On the Anatomy of a Memoir(ist): An Interview with Leah Vincent

You can read more of Leah’s work at the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe Series.

On February 10, Leah Vincent and I met in early afternoon around Union Square. Over cups of hot tea, we discussed her recently published memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin & Salvation After My Ultra Orthodox Girlhood, which traces her body’s exit from her Haredi upbringing in Pittsburgh to her acceptance at Harvard University–and the detours in-between.   For the course of an hour, we delved into the mise-en-scène of writing a book, bodily contaminations, and what it means to live like a zombie orphan.

 

Sam Shuman: I’m curious about your habits of writing.  I don’t think in any of your other interviews, people have asked: where do you write?  When do you write?  Do you have specific habits around the craft?

 

Leah Vincent: No.  And I feel very guilty about this.  I feel like I need to be more disciplined.  And that’s my constant resolution—to get more disciplined about it.  I have a toddler.  So my writing revolves around whatever time the babysitter is there and [whether] I don’t have other pressing things.  I write on the couch, or chair, on my bed.  With my laptop. And just type frantically. I’m a really big believer in the shitty first drafts.  So I’m just always trying to just push myself to write whenever it comes and not judge it.  And come back to it.  And rework it and rework it and rework it.

 

I try to write everyday.  It’s also depends.  It’s very project bound.  So when I was in this book, and especially once the draft was done, I worked very heavily with my editor to shape that final draft.  So, as soon as she gave me something, it was so exciting to get to work with somebody on it.  Because it’s so solitary.  I spent two years working on it beforehand.  And suddenly I’d have something with comments.  I’d throw myself into it.  It was just like this drug.  Any moment I could grab to work on the edits and to write was just incredibly exciting.  I would love to be able to say, “I sit down in my office from 9 AM to 5 PM.”  That does not happen at all. Of course, every time I come to a difficult scene, I’m checking on Facebook every ten seconds.  Something on Twitter has become very, very important instantly.  I know that I should shut off the internet, but I don’t.  It’s a very organic, meandering engagement.

 

I’m particularly interested in women writers.  I’m particularly interested in female memoir writers.  But let’s say women writers—and particularly mothers who have to balance their motherhood with their profession.  That’s really interesting to me.  I think a little bit about that–about how I feel like I have to push harder.  Even in the most understanding relationship with my husband and a progressive world and community, I still have to push to make the space.  I feel like if I could go to an office everyday, doing something like being a pediatrician, I’d have the time for my work.  But because I’m a writer, somehow I have to fight a little bit harder to be taken seriously–by myself maybe more than anybody else (laughs).  I’m allowed to say, “I’m not taking everything else.  I’m just writing for two hours.” There’s this constant pushing of the space that one needs to live and that one has to do on one’s own.

 

SS: That’s an interesting sense of immediacy, too–all these other things that you’re balancing at the same time.  That probably changes the tempo of your writing.

 

LV: Yes.  Especially when you’re writing something that’s so emotional.  I’m not distanced from this material.  Life is just woven together.  The book.  The rest of my life. There’s no separate spheres really, which, in a way, is a great blessing.  Because it means that the work I’m doing is like my lifeblood.  It’s personal to me.  To me, it’s so thrilling because it’s something that I care so much about.   But, on the other hand, if I was a pediatrician or a plumber, I’d be like, “wait, this is my work life and this is my personal life.”  And that might be nice to have that space.

 

SS: Do you keep a notebook for your writing?

 

LV: I keep like seven notebooks.  Not even notebooks.  Documents.  I’m so organized in all aspects of my life but my writing is schizophrenic.  There’s bit and pieces everywhere.  So I have my diary notebook, where I try to records some thoughts.  And I just started doing dailies, where you’re supposed to write three pages.  So I have that.  And then I just started a secret poetry blog, where I try to write a poem every day about my life going on.  So I have that.  And then I have my to-do list.  And then I’m sometimes carrying notes.  And then I have my phone, which has forty-six documents from the past week alone.  So it’s a little bit totally crazy, but somehow the magic works and it comes together.  And one day, I will get more organized with it.

 

SS: Do you see your work as a break or a continuation of an older genre of literature—something like the Autobiography of Solomon Maimon or the treatises of that other rabble rouser, Baruch Spinoza?

 

LV: I’ve not read enough of Spinoza or at all of the first [writer] you mentioned, but I definitely think we have a claim to the Haskalah.  Before OTD [Off the Derech] became as popular as it was two, three years ago, I was saying we have to call ourselves Maskilim, not because we’re identical to the original Maskilim, but because we carry some of their spirit forward and it’s important for us to realize that we have a lineage.  That we’re not coming out of nowhere. It’s not, obviously, an unbroken chain.  The themes are very different.  For example, they are, for the most part, much more intellectual than say, my book is.  But I’m proud to claim them. I don’t know how they would feel about being claimed, but I’m proud to claim them (laughs).  And I think we should.

 

On the one hand, you’re working within the construct of the frum community, which assumes that historical precedence gives you validity.  I think that’s part of the urge to claim the connection to them.  And I think there’s value to that.  I don’t just dismiss that.  But, on the other hand, I think you’re right.  People got angry at me for saying let’s call ourselves Maskilim, but I was never saying it literally.  Obviously, literally, I’m not saying I’m the same as them.  I do think that, especially when you’ve been rejected, as some of us have, by everyone we knew and cared about, to claim kinship with people who are dead, to be able to look out onto a much wider world, and say, “listen, the immediate world has rejected me, but I’m going to find family or intellectual counterparts or people I can to connect to.” I think that’s hugely powerful.  I wouldn’t want to deny myself or other people who find comfort and confidence and ideas and inspiration from that.

