Another Kind of Normal: A Personal Reflection on the Marriage Equality Ruling

Larry and BrianOne of the first things I did after getting the New York Times text alert about the Supreme Court Marriage Equality decision was to call my cousin Larry. It was an instinctive reaction. No matter that I was navigating my way to Newark Airport to make a flight, and that I had to call work to launch our prepared response to the ruling – my first thought was to call Larry.

In 1980, when I was a senior in high school and he was a sophomore in college, Larry and his family were visiting me and my family in St. Petersburg, Florida over Christmas break.  We went out to a bar one night (I was only 16 but the drinking age then was 18, not 21, so whatever…). It was a memorable night. We sat at the top of a hotel on the beach in a weird revolving bar. Car lights twinkled below us as the bar moved on its axis. And Larry came out to me.

I don’t remember his words, but I remember their power. I remember feeling honored that he had told me, like he just entrusted me with a fragile piece of himself. I remember hearing the pain in his telling. And I remember thinking that whatever his actual words were, he had essentially asked me to be on his team for whatever lay ahead. Neither one of us yet the language for this in 1980, but later I would come to understand that he had asked me to be an ally.

I was sixteen at the time but he was not the first person to have come out to me, and he would not be the last.  The first time had happened months before when a beautiful boy I met in a summer program confessed that he actually just wanted to be friends, because he really preferred boys to girls.  My heart was broken for a day or two but healed quickly, and a close friendship developed.

In the hyper-liberal part of Brooklyn where I had been raised, homosexuality was a visible part of the landscape. Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, the neighborhoods of my childhood, were havens for writers and those seeking sexual freedom from the 1930’s on, and the intertwined literary and gay histories were still in evidence during the gentrifying 1970’s in which I grew up.  (Fun fact: Thomas Wolfe wrote “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” while living on my childhood block in 1935).

Growing up in my house, in that neighborhood, gay was just another kind of normal. My pediatrician was gay. One of my friends had two moms (even though it did admittedly take me a while to figure that one out – at age 5 I didn’t understand why the mommy and her friend shared a bed). My parent’s next door neighbors, on their block of restored 19th century carriage houses, were a gay couple who regularly came over for dinner with my parents.  The couple whose backyard was opposite my parents were also a gay couple, one of whom came over sometimes in the evening to give us all haircuts.  A number of the teachers in my school were gay, including one of my favorite teachers who I once ran into and had a friendly chat with as he was leaving a gay bar in the West Village. For the sake of history I would like to think it was Stonewall – it was definitely on that block – but that particular detail might just be too good to be true.  In any case, all of this is to say that in my albeit unusual Brooklyn childhood, gay wasn’t “other” – gay was my neighbors, my doctor, my teachers, my friend’s parents, my cousin, my friends.

When I was asked, years later, to step in at the last minute as rabbi in Fire Island Pines for the high holy days, a primarily gay community, it felt like home. Creating a life filled with people of different sexual identities has just been the way it is, a comfortable way to live.  Being an advocate for gay rights has always felt natural and right, the honorable, ethical thing to do. As a Jew and as a rabbi, it has felt like a moral imperative and like the living out of my Jewish values of according dignity to all, and the deep belief that all are created in the image of God.

None of this is to say that I’ve always gotten it quite right. There’s been lots of learning along the way.   But I have always tried to show up in ways that matter in both my personal and professional lives.

As a rabbi this has meant marrying gay couples well before it was legal, or enabling the legal marriage of a couple who had already been together for 42 years, or changing language in liturgical and ritual publications to create inclusivity and healing, or making sure that illustrations in books for children depict a wide range of types of families, or being part of a group attending a death so that a beloved gay elder did not pass out of this world alone.

And when New York State legalized gay marriage and Larry asked me to officiate at his wedding to the most wonderful man several years ago, I could not have been more happy and overwhelmed with emotion.

