A Long, Painful Summer: Thoughts On Israel

IMG_2542I love Israel. The landscape, the language, the food, mix of old world culture and hi-tech innovative breakthroughs, the mix of east and west, its mix of deep spirituality, irreverent atheism, passionate doubt, and zany mysticism. I love the mix of brash chutzpah and soul-searching analytical reflectiveness. I love that Israelis buy more books per capita than any other country in the world.

Israel is in many ways where I became an adult. After living in Israel for a year during college, I moved back upon graduation. It was there that I first lived in my own apartment, looked for a job, got a paycheck direct deposited into my account, figured out how to scrub a toilet, and learned to cook for myself. Israel was where I was able to explore my personal Judaism and realize that I didn’t have to go to rabbinic school in order to have a rich, fulfilling, Jewish life, and it was where I made the choice to not become a rabbi (yes, I later changed my mind again, but it was the right choice at the time).

Israel is my family, both metaphorically and literally. I married into a large, warm Israeli family twenty-four years ago. They have truly become my family over these years. When I worry abstractly about Israel, I worry concretely about them and their emotional and physical wellbeing.

And yet loving Israel doesn’t mean loving everything about it. Like any family, and I speak here of the metaphoric sort, not my actual family, there are those members I tolerate just because they’re family. And then there are those I can’t even abide. They stand for all that I stand against. You know what that’s like. Just because they’re family doesn’t mean you have to like them.

It’s been a long, painful summer.

I confess that I’ve been in a social media semi-hibernation mode this summer. I haven’t blogged and I’ve barely posted on FB or twitter.  I’ve felt paralyzed, powerless, unable to say or do anything helpful or productive. It’s been shocking to watch the conversation, both domestically and internationally, devolve into black and white rhetoric, often laced with ancient anti-semitic tropes. People I love, people I admire and with whom I have important and deep relationships, have taken extreme  positions on different sides of the spectrum. Blame is thrown back and forth, with any sense of context, nuance, and complexity absent from the conversation. In the name of maintaining peace within my own world and relationships, choosing shlom bayit over strife, I’ve chosen to not engage in those conversations.

As things heated up in Israel, we made a quick decision at the CCAR to organize a solidarity mission of rabbis to Israel in order to both show support to our friends, family, and colleagues, as well as to provide our rabbis with a more nuanced sense of the reality there.

It was a somber time to be there, and of course the tension has only increased. We set up meetings with a varied group of people in different parts of the country. We met with Knesset members and soldiers, activists and negotiators, reporters and scholars. Many of those we spoke to while there voiced deep concern for the future of Israel’s soul, and worries about growing extremism on all sides. A number of speakers talked about the national soul-searching that must come when some semblance of stability is restored.

IMG_2135In a prayer service with our Israeli colleagues one morning, we read several new prayers written by Rabbi Yehoyada Amir. One is a Mi Sheberach for those wounded, which recognizes the suffering of those of both nations, and the other is a Mi Sheberach for the members of the IDF which contains a hope that they maintain their highest values. The service was followed by a conversation with our local colleagues, who shared what they are going through, trying to serve and support their communities while in the midst of fear and concern for their own families and still continuing their work in areas like human rights and peace. Their stories were moving and powerful – and in some cases very painful.

Like so many of those we spoke to, our colleagues also talked about being torn up by the deaths and suffering of the Gazan civilians, even as they grieved the deaths of the young Israelis killed in the conflict. In the face of fear and pain, they refuse to let go of empathy and give in to hate. They are living out what we are taught in Pirke Avot: in a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.

I am worried. I worry on Israel’s behalf, and I worry about Israel. I worry about what will happen to Israel, and I worry about the choices Israel will make. Even as we witnessed the pain and worry of our colleagues and friends and relatives, we also were grateful to see flashes of hope here and there. There are many who think that the questions being asked in the public sphere within Israel will lead to a better future. Even in the midst of new waves of hatred, there are new partnerships being created by those seek peace and coexistence, and are concerned with issues of human rights. So I continue to hold on to hope in the midst of worry.

I would guess that I am not alone in struggling to articulate something meaningful about Israel for the coming high holy days, words that express both deep love for Israel along with concern, a sense of complexity, and somehow a message of hope over despair.

With issues this big and complicated, sometimes prayers and meditations are a helpful way to begin to get a hold of concepts that otherwise feel almost impossible to grasp.

Toward that end, I offer some readings related to the events of this summer which you are welcome to use or share in your communities. I ask only that you use them with attribution.

Here is a poem written by the liturgist Alden Solovy, inspired by a workshop he held with us during the recent CCAR trip.

IMG_2632These Ancient Stones

When these ancient stones whisper to us,
They yearn for our steadfast love.
They yearn for us to remember
How Israel walks through history,
With justice and wisdom,
With righteousness and mercy.

God of our fathers and mothers,
Let compassion enter the land.

When these ancient stones whisper to us,
They yearn for our devotion and our service.
They yearn for us to remember the vision of our ancestors,
Their strength,
Their love of God and
Their love for our people.

God of generations,
Let tranquility enter the land.

When these ancient stones speak to us,
They yearn for peace.
They yearn for us to learn
How to turn swords into plowshares,
And spears into pruning hooks.
They yearn for us to remember
That we have been outcast on foreign soil,
That we are bound by Torah to guard the land
And to protect the stranger in our midst.

