By Ben Joravsky

For the past few months the most surprising hot seller around town has been The Ethnic Handbook, a 228-page softcover guide to ethnic groups in Chicago.

Published as a not-for-profit project by the Illinois Ethnic Coalition, it details the customs, costumes, foods, feasts, and festivities of 33 different ethnic groups, from African-American to Vietnamese. The book has been selling steadily since it came out in December (Borders and Barnes & Noble have almost run through their limited stock and are pleading for more), in part because Mayor Daley and school chief Paul Vallas have enthusiastically endorsed it. “The mayor and Vallas see it as a way for everyone to learn a little something about everyone else, as a tool for improving human relations,” says Jeryl Levin, who as executive director of the Illinois Ethnic Coalition oversaw the book project.

But the book offers even more than information. A close read finds almost all the writers struggling with difficult questions about crimes of the past and how to, as they say, “get along” in the present. “There’s something much deeper going on here that I don’t think we set out to write about,” says Levin. “There’s a lot of pride in these pages, but there’s also some anger. It’s all there.”

The book is dedicated to the memory of Levin’s old boss, David Roth–an appropriate gesture, for his spirit breathes on almost every page. Roth was one of those remarkably diplomatic types who can find a good word to say about almost anybody, and as a result he had an amazing ability to get people from different backgrounds and conflicting ideologies to sit and search for reconciliation.

Roth died in 1995, but the handbook stems from his efforts to find common ground by adapting to Chicago’s changing demographics.

“When Harold Washington ran for mayor things were pretty simple in this town. It was black and white–you know, us and them,” says Levin. “But it’s more complicated now. Where do Asians or Hispanics fit into that formula? Obviously they don’t. Obviously nothing is what it used to be, and we decided we needed a guidebook on Chicago’s changing ethnic communities.”

Working with Cynthia Linton, an adjunct professor of journalism at Northwestern University, the Illinois Ethnic Coalition put together an outline.

At first it was difficult to find backers. Private publishers were not interested since there was no money to be made (or so they thought). And most of the city’s major foundations had one reason or another for not wanting to kick in a little cash.

“Some foundations said, ‘Why bother? No one will read it,'” says Levin. “One funder, who’s pretty well established, said, ‘You’re too middle-class.’ I said, ‘Well, what are you?’ I still don’t know what he was getting at. He was speaking in some kind of code.

“Others were a little timid. They never said it directly, but I have a feeling that many thought it was a powder keg. They didn’t want to deal with ethnicity. They’re really afraid of offending anyone and so they play it safe.”

Eventually, they found support from AT&T, the Polk Brothers Foundation, the Playboy Foundation, and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. By January 1996 the project was well under way. “I wanted it to be easy to read and useful,” says Linton. “As much as possible we wanted each section to be written by a scholar from that community. And we found our writers by going to universities or immigrant agencies.”

Since the December publication the book has gone through three printings, with more probably on the way. It’s not cheap ($39.95), but it’s easy to read and filled with invaluable information. There are maps, pictures, pullout quotes, and graphs. Each chapter begins with a brief description of a group’s demographics and goes on to explain when most of the group first came to Chicago and why, as well as to set forth the languages the people speak, the foods they eat, how they vote, their cultural and political ties to the old country, what they name their children, and, perhaps most fascinating, what they see as the most prevalent myths and misconceptions they face.

Thus we make many discoveries. Filipinos speak any one of eight major languages (including Tagalog, Cebuano, and Pangasinan). The greatest concentration of Asian Indians is in the northwest suburbs. Muslims are not buried in coffins. Orthodox Jewish men and women “maintain separation. Typically, they do not shake hands.” Greek-Americans “enjoy dual citizenship because Greek law recognizes the children of Greek immigrants born abroad as Greek citizens.”

“Korean culture is hierarchical. Therefore, respect for elders is essential. When a person greets someone who is older, he or she bows and greets in a language befitting the elder. ‘Hi. How are you?’ in the American casual way would not be acceptable.” In Japan, “women’s names are generally those of flowers, seasons and sentiments, such as Haruko (spring child). Men’s names often refer to their numerical position in the family, like Goro (fifth son).”

The book also features several personal essays by various writers, most of whom describe themselves as feeling alienated and struggling for identity. “Most of the time, I feel like that hyphen in Haitian-American,” writes Natalie Pardo, a reporter for the Chicago Reporter. “I am a black woman caught between two worlds: Haiti and the United States. One world I live in every day, and the other I wish I could call home. But that hyphen disappears when I sit at [my grandmother’s] table, loaded with herbs and light-blue envelopes holding news from the West Indian island.”

Most of the writers note the discrimination their people have confronted in this country, as well as the massacres, famines, and wars they’ve endured in the old. But they are reluctant to discuss crimes committed against humanity by their native lands.

The Holocaust, for example, is a particularly difficult matter for Europeans to handle. Some–such as the writer of the section on German-Americans–don’t even try (though that writer does note that “Germans and German Americans have often been the subject of prejudice and stereotyped generalizations, partially based on historical events”).

What’s even more illuminating is how the writers deal with current events. In a section on “myths and misconceptions,” the book’s Serbian historian writes:

“Myth: The Serbs are the only aggressors in the former Yugoslav territories and the only guilty party in the recent Balkan conflicts.

“Fact: All parties involved in the conflict are equally guilty of atrocities and misrepresentation of facts. Unbiased foreign journalists and travelers have confirmed that many photos taken in Bosnia illustrate atrocities committed against the Bosnian Serbs, though they were shown on television as misdeeds committed by the Serbs. Serbs have never been very good diplomats, and in recent years they paid for that dearly.”

In contrast, the Croatian historian writes:

“Myth: The war in Croatia from 1991-95 was a ‘civil war.’

“Fact: A deliberate, unprovoked attack by one country or group on another is aggression. The war waged by Serbia and Montenegro (Yugoslavia) against Croatia in 1991 has been identified and condemned by the European Community, United Nations and many others. The term ‘civil war,’ launched by Belgrade, has been part of the war strategy to cover up ethnic cleansing, genocide and occupation.”

Who’s right in this debate? The book’s editors won’t venture an opinion. “We felt it was important for our writers to tell their stories as long as they weren’t saying something untrue,” says Linton. “I know there can be differences of interpretation. If you had talked to people from the north and south about the Civil War you’d get different viewpoints of what caused it.”

If anything, these different points of view are their own form of therapy, says Levin. “Every group has its own victim story, some I assume more legitimate than others. But they’re all real–they’re all a part of their identities. Listen, no one’s hands are clean when it comes to writing about the past. There’s a wonderful quote somewhere about America being in love with the idea of its own innocence–an innocence that doesn’t exist. We’ve sanitized history to the point where it boils down to George Washington cutting down the cherry tree.

“The interesting thing is that in December we had a launch party for the book and everyone came together–Serbs, Croats, Jews, Palestinians. And we all had a really good time. Cynthia called the writers forward to receive their books–it was sort of like a graduation ceremony. And no one said to anyone else, ‘Hey, I read what you wrote and you really got it wrong.’ I think it’s more like we can agree to disagree because what happened–or what’s happening–happened there. And now we’re all in Chicago.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jeryl Levin, Cynthia Linton photo by Bruce Powell.