 

SS: People have been presumably going off the derech since the legal bricklayers paved the path.  But leaving the Haredi world is no longer enough—there’s a drive now to change it, whether it be through writing, protests, billboards, or non-profits. Having spoken to people who went off the derech over twenty to twenty-five years ago, they’ve noticed that change, too.  How do you account for this change?  Why do you think that there’s been a cultural shift now?

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“I have seen a person of color in my Jewish community and wondered why they were there.”- An Evening with the Jewish Multiracial Network

This piece is cross-posted with Zeek

When there were rumbles about yet another Weather Event in New York on February 6th, I got considerably more anxious than I normally would have, given that I work from home (or wherever) and don’t own a car I have to dig out. If the first ever Jewish Multi-Racial Network Parlor Meeting had been cancelled,  it would have been a huge loss to everyone who attended. There’s something that happens in a room when people are being nudged around in their comfort zones, when they’re pushing themselves to think bigger and wider. It’s like an electricity. Not like. It is.

(Chanel Dubofsky)

Jewish Multiracial Network

This is a guest post from Erika Davis. Erika is a freelance writer whose work can be found on The Sisterhood, Jewcy, Kveller and more. She writes about the intersections of race, religion and sexuality on her personal blog Black, Gay and Jewish. Erika likes Syrian Jewish cooking and is convinced she makes the best hummus in Brooklyn. She is a board member of the Jewish Multi-Racial Network and works at Hazon. 

Last Wednesday,  a few brave Jews made a trek to the middle of Brooklyn. I know what you’re thinking, what’s so brave about Jews in Brooklyn? They were brave not only to venture outside during an ice storm, but also because they knew they would be spending the evening talking about privilege and race in the Jewish community at The Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN) Parlor Meeting.

The conversation, moderated by JMN President, Chava Shervington and me, a JMN Board member, asked the tough question: “Am I Racist?” Attended by both white Jews and Jews of Color, in the two-hour conversation, tough topics were brought to the table. Everything from white privilege to reactions to seeing people of color in Jewish spaces was discussed and the participants asked and answered thoughtful questions while sharing individual experiences of prejudice. JMN’s Privilege Checklist was distributed and completed by participants in one exercise. Participants were also asked a series of hard questions. With their eyes closed, they were asked to raise their hands while they responded to the following statements: I have seen a person of color in my Jewish community and wondered why they were there. I have heard prejudiced things said about people of color in my Jewish community. I have said prejudiced things. I want to work for the inclusion of multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color in the American Jewish community. As the participants answered the last question, I asked them to open their eyes and look around the room-everyone’s hand was raised.

 

When Chava and I started planning this first Parlor Meeting, we went into it with the idea of bringing together a small group of Jewish change-makers. We imagined that attendees would be individuals as well as employees of Jewish organizations and JCCs. We wanted the conversations to be frank, open, and honest and felt the best way to have such conversations would be to bring the conversation quite literally into a parlor. (Or more accurately, my living room.) We hoped to reach Jews on an individual basis, and hope that through the continued Parlor Meetings to create a network of Jews fully committed to the mission of JMN.

When the meeting was over all of the participants approached either Chava or I to thank us for the important conversation and to ask how they could volunteer to help JMN and its mission, which for us, makes the meeting as success.

Wednesday night’s meeting was the first of a quarterly series of Parlor Meetings JMN will hold in the New York area; the next will be about ally-ship. JMN is also in conversations with Jewish communities in New Jersey, Boston, Washington, DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles to bring Parlor Meetings across the U.S. The Parlor Meetings, coupled with JMN’s work with synagogues and Jewish communal organizations seeks to continue working for the full inclusion of multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color.

Over the next few months we will be working with communities to bring the Parlor Meetings into new communities, but with all of the work that JMN does, it is important to us that the Parlor Meetings are impactful and reflective of the communities we bring them to. If you would like to bring the JMN Parlor Meeting to your community, please email Chava.

The Jewish Multiracial Network was founded in 1997 by a group of parents who wanted to provide a community and supportive network for multiracial Jewish families. JMN’s initial programming efforts sought to provide Jewish children of color and their families a space where their dual identities would not be challenged — through the organization of social gatherings along the East Coast and the development of an annual retreat, which continues to this day. As the organization has grown, JMN has expanded its impact to include adult Jews of Color and members across the continental United States. What started over 15 years ago as a group of just a handful of families has now grown into a thriving community with hundreds of members.

Dispatches from the Other Israel Film Festival: “Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim.”

This is a guest post by Chava Shervington. A passionate and committed Jewish diversity advocate, Chava co-founded an organization which created opportunities for Jews of Color to connect in safe spaces across the East Coast.  Currently, Chava is honored to serve as president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organizational leader in a movement to make Jewish racial/ethnic diversity fully embraced in American Jewish life.

Anat Tel Medelovich‘s documentary, “Mom, Dad, I’m  Muslim” was featured at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival. It tells  the story of Maor, a  devout Muslim, who was born Jewish, converted to Islam at 18, and at 22 is in search of a Muslim husband.

