San Mateo travel writer scouts historic settings for kids books

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

When novelist Maxine Rose Schur discovers a path through Jewish history that no one else has taken, she flicks on the turn signal, steps on the accelerator and races her protagonist to the center of town.

It may be a tiny village in 1978 Ethiopia from which 12-year-old Menelik and his family will be airlifted to Israel. Or it might be the Pale of Settlement in 1852 Molovsk, Ukraine, where 12-year-old Mendel will dodge conscription into Czar Nicholas I's military service by fleeing to America.

These are the settings of Schur's books "When I Left My Village" and "The Circlemaker." The former is a new release for readers ages 6 to 10, and the latter is a novel for 9-to-12-year-olds.

"The Circlemaker," recently released in paperback, was nominated for the 1994 National Jewish Book Award.

"I'm trying to find those little gaps in Jewish history that aren't well-known and bring them to life," said the vivacious San Mateo author.

Instead of chronicling the much-reported wave of Jewish immigration to the United States from Russia in the 1880s and '90s, Schur prefers to write about "what was it like 30 years earlier, in the 1850s, during the Cantonist period."

During this era, which ran from 1827 to 1855, thousands of Jewish boys between 8 and 18 were forced into military service alongside their non-Jewish peers.

They would have to serve as soldiers for 25 years, often never seeing their families again. They were called Cantonists because they lived in distant provinces or cantons, Schur explained. In an appendix to "The Circlemaker," she writes that "under threat of torture most of the children converted; yet nearly half did not survive the cruel treatment."

Reading the book is as startling as hearing the bang of gunshots fired at young Mendel as he crouches, hiding from his pursuers. It means holding your breath as Mendel tiptoes across a ravine in the dark on a plank that collapses under the weight of the companion following him. It means feeling your gut flip-flop as the hero gallops off on a stolen horse.

Her books tell "history through the eyes of an individual," said the brown-eyed Schur, a former actress, wearing a fuchsia-colored blazer that matched her lipstick. "It's really how the individual might have reacted to historical circumstances."

Uncovering hideaways off the beaten track and off the Jewish timetable is right up Schur's alley. The 47-year-old San Francisco Examiner-Los Angeles Times travel writer is an indefatigable globehopper.

An ongoing 60-country "Earth tour" for this winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Adventure Travel began more than a quarter of a century ago, when Schur paid a visit to an aunt in Tel Aviv. It picked up speed when she and her husband — a fellow U.C. Berkeley graduate — honeymooned as hitchhikers on a tramp steamer in the Caribbean, and gained even further momentum when the Examiner assigned her to Borneo last spring.

The San Francisco native has lived in New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland and Turkey. She and her spouse have driven their Volkswagen van across Pakistan, India, Nepal and Burma, and eventually returned to California from Asia by way of Tahiti.

Two years ago, they walked across the Israel-Jordan border to view Hellenistic tombs carved in rock at the ancient city of Petra.

"It was the greatest thing I've seen in my life."

But memories of her childhood home on 28th Avenue in San Francisco's Sunset District are also vivid for the Lincoln High School alumna, who was confirmed at Congregation Ner Tamid. She used to lie in bed at night listening to the "spooky and mysterious" toot of foghorns in the bay.

When she wasn't visiting Playland or the Cliff House with her friends, she'd take the 71 Muni bus by herself to the beach and gaze out to the horizon.

"What's at the end of the ocean?" she once asked her father. "And he said, `The next thing is China,' which was kind of chilling.

"It captured my imagination. No matter how big or small our house was, there was always this vast ocean."

The mother of two, who is studying for a master's degree from Stanford University and will teach writing classes at Mills College in February, has written several other books for young people. They include her 1986 Russian-Jewish folktale "Shnook the Peddler" and her 1994 "Day of Delight: A Jewish Sabbath in Ethiopia," which was a runner-up for the American Jewish Library Association's Sydney Taylor Award.

Her 1987 biography, "Hannah Szenes: A Song of Light," was nominated for the National Jewish Book Award for Children's Literature, and is coming out in paperback this year.