The Meat Compromise, and a Recipe for Vegetarian “Chopped Liver”

Shishlik in tahini-pomegranate sauce

Shishlik in tahini-pomegranate sauce

We all make compromises for those we love.

I have been a non-meat-eater since 1981. Though I confess to eating my mother’s chicken broth once a year at her seder, aside from that I have not eaten meat or chicken since I was a senior in high school.

I once thought that I would have an idyllic vegetarian household, with sweet little vegetarian children who gladly ate tofu hot dogs, beans and rice, mac and cheese, and loads of spinach. Needless to say, it didn’t turn out quite like that. My children were both lactose intolerant, and as young kids they were averse to beans (other than humus) and green vegetables. And by the way, my spouse was allergic to soy, which further complicated dinner time.

At first I bought prepared or easy-to-prepare meat things from our food coop – organic chicken nuggets, all natural beef hot dogs, and so on.  And we ate fish, a lot of fish, because in truth I am actually a conflicted pescatarian.

Apple and honey chicken on Rosh HaShanah

Apple and honey chicken on Rosh HaShanah

But my children got bigger and they needed more than chicken nuggets and hot dogs. I started to cook meat. Several nights a week. Chicken breasts with apricot coconut sauce, or garlic-soy-ginger, chicken thighs shwarma-style, chicken and broccoli stir fries, grilled turkey breasts, sweet and sour meat balls, meatloaves (Asian-style or standard American). The less I had to touch it and deal with it, the better, so I still have never cooked a whole chicken.  But I hear that my meat meals are pretty good.  Over the years I developed some recipes that sounded good and were relatively easy for a working mom to manage.

I don’t like meat and I still do believe that the world would be a better place without the killing of animals and the eating of meat. But people I love eat meat. That’s just reality. So I compromise, and I’ve learned to cook meat. It’s not that we eat it all the time, but I do cook it sometimes, and they do eat it.

And then there’s Passover. Early on I decided to make it a meat meal. It didn’t seem right without meat. I know that sounds weird for a non-meat eater, but there it is. How could it be Passover without brisket or chopped liver, without chicken soup, without those emotional connections to Passovers past? And because I keep kosher, it couldn’t be both meat and dairy. So meat it was.

Passover brisket on its way into the oven

Passover brisket on its way into the oven

So these days my seder includes a brisket, which I now make myself after years of relying on my mother. And roasted turkey breasts, which required slightly more touching of meat than I’d like but is still better than a whole turkey or chicken. And my mother’s chopped liver.

That’s where I draw the line. Some of the people around the table love chopped liver. It’s the only time all year they eat it, and they look forward to it. So ok, they can have it as long as I don’t have to make it. There’s only so far I can go with compromising my personal comfort level to make the people I love happy.  So that’s my mother’s contribution to my seder – her homemade chopped liver. As for me, I make an amazing vegetarian “chopped liver” that many of the meat eaters love.  (One caveat – it’s made with kitniyot. So join the Kitniyot Liberation Front and enjoy it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about it, read up but feel free to eat legumes on Passover, it’s really ok.)

As for those sweet vegetarian kids I was going to raise – well, they’re both pretty serious carnivores. But they’re still very sweet and they do eat spinach, as well as kale and lots of other healthy vegetables.

Vegetarian Chopped Liver 

1 cup carmelized or sautéed onions

1 10 oz bag frozen string beans, defrosted

1 cup cashews nuts

Salt and lemon juice to taste

Toast the cashews so that they’re lightly brown.

Place onions, string beans, and cashews in the food processor.  Blend it all together.  Add salt and lemon juice to taste.  That’s it!  (I always triple the recipe and we eat it all week).

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Tradition and Change, and a Recipe for Tri-Color Gefilte Fish Terrine

IMG_2916My mother emailed me yesterday, nostalgic about Passovers past. She had opened a cookbook to begin her prep, and in it found a recipe card written in my grandmother’s handwriting for Pesach mandelbrot.

I’ve always loved Passover but the truth is, with one exception, I don’t have memories of my grandmother’s cooking. That’s probably because she wasn’t a great cook. Far from the stereotypical Jewish grandmother, she was a professional woman who had little interest in homemaking. And though my mother is a great cook who makes terrific vegetarian tzimmes and a mean almond chocolate torte, what mostly stands out from childhood Passover memories is the pleasure of being together with my relatives, not really the food.

Very early into adulthood, I insisted on hosting one of the two seder nights at my house. As I created a family of my own, seder became a significant part of our identity, something we all look forward to every year. And yet, though I had the memory of family togetherness and fun to hold on, I had very few actual food memories.