God of all being,
Let joy enter the land
And gladness enter our hearts.

Two Readings by Rabbi Yehoyada Amir, the Acting Chairperson, MARAM – Israel Council of Reform Rabbis, translated by Ortal Bensky and CCAR staff. (See the Hebrew)

A Prayer for the Wounded

May the One who brought blessings to our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bring blessings to the wounded of both nations who lie on their sickbeds. Instill in their caring physicians hearts of wisdom and good sense, in order to restore them to full health and give them encouragement. Bestow God’s holiness upon their relatives and loved ones in order to stand with them in this time of need and to give them love and faith. Strengthen their spirits to chose life in times of pain and suffering. Hear their prayers and fortify them so that they will continue to lead lives of health, creation, joy and blessings. And together we say: Amen.

A Prayer for the Israel Defense Forces

May the One who brought blessings to our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bless the soldiers of Israel’s Defense Forces, and all who stand guard in order to protect the Land of Israel. Give them strength against our enemies, and strengthen their spirit to preserve their highest values at this time of trial. Protect them from all troubles and afflictions, so that they will return in peace and joy to their families and friends, and may they prosper as human beings and citizens in their land.

A version of this post appeared previously on the CCAR’s RavBlog.org.

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Some Good Books, Summer 2014 Edition

The most recent batch of books I’ve read have been mostly outstanding.  One place I regularly turn for recommendations of new books is the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange Prize.  Some of the book below were discoveries on this year’s Baileys longlist.  They’re not light beach reading, but they’re worth the time.

17465453The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert 

Let me start with this: This novel is exceptional.  If it wasn’t for the fact that this novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for 2014, I probably would not have bothered with it.  I didn’t know much about Gilbert beyond her popular book Eat, Pray, Love, and assumed I wouldn’t like her fiction.  Just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by what you think you know about the author.  I admit it – I was wrong, and I didn’t know enough about Gilbert.  This is an epic tale of the life of a one woman, Alma Whittaker, born in Philadelphia at the start of the 19th century to an English father and a Dutch mother.  Born into a world that valued business acumen and scientific knowledge of the natural world, hers is an unusual childhood that leads to an unusual life.  She is a quirky, compelling character, as are all of those with whom she interacts as the world shifts and slides its way through the changes of the 19th century.  The abolitionist movement plays a role in Alma’s life, as does the debate over Darwinism.  This novel brims with delicious, sensuous detail as Alma grows and develops throughout her life, encompassing discoveries as exotic as of flora in far-flung corners of the globe and as close by as her own sexuality, while it also asks the big questions about existence, creation, and the human role in the world. Alma’s curiosity and intellect continue to evolve as the book traces her life to its very end, with detail that might bore in the hands of another author but remain fresh and ever startling in Gilbert’s hands. Never have I cared as much about moss as I did while reading this book.

18142324All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

This was another one longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly Orange Prize) for 2014.  It is an odd book, and a difficult one, but rewardingly so.  Wyld quickly thrusts her readers out of the comfort zone of linear narrative, a smart move for a tale that is itself disorienting and unsettling.  The main character, Jake Whyte, is a cipher.  She is alone, terrified, has a back full of scars, and is living a precarious existence.  The reason for all of this unfolds slowly as the book progresses, moving both forward and backward at the same time.  That is, her present moves forward one section at time, but the backstory that lead to all of that is revealed bit by bit, going slightly further back each time until the book ends with a jolt at the beginning of Jake’s story.   Assumptions about good and bad, villain and hero, right and wrong are upended.  Nothing is as expected, not for Jake and not for the reader.

15803141The Flameflowers by Rachel Kushner

This is another one longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for 2014, as well as a National Book Award finalist and one of the Top Ten Books of 2013 by the New York Times Book Review.  Kushner present a compelling female protagonist, Reno, at the center of this work about the New York art world of the 1970′s, political protest, the Italian labor movement, and trust.  This novel deals with issues of power, truth, falsehoods, and pretense.  All the ingredients for a stunning book are there, as are the accolades.  Some of it is in fact quite powerful - the descriptions of Reno’s outsider status and ambition are moving and ring true, and the parts of the book that deal with the salt flats, her motorcycle riding, and her artistic aspirations are compelling.  The descriptions of a grittier, scrappier New York were magnificently drawn, with complexity and nuance that brought me to those days.  But there wasn’t enough of that to hang on to.  Too many of the characters were not developed enough to care deeply about, and many of the relationships felt flat.  A worthwhile read but not on my top ten list for the year.

16176440We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler 

Not a book I would have read on my own but a friend whose taste I trust told me that a) I had to read it, and b) I couldn’t read any reviews of it ahead of time because there’s critically important information that gets revealed only partway through.  She was right, and I’ll try my best to be careful here.  Though not on the Bailey longlist, this book comes with its own credentials – it was the winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award and was also one of the New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books of 2013.  All I’ll say beyond that this is a book that cleverly, and with some welcome humor, challenges our ideas about family, humanity, and belonging, not to mention scientific inquiry.  It’s a quick read but heartbreakingly powerful.  I won’t say more – just go read it.