(click here for official film website)

In recent years there have been a rash of documentaries of Muslim converts (or reverts as they are called in Islam), as there seems to be a particular fascination with white Westerners who decide to take on Islam.  Most of these documentaries focus on the motivation of the convert, the reactions of their families and communities, as well as their adjustment to adopting Muslim law and social customs.  ”Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim” is both a unique story and a missed opportunity.  While there have been many stories of converts to Islam, this one had the potential to explore an entire range of issues besides the usual family tension and personal struggle, but it barely scratches the surface of the story of Maor, a young Jewish woman in Israel who converts to Islam.

While there is definitely focus on Maor’s family (a hodge podge of characters, including an anti-religious brother, a Kahane supporting father, an increasingly observant mother and younger brother, a confused younger sister, and feisty grandmother), we only seem to get half of the story.  Everyone outside of her grandmother seems to be supportive of her religious choice and allows her to exist on the periphery of their traditional Jewish lives.  For the most part they seem to express apathy with her choice, but support her out of love.  Her grandmother is the only one who ever vocalizes strong opposition to Maor’s new religious conviction, although even though her mother vocalizes her support, under the surface their seems to be a genuine hope that this is only a phase. There seems to be a concerted effort not to ostracize her for her conversion.  While her family makes Kiddush and hamotzi for Shabbat dinner, Maor sits silent at the table in her hijab, at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony she stands silently while her family and others proudly sing Hatikvah, she’s obviously strongly connected to her family members, but at the same time completely disconnected from their Jewish identities.

Unfortunately, that disconnection is never truly explored.  Maybe it’s because as with many converts (to any religion) she finds the motivations for her conversion difficult to express.  When asked by her younger sister, the answer is couched in a metaphor of white roses, but essentially boils down to “because that’s what I think G-d wants from me”.  But for us as an audience it feels like we a) came into the story halfway and b) only get half of the story.

As a Jewish watcher I was left with so many questions:  What was Maor’s Jewish background prior to her conversion?; Did she ever explore Judaism further? How are the things that appeal to her about Islam-modesty and interactions between women and men-different from traditional Judaism? How does she relate to her Jewish identity?  Did she experience any emotional conflict with changing her identity? Has her conversion affected her relationship to the state of Israel? We learn of her strong connection with Arab Muslim classmates from an early age, and the death of one in particular seemed to affect her strongly, but because we know so little about her interaction with the Jewish community all we’re left with are questions.

There are so many topics introduced and barely covered, particularly those things that make this such a unique conversion story.  As a Jewish Muslim convert in Israel, Maor, must do more than take the shahada (Islamic creed declaring the oneness of Gd), she must undergo a formal conversion with the government so that she will be allowed to marry a fellow Muslim.  We learn absolutely nothing about what that  involves, how long it takes, or what she must undergo.  When she changes the nationality on her identity card, does she experience  hesitation or only relief?  (Spoiler—she does find a Muslim husband, but we learn absolutely nothing about the process and/or how her unique circumstances factor into her decision.) One minute she’s talking about starting to look for a husband, the next she’s looking at his picture online, two minutes later she refers to him as her fiancée.  It’s a completely unexplored whirlwind.

One thing we do understand throughout this film is how incredibly lonely Maor’s journey is.  When not at home or running an errand with her family, she’s shown walking and sitting alone.  No one in her community speaks to her; she is the constant subject of stares and is questioned by both Arab Muslim and Jewish communities. The story flows from one scene in a restaurant when she’s questioned by Muslim customers and workers: “Is she Arab, is someone in her family Arab, where does she live, is she married” to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony where she faces the same  questions from Jews,  along with assumptions such as that she must have grown up not surrounded by Jews, she must have no connection/relationship with her family, etc. It isn’t until almost three quarters through the film that we meet a friend outside of her family, Lital, another Jewish convert to Islam.

As the film ended, I was left with so many mixed emotions; I could only wish her happiness in her journey, yet feel sadness about her path, and continue to wonder how she got there.  I’m not sure it’s a story I as a committed Jew could ever feel completely comfortable with, but still wish I could appreciate her story and motivations, but this film left so many topics unexplored, I’m not sure we as the audience can get there.

 

The impact of Hebrew School

Thanks to the beginning of the school year, there has been the usual crop of published opinions regarding Jewish schooling options. The general consensus of opinions regarding Hebrew schools seems to be that, ”the investment in money and time exceeds the perceived value of the education and the experience.” I’m highlighting one blog post, but I think its author stated the current dogma well. In 55 comments now posted, no one without a professional connection to synagogue schools stood up for Hebrew schools. Elsewhere online, I read a statement from a well-regarded researcher who has delved into this topic, “Let’s accept the finding that Jewish schooling 4-5 hours a week before Bar/Bat Mitzvah does little good — even as camps, Israel travel, youth groups, day schools, and post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah schools show positive effects.”

These negative views paint an awfully broad brush, depicting a whole class of programs–some very good–as uniformly horrid. As a parent, I see for myself how a good Hebrew school is a positive component of my child’s Jewish education. As someone active in my Jewish community, I’ve had the opportunity to meet master educators much older than me, and I’ve noted how many of these master educators were graduates of Hebrew schools and Talmud Torahs of an earlier era. As someone with some professional training in statistics, I’ve looked at the numbers, and I believe there are serious problems with some of the widely cited studies that purport to show that Hebrew schools have no good impacts.