My challenge was to create my family’s Passover food traditions from scratch, based on cookbooks, stories, and Jewish history.  Living in Israel for several years had introduced me to a much wider spectrum of Jewish cooking than what I’d experienced growing up, and on a holiday so focused on our history as a people and our years of wanderings, it seems appropriate to incorporate that history into our food. Today our menu includes the kind of Ashkenazi Passover foods I grew up with, like tzimmes and potato kugel. But in addition, I’ve added other dishes that speak to different periods and places in Jewish history. I created a leek artichoke kugel in homage to the Jewish foods of Italy. This year I’m introducing a savory carrot kugel using baharat, a spice mix used by Jews from Turkey and Iran.  We have a Persian-inspired charoset in addition to the apple-based Ashkenazi style. And the last few years I’ve made a salmon dish with garlic and preserved lemon inspired by Jewish Moroccan cuisine.  I’m still working on a brisket recipe that uses pomegranate molasses rather than the ketchup flavoring that I grew up with – I made it for the first time last year and forget to write it down, so I’ll see if I can recreate it this year.

But back to the one exception about my grandmother’s cooking. My grandmother made delicious gefilte fish. That was her annual project. She would come up to New York, and we would trek out to Boro Park to get the fish ground just the way she liked it.  The year she kept forgetting if she had salted it, and it came out inedible, was the year we realized something was wrong. That was the last time she made it, and the last year she was able to sit at the table and enjoy the proceedings.

I’d love to say that I picked it up from there, but I didn’t. It’s been many years since I tasted my grandmother’s gefilte fish. Now we have something else entirely new in its place, a tricolor gefilte fish terrine that  I learned about from my sister.  It’s delicious, lighter and sweeter than my grandmothers and on the sweet side – a real crowd pleaser.  My grandmother – who preferred things salty and peppery – would have hated it.

Traditions change. My menu is very different than that of the seders of my childhood. And most of the regulars at our seder are friends, not family, since so few relatives live anywhere near us today. But the excitement about Passover is the same. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Passover is a major Jewish touchstone in my kids’ lives, even as though go out into the world. We can never fit as many people as we would like around our crowded table so they have to make difficult decisions every year about which friends to invite – the question of who is “Seder-worthy” looms large for them.

Even as Passover is about our history and our legacy, about the passing down of traditions and stories, it is also about ongoing change and evolution.  One of our favorite family traditions continues on, the annual miraculous visit of Elijah the Prophet, even though the mantle has now passed on to the third generation. Once the highlight of the seder was the Passover play that my children used to put on for the guests every year. Now, at 20 and 22, they (understandably) refuse to do so, though hopefully our tradition of paper bag dramatics will continue for a while still. As the children have gotten older, the conversations around the table have gotten more involved and deeper. There was the year that one them, in full teenage mode, delivered an articulate and well-reasoned soliloquy about why the divisions of the Four Children was offensive and wrong. In recent years we have related the issue of immigration to Passover.  Two years ago we had a special marriage equality reading. This year we are going to read and discuss the Four Children of Climate Change, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s feminist Passover Commentary, among other topics. And there’s of course the orange – a staple on our seder table for many years already at my daughter’s insistence.

My grandmother’s gefilte fish will not be on the menu, but her memory will be on our minds.  The tradition keeps changing. Even as we teach about who we were and where we came from, we face the future and keep moving forward.

IMG_4463Tri-color Gefilte Fish Terrine (with thanks to my sister who shared this with me years back)

1 loaf gefilte fish, defrosted

5 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 8-10 oz bag frozen spinach

Boil carrots until soft. Mash in large bowl

Defrost and drain spinach, place in a second large bowl

Divide fish into 4. Place one quarter in bowl with carrots, one quarter in bowl with spinach, and the rest in a third large bowl.

Mix fix and carrots until blended. Mix fish and spinach until blended.

Spray a loaf pan with vegetable spray. Line the bottom of the pan with wax paper and spray the paper. Line the side with wax paper and spray that as well.

Place carrot mixture on the bottom and spread evenly. Place plain fish mixture on top of that and spread evenly. Then spread spinach mix on top and spread evenly.

Spray the top with vegetable oil and place wax paper on top of that. Cover the whole loaf pan tightly with tin foil.  Bake at 350 for 1 hour.  Cool and then place in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Remove tin foil. Place serving plate over the pan, turn over and let it gently come out of the pan.  Peel off the wax paper and slice. Enjoy!