17857652Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart 

Tragic, funny, heart-rending, insightful. Especially if you know from asthma, the immigrant experience, or going to high school in NYC.  In this wonderful memoir, Shteyngart chronicles his early childhood in the Soviet Union, and then his childhood, adolescence and later years in the United States.    He is endearingly honest about his pain, his discomfort, and his self-doubt, while still managing to be funny.  Partly a coming of age tale, and partly a classic outsider-makes-good story, Shteyngart’s forthright prose is beautifully awkward and raw.

Happy reading!

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Wanderings and Arrivals: After the Exodus

A page from the ship's manifest with my grandfather's name and arrival information.

A page from the ship’s manifest with my grandfather’s name and arrival information.

My cousin pointed out the other day it was the 100th anniversary of our grandfather’s arrival to United States, according the ship manifest that he was able to unearth.  One hundred years since “our” arrival to this country, at least via that branch of the family tree.

Passover reminds us of the epic journey of leaving a place of suffering in the hopes of finding a better future.  “My father was a wandering Aramean,” the haggadah teaches, compelling us to feel as if we ourselves were personally part of the story of leaving and arriving. Jewish history is full of repeated journeys from one place to another, always hoping that things will improve.  Mishaneh makom, mishaneh mazal, we’re taught – change your place, and your luck will change.  And so they did, over and over.

My grandfather, Louis (Leizer) Person arrived here from Russia, purportedly having escaped the Tzar’s army like so many other Jewish men of his era.  He died before I was born and the little I know about him is from snatches of memories from my parents and older cousins.  The details of his story are unknown to me but what I do know is that Russia was not a place he wanted to be. It was not a place where he saw a viable future, and he came here to make a fresh start, a modern day Moses. Like so many of his landsmen, he arrived in New York and stayed, eking out a living as a watchmaker.  

What I do know is that he and my grandmother, also an immigrant from Russia, had five living children, the youngest of whom was my father.  Those children went on to have a total of eleven children, and there are now two more generations after that.  From those two immigrants, there are now many descendants spread across the United States.  

My grandfather was lucky because he had a place to go, a way to get there, and a route to citizenship once here.  He was able to become an American.  Though his life, from what I have heard, was difficult, it was nothing compared to what he would have faced if he had stayed in Russia.  Because he chose to leave, his children, and then his grandchildren, and all the subsequent generations have opportunities, freedom of religion and ideas, and the chance for a future.

For all the reasons that complicated families have (and whose family isn’t complicated?), I don’t know all of the descendants of my grandparents.  But I do know a lot of them.  There are still a lot of Persons out there, regardless of the last name they carry.

One hundred years later, who are we? It’s hard to know what my grandparents would have expected or hoped for in their descendants.  But what I do know is how very American we have become.

Collectively, we live, I think, in different parts of the United States, with a small concentration in the greater New York area and a large concentration in Florida.  We work in a huge range of different professions.  As a group, we are Democrats and Republicans and those who choose not to vote. Some of us are fervently for gun control and others are gun owners.  Some of us support women’s reproductive rights and some vote for those who don’t.  Among us are those who  care about animal rights and the legalization of marijuana and the problem of sexual assault on college campuses and the censorship of books and the abuse of children and the right to bear arms.

We are light skinned and dark, our eyes are blue and green and hazel and brown. We are tall and short, slim and athletic, buff from working out, agile from yoga, and always struggling with our weight. We speak, at minimum, English and Spanish and Hebrew with a smattering of Yiddish phrases. Our children’s names are sourced from Yiddish, or modern Hebrew, or the Bible, or Spanish, or English. Some of us have photos on our Facebook pages posed in front of Christmas trees, and others are lighting menorahs or showing off the Seder table, and some have both. Some of us spend Friday nights or Saturdays at synagogue, and some of us spend Sunday mornings in church.  Our children go to public schools, private schools, Jewish day school, hebrew schools, and are homeschooled. Some of us have tattoos, some of us have beards, some us shave our heads, some of us don’t shave our legs, some of us shave our chests.  We are accountants, long distance truck drivers, artists, grant writers, computer programmers, boat salesmen, antique dealers, a rabbi, retired from the military, homemakers, activists, community organizers, and all kinds of other things. We are gay and straight, married, divorced, and single. We are just about everything Americans can be.

Louis Person c. 1959

Louis Person c. 1959

My grandfather was a wandering Aramean. One hundred years ago a young Jewish man left the world he knew, got on a boat, and sailed to New York.  He left his family behind, as well as the reality of oppression and violence.  He set out on his way, choosing to become a stranger in a strange land.  Whatever lay in front of him had to be better than what he was leaving behind.  And with him, a new world began, a world that would include my father and his siblings, and all their generations.

Passover reminds us of the obligation of loving the stranger.  We were strangers in the Land of Egypt, the Torah teaches.  We know what it’s like to be the stranger, to escape hardship and have to start all over again.  And if we are lucky, and if we find a welcome and a path to belonging, things may be better – if not for us, then for our children.

During this week of Passover, as we remember having left Egypt, I think about my grandfather’s personal exodus out of Russia. Of my grandfather’s many descendants, no one among us is world famous or has changed history – yet.  We are a motley crew (written with great affection and love) whose lives represent a large range of choices and perspectives.

