An unsilenced voice against abuse
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An unsilenced voice against abuse

Author Talia Carner talks about trafficked Jewish women and other historic injustices

Talia Carner
Talia Carner

If you ask most authors when they started writing, you’ll get a variety of vague answers. Ask Talia Carner and she’ll give you the answer down to the minute: November 3, 1993, at 2:48 p.m.

Ms. Carner, who will talk about her latest book for the National Council of Jewish Women on Monday (see box), had just returned from a hair-raising trip to Russia for the United States Information Agency—the USIA— the month before and talked about it over lunch with a journalist friend. The October visit was the second she’d undertaken that year for the USIA to teach entrepreneurial skills to women, one-on-one.

The excitement began two hours after she landed in Moscow, when the Russian Parliament began its revolt against President Boris Yeltsin. Over a period of four days—the visit was supposed to have lasted for 14—she and her colleagues were sequestered in the Hotel Sputnik, told to keep to themselves and not to ask any questions. For Talia Carner, that would never do. She never let anyone tell her she couldn’t ask questions, or not speak up when others didn’t or wouldn’t.

But more about that trip and what she told her journalist friend later. Because that was the day that Ms. Carner, an impassioned fighter for human rights, most particularly for women and children, began her journey as a writer and storyteller.

Ms. Carner came early to writing. When she was 10, she said, she won a children’s writing award from the city of Tel Aviv, where she lived. And though she did not plan to write fiction, she did write poetry at high school, the Alliance Français, also known as Kol Israel Chaverim, she added. (She speaks three languages, Hebrew, English, and French.)

Ms. Carner always had an unerring sense of justice that made her a fighter, even in the classroom, she said. She tells the story of six of the boys on her school’s soccer team who needed jerseys but couldn’t afford them. One of the boys had a sister who made the jerseys for them, dyed them herself, and charged them less than the store. But she did a poor job and the colors faded. Ms. Carner insisted that the girl make good on her mistake. “She caused the damage,” she said. Ms. Carner was the only one to stand up for the boys while all 38 other kids in her class remained silent. “I fought everyone,” she said. “It was her responsibility. The boys shouldn’t have had to pay twice.”

Later, still at that high school, she read literature that fed her already burgeoning sense of justice. One was Hector Malot’s 1893 book, “Nobody’s Girl,” the story of a young woman who sees the deplorable conditions under which girls like her live and work and fights to improve them.

Though she didn’t pursue a career writing poetry or fiction of any kind, and despite her voracious reading habits and her love of words, she did what many Israelis have done before and since. She came to the United States and entered the world of business. At various times she was a marketing manager at Redbook Magazine, the publisher of Savvy Woman Magazine, and founder and president of Business Women Marketing Corporation, a consulting firm for Fortune 500 companies. (It closed in 1995.)

But business never absorbed her completely. At the same time she was writing marketing copy, publishing a magazine, and consulting with all those Fortune 500 masters of the universe, she volunteered for the Small Business Association in New York and taught entrepreneurial skills to women. It was that gig—and the fact that she was active in women’s organizations—that led her to that USIA trip to Russia.

After the visit, she took part in the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing, where she first learned about the orphanages that housed little girls, who were unwanted and rejected by their parents as a result of China’s one-child policy and a cultural preference for boys. Many of those girls died within a year. Much of what she heard and what she was horrified by at that conference became the basis for her books.

After Beijing, Ms. Carner began to attend NGO meetings at the U.N. about sex trafficking, she said, “I never thought that one day I would write about it.” Fast forward to Florida — Carner and her husband, Ron, a past head of the Maccabi games, have homes in Boca Raton and in Bridgehampton on Long Island’s east end — when, sometime in 2007, she came across a collection of Sholom Aleichem’s work, “Railroad Stories.” “While I was leafing through that book — which includes the iconic story of Tevye that became ‘Fiddler on the Roof’— I became curious about one story, ‘The Man From Buenos Aires.’” (Ms. Carner has posted an English-language version of that story on her website, www.taliacarner.com.)

On the surface, the story is about two Jewish men, one of them Argentinian, on a train in Eastern Europe, making small talk to pass the time. It’s obvious that the South American is well off. But what does he do for a living, the other man asks him. The question never is answered directly, but the conversation ends with, “Ha ha, well, I’m not peddling Chankukah candles”. If it wasn’t candles, then what was it?

Ms. Carner was curious enough to search Google for the answer. She soon realized the man was a trafficker, and his product was young Jewish women. That led her to extensive research on Zwi Migdal, a mutual aid society for Jewish traffickers — entirely legal, she said — that flourished in South America for almost 100 years. She went to Buenos Aires, to a library housed in the AMIA/Jewish Community Center there and asked the librarian about Zwi Migdal and the women who were victimized by it. She was stonewalled.

So Ms. Carner realized she was onto a story that she would have to tell.

“I’ve always written about the forces that control our lives, be it political, psychological, societal, religious, or even geographical,” she said. “Stories find me. They compel her me to sit down and write them.”

Her first published book, “Puppet Child,” protests injustice. Her second book, “China Dol” is a cry against what she calls gendercide. Her third book, “Jerusalem Maiden,” is the story of a woman’s struggle for self-expression against society’s dictates, and her fourth, “Hotel Moscow,” examines Jewish identity and anti-Semitism. He most recent work, “The Third Daughter” is about Zwi Migdal’s victims.

At her talk on Monday, Ms. Carner will discuss “The Third Daughter,” and detail how more than 150,000 girls and women — no one knows the exact number, she said — were sold into sexual slavery, sometimes by their own families.

As for that time in Moscow when Ms. Carner thought she might be arrested and thrown in jail — it’s a story that proves that truth sometimes is more interesting than fiction. From the bridge where she was standing, she saw police being overwhelmed by a mob. Back at the hotel, she and her colleagues were told that nothing was going on, even though she heard tanks in the streets.

As she always has, Ms. Carner started asking questions, which the Russian handlers didn’t appreciate. A couple of days passed before she started to make her way to the American embassy, which was only a few blocks away but with all the upheaval in the streets might as well have been the other side of the moon. Fearing she might not make it to the embassy — she was told she was under surveillance for all those questions she asked — she hurried out, wearing jeans and sneakers and carrying bug spray, because she’d heard they had a lot of bugs in Russian jails. As with many thrillers, this one had a happy ending. Ms. Carner made it to the embassy, and soon afterward she was on a plane heading home.

Then the next month she prepared a 23-page report for the USIA, the same one she shared with her journalist friend — on November 3, 1993, at 2:48 pm. And so began her writing career.

Who: Talia Carner

What: Talks about her book, “The Third Daughter,” in a talk called “The Voices That Wouldn’t Be Silenced”

Where: On Zoom

For whom: The Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women

When: On Monday, November 15, at 12:30 p.m.

To register: ncjwbcs.org.

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