Q & A with Bob Kann
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: How did you get interested in Lizzie Kander?
Bob Kann: In 2003, I was doing research on Jewish women who had emigrated to Wisconsin during the nineteenth century in preparation for storytelling performances I presented in conjunction with the WHS sponsored exhibit "And Prairie Dogs Weren't Kosher.'' Although Lizzie wasn't an immigrant, her parents were. In the course of coming upon Lizzie's story while doing my research for this performance, I learned enough about her to get interested writing her biography for WHS a few years later.
WHS Press: What personality traits helped her succeed as a leader?
BK: Lizzie would not take "no" for an answer. She persevered until she achieved her goals no matter what obstacles were placed in her path. Consequently, she had one success after another, which must have attracted people to want to work with her since she got things done. She also was a flexible leader willing to listen to the needs of the community and make changes accordingly. Finally, she had a sense of humor and lack of ego, which again must have been very appealing.
WHS Press: How did Lizzie exemplify the ideals set forth for young women at the turn of the 20th century?
BK: For middle class Jewish women like Lizzie at the turn of the century, there was an implicit responsibly to "do good works." Lizzie's 60-plus years of dedication to improving the lives of immigrants exemplified this ideal.
WHS Press: How did Lizzie diverge from such norms in what she was able to accomplish?
BK: Paradoxically, Lizzie believed that a woman's place was in the home, and yet she excelled in her ventures outside of the home. In a world in which women commonly deferred to men, Lizzie was the president of an organization, served on boards of directors with equal power and voice as men, and had innumerable accomplishments very atypical for women of her time.
WHS Press: What did you enjoy most about writing this biography?
BK: I loved doing the research and finding the stories. I felt like a historical detective trying to find all of the clues to put together the many stories which Lizzie's life demanded I investigate. For me, doing historical research is like panning for gold. Every so often I find "nuggets," and it's very satisfying to locate them. I also love the peripheral stories that invariably appear while I'm doing the research, and trying to understand how the world worked more than 100 years ago.
WHS Press: What about Lizzie's life did you find most surprising?
BK: Lizzie's lifelong dedication to make the world a better place surprised me. For more than 60 years, she devoted her life to helping immigrants. I find this extraordinary commitment for such a long period of time surprising and, of course, admirable. I also was surprised by her ability to consistently overcome the impediments imposed upon her by being a woman in a period of time when it was very much a "man's world." Her determination transcended the limitations her gender could have burdened her with.
WHS Press: What aspects of Lizzie's life did you find most interesting to relate to young readers?
BK: The "story" of Lizzie's cookbook provided me with a marvelous springboard for exploring a variety of "kid friendly" arenas. In the course of presenting Lizzie's life, I delved into culinary history, the history of germs and cleanliness, the history of Parcheesi, exams children took in 1879, and much more. All of these were rich with tales for me to uncover and then share with young readers. In addition, it was fascinating examining the many different editions of "The Settlement Cookbook" to find the names of recipes and recipes themselves that would be of interest to young readers and to discover the ways the cookbooks changed over time.
WHS Press: What did you find particularly challenging?
BK: Locating the information I wanted often was particularly challenging. As a "historical detective," I periodically could not find all of the pieces I sought to complete the puzzle I was working on. For example, I know that Lizzie and Simon Kander never had children, but I never could find out why. I know that Lizzie began school at the age of four and graduated from high school at the age of twenty, but I don't know why she attended school for so long or even if she attended continually throughout her childhood. These are but a few of many puzzles that remain a mystery to me.
WHS Press: Why is Lizzie Kander's story an important one to share with young readers?
BK: Lizzie Kander's story shows young readers that perseverance pays off, that you can lead a rich life spending your time helping others, that an ordinary woman can have extraordinary achievements, and that a small idea can have long and lasting consequences. All of these are important lessons for young people to learn.
WHS Press: How does Lizzie's story help us understand more about Wisconsin's immigrant past?
BK: Although Lizzie's story focuses on her efforts to help Milwaukee's Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the difficulties experienced by those immigrants were universal. By examining Lizzie's story, we can understand the challenges immigrants encountered at the beginning of the twentieth century and how people already settled in America attempted to help the immigrants the adjust to their new home.