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More Good Books – Winter 2015 Edition

The readers among us know that any excuse to stay in bed and read will do.  So snowpocalypse or just a regular old winter day, here are some thoughts and recommendations from my recent reading encounters. Get (or download) a stack of good books, and go hibernate with them until the snow melts and the crocuses start to poke up.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Unknown-1This gorgeous novel is quietly deceptive. At first it feels small and timid, like Nora Webster herself, but little by little its power becomes apparent.  At the beginning, Nora Webster is a new widow in Ireland with two young sons still at home, and two older daughters off at school.  She is devastated by the loss of her husband, lost in her grief but determined to figure out a way to get through.  Each step she takes in the mourning process moves her farther along toward finding a new sense of self.  She finds her voice, literally as well as figuratively, speaking up in ways she never had before, taking up singing once again, and gaining the courage to make decisions on her own. But none of this description captures the pleasure of reading this thoughtful novel, which delights in the everyday mundanity that makes up a life and understands how the little pieces of a life are actually quite significant. This is not a fast-paced book; it is slow, deliberate, and finely crafted.

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

UnknownAs a kid I devoured the Narnia books, along with the books of John Christopher (The White Mountains; City of Gold and Lead etc), and the Lloyd Alexander series The Chronicles of Prydain, to mention only a few of the series that fed my love of fantasy stories.  As a parent, I loved reading the Harry Potter books with my kids,  anything written by Diana Wynn Jones as well as countless other great fantasy series.  So when I discovered that Lev Grossman was writing a series of grown up fantasy books I was intrigued. And yes, I totally fell for the first one, The Magiciansand then again for the second, The Magician Kings.  How could I not love a fantasy series that begins in Brooklyn, featuring hyper-articulate nerdy high school kids, and goes to some very dark places while slyly making snarky, smart cultural references?  These books are the perfect grownup antidote to the longing for those childhood favorites.  They are about magic, yes, and like the Harry Potters books, they are about how magic exists in the real, familiar world and is experienced by real, everyday people. But they also have a secret, magical world, a not-Narnia that had been discovered earlier by a group of British brothers and sisters living without their parents and without much adult supervision in a big house in the English countryside (sound familiar?). And Grossman’s high school students wind up in a magic boarding school (sound familiar?) but they are cynical, not endearingly earnest like some of the other familiar characters; they grow up and deal with drugs, sex, alienation, disillusionment, and failure.  With a wink and a nod, Grossman has repurposed different elements from favorite fantasy books into this series. He’s clever and manages to pay homage without being simply derivative.  But there is one motif that runs through the trilogy which reveals that there is indeed some earnestness behind the snark, and that is about the importance of books and storytelling.  This ongoing theme is charming and sweet, and Grossman smartly finds ways to thread it throughout the narrative. Magician’s Land, the third in the series, is as great as the first two.  Though called a trilogy, I hope there will be many more of these. Actually, I need there to be more of these. That’s the way it is with a good fantasy series.

All the Light We Cannot See by Athony Doer

Unknown-2This book has gotten a lot of well-dererved attention, including being named a National Book Award Finalist.  Told from different perspectives, this beautifully poetic and yet ever-so slightly precious novel unfolds during and after World War II in Germany and in France.  The two main characters seem destined to exist in parallel story lines that will never converge, and yet fate brings them briefly together.  One is a blind girl in France whose devoted father, the keeper of keys at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, creates a detailed, miniature city for her so that she can learn her way around and become independent.  The other is a German orphan, a mechanical prodigy who gets swept up into the Nazi war machine.  Reminiscent of The Book Thief in a number of waysthis story reveals the ways in which the war impacted on and damaged the decent, everyday people, and particularly children, who could not get out of its way.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Unknown-3The first of an anticipated trilogy, this wonderful new novel by Smiley focuses on a farm family in Iowa. It is an epic, ambitious narrative that begins in 1920 and moves through three decades of transformation of American life one year at a time.  While remaining attached to their land and the farming life, change happens around the Langdon family.  The world continually shifts around them as droughts and wars, new economic realities and new technologies test the family’s resilience.  Meanwhile the life cycle continues to unfold with new marriages to celebrate, new babies to care for, and new deaths to mourn.  Children grow up and face new choices unimagined by their parents. Smiley’s ability to draw each character in this big, sprawling family as a fully developed personality with his or her own hopes, dreams, and challenges is remarkable.  She is a master story-teller who takes us through the lives and deaths, successes and failures of the Langdon family as they continue to adapt.  I look forward to the next two books with great anticipation.