Yes, I know that the fight for LGBTQ rights is not over just because the Supreme Court has legalized marriage equality. My young adult children have challenged me about my excitement over the ruling, arguing that we shouldn’t be so excited because there’s still so much work to do. They’re right that there is certainly much work left to do to bring about full equality, and much hate, fear, and discrimination still to overcome. The rainbowizing of Facebook profile pictures by tens of millions, both gay and straight, doesn’t mean the battle is over.  All of this is true.  But this is an amazing moment, a formerly incomprehensible achievement.  It may have seemed inevitable to those born into an era in which every tv show seems to have at least one gay character and tumblrs exist of cute same-sex prom photos, but this moment was unimaginable thirty-five years ago when Larry came out to me. It was unimaginable twenty-five years ago, and perhaps even ten years ago.  Massachusetts, the first state to do so, only legalized marriage in 2004.  It’s ok to pause, take a deep breath, and appreciate how far we’ve come before we get back to work.

IMG_1894In a text last Friday morning, a little while after learning about the Supreme Court decision, Larry and I remembered that night years ago in that weird bar on St. Pete Beach. I asked him: Imagine if someone had told our teenage selves that someday I would legally officiate at your legal wedding to your wonderful legal husband, under a chuppah, with your friends and family in attendance. We could not have comprehended that reality in 1980. But how much pain would that knowledge have wiped away? How much doubt, how much shame, how much self-destructive behavior, for so many? It is truly incredible how much change has happened just in the course of our adulthoods.

Because of my parents’ example of acceptance and openness, because of the school I went to and the neighborhood in which I grew up, because of the people I was lucky enough to meet in high school and college and on into adulthood, gayness has always been woven into the fabric of my life as another kind of normal. Because of the Jewish community I grew up in, and the rabbinate that I’m a part of, acceptance, tolerance, and equality have been framed as core sacred values, ideals of holiness. And now, with this victory, hopefully that will begin to be true everywhere, for everyone. We know that there are still rights to be fought for and minds to be changed.  But with this Supreme Court decision we have taken a huge leap forward into a new normal, not just for those of us who grew up in the rarified air of 1970’s liberal Brooklyn, and not just within the ethical framework of Reform Judaism, but all over this country, in states blue and red, in homes of every faith, stripe, and color of the rainbow.

 

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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series: Part 1, Chapter Three

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 3. Enjoy!

Chapter Three

IMG_1597Later that afternoon I closed my office door behind me, locked it, and went upstairs to retrieve Caleb. He was perched on an overturned plastic tub, building a tower out of blocks.

“Look, Mommy,” he called when he saw me walk into the room, and promptly lost his balance and fell onto the floor. Being Caleb, he got right up and came running to me. If it had been Hannah, I’d be applying band-aids and kisses. Having two children was a fascinating experiment in human behavior and development – put two children in the same family with the same set of parents, same household, same environment, and watch how two completely different personalities emerge.

I told Ronit, who was washing up from Caleb’s snack of peanut butter and banana on rice cakes, that I would take him with me and go pick up Hannah from school. Ronit had to get to a class she was taking at NYU. Caleb and I hunted for his Yankees jacket, and jacket in hand, we set out for Shaarei Shalom, the synagogue in which Hannah’s preschool was housed. Just like the old Jewish joke, there was the synagogue we belonged to, and the synagogue we didn’t belong to. We didn’t belong to Shaarei Shalom, though we gladly sent Hannah to their wonderful, nurturing preschool. But we felt that as a synagogue, it was too big and impersonal, so instead we belonged to Bet Haverim, a smaller, funkier synagogue. Besides, the rabbi at Bet Haverim, Leah, was one of my best friends. Good thing we lived in this part of the world, and more specifically, in this part of Brooklyn, where we had our choice of synagogues.