What I see is that good Hebrew schools provide a path to a wider range of Jewish experiences. This makes it hard to identify statistically the unique impact of Hebrew school. The researcher I quoted above compared Hebrew schools to other forms of education as if the impact of each could be separately identified. Yet few research reports I’ve seen highlight the interactions. For example, some prominent studies of Summer camps either treat schooling during the year as a confounding variable or just divide formal education into Day School or Other. One study that did publish this data semi-directly is the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey Jewish Education Background Report. Using tables 1 and 3 in that report, it’s straight-forward to calculate the percentage of 18-34 year olds who participated in youth groups, attended Summer camps, or visited Israel, by the type of their formal Jewish education during the school year. Here is a table showing the percentages:

Day School Supplemental School Sunday
School
Other None
Youth Group 40% 40% 17% 0% 3%
Summer Camp 40% 31% 18% 8% 4%
Israel Trips 41% 41% 12% 0% 6%

The majority of kids doing these activities also go to Hebrew schools, while the 31% of this sample ( table 1 ) that was not involved in any formal Jewish education was barely represented in these other activities. Children who didn’t attend day school or Hebrew school weren’t involved in Youth Groups, Jewish Summer Camps, or Israel Trips. Thus, we CANNOT compare the impact of Jewish Summer camp to the impact of Hebrew school. There is no way to compare the impact of Summer camp or youth group compared with the impact of Hebrew school if the same kids do both. The statistical term for this is multicollinearity. Simply put, saying that Summer camps or youth groups work and Hebrew school does nothing is assuming that kids magically drop down from the sky into Jewish Summer camp–and they don’t!

A good Hebrew school needs to impart some knowledge of Judaism, give kids the awareness and interest to continue Jewish learning, and build skills for participation in Jewish life. A good Hebrew schools also builds relationships with Jewish peers. Kids who form friendships in Hebrew school and whose families come to synagogue on Shabbat hang out together after (or during) Shabbat services. They go with these Hebrew school friends to Jewish Summer camps. They see recent b’nai mitzvot coming back to lead services and participate in synagogue events. The Hebrew school class becomes a youth group, and friends in Hebrew high school.

Of course it’s difficult to disentangle correlation with causation: kids in families that bring them regularly to synagogue and to Hebrew school are more likely to care about the quality of the Hebrew school and to plan on sending these same kids to Summer camp, on Jewish teen trips, etc. However, as any parent will tell you, children’s interests don’t always match their parents plans. Good Hebrew schools can give kids experiences to make them want other Jewish experiences. If policy makers want Jewish kids to attend Jewish Summer camps, youth groups etc, the first step is connecting them to Jewish communities. Hebrew schools are still a huge part of this picture.

We Do Need More Heroes—on Yom Hashoah

Everyone calls it Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Day, but the official Hebrew name translates as Memorial Day for Martyrs and Heroes. A cursory glance at my Facebook feed makes clear what we all know: Jews are very good at remembering our martyrs. There are yellow stars, yahrtseyt (memorial) candles, photos of concentration camp prisoners, and a gut wrenching riff on the Pesach haggadah stating that each of us is obligated to feel as if we ourselves had been unable to leave Germany.

My own post was no different. I have martyrs enough in my own family, including the great-grandmother for whom I am named. But what I had not known until perestroika and glasnost allowed me to become acquainted with my cousins in Moscow, is that I also have a hero in my family.

Jewish Red Army hero explaining what his many medals mean

Vidya, my mother’s first cousin, was a liberator of Auschwitz. That was one of countless heroic acts that he undertook with his Red Army tank battalion. I have become close with him over the past two decades, and in the process I have come to understand that hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews—women and men—risked their lives in order to defeat the Germans. It is one of the great ironies of our era that many of these Red Army veterans, like Vidya, now live in Germany. On some of my frequent visits to Munich, I have had the privilege of accompanying him to the Jewish community center, where these veterans gather for coffee and conversation.

 

I am in awe of these people, who were truly forced from the frying pan into the fire. After recovering from his third serious wound, which punctured his lung, Vidya had no real home to which to return. His father had been sent to a gulag and his mother—the only one of my grandmother’s siblings to survive the war—followed her husband there. Vidya was one of thousands of Red Army veterans who learned that their loved ones had either been killed by the Nazis or been imprisoned by Stalin’s increasingly brutal regime. Far too often, both were the case.

 

Growing up in the 1970s, knowing that I had relatives in Moscow that I had not yet met, I attended every Save Soviet Jewry demonstration. I wore a prisoner of conscience necklace. Our family ”adopted” recent immigrants and helped them adjust to life in Chicago As a member of Hashomer Hatzair, I learned about the young heroes of the Warsaw and Vilna Ghettos, who fought back against the Nazis in any way possible. But due to Soviet policies, I never learned about the many Jewish heroes who fought in the Red Army, only to have their identities disappear at the end of the war.

 

In school we were taught that the Americans were the good liberators, and the Russians were the evil ones. Reality, as always, is far more complex. Thanks to the VETERAN ORAL HISTORY PROJECT of the Blavatnik Archive Foundation, which is systematically archiving the testimonies of Jewish Red Army veterans and creating books, DVDs, and impressive traveling exhibits of these materials, it is possible for us to get a glimpse of these heroic women and men.

If you do not have time to explore this material for Yom Hashoa, you can do it on the date that the Red Army veterans observe: May 9, or Victory in Europe Day. As Vidya always tells me, though, every year there are fewer and fewer veterans at the May 9 commemoration. So don’t wait.

