Photo by Robin Grotke