Neverhome by Laird Hunt
UnknownInspired by real events but entirely fictionalized, this is a compelling tale of Ash Thompson, a bold young woman who goes off to fight in the Civil War in place in of her husband.  She goes because, as she puts it, one of them has to go, and she is better suited for the task than he is.  This story of a country at war with itself is both achingly beautiful and tragic. In part an odyssey of wandering, Ash leaves herself and all that is familiar behind to become a man and a soldier.  She journeys through a bloody country torn up by mistrust and hatred, trying to do her part despite the ever-deepending senselessness of war, so that she can return home.  Though the Civil War has birthed a great body of literature, the experiences of the women who fought, disguised as men, have been under-imagined. In this novel, Hunt gives voice to a complex character who must work to keep her identity a secret even as she fights, literally and emotionally, to survive the horrors of the war.  And she is truly a survivor, managing to get herself out of tricky situations and when possible, align herself with people who will help her, so that she eventually makes it back home to her husband and her farm, where yet more challenges await her.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Unknown-2I have been a fan of Sarah Waters’ for quite a while.  Her novel Fingersmith is beautiful and clever, with devious twists and turns that make it impossible to put down.  So too with Night Watchand of course Tipping the Velvet,  with its erotic depiction of  lesbian identity and brilliant take on gender roles in Victorian England, was the book we all had to read when it first came out. So I have to admit to being very disappointed by her last two books.  The Paying Guest had promise, but it never developed into anything interesting.  Waters was on familiar ground, telling the story of an unfulfilled woman in post-World War I England who had given up her one great love out of shame and a sense of familial duty. When she and her mother decide to rent out part of their home to a young couple in the wake of her father’s death and their altered economic status, she is drawn to the wife and they quickly develop a rich, complicated relationship.  The plot had potential to be rich in surprises and manipulations, but instead what unfolded was a fairly predictable story of love gone wrong. I kept waiting for the surprises, but they never came.

The Henna House by Nomi Eve

Unknown-1In this new novel, Eve offers a fascinating look into the lives of  Yemenite Jews of the early to mid-twentieth century. The story centers around Adela Demari, a young girl at the beginning of the book.  Though Jewish life was becoming ever-more precarious at that time, Eve does a fine job depicting the longstanding rituals and customs of the Yemenite Jewish community, and particularly the lives of its women.  The women’s tradition of henna, which is described in beautiful, lyrical terms, is one of the threads that is woven throughout the book. At times the story feels timeless, almost like a folk tale.  On the one hand the community lives as it has for centuries, specializing in the crafts and professions that were allowed to the Jews. It is shocking then to realize that this story is unfolding not in some long-ago historical haze but in the twentieth century, in which the community lives under a cloud of war, modernization, and increasing anti-semitism.  With this rich setting, I had high hopes for this book, especially because I loved Eve’s first book, The Family Orchard.  But while Henna House tells a good story about interesting characters and offers a view of an intriguing slice of Jewish history, it lacks the complexity and fine writing of The Family Orchard.  The florid prose detracts from a powerful story that does not need the level of embellishment that it receives.

 

 

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Leaning In, Leaning Out, and Just Managing to Stand Up: Notes from a Working Mother

Yoni birth photoIn less than a week I will no longer be the mother of teenagers. A major life phase will be over. Don’t worry – I know full well that I’ll still be doing plenty of parenting for many years to come. I’m sure my own mother would report that she still actively parents. But at least symbolically, it feels like the end of something and the start of a something new.

These kinds of transitional moments are always opportunities for looking back, and as it happens, a recent encounter provided a further push down reflection road.  I recently had the privilege of speaking to a group of rabbinic students. In the course of my presentation, ostensibly about my career path and wisdom gleaned along the way (what a funny thought!), a student asked a question that admittedly caught me off guard, and I’ve been thinking about it since then. It was a totally fair question – no criticism is implied other than self-criticism about how I fumbled an answer.

The question was (in my words, not the student’s): It seems that at first you leaned out, and then you leaned in. And then I was asked to address that.

So here goes.

When I was first making choices about my career, Lean In had not yet been written. There was no such expression then. But we did talk back then about the “mommy track” and I spent a lot of time in my last year of rabbinic school stressing about the idea that in making a choice based on my children’s needs, I was somehow making a choice that was “less than.” I remember actually (and to my great embarrassment) crying to my rabbinic mentor, and also to my work supervisor, because I couldnt figure out how I was going to make it all work.  Choosing to not go into congregational work felt like being all dressed up and nowhere to go – like I was somehow wasting my education and letting down the system.

The thing is, I had children before I had a career. I entered rabbinic school (placing out of the first year in Jerusalem and starting as a second year state-side)  with a one year old, and became pregnant with my second child in my second semester. So all of my career decisions have centered around the basic fact of being a parent.

When my classmates in rabbinic school were heading out at the end of the school day to internships, I was heading to the babysitter to pick up my kids. My summers in school weren’t spent doing valuable residency internships or CPE training – I was taking care of toddlers who were too young for day camp.

I have always been a working mother; I was a temple educator when my first baby was born.  My first separation from her happened when I went in to work during maternity leave to run teacher orientation – she was ten days old.  It was a tough balancing act from the start.