Re: The “Stuff Jews Don’t Do” Tumblr


Bugles are DELICIOUS. 

The inspiration for the Stuff Jews Don’t Do Tumblr, according to the person who created it : “Growing up in a Jewish TV-centered home, I often encountered many things or situations in the primetime line-up that were unfamiliar. When I asked my mother why we didn’t eat Thanksgiving in the afternoon or why my brother never had a rat’s tail, her retort was always “Jews don’t do that!”"

Some things “Jews don’t do”: Shop at JC Penney, Drive Pick Up Trucks, Buy Lottery Tickets,  Eat Hamburger Helper. This is stuff that runs contrary to what some Jews recognize as being Jewish, or what might be referred to as “”goyishe.” There’s a thread that connects them-mainly that they’re commonly associated with  people of a certain class. When I was a kid, we shopped at Kmart (not even a JC Penney!). This might not be true anymore, but then, shopping at Kmart was unforgivable. People would tease you about it until you died, because it meant you were poor, and worse, you were too stupid (obviously as the result of being poor) to front like you didn’t shop at Kmart. The thing was, my family was poor. And we were Jews.

Like I said, a lot of the things listed in this Tumblr have nothing to do with Judaism, they have to do with class, but in addition,  there’s also the greatly overlooked fact that, believe it or not, Jews don’t all live on the East and West coasts of the United States. Jews in the South might drive pick up trucks, because in the South, people might do that. Cultural norms exist, and people take them on.

Jews might also make and eat Jello molds, (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence) because maybe they don’t know about kashrut or they don’t care about it, and they think they’re delicious. And just so I keep making it all about me, kashrut was something I didn’t know about until college, because Jewish education  is expensive, and I wasn’t around a lot of observant Jews. That’s what  happens when you live outside of a Jewish bubble.

Look, I’m pretty sure (I hope) that the point of this Tumblr is to poke fun at the idea that Jews don’t do certain things, but actually it should be called “Stuff Jews Who Aren’t Me or Other Jews I Know Probably Do.”  (Also, I’m pretty sure a kugel qualifies as a casserole.)

Almost Everything I Know (Just Might Be Wrong)

If I’d written this before July, I’d be saying different things.

On my mother’s side we are mixed race, and descended from Jewish refugees who fled to America. On my father’s side, we are mixed race, and there is an intertwined narrative of Irish Diaspora and life after the Indian Reservations were left behind. My family is expert in the words and story of exile and Diaspora, loss and flight. I grew up as a part of that narrative, and for years it was both pride and a source of comfort. I was encouraged to pass for white whenever possible, and we attended Protestant Christian services. No one breathed a word of being anything but white, claiming English ancestry and being coached by the generations before us to speak with practiced diction and without accent.

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Filed under Ethnicity, Family

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Not your bubbe’s haroset!

The following is a recipe I just threw together inspired by Greek Haroset.

soak dried dates and apricots in water for about an hour; strain and save soak water
chop dates and apricots into mush (I like to do it on wax paper for easy cleanup)
put into a large mixing bowl
in a dry, hot pan toast fennel seed, coriander seed and white peppercorn–once you smell the amazing fragrance and hear the seeds pop, remove from the heat–grind according to your desire (i smashed it with a glass bottle between wax paper)
mix the spices in with the fruit and mix well, adding splashes of the soak water if necessary to ease mixing.
chop walnuts, fold into the mixture
add in finely chopped fresh dill (yup, fresh dill–and it HAS to be fresh; mint will work too, but dill is better)
add in a splash or two of red wine, mix it up really well

and there you have it, a sweet, spicy sticky haroset that your bubbe wouldn’t recognize!
enjoy!photo-2

The Price of Jew$chool

Before you panic, rest assured: we’re not about to start charging you when you read more than 20 posts per month.  No, we’re talking about the ever-skyrocketing expense of sending children to Jewish day school in the U.S.

With $7,000 you might be able to fly back and forth to Israel six times, but for the same price you could stay put in Overland Park KS and learn at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy for one year.  One thousand dollars more will buy you—show them what they’ve won—one year of 1-8th grade education at the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School. If you want to send your child to the Solomon Schechter of Atlanta, be prepared to shell out upwards of $17,000 per year starting with first grade.  $26,650 might be a fine price for a Toyota RAV4 Sport, but did you know that for the same price, you can ‘kaneh likha rav’—or maybe even four—and enroll for one year of high school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA? $29, 955 would be a steal for a small, foreclosed apartment in a depressed real estate market, but it could also buy you one year’s education at Milken community high school in LA.  These numbers don’t even include the usual “give and get” $1,000+ minimums typically imposed upon day school families on a yearly basis.

Ivana Trump: a convert to Judaism, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the woman who sat three rows in front of my mother, sisters, and I during the high holiday services of my youth. Just throw a giant hat on her, hand her an Artscroll and presto

Ivanka Trump: a convert to Judaism, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the woman who sat three rows in front of my mother, sisters, and I during the high holiday services of my youth. Just throw a giant hat on her, hand her an Artscroll and presto

Some day schools—such as the Ramaz School of NY and the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, IL— do not openly disclose their tuition fees, and perhaps for good reason. Unless you are Ivanka Trump, who wouldn’t want to faint upon seeing these staggering numbers?  Especially given today’s economy, how can anyone but the super-rich possibly afford to shell out $20,000 dollars annually to send a child (or, more likely, multiple children) to Jewish day school…for 15 years?