Yet despite our dissimilarities and our different choices about how to live, we are all testaments to survival, and inheritors of a dream.  We are Americans because this country opened its doors to our grandfather, and to so many like him.  We know what it’s like to be strangers.  We owe an enormous debt to our immigrant ancestors that we must pay forward by working toward immigration reform in memory of all the grandparents and great-grandparents and generations back who risked everything and set off into the unknown so that we, their descendants, could have freedom and the right to make choices. 

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Passover and Memory

On Passover we remember.  We remember our collective story as Jews on the road to liberation.  We remember our family story, the struggles for freedom that brought us to where we are today.  And we remember Passover itself – that benchmark holiday in our annual cycle.

IMG_4454Like so many of our holidays, it’s a time to remember observances in previous years and to mark the passing of time. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are certainly moments to take stock in that way.  How was I doing last year at this time?  What were my challenges a year ago, and what are they today?  Who were we as a family last year, and how have we grown a year later? And who was here with us last year, but now is no longer? 

For me, the pull of remembering on Passover is especially strong, perhaps even more than on the high holy days, because it’s such a home based holiday. We look around the dining room, and the absences are stark.

Today would have been my father’s 79th birthday.  It’s hard to imagine what he would be like at this age, as he died ten years ago.  I never had the chance to see him grow old.  He is still missed – his absence very present, especially around the Passover table.  Passover was one of his favorites, probably because of its home-based nature.   When we read from the haggadah, there are still two readings that are “his”.  Whoever reads them, and it’s often me, reads them with him in mind and we recall his dramatic reading.    

Second seder is the big night in our house (first night is at my mother’s).  There are many stalwart regulars, but some seats change from year to year.  It is a seder full of friends rather than family: an eclectic group of my oldest friend from age five and his family, my oldest camp friend from age eight and her family, friends from college, from synagogue, friends we met through our kids’ school, from my high holy day congregation, dear colleagues, my daughter’s former 3rd grade teacher.  Every year we worry that we won’t be able to fit the ever-evolving guest list around the table, and yet every year we magically manage to fit everyone. 

My father and my children, in the park my father played in as a child.

My father and my children, in the park my father played in as a child.

But there’s another guest list as well.  These are the guests who are around the table only in our hearts and our memories, even if their seats are now filled by others.  There’s my father, with his particular connection to the Edmond Fleg “I am Jew” reading in the haggadah, or my grandmother, with her dramatic enunciation of the Ten Plagues and her legendary gefilte fish, or Belle and Ruben, the founders of our synagogue with their stories of the “old days” in Brooklyn, or my friend Bonnie, an amazing cook who used to bring the most delicious chicken soup and matzah balls, or the adoptive grandmother of our whole synagogue, Ida, who brought her homemade chopped liver and memories of life in pre-war Poland.  Even though someone else now make the chicken soup, and another person is making the matzah balls, and I’ve taken over the gefilte fish, the memories of their dishes and their stories stay with us. 

Passover, like all our holidays, combines the sadness of loss with the sweetness of memory, all wrapped up in the ongoing dynamism of change and forward motion.  We combine our bitter herbs with the joy of charoset. Like our ancient ancestors, we mourn, we celebrate, and we keep walking. Our collective story remains the same even as who we are changes from year to year.  I look forward to welcoming this year’s guests into our home, to remembering with love my father and all those who once joined us around the table, and to continuing to create new stories and traditions every year. 

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Unchanging Change: Passover Cooking

imageI’m obsessively organized when it comes to Passover.  On my hard drive are lists, schedules, and menus.  I make slight updates every year, but there are no radical changes.  While a tremendous amount of work is involved, Passover prep here is a fairly well-oiled process.

The first thing that happens is the caramelizing of the onions.  Once the 14 or so onions are caramelized down to about 3-4 cups of flavor-packed richness after hours of cooking, the real cooking can begin.  The first thing to get cooked is the leek-artichoke kugel.  The ingredients for the kugel get sautéed in the big caramelizing pot  as soon as the onions are done so that they absorb all the flavor of the onions.  There’s a method at work here that’s been developed over years of making seders.

And yet, while I may have the prep process down to a science, in truth the recipes change every year.  With the exception of baking, I cook by intuition, not recipes.  When I made the leek-artichoke kugel this year, I looked back to see the blog that I had written about it last year.  I was surprised to see that what I wrote here last year was was different from what I cooked this year.

We change from year to year and so it seems appropriate that not only menus change but recipes do as well.  Inspiration strikes differently from year to year.  Tastes change, as do dietary needs.  Available ingredients change depending on whether Passover falls in late winter or deep into the spring.  Today I use as much whole wheat matzah products in my recipes as possible, which is not something I thought about some years ago.  This year the seder will include a few wheat-free vegetarian dishes alongside all the matzah-meal-based kugels and the farfel-laden stuffing. Even if your guest list never changes from year to year (and when does that happen anyway??), the people around your table this year are not the same people who sat there last year. What’s unchanged about our tradition is continual change.