I chose non-congregational work when I ordained because my children were, at that time, very young. I didn’t want a job that would keep me away from them on weekends and evenings, and where every phone call could be a possible funeral or congregational crisis. But I never chose to not work.

I never chose to not work partly because I always wanted to work – I wanted to contribute to the world and I wanted to use my skills and education in interesting and stimulating ways. Yes, I know that a lot of stay-at-home moms feel that they do that by raising their children. But I knew that that would not be true for me. Moreover, I wanted to share the responsibility of supporting my family financially. I did not want to be financially dependent on a man. And honestly, I couldn’t afford not to work. When I was ordained, my husband was just starting graduate school himself. There was actually no way I couldn’t work.

image1-4Yes, I was often jealous of the stay-at-home moms who could socialize with each other during afternoon playdates. I worried that I didn’t go to enough mommy-and-me classes with my children, and that I wasn’t around to go to the park. But I found the best balance I could – working two days a week at home for the first few years, being willing to work often crazy hours and take on an increasingly taxing travel schedule at times so that I could be present for school plays and teacher meetings and basketball games at other times.

Early on, I formulated a personal give-and-take policy about work, not one for which I sought approval, but one that helped me make it all work. As the job that I initially took because I thought it would provide a good work-life balance began to expand and become huge and insatiably demanding, I made a decision that I would give it my all, but that I would also take what I needed. That is, if I was required to be away for travel and when home, to get back on the computer at night once my kids were in bed, that was ok, but when I had a sick child at home or needed to be present for a visit to the orthodontist or a class presentation, I would not apologize for taking the time I needed for my children. Once they were old enough, I also occasionally took them with me to conferences – if I was required to be away from my family over a weekend, or over a school break, which was often the case, then they could come. They got to ride a mechanical bull at a CCAR conference in Houston during a spring break, they got to throw themselves against a velcro wall at a NATE conference in Kansas City during a winter break, and they helped set up book displays at countless CAJE conferences during summer breaks.

Which is all to say that I don’t think I ever “leaned out.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that choice, but I don’t think that’s a helpful or accurate way to describe the reality of balancing parenting and career. What I did do, in those early years, was find a way to just simply stand up and not collapse. That is, my need and desire to work were in conflict with my need and desire to be a good parent. I found the best imperfect solution possible, one that allowed the insanity of being a working parent to whirl forward.

There was no one magical moment where I suddenly switched from “leaning out” to “leaning in.” My job grew and grew, and then I eventually took a different job that continues to grow, and I continue to love what I do and feel challenged and fulfilled by it. And at the same time, my children grew and grew and their needs and schedules continued to change. Of course there were challenges along the way. Of course there were moments of guilt, and worry. Of course there were moments of realizing the balance was way off, and then recalibrating. Of course there were compromises, some satisfying and some utterly not so, and attendant feelings of frustration or inadequacy. It was never a perfect balance, but it worked. All the various pieces in the constellation of my life somehow held up.

IMG_4847Along the way, the landscape shifted. A year ago my youngest left for college, and this past May my oldest graduated from college and is now herself a member of the work force. So this feels like a moment to both look back and look ahead. From the start of my career, I jumped in with both feet. I was fully committed to my job and its overall mission, even as I was committed to my children. It was never a matter of leaning in or leaning out. Making a career choice based on being a parent is not about leaning out, it’s about finding a workable solution. It doesn’t mean not being fully committed to one’s job, or not being ambitious or driven, it just means that you’re trying to find a healthy balance.

So as someone who is transitioning out of the “working mother” phase, I suggest that we talk about the real underlying issues about women and work, like childcare, equal opportunities, and equal pay. The false polarity between “leaning out” and “leaning in” is one more way that our society expresses its ambivalence about working mothers. It’s one more way that we judge each other. It’s one more way that we hold women to a different standard than men. I just did what I had to do to make it all keep spinning.

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Good Books, Fall 2014 Edition Part 1

In the last few years I’ve tried to read through the Man Booker Shortlist before the winner is announced. This year I managed to read four out of the six of the shortlisted titles – not bad given the timing – and one longlisted title as well.  Turns out that one of the four I read was the winner so that worked out well. The titles below are from the Man Booker lists.

Now that the days are getting shorter and the nights are colder, it’s time to get in bed with a good book  or better, a bunch of good books.  Here are some very worthwhile recommendations.