There’s a little bit of everything in Brooklyn. No place is a better reminder of that than at the South Brooklyn Food Coop. Simon and I work there for three hours a month in order to buy, at just a little above wholesale, gorgeous organic fruits and vegetables, and a great selection of natural foods. Despite what it sounds like, the Coop is no leftover sixties earthy-crunchy thing. The members of the coop run the whole gamut of possibility. Every possible race, nationality, religion, agre group, and sexual orientation is represented, grandparents and just-out-of-college graduates, hipsters, the suit-clad Wall Streeters and the flowing-scarf artists, families who come with the mini-van from New Jersey and load it with apple juice, all-natural lunch box snacks, and frozen free-range organic chicken nuggets, the woman who dresses only in white and can’t be touched by any other human, the anti-irradiated food lobby, and the raw food enthusiasts who buy wheatgrass and carrots in ten pound bags. The selection of food represents the diversity of the members and of Brooklyn as a whole, from the organic kosher chicken to the masala curry, from the tomatillos to the kale, and the humus (the coop’s best selling product) to the lowfat coconut milk and the Jamaican jerk sauce. Simon and I love the coop, though we also love to hate it. One of the down sides is that some people seem to think that being a member allows them the right to tell any other member what they think about their purchases. My friend Bird, who is most definitely not a member of the coop, loves to call it “The People’s Republic of Brooklyn,” and she’s not totally wrong. I almost quit the day the member doing checkout rang up my jars of organic all-natural baby food and self-righteously proceeded to tell me that it would be much cheaper and better for my baby and for the earth if I made my own baby food. In my I-have-two-small-children-in-diapers-and-haven’t-slept-through-the-night-in-two-and-a-half-years exhaustion, I almost hit him over the head with the nearest available frying pan (the coop also sells household goods). But lucky for both of us, I was too worn out, so instead I just invited him over to cook for me. He declined.

Caleb and I held hands as we walked, while I pushed the empty stroller with my free hand. Caleb filled me in on his morning, which had apparently been quite eventful. He and his friend Jeremy built had sand tunnels in the sandbox at the park, and their dinosaurs had quite a time romping through the tunnels. Although he uses a pacifier at bedtime and still rarely sleeps through the night, anyone who meets Caleb in the daytime would think that he is a very mature two year old. He has an enormous vocabulary and never stops talking. Some of my friends with sons his age are worrying that their sons may never say more than “car” or “big.” I, on the other hand, often wonder when Caleb will stop to take a breath. Time spent with him, while absolutely delightful, is filled with non-stop whys (“Mommy, why is wood brown?”) and did-you-knows (“Mommy, did you know that triceratops had three horns?”) and how-comes (“Mommy, how come that lady is wearing a hat?”).

As we walked and Caleb talked, I tried to listen to him while simeulatneously making a mental list at the same time. I spend much of my time unsuccessfully trying to multi-task. I needed to think about what jobs I still had to complete, and how far along I was in the process of each. There were bills to be submitted to clients, a deed to property in upstate New York that needed to be located, there was food to be bought at the coop, an address in Chicago to be clarified, I needed to catch Hannah’s friend Zoë’s babysitter to set up a playdate, and dinner to be cooked. Did Agent 007 ever worry about dinner or playdates? Maybe, but he never had to cook the dinner, and his schedule didn’t revolve around the social lives of four year olds. In any case, this new job that had just come my way couldn’t have been timed better. I was jumpy and unsettled when there was no big project looming on my horizon, and this one promised to be quite big indeed.   When I was in between jobs, Simon always encouraged me to write a book, because he knew how crazy I got without something to sink my teeth into. My kids certainly kept me busy, and I loved being with them, but I needed a balance of interesting work and time with the kids to stay sane. I looked forward to telling Simon about this new job tonight over dinner. In the meantime, I’d worry about what to make for dinner. And when I had some spare time, I would start doing some research about Chasidic dynasties and their genealogies.