When I became a vegetarian years ago, my mother switched to a meat-free tzimmes for me, which has since become the family tradition.  Then one year, after I started making my own seder and thus my own tzimmes, I learned that my father’s mother had made tzimmes with prunes, which he had loved.  So I began to add prunes to my tzimmes for him, and I added dates as well.  He’s no longer alive, but I still think of him when I cook tzimmes (even though I now also add brandy which I know he would not have liked). When my grandmother was alive and well, she made the annual gefilte fish from scratch. It was a major ritual that included a trip to the fish store in Boro Park to get the fish properly ground. Today I use my sister’s recipe for tricolor gefilte fish terrine instead.  Change happens, and traditions evolve.

I try to write the recipes down for posterity (ok, because I hope that someday my children will want them) but the real message I want to impart is to be flexible.  The point of the seder meal isn’t perfection or achieving a culinary ideal – it’s about history, memory, pleasure, and being together. It’s about the unchanging nature of Jewish tradition bumping up against ongoing change as our lives continue to move forward and evolve.  If the recipes change a bit from year to year, all that matters is that it’s good, and that it builds part of a positive Jewish memory of observance.  Passover about is about freedom, and so too are we free to be flexible and creative, to keep changing and growing from year to year.

imageVegetable Farfel Stuffing

2 peppers, diced (use orange, red or yellow for color)

1/2 cup chopped onion (if none are available, increase to 1 cup)

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 cups chopped butternut squash

2 cup cooked, peeled chestnuts (make it easy on yourself and buy them vacuum packed, ready to use)

2-3 cups chopped mushrooms

fresh sage, rosemary and thyme

1/2 carmelized onion

6 cups whole wheat matzah farfel

8 eggs

4 cups vegetable broth (use more if too dry)

salt and pepper to taste

1. Sautee peppers, fresh onion, garlic, mushrooms and chestnuts until soft.  Chop herbs and add.

2. In a large bowl, beat eggs; add farfel and broth and let farfel absorb the liquid.

3. Add vegetables to farfel mix.  Add caramelized onions, if using. Add salt and pepper.

4. Mix well until all ingredients are blended.

5. Glaze pan with 1/4 broth or water and pour over mixture, blend well.

6. Pour into large greased pan.

7. Bake at 350 for 1/2 hour.  Freezes well once cooled.

Note: Because I am a vegetarian, I do not actually stuff the stuffing into meat.  However, it could be stuffed rather than baked as above.

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More Good Books, Part 4

Here are some recommended titles from my recent reading list.  As always, it’s a mixed bag of literary novels and more plot-driven stories. 

Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat

51xRG6vIckL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-62,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Of all the books I’ve read recently, this is hands down my favorite of this batch.  The writing is luminous, textured, and rich.  Though much of the book is dark and tragic, light is woven through it in beautiful and surprising ways that provide ballast to the heavy undercurrents.  The Claire of the title is a young girl being raised by her widowed fisherman father; theirs is one of several intermingled stories featuring various characters whose lives hang in the balance between despair and hope.  Based in Danticat’s native Haiti, this is a tale in which poverty and violence live side by side with tenderness, splendor, and love.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

41rs2F2PGKL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_Where to even begin with this ambitious, enormous wild ride of a book?  It’s big, it’s bold, and it’s a great read – no question of that and it’s easy to understand why it was shortlisted for the National Book Award.  I’ve heard it described at Catcher in the Rye for the 21st century, which sort of works, and as a post 9/11 novel, which also makes sense.  But it’s much more than either of those descriptions.  It’s a coming-of-age story under unusual circumstances in an unfair and uncertain world, a trip through adolescence and the long road out into adulthood on the part of a character who’s had more than his fair share of trials and tribulations. The characters are wonderfully drawn, quirky and compellingly real, as is the plot. There’s heartache and love, drugs and kindness, cruelty and fear, generosity and violence.  This book has it all in abundance.  Not everything in the plot is completely plausible, but on the other hand much of it is extremely believable, familiar, and masterfully narrated.  Whatever its flaws, when this novel ended it was hard to say goodbye to those who peopled its pages.

Someone by Alice McDermott

51528A-xhvL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-63,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_This spare and elliptical novel is the winner of the National Book Award.  The main character is an Irish-American woman growing up in Brooklyn.  The segments of narration about this ordinary life go back and forth in time, from early childhood to old age and back again, looping in and out.  The writing is compelling but never soft or sentimental.  The very averageness of the life described within is what is extraordinary about this book – there are no surprises, no secrets, no out-of-character acts, just the stark elegance of a life lived through one breath to another, through one relationship to another, through one time to another.  Some moments in particular stand out in their unadorned clarity as the character grows and develops and circles back in time.  Despite the seeming ordinariness of the tale, McDermott makes her character someone indeed, and makes us care about her.