17905709-1The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

This is probably not a book I would have chosen to read, had it not been on the Man Booker shortlist. It would have been a loss to miss this one. The easy way to describe this book is to say that it’s about the experience of an Australian doctor as a POW during World War II, held captive by the Japanese in what was then Siam, forced to work on building a railroad. But the book is much more than that. It is really about a full life of a man, a life shaped in large part by the POW experience but also shaped by the love of a woman he meets as a young man, by a love of books and words, and by a lifelong sense of yearning. It is about how history is both experienced and retold, and about death and loss and the striving for connection, and about what gets remembered and what forgotten after the horror of war is in the past. Though the main focus is on one man, the sweep of this novel is enormous. Flanagan masterfully blends the arc a single man’s life with that of world history. When I heard that this was the title that won this year’s Man Booker Prize, I was not surprised.

The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee

23216120The Lives of Others, Neel MukherjeeIt was hard to read this without comparing it to one of last year’s Man Booker shortlist titles, The Lowland by Jumpa Lahiri. Both novels deal with political and social unrest in India and the resultant unraveling of families.   The novels are very different otherwise, and yet the ghost of Lowland loomed over my reading of The Lives of Others, which suffered by comparison. That said, this is a rich feast of a novel. One of the wonderful aspects of this novel is the role of the house in which the Ghosh family lives. The house is a full character in this already full (and sometimes confusingly so) tale of a family in a downward spiral of wealth and its accompanying status. Several generations live within the house, though their physical proximity does not mean that they share experiences and outlooks. As the story progresses, the house, once solid, protective, and admired, becomes shabby and perilous. As the world changes around it, the fissures in the Ghosh family are exposed to the light, and the consequences are shattering.

To Rise Again as a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

18453074Where to begin with this strange book? It was funny, odd, annoying, and in the end, surprisingly satisfying. The protaginist of this Philip Roth-like novel is a somewhat anti-social dentist named Paul O’Rourke who is at odds with the world most of the time. Though devoted to the art of dentistry and seemingly good at what he does professionally, he doesn’t quite get the art of social interaction, especially with women. He has an obsession with Judaism yet always manages to say exactly the wrong thing. The interactions with his office staff are at times amusing, but also annoyingly, even if intentionally so, misogynistic. The story centers around some skillful identity theft in which Paul is stalked by a cleverly weird and oppressed group that tries to convince him that he is one of them – a group based on the idea of being doubters. The texts that are used in developing the history of this group are very well done and sound almost just right as Biblical text, and yet clearly aren’t – that aspect alone made it a worthwhile read, as does the unfolding of the history of this group and Paul’s connection to it.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

18143974Though this was a longlist title and therefore not part of my self-propelled assignment, it sounded too compelling to pass up. Though at times somewhat convoluted, this is an astounding feat of concept and imagination. Hustvedt’s character is an artist whose more famous husband, a gallery owner and art collector with an interesting private life, has died. Feeling that her identity as an artist had not been taken seriously by a world that recognized her as a “wife of” and “mother of,” she buys a building in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and sets out to devote herself to art. Her nurturing instincts cause her to take in some strays even as she tries to intentionally be more selfish and focus on her own art. She comes up with the concept of choosing a series of three male artists who will be her “masks” in the art world, presenting her work as theirs in a grand experiment to see how her work is received if thought of as created by a man. One of the remarkable things about this novel is the creation by Hustvedt of a whole imaginary body of work by the main character – work that feels wholly real and visible, and extremely female. The telling of this tale unfolds in a series of narratives from different perspectives, as well as newspaper articles, journal essays, and interviews. Hustvedt herself plays a cameo role, being mentioned in one of the essays. The gentle lampooning of over-inflated art world egos, theory, and language is employed to wonderful effect. The Blazing World raises many important questions about women, art-making, fame, disappointment, anger, and love that stayed with me long after I finished this powerful novel.

PS: Over the summer, I reviewed a few novels, and among them was another of the Man Booker shortlist titles, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

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A Story for Rosh HaShanah

IMG_2312

Once upon a time, in a little town very far away from here, there were two neighbors. Let’s call one Shmulik, and the other Yossel. It’s hard to know who started it or why, but for years the two had been locked into battle. It wasn’t just that they didn’t like each other – they hated each other. They really had it in for each other.

If Shmulik had a good barley harvest, Yossel told the rest of the village that the barley was infested with rot and that they shouldn’t buy it from him. If Yossel had a good grape harvest, Shmulik told the villagers that the grapes were so acidic they were not worth tasting. When Shmulik tried to sell some of his acres of land so that he could provide a dowry for his oldest daughter, Yossel told people that the land was haunted by demons and that no one should live there. When Yossel’s ox fell on the side of the road and broke his leg, Shmulik told everyone in the market that it was because Yossel mistreated his animals.

Things got worse and worse between the two of them. The accusations flew back and forth, back and forth. The villagers didn’t know what to think. They didn’t know who was right and who was wrong and what was what with these two, and so more and more, not wanting trouble or bad luck, they just stayed away from them both.