***

It was many hours until I had some quiet time to myself again. After the kids and I unloaded the food from the Coop and put it away, always a project in and of itself, it was time for an art project. Once the glitter-glue, pom-poms and tissue paper were back on the shelf, hands were washed, and the table was cleaned off, it was time to cook dinner. I wanted to get to work, and was unjustifiably annoyed that neither Ronit nor Simon was here to help out, but of course the reason I had chosen this kind of work was so that I could spend time with my kids.   I stood facing the sink, my hands poised above the bowl of salad, and looked out the window into the backyard below. If I had been focusing, I would have seen just how badly the garden needed care, and just how at home our neighbor’s cat was becoming in our yard. Instead, my mind was thousands of miles away, mentally searching through birth and death documents somewhere in Eastern Europe and making lists of questions I would need to ask. It wasn’t until Hannah tugged at my sleeve that I realized I was tossing the salad into a pulpy mess.

After dinner, and after cleaning quarts of tomato sauce off of Caleb and Hannah, I bathed the kids, put them in pajamas, and let them play in their tent for half an hour before story-time. Each floor of our house is long and narrow, with windows in the front and the back. The house, which was built in 1864, still has its original moldings and what real estate ads call WBFP, or working brick fireplaces. But our pride and joy are the fifteen-foot ceilings on the parlor level. This main floor, where our kitchen is housed, is one big open space front to back, though there are pocket doors that can slide out when we’re being formal, which is never. Most of the time the living room and dining room, which make up the rest of the main floor, is one big playroom. Currently, there was a tent in the middle of the living room, which the kids found enormously delightful. Since the mortgage payments on this old rambling brownstone eats up a big chunk on our income, and whatever is left over goes to childcare and preschool tuition, we haven’t invested a lot in furnishing it. So there was plenty of room for a tent in our living room.

While the kids played, I called Leah. Leah is one of a group of friends that Simon affectionately calls The Committee. There are six of us in The Committee. We met as bewildered freshmen at a small New England college that had just begun to admit women, trying to make sense of a place in which men would throw up publicly in the dorm hallways after parties and where women would throw up privately in bathroom stalls after meals. During one particularly bad party in the dorm common room, we found each other upstairs, like refugees from the same homeland. Escaping the offensively loud music, the stench of stale beer, and the behavior of drunk, horny eighteen year old boys, we came together in the room that Leah and I shared. Some brilliant person in the dean’s office had decided that Leah and I, two nerdy urban Jewish girls, would make great roommates, and despite the typecasting, they were right. We met Emma, who lived upstairs with a roommate who spent most of her time doing bong hits, at a Hillel bar-be-que, and Emma introduced us to Meg, who lived in the room next to her. Bird lived down the hall from us in a corner single, and she brought Lucy, who was in the same section of Freshman English. That night we connected so immediately and tightly as a group that it was incredible we had only just met. For the next three years, we lived together, first in sophomore suite, and then off campus in a rambling, decrepit house. And even now, involved as we were in our separate adult lives, five out of the six of us had wound up in New York City and managed to get together relatively frequently. We had individual friendships with each other, and some links were stronger than others, but the whole was definitely more than the sum of our parts. At many points along the way, and not just during my horrible freshman year, I thought of them as my sisters, my role models, my teachers, and occasionally my lifelines.

I dialed Leah’s private line and she answered right away. My lucky day.

“Hey sweetness,” I said. “How are you?”

“Hey Abby,” she answered. “I thought this might be someone else.”

“Thanks a lot. Not only do I not know about this ‘someone else,’ but then you have to rub my face in it by telling me you don’t want to talk to me?”

Leah laughed her deep, throaty laugh.“Yeah, you know me, Miss Congeniality. I met someone last night at a lecture. He asked for my number and I gave him this one.”

“Yeah, since no one knows this number except me and your mother, your brother, and your 25 best friends. Anyway, sorry to disappoint.”   Leah had one phoneline at home that she allowed congregants to call her on. She carefully screened those calls, and triaged which ones she really needed to answer from home and which could wait until she was back at her office. Since she worked night and day and almost never took time away from her job, when she did, she guarded her privacy seriously.   Then she had another phone line, with a number she released to almost no one, and this phone she picked up when it rang. I was one of the lucky few who knew the number.   And now so did some guy she just met.“Don’t worry, he’ll call,” I said to make her feel better. For someone so bright and successful in the rest of her life, her love life, as she was always telling me, was a train wreck.