The Position by Meg Wolitzer

51lEZ1Yf50L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-67,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_This isn’t Wolitzer’s newest novel, but it sounded promising.  At the center is the wonderfully and ironically named Mellow.  The Mellow parents are the authors of the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) ground-breaking book Pleasuring: One Couple’s Journey, sort of a fictionalized version of The Joy of Sex, which was explored one fateful afternoon in the 70’s by their four childrenThe plot revolves around the impact of this book on the family of six, and the ways in which the ripple effects shaped the life of all of them in different ways during the next decades.  There are many questions here about what it is to be a parent, how much parents can and should pursue their personal (and physical) passions and at what cost to their children, and how much children’s sense of self is based on what they see modeled by their parents? Like many of Wolitzer’s novels, the writing veers between empathetic and pitiless.  She looks honestly at her characters and their flaws, while caring for them deeply and making us care about them.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

51Yo2tv2UWL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-62,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_This absorbing tale portrays the struggle of a family over time, centered around the main character of Hattie, the mother of this large clan.  Each section tells of a different family member, spanning from the early 1920’s to 1980.  Hattie is a product of the Great Migration that brought Southern blacks to the North in the quest for a better life.  The various members of her family are beautifully brought to life as complex and nuanced individuals as they struggle with heartbreak, disappointment, and the search for an authentic self.

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

51+fYG6Ri5L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-67,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_If you want something fast and engaging that doesn’t ask too much of you as a reader, this is a great choice. Shreve is a great story-teller, able to create intriguing situations and characters we want to know better. This plot-driven book is about a woman who loses her memory on the battlefield during World War I, and her search for both her memory and what is hers. Slowly she becomes empowered and a happy ending is in sight, with all the loose ends nicely tied up.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

51QuqhWCxtL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_This book of historical fiction is another quick but satisfying read.  The main character is a young Quaker Englishwoman who comes to Ohio at her sister’s side.  Things turn out far from expected, and her Quaker beliefs are put to many tests, in particular regarding slavery and the Underground Railroad.  The history of quilting also plays an interesting role in the story.

 

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Instagram as a Spiritual Practice

IMG_1292Before my identity as Rabbi, there was my identity as Photographer.  For many years now my days (and nights) have been filled with words – the reading, writing, interpreting, and editing thereof.  But there was a long period when photography was at the center of my place in the world. 

I became a photographer in high school and photography remained at the center of my experience in college as well.  After college I worked in the photo lab and visual department at Kiryat Moriah in Jerusalem, and then studied photography at Camera Obscura in Tel Aviv.  Though I had had stray thoughts about rabbinic school since age 10, they stayed on the back burner and I returned to New York to for graduate school in Fine Arts in a program specializing in photography.

IMG_1308I loved printing almost as much as I loved the taking of photographs: the smells, the equipment, the math, the artistry, the power to coax forth magic out of shadows and percentages of light.  And I loved it equally – the hands-on aspect of black and white printing on rich, velvety matte stock, and the more mechanized color printing, turning dials to achieve evocative, deeply saturated yellows and blues, creating drama and stories from shades and hues.  Photography was a language I understood, a way of speaking truth into the world. 

IMG_1234The program offered only one class in digital, this being 1988-1992, and none of us took it seriously.  We were studying with master printers and artists – digital photography seemed irrelevant, even boorish.  But when I got pregnant with my first child, I stopped printing.  Worried about the toxicity of the chemicals, I stepped out of the darkroom and never went back in. Around the same time I made the decision to apply to rabbinic school.  Photography receded into the background.  Between school and my children and working, I had little free time to begin with, and what spare time I had cam to be used for writing.  Writing required no equipment (other than a computer) or chemicals, and could be done at any hour of the day or night.  There were no chemicals to buy, no darkroom time to rent, or schedules to work out.  

IMG_0785For years my photography has been limited to family pictures and shots that could be used in books I was editing.  I have never taken the time to learn Photoshop – I rely on the designers I work with to do that for me.  That girl rollerblading on Yom Atzmaut in the curriculum about Israel? That’s my photograph.  The plate of kubbe in the Jewish history textbook?  That’s mine.  The photo of a family on the cover of a book about synagogues? Yup, mine.  The photos used for the posts on RavBlog – yes, often those are mine too. 

Eventually I made the switch to digital because, after all, it’s so much easier and more practical.   And then about eight months ago my son encouraged my to try Instagram.  It sounded like a silly waster of time – why in the world would I need one more form of social media?

IMG_0794Turns out he was on to something.  Through this silly app called Instagram, I’ve found a way, however circumscribed, to reconnect to photography.  The filters give me some small amount of control over the image – not like when I did my own printing, but more than I’ve been able to achieve for a while. 

These photos I’m taking on Instagram have been a way to re-access visual language.   But actually it’s more than just that.  These little squares of images enable me to express a form of  spontaneous awe and gratitude.  They’re my modah ani – a daily reminder that life can be beautiful and sweet, and that I have much to be thankful for.

These beautiful sunsets, the snow on the tree in front of my house, or the sunflower at the farmer’s market verge on cliché – I know that.  They’re IMG_1083not the masterpieces that I aspired to in art school.  These cell phone lacks the mastery of photos taken on my battered old manual Nikon or Leica.  But they have become a way of reclaiming my old practice of experiencing the world visually, while also enabling me to savor splendor. 

I have much to be grateful for, and my struggles are certainly fewer than those of many, many others.  Yet life constantly surprises all of us with challenges that lay heavy on our souls. Sometimes it’s hard to look beyond the everyday pain or the quotidian slog of living. Like everyone, I have my share of stress and worry and heartache.

IMG_1325My Instragram images are my form of Heshel’s radical amazement, a visual response to the daily blessings.  It’s an easy and do-able way, within the parameters of my life, to truly see the world.  Wherever I am, and whatever I’m doing, if beauty or wonder jump outs at me, I can respond.  These photos have become part of a spiritual practice that grounds me and reminds me that not all is difficult, not all is complicated – that joy and amazement exist if I take a moment to look around me and see. 

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Good Books Part 3: Five Out of Six from the Man Booker Shortlist

IMG_0752Some people run marathons, other people read (almost) the whole Man Booker shortlist in two weeks.  I’m in the latter category.

A friend posed a challenge – read the whole Man Booker Shortlist before the winner was announced.  It sounded like my kind of challenge, so I immediately signed up and downloaded the books.  Well, five out of the six, that is.  The sixth book wasn’t available until the day the winner was announced.  I raced through the 5 that were available. Here are some thoughts about the five that I did read, in the order I read them.  All of these titles are highly recommended, with the exception of one that I readily admit must be a problem with me and not the book.

By the way, the elusive sixth book won the prize.  I still haven’t read it, but I’ll write about it once I do.

With thanks to Shoshana Marchand for the inspiration.  And let me know if you want to be in on the challenge next year.

Harvest, by Jim Crace 

41nlAAZ9-hL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-67,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_This allegorical novel about the pastoral English countryside on the brink of change felt like a jewel-box – small but exquisitely crafted, self-contained but beautiful.  Within an extremely condensed time frame, a community is forced to transition as one economy gives way to another.  As a result the community turns on itself and self-destructs.   The beauty of this slow-moving but nuanced novel is in the finely drawn detail in which every corner of the landscape is distinctive, every plant tells a story, and every seemingly small turn of events portends major plot developments.

 We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

51aG+9qTrHL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-65,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Reading this was a bit of a roller coaster at first, disorienting with lots of fast ups and downs.  It took a while to get attached, but then I got completely sucked in.  The author is from Zimbabwe, where the novel is set.  It tells the story of Darling, who is ten years old at the start.  She and her friends live in a difficult reality, desperately poor in a war-torn country.  Half way through, she manages to achieve her dream of getting out and making to America, where she lives with her aunt and enters teenagehood.  While it may be true that Darling and her friends could indeed use new names, what they really need is a new reality.  Their safety and stability has been taken away by a reality of powerlessness, violence, and illness.  And yet when she arrives in America, she is an outsider, an observer in a world that is not fully hers.  This is a novel about that outsider experience of being an immigrant, expressing what it is to be an outsider at home, where your daily life is at risk, and to be at home as an outsider, where the risks are of a different sort.  Home and safety are always out of reach, and complete integration is not possible.  Not only names, but all of language, is a hybrid that doesn’t properly work and yet is jerry-rigged to fit, because what other choice is there but to try to make it work?

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

4140jroMYiL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-62,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_This novel of deep beauty and grace, also shortlisted for the National Book Award, explores the ripple effects of time, place, and events in the world across lives and generations. Here too, as in Harvest above, there are gorgeous descriptions of place and landscape, both in India and in Rhode Island.  This the story of a family, beginning with two brothers in India in the 1960’s.  Though closely intertwined as boys, as they become young adults one gets caught up in the politics of protest and change, while the other chooses the life of academia and moves to the United States.  The themes of self and other, and of forgiveness and anger, run through this tale of these two brothers, whose lives are inexorably bound together despite their different trajectories and fates.

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin

418tC-unmRL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_I wanted to like this one, I really did.  I wanted this to be a sort of modern midrash on Mary. I wanted a new perspective on Mary, I wanted to connect to her story and understand it better.  That didn’t happen.  The writing kept her at a distance; it was as if we were invited to look at her through a screen. Jesus was depicted as a naïve young man, almost like someone on the spectrum who didn’t understand how to really connect with people or what was happening around him.  The writing felt strained and flat, and I didn’t gain new insights.  I realize it must be me – after all, this book was written by a master novelist and was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.  I really wanted to like this one…

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

51tYd7sTayL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_This odd novel veered between a sort of semi-documentary style and a kind of magic realism.  Reading it, I often felt off-balance.  There are three main characters – Nao, a 16 year old Japanese girl writing in a diary, Ruth, a Japanese American novelist living on a remote Island in the Northwestern United States who finds the diary washed up on a beach in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, and time itself, which zigzags through the tale in sometimes unexpected but always powerful ways.  There are other wonderful characters as well, including Nao’s great-grandmother the feminist Buddhist monk, her long dead great uncle the Kamikaze pilot, Ruth’s eccentric husband, and other inhabitants of Ruth’s isolated island.  There is a playful quality to this novel as it explores time, and also the relationship between reader and writer, chronicler and audience.  Yet many of the other themes in the novel are deadly serious as well – bullying, loss, suicide, faith, war, violence, climate change.  It’s a lot to take on, but Ozeki does a masterful job weaving all of this together sumptuously and elegantly.

 

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Some Good Books Part 2

41w+Snjfi-L._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_

Fall is here, and the Tishrei holidays are (almost) over.  That means that it’s time to get back to reading for pure pleasure.  Here is a round-up of some of the best books of the last months.  Even though I clearly liked some better than other, they’re a varied bunch, and all worthwhile reads.

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey.  A heartbreakingly beautiful and unusual novel. This story, set in 1920′s Alaska and based in part on a Russian legend, is a fairy tale for grownups.  The writing is as spare and evocative as the landscape it describes.  Read it for the story.  Read it for the setting. Just read it.

51OZgWgJ4TL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_The Innocents, by Francesca Segal. I was excited to read this as the concept sounded great – a take on Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence with the setting of a contemporary Jewish community in London. It was a satisfactory read but in the end I found it tepid. The characters didn’t have enough depth and the plot was too predictable. I wanted to care more than I did, and I wanted to be surprised. There was a lot of potential to explore here but the surface was merely scratched. That said, this would probably spark interesting discussions in book clubs.

51Lpl7MYeQL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Fin and Lady, by Cathleen Schine. This book got me in the gut, in a good way. I’m still not even sure why, but it got under my skin. Maybe it was the descriptions of growing up in NYC in the 60′s and 70′s, maybe it was the relationship between the two main characters, maybe it was the rich mix of depth and humor and surface beauty, maybe it was the lyrical flow that took me up and down and up and down – never sure exactly where it was going – I’m still not sure but I’m sure that I loved it. It captured my heart.

414uoB117lL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis. A great mystery, with enough surprises and plot twists to keep it interesting, and characters with enough dimensionality to keep me engaged.  Though there is some violence, it is much less gruesome and cruel than what might be expected from the title.  What is it with the Scandinavians and good mysteries?

41aAaoVkbEL._AA160_TransAtlantic, by Colin McCann.  One of the best of the bunch from the last few months of reading.  This book is breathtaking, driven by a poetic narrative that twists and turns and plays with language.  Three stories from different unique historical moments in Ireland intertwine and play off each other, moments that are meaningful not only to Ireland but also in North America over multiple generations.  One of the powerful images of the book is an early plane trip from Canada to Ireland, in which the two-man plane weaves and zigzags through the clouds.  That exhilarating sense of reeling back and forth, the horizon obscured and then visible and then obscured again, not knowing what is coming up ahead but waiting for it with great anticipation is a feeling that lasts throughout the book as the interconnected stories fly through time and space.  McCann takes the daring move of using several real historical people in this novel, including one who is still alive and apparently allowed himself to be used as a character.

51xWiBrst7L._AA160_Is This Tomorrowby Caroline Leavitt.  Interesting story about a mother and son who find themselves at the center of a mystery involving a missing boy.  This tragic turn of events shapes their lives in unexpected ways for years to come.  This novel has a compelling plot and interesting characters but it starts out a little flat, despite the great drama at the center, and doesn’t really overcome that.  It’s as if the author is scared of making a commitment to her own ideas.  She uses the mother’s Jewish identity as a plot device, as another way in which this divorced woman is an outsider in her own neighborhood, but then doesn’t do anything with it.  Their Judaism does not play any role in their lives, values or choices going forward, so it’s an awkward and under utilized detail that just hangs there. The story is ripe for complicated ethical dilemmas, but the author seems skittish about getting in too deep.

51UascdYdiL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-67,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_The Virgins, by Pamela Erens.  This one grew on me.  Set at a boarding school in 1980, this is the story of what a teenage relationship feels like to those within it, and what it looks like to those outside.  There is an intensity that builds at the book progresses, mirroring the ever-growing intensity of the relationship at its center.  But things are never what they look like, and teenagers are complicated creatures. Along with classes, sports, and applying to college, their lives are punctuated with experimentation, sexuality, drugs, pleasure, shame, and fear. As they move toward graduation, teetering on the edge of the childhood they supposedly still are situated within but in fact have left long ago, the precarious balancing act of their lives falls apart.  More than a coming of age story, this book suggests that innocence can be as dangerous as the loss thereof, and that experience is not always what it’s made out to be.

If you’re looking for some other books to read, join me in the Man Booker challenge suggested by my friend Shoshana.  I’m going to try to read as many of the six novels on the short list as possible by the time they announce the winner on October 15th.  I’ll write about them when I’m done.

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Rosh HaShanah in the Pines 6 – A Poem for the New Year

Since 1999 I have served as Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Olam.  B’nai Olam is a unique and special congregation in Fire Island Pines, a beautiful summer community on Fire Island, a barrier island off the Coast of Long Island, which meets only  for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  In 2007 I began writing a new poem every year for Rosh HaShanah – feel free to also read 200820092010 and 2011.  Here is the sixth, from 2012.  Shanah tovah u’metukah.

Rosh HaShanah in the Pines, 2012/5773

 

WaterWe emerge, quiet and subdued,

into the darkening night of new year.

Across the dunes the ocean roars into the wind.

 

The tide tugs at our souls, a beckoning.

The pounding surf calls us to attention

and we turn, alert and yearning.

 

Tomorrow, under the bright sun of a fresh day,

seagulls will grab our handfuls of transgressions

tossed with great hope into the foamy spray.

 

But tonight the sea is dark, roiling and rough.

Waves beat against the shore,

then release, churning, back out to the horizon.

 

We are small, inconsequential in the infinite universe

yet even in the dim light of the setting sun

we cast a shadow on the sand.

 

As evening descends the air is crisp, bristling with possibilities.

Above, the sky fills with bright bursts of monarchs

making their annual pilgrimage home.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Hara E Person

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