As a day school alum (16 years, but who’s counting) whose entire college tuition (yes, all four years combined, at a private institution which furnished me with an excellent post-secondary education) still cost less than one year of Jewish high school, the irony of this situation is not lost on me. (For purposes of full disclosure: I benefited from a faculty discount for my university tuition.)

Haters in the Cheder

The Jewish Day School tuition crisis has only worsened over the course of the last decade, as aptly demonstrated by the Yeshiva Tuition Talk blog. Check out this meticulously well-researched case study on the surging tuition fees of two orthodox yeshivot in the U.S.

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Single Jews: What Will We Do?

Somehow, a copy of the Jewish Week Singles Supplement found its way  into my apartment, and because I am a glutton for punishment, I looked at it. Here’s the breakdown:   There are places other than the Upper West Side to meet people and find Jewish community. Orthodox Jews who are divorced would like to date again, and it’s hard. It’s also hard to be a single Jew when you’re over 40. Also, sometimes, being single makes people sad and they make theatre out of it. Of course, there is nary a gay mentioned anywhere in the magazine, because we all know gay people just want to have a lot of sex and no relationships, ESPECIALLY the Jewish gays.

On the upswing: There is an interesting piece about Jewish women who become single mothers by choice, and another about interfaith relationships and how they might actually galvanize, and not destroy the Jewish people. What I thought was the most important part of the supplement was a piece by Sandy Brawarsky called “Tuesday, the Rabbi Went Out,” about single rabbis and the stigma they deal with regarding their marital status. Apparently, many folks who were interviewed for the article declined to be named, because  ”they feared for their rabbinic careers as well as their dating lives.” I’ve heard from a lot of rabbinic students that it’s hard to reveal their chosen field to potential dates, but the idea that one’s career could be jeopardized by not having a partner is beyond ridiculous.

It’s also problematic that both male and female rabbis (again, no one who identifies outside the definitive gender binary was involved in the making of this article) are lumped together in the conversation, because as single folks, they face very different issues with respect to dealing with their situation. A single female rabbi is challenging to our beliefs about women, that women have babies, especially Jewish women. Without a partner, how will this happen? Single male rabbis face a challenge to their masculinity, because in addition to being the head of a shul, they’re also expected to be head of a household, and if masculinity and femininity isn’t demonstrated in the way we’re accustomed to, we’re threatened, and the last place we want to be threatened is in a Jewish space.

Trust me when I say that the organized Jewish community, or maybe all Jewish communities, are lonely places for single people, even (especially?) if you aren’t interested in changing your status. Interviewed for the article, Rabbi Felicia Sol, of Bnai Jeshrun on the Upper West Side, said, “It is a challenge to the Jewish community to create as many avenues for people to find partners and be supportive of all kinds of families, but it is just as important to be inclusive to those who are single.”

Seriously, though, is this ever going to happen? My money is on probably not, because, after all, religion has become about family and we remain inflexible as to what that concept is, and about letting people define that notion for themselves. The article does end with some hope, though. Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons, offered this: “I think we could do more to change the culture where marriage is the highest value.”

My letter to the editor of The NJ Jewish Standard

The following was crossposted to the blog at New Voices. It was also emailed to New Jersey Jewish Standard Editor Rebecca Boroson, who you can also email at editor@jewishmediagroup.com. For a little background, check out dlevy’s earlier post about the matter.

To the editor:

As a member of both the New Jersey press and the Jewish press, I am deeply disturbed by your shameful decision to apologize to “the traditional/Orthodox community” for printing a gay wedding announcement.

Your editorial of apology is an example of journalism of lowest, most cowardly order. Journalists publish corrections when they get the facts wrong–but we never apologize for it. Worse than that, you did not even apologize for factual inaccuracy. Instead, you apologized for offending someone. Get over it. We are journalists. Sometimes people get mad at us.

But I should hope that if you continue in this groveling manner, you at least have the decency to do so with some consistency. And if you do that, I have a prediction for you: Next week, you will be apologizing to the wider Jewish community for jumping at the snap of some Orthodox bullies’ fingers. You will be forced to apologize to unaffiliated, non-denominational, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews for forgetting that they are the vast majority of the community.

Despite your otherwise pusillanimous handling of this journalistic catastrophe, you somehow managed the chutzpah to apologize for the “pain and consternation” you caused a few noisy homophobic readers. When can we expect your apology to the gay community for the pain and consternation you have no doubt caused them? And when can we expect you to stop running photographs of women? Some Jews find that offensive too, I hear.

Sincerely praying for the return of your journalistic chutzpah,

David A.M. Wilensky,

Features Editor, The Acorn, Drew University, Madison, NJ

Editor at Large, New Voices

This isn’t about guilt

Repentance shouldn’t be about wallowing in guilt.  In his sermon last night, my rabbi spoke about this at length.  It’s something I’ve thought about before, and it really speaks to me.

These days I’m pretty much never at synagogue.  Back when I was at school (I’m currently taking a year off), I participated in the Chavurah minyan each week, which I loved.  But here, I find that praying congregation-style just doesn’t do it for me.  And last night I realized for the first time that one of my personal sources of guilt on Yom Kippur comes from actually being at synagogue, precisely because I’m so rarely there.  I feel guilt for not being more a part of the community.  Guilt for being so unfamiliar with the liturgy.  Guilt that my Hebrew is so bad.  Guilt for not truly feeling that the path to repentance involves asking for permission to repent.