Finally, one morning, just as Rosh HaShanah was approaching, Shmulik sat up in bed and said to his husband Chaim Yankel, “This craziness has to stop. I can’t go on. When I go to market, no one wants to talk to me any more. No one wants to buy from me, or sell to me. I don’t even remember why I’m so mad at Yossel, but when I see him, I just start to burn up.”

Chaim Yankel nodded. “It is time to stop,” he agreed. “But how will you do it?”

Shmulik shook his head. “I don’t know. But this can’t keep going. Every day I have a headache, I have a terrible rash, and my ulcer is acting up. I’m a nervous wreck. If this goes on any longer I won’t have any friends left, and we won’t have any more shekels to our name. Plus, the high holy days are coming. It’s time to put an end to this nonsense.”

“You know what you need to do,” said Chaim Yankel. And Shmulik nodded his head, for indeed he did. He got up out of bed, and headed to the rabbi’s house.

Shmulik explained the situation to the rabbi and poured out his heart. The rabbi nodded and paced back and forth, thinking. Finally, the rabbi got a ladder, climbed up and pulled down a big book from one of the highest shelves.

“Hmmm,” the rabbi murmured. “Ah, yes, here it is.” She looked up at Shmulik and smiled. “Our tradition teaches: If others speak ill of you, let the worst they say seem to you small. If you speak ill of others, let a small thing seem to you big (BT Derek Eretz Zutta 1:6). Do you understand, Shmulik?”

Shmulik thought about it. “Yes, I think so. Make little of the terrible things Yossel says about me, even though they hurt me. And take responsibility not to be someone who speaks badly of him in return.”

“Right.” The rabbi nodded. “Exactly. And then the text continues: Go apologize to the person of whom you have spoken ill. That is how the cycle will truly be broken.”

Shmulik shrugged. “But what if he doesn’t apologize to me?”

“You have no control over his behavior, only over your own. That is the point. He will do what he will do and so be it. But you do have control over your actions – make sure you do the right thing and do your part to put an end to this.”

“Ok,” Shmulik said. “I don’t think this will work, but I’m willing to give it a try.” And he started on his way home.

Meanwhile, in a different house in the village, Yossel too had woken up with the headache. He too had declared, this has to stop. This has gone too far! And he too set out to see the rabbi. But he took a different path, so that just as Shmulik had left the rabbi’s house, Yossel was approaching it from the other direction, and they did not see each other.

“Rabbi,” Yossel implored. “I need your help.” And he explained the situation at length.

The rabbi thought about it, and paced back and forth, and climbed onto the ladder to pull a big book off of a high shelf. She searched through the book and finally found what she was seeking. “Here it is,” she said. “The midrash teaches: If someone has received an injury, then, even if the wrongdoer has not asked forgiveness from the one who was wronged, the receiver of the injury must nevertheless ask God to show the wrongdoer compassion, even as Abraham prayed to God for Abimelech (Genesis 20:17) and Job prayed for his friends (Job 40:10).” The rabbi paused. “And then Rabbi Gamaliel said about this: Let this be a sign to you, that whenever you are compassionate, the Compassionate One will have compassion upon you (BT Baba Kamma, 9:29-30). Do you understand, Yossel?”

Yossel thought for a moment. “So I’m supposed to ask God to be compassionate toward Shmulik, regardless of how he’s treated me, and even if he hasn’t come to ask me for forgiveness?”

“Yes, exactly,” said the rabbi, smiling. “Though you should try to ask for forgiveness as well. That is how the cycle will truly be broken.”

So Yossel nodded and went on his way home.

Much to their great surprise, later that afternoon the two men found each other on the road between their two houses. Shmulik was carrying a chicken, and Yossel was carrying a basket of apples.

Yossel took one look at Shmulik and let out a shriek. “What have you done?!” he yelled. “You’ve brought me one of your sick chickens, to poison me and my family, is that it? Do you want to infect my whole flock? Are you crazy or just evil? Leave right now, and take your sick chicken with you!”

“And you!” Shmulik screamed. “What disease-ridden waste do you have hidden in that basket, what leftover that you couldn’t sell in the market and won’t even feed to your own livestock – better that you should throw it at me?”

Suddenly both men looked at each, and looked at the items in their hands, and become very quiet. Both started to speak at the same time.

“I’m sorry—” said Shmulik.

“I’m sorry too,” said Yossel.

“I’ve come to make peace,” Shmulik said, holding out the chicken.

“As have I,” said Yossel, holding out the basket of apples.

After a few moments of looking at each other, Shmulik said, “Well, what do we do now?”

Yossel shrugged. “I guess I have a tasty chicken dinner, and you have some delicious apples.”

“I guess so. And maybe we can stop all this fighting?”

“Maybe, but it will be hard.”

“Yes, it will be. Very hard.”

And now Yossel shrugged. “We can try.”

“Yes, we can.”

“I forgive you and wish you well.”

“Thank you, and I, you.”

So they shook with their free hands, and each man went back to his home with a gift in his hands, and a gift in his heart.

 

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Cognitive Dissonance: An Elul Reflection

IMG_0682I was just asked via my High Holy Day pulpit’s Facebook page if I can guarantee that we’ll have a minyan of ten men for someone who wants to say Kaddish on Rosh HaShanah.  My first thought was, you know it’s a gay congregation, right? That is to say, we will certainly have ten men.  We will have way more than ten men.  Praying with ten men will not be a problem.  But my second thought was, you know that the rabbi is a woman, right?

It’s always interesting to learn what people hold on to.

The pulpit that I have been honored to serve for the last sixteen years is in Fire Island Pines. The Pines is a summer beach community, both famous and infamous for its gay culture and party life. Religious services are not the primary reason people go there, and yet, there we are, a lively, wonderful congregation offering services for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

We are, perhaps, an eclectic congregation. The congregation is not affiliated with any particular movement, though we use a Reform machzor and I am a Reform rabbi. But I respect the fact that our congregation comes to services with many different backgrounds and comfort levels.  Some congregants did indeed grow up Reform, but many were raised in Orthodox or Conservative homes. Some were even raised ultra-Orthdox. Some were red diaper babies, raised in Jewish socialist families. Some are non-Jewish partners or friends of Jews. Some are seekers who find a meaningful experience with us regardless of their personal religious background. Some belong to year-round synagogues off the Island and some don’t.  And that is all great – we are a diverse community open to all.

We are a synagogue in a mostly male gay community led by a straight woman rabbi but there are also plenty of gay women and straight people and queer people and gender non-conforming people who come to services.  It works.

All of us have traveled a distance from our backgrounds, though certainly some farther than others.  We stretch for each other and are flexible and do our best to accommodate different practices and customs. Some people stand for the Kaddish despite not being in mourning, and some don’t. Some recite the Amidah out loud and some pray silently.  Some add in the names of the emahot, and some don’t.

Every year during Elul, as I focus on my preparations for the holy days, I’m reminded that there are things we hold on to no matter how far we’ve traveled.

IMG_0700One year I was heckled from the kahal when I called up the first aliyah for a Torah reading because he wasn’t a Kohein – it wasn’t a mistake but rather my deliberate practice. Whenever Rosh HaShana falls on Shabbat I have to remind the congregation of the textual support for blowing Shofar, which is partly because we only do one day of Rosh HaShanah anyway – if I don’t explain I get questioned. Some people are offended if we don’t end Neilah at exactly the right time.  Some people miss musaf, though plenty have never heard of it. And then there’s the question I just got, about whether we’ll have ten men for a minyan.

All of this raises fascinating questions. Where do we bend, and where do we insist on sticking to what we understand to be the right way to do it? In a gay synagogue with a woman rabbi where everyone is welcomed, what is acceptable innovation? We are clearly not a “traditional” synagogue, but how do we define what “tradition” means? What practices do we keep and what do we discard? What do we do because we find it meaningful, and what do we do out of habit?  What do we question and push back against, and what do we accept because that’s the way it’s always been? What elements of halachah do we purposely and thoughtfully hold on to because we believe it, or believe in wrestling with it, and what do we hold on out of nostalgia, or inertia?

The reality is, all of us Jews on the liberal side of the spectrum make choices, whether consciously or not, about what we hold on to and what we don’t, where we accept change and where we don’t.  In the home in which I grew up, we weren’t allowed to drink milk with our ham and cheese sandwiches because my mother had been raised in a kosher home and couldn’t fathom serving a glass of milk with a meat sandwich (I later chose to keep kosher, but that’s another blog altogether).

I wasn’t offended by the question about ten men for a minyan because I understand where it comes from.  As I rabbi I teach that if we are to build lives of Jewish meaning, we must be intentional and not arbitrary in the choices we make.  But everyone has their own sense of “tradition” based on their background, and the pull of those connections is strong, meaningful, and real.  A request of ten men for a minyan might be about nostalgia, or a result of a certain kind of childhood education, or loyalty to a more traditional parent – I understand that it is not necessarily a deliberate attempt to exclude women or deny us a presence.  It is a practice at odds with the reality of our eclectic congregation.  But so be it.  We bend for each other even as we try to determine our own personal practices and comfort levels, even as we struggle to understand what makes sense to us and why.  So we will have a minyan for kaddish this Rosh HaShanah, and it will include ten men as well as many other people, and it will be led by a woman rabbi.

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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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