She sighed. “Or not. So what’s up?”

I proceeded to tell her about the young woman who had come to my office that afternoon. Leah had done some research on Eastern European Chasidic rabbis in rabbinic school. She recommended background reading, and promised to bring a some books to our next get together in a few days time. We started to say our good-byes, but then Leah paused.

“You know, Abs, to the best of my knowledge, there were no survivors of the Halizcher dynasty.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean I’m pretty sure that after the Holocaust, there were no survivors, no one to carry on the line. It was a very big deal for the followers of the Halizcher Rebbe. Remember that in those communities, leadership passed from father to son, or in the case of no sons, possibly to a son-in-law. It wasn’t like today where communities do searches and interview rabbis. In that world, rebbes arose and gathered followers, and it generally continued on within the family, generation after generation. It’s still like that among the Chasidic groups today. The Lubavitchers are in crisis because their rebbe died without an apparent heir. He had no sons, no children at all, so not even any sons-in-law or grandsons, and he hadn’t named any one else to be the next leader.”

I sighed. “Well, maybe you have him mixed up with someone else. It’s hard to keep them all straight. There were so many Chasidic rebbes at that time.”

“No, Abby,” she replied. “I’ll check for you, but I seem to remember that specifically, because there’s a story that goes with it. I don’t remember the details, but basically the reason that there are no longer any Halizcher Chasidim today is because there were no survivors from the family after the war. See, after the war, those who survived had nowhere to go. They couldn’t go home of course, because their homes no longer existed. All those Polish villages were Judenrein, rid of Jews. Their property, and their homes, had been taken by Poles. Some groups of Chasidim saw what was coming and had gone to America or Canada. Some even went to Shanghai. But the Halizcher Rebbe, the son of Leib of Halizch, the guy you’re talking about, insisted that he and his followers stay in Europe to show their faith in God. They believed that God would take care of them. His father had recently died and all the power had just passed to him, and he probably needed to prove that he could be a strong leader. Instead of packing, they prayed. The Halizcher Chasidim tried to convince their rebbe to send at least his grandson to America, since apparently it was understood that he would be the next rebbe, to smuggle him out if necessary, but to keep him safe, because while they wanted to trust in their rebbe, they were terrified at what they heard was happening to the Jews. They were willing to stay in Europe themselves and follow the example of their rebbe, waiting for a miracle, but they wanted his grandson safe in America as a kind of insurance policy, so that should something happen to their rebbe during the war, they would have another rebbe waiting in the wings. And so they actually sold whatever little jewelry, gold and silver they owned, and remember, these were mostly poor people, and they brought the money to the rebbe and begged him to send his grandson to America.”

“That’s crazy. They would be willing to risk their own lives, and the lives of their children, but they wanted to save the life of the rebbe’s grandson?”

“Right. You have to remember that for the Chasidim, their rabbi wasn’t just a man, but a direct intermediary with God, a tzaddik, one of the righteous ones. But the rebbe wouldn’t send his grandson away. Maybe he felt it would have made him look weak. Maybe he really believed that a miracle would happen. And also, he had no sons, only four daughters, and of those, only two were married. One son-in-law rejected Chasidism. And the other, the father of that particular grandson, well, everyone knew he wasn’t rebbe-material. So his followers begged him to send away his grandson, the heir apparent, but he refused. Neither he, his wife, nor any of his children or grandchildren survived. They all died in Treblinka. And at the end, those few followers who did survive began to fight among themselves. Some argued that the rebbe had a good reason, though one they couldn’t understand, for not saving his family or even his grandson. They figured that they just weren’t wise enough to understand the reason. Others were angry that he had not made sure there would be someone to carry on the line. One man professed that he was the intended next leader, but no one listened to him. Some were bitter that the rebbe had advised them to stay in Europe when they might have had a chance to leave, and felt that ultimately