So, like last year at Brown, I didn’t go to services today, albeit for slightly different reasons.  I’m at home, on my own.  Here I can observe Yom Kippur guilt-free, thinking about ways in which I can repent for me, myself, and I.  My lack of belief in G()d in the traditional sense of an entity or concept that has at least some manifest control of my life or the world leads me to understand that I repent for my own benefit, and for that of those around me.  Repenting helps me become a better person.  I take responsibility for my flaws, my problems, my errors, and I ask those around me to understand them, and join with me as I try to grow past them.  That growth might involve additional involvement with the community.  Or it might not.

This approach to observance is a source of conflict with my family, who feel strongly that going to shul is a family operation.  And while I respect the desire to observe the day together, I can’t subvert my feelings on what it means for me to be a Jew to the family’s feelings on what it means to be a Jewish family.  The same holds for a congregation.  Yom Kippur is too important for me to follow anyone’s patterns of observance but my own.  I’m sure that those patterns will continue to change, and as they do, I’ll do my best to understand and remain true to them.

Prop 8 overturned, OU gets irrational

Around the country, yesterday, many cheered and many booed as Chief US District Judge Vaughn Walker declared Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, as unconstitutional and in contradiction of the due process clause.

While a seeming majority of US Jews are clearly supportive of overturning the ballot proposition, known in many circles in California as “Prop H8,” the Orthodox Union made this bizarre statement, according to the JTA:

“In addition to our religious values — which we do not seek to impose on anyone — we fear legal recognition of same-sex ‘marriage’ poses a grave threat to the fundamental civil right of religious freedom.

“Forcing a choice between faith and the law benefits no one,” it added, concluding that the OU looked forward to the appeals process.

In what world does the OU live? Apparently one where they will be forced by US law to officiate at same-sex marriages? Yes, that’s right, here in America practices and beliefs are forced upon religious organizations all the time. That’s why every synagogue has to have a nativity scene or a giant set of Ten Commandment plaques…

The full statement, which can be read here, goes on to say:

Already, in states with same-sex civil unions and similar laws, religious institutions, including churches, social service providers and youth groups have been penalized by authorities for their beliefs. Forcing a choice between faith and the law benefits no one.

We look forward to the appeals process which will bring these critical issues to America’s highest courts.

Oh! Now I get it! They are against being told what to do or believe because it impedes the religious freedoms of a sliver of a tiny minority population in the US (which I really don’t understand how their freedoms are impeded at all)… What they are NOT against is taking away the constitutional rights of at least 10% of the US population who have been relegated to second-class citizen status and forced to stand by as the sacred institution of marriage is maintained for adulterers and wife-beaters… Good ol’ fashioned sense and reasoning from the OU.

Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in the Orthodox Community

Check out this interesting Statement of Principles, written and edited by leaders in the Modern Orthodox community:

For the last six months a number of Orthodox rabbis and educators have been preparing a statement of principles on the place of our brothers and sisters in our community who have a homosexual orientation.

The original draft was prepared by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot. It was then commented upon by and revised based on the input from dozens of talmidei chachamim, educators, communal rabbis, mental health professionals and a number of individuals in our community who are homosexual in orientation.

Significant revisions were made based upon the input of Rabbi Aryeh Klapper and Rabbi Yitzchak Blau who were intimately involved in the process of editing and improving the document during the last three months.

The statement below is a consensus document arrived at after hundreds of hours of discussion,debate and editing. At the bottom, is the initial cohort of signators.

We, the undersigned Orthodox rabbis, rashei yeshiva, ramim, Jewish educators and communal leaders affirm the following principles with regard to the place of Jews with a homosexual orientation in our community:

1. All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod haberiyot). Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvot between person and person in relation to persons who are homosexual or have feelings of same sex attraction. Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.
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Environmental Jewish Camp a Reality

They’re sure getting a lot of press these days. And why not? Tomorrow is their grand opening: they will be the first Jewish environmental sleepaway camp, welcoming the first session of “134 campers from 17 states and 4 countries with smoothies from a bicycle-powered blender, solar-oven cooked snacks from our farm, live music, campfires and more.”

Sounds pretty great to me! Read more about Eden Village Camp below the jump.
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The Vort: Nasso – Biblical Waterboarding

If you are a facebook user, you’ve likely received some sort of hack invitation recently to join or ‘like’ a page entitled Fact, all girls tell these 10 lies to men when they are cheating. (Note: the males are men while the females are girls.)  Even if you have not seen this page on the internet, you still have an opportunity to engage in cultural myth-making vis-à-vis women’s chastity with this week’s Torah portion.

In biblical times, there was a different kind of over-the-top forum for humiliating public disclosure, equally intrusive, but with much higher stakes: the Temple in Jerusalem.  Indeed, if you skip ahead to Chapter 5 of Numbers, you can read first-hand of the kind invasive intimidation tactics routinely used to “deal with” women whose husband’s suspected them of marital infidelity.

Because such a spectacle is better seen than described, I have taken the liberty to sketch out this rather involved procedure (see below).  Interestingly, the text does not include any kind of formal questioning about the suspected woman’s partner(s).  Considering how terrifying and demeaning this whole ritual must have been to the accused woman, one can rather safely assume that the desired effect was that she buckled under pressure and disclosed her tawdry secrets, if, indeed, such secrets existed.

The isha sota (or ‘deviant woman’) episode is disturbing on so many counts; one barely knows where to start working through these issues.  If the woman proves innocent, she must resume her marital life with a man who has caused her such shame (if this is the case, the man is expected to give an offering as well—but this is only a gesture to God, not to his wife whom he falsely accused).  If she is guilty of the charges, her “stomach distends and her thighs sag.”

Fast-forwarding to the Haftorah (Judges 13:2-25) which accompanies this week’s Torah portion, where we read of Manoach who, interestingly, appears suspicious of his wife when she comes to him and reports that an unnamed man appeared before her when she was out in the field all by herself and announced that she would soon become pregnant.  While Manoah’s suspicions do not appear to reach the level of jealousy described in the Torah portion, he does insist on seeing the “man” himself.  Particularly interesting with regard to this tale is that the son born to this couple as a result of the aforementioned annunciation is a strapping young fellow whose thunderous passion for the wrong woman leads him to his undoing.

What is to be learned here? One should exercise restrain not only in one’s actions, but also in one’s judgments of others.

Click on thumbnails for full-sized images, a step-by-step instruction on testing your woman:

The Edible Omer Counter returns. Updated for 2010!

Back by popular demand, the Edible Omer Counter. Notable for being the only omer counter that gives you motivation to see the Omer right the way through, this one’s got chocolate.

You will need: kosher-for-Pesach choccies, tissue paper, yarn, scissors, pen.*

Cut squares of tissue paper. I used purple over white here (these pictures are from a couple years ago, I haven’t taken pictures since then). Of course you could also use wrapping paper, fabric, foil, whatever takes your fancy.

Scrunch the paper up around the choccy and tie it with yarn. You can’t really see the colours so well in the photo – sorry; I’ve got a nice layered purple-and-white look going, by having the inside square, the purple one, be slightly bigger than the white outside one.

Write the numbers 1-49 on the bottoms of the choccy packages, and use the yarn ties to attach them to one long piece of yarn. You could make it more fun (for kids, naturally – right?) by doing them out of order, and/or by having different sorts of choccies in the packages. Or little toys.

Then hang it on the wall. It ends up being pretty long, so you might have to loop it festively over something.

Starting at the second seder, after dark each night, count the Omer (helpful chart) and eat your choccy.

2010 expansion…now with kabbalah!

In Kabbalah, each of the Omer weeks is associated with one of the seven lower sefirot: Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malchut. The days of the week are also associated with the sefirot, in the same order, and then you get each day of the Omer having a different combination – so day 1 is chesed in chesed, day 2 is gevurah in chesed, and so on. See wikipedia for more, if you care to.

The interesting bit here is that the sefirot also have associated colours. Swiping from a random internet source, we have Chesed – silver with a bluish tinge; Gevurah – red; Tiferes – light green, like a ripening etrog (citron); Netzach – light pink; Hod – dark pink; Yesod – rainbow of hues including blue, red, yellow; Malchut – dark blue with purple tinge. Almost black.

Now.

The book Kabbalah: an introduction to Jewish mysticism (another random internet source; kabbalah isn’t my thing, particularly) talks about how one form of kabbalistic practice is to meditate on the colours of two different sefirot and then combine the two into a coalescent colour.

So here’s your challenge this year – go and design your own Omer counter which responds to this idea. Share your pictures. There may even be a small prize (a real one, not internet cookies) for the one that makes me go “squee” loudest.



* Strictly speaking, I suppose only the first seven choccies need to be kosher for Pesach, as long as the rest don’t contain actual chametz. But if you’ve bought a whole package of Pesach candies, what are you going to do with the rest of them?

Filed under Family, Food, Judaica, Omer

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Joining Traditions

This article was originally published on InterfaithFamily.com. Interfaith Family is “the online resource for interfaith families exploring Jewish life and the grass-roots advocate for a welcoming Jewish community.” I don’t think I’ve written about my family on Jewschool before, but I thought I’d give it a try by cross-posting.

My brother and I were raised by two Jewish parents. Ours was a liberal Jewish home: mezuzahs on the doorways, Shabbat dinner every Friday, holidays observed and celebrated. I grew up believing that my parents were both equally committed to our family’s level of observance. In recent years, long after my parents’ divorce, and as my father has formed a new family, I’ve learned that my outlook was perhaps naive.

My father believed that raising the kids with Judaism was the right thing to do. He went along with it. But while our family observed Passover, eschewed bread and other leavened products for the eight days, he would go to the deli by his office for lunch and privately enjoy a sandwich. Once I was old enough to go to synagogue on my own, he no longer went to Shabbat services. And when I wanted to start laying tefillin, he was more than happy to give me his set, which had been stashed in the back of his closet since before I was born.

As an observant Jew, I was taken aback by his deception. In hindsight, I understand, and appreciate, the decisions he made for our family. I was left wondering what type of religious life he would have, especially as he ages and talks about his will and funeral plans. But while I was wondering what his funeral might look like, balancing my future mourning needs with his probable want for a not overtly religious burial, another life-cycle event brought his religious views to the forefront.

My father started dating, moved in with, and became engaged to the woman who is now my stepmother. This raised a whole other round of questions for me. As far as I knew, he had only ever dated Jewish women. My stepmother is not Jewish. I didn’t have much opportunity to spend time with her before they were married; we lived on opposite coasts. My questions went mostly unanswered, and mostly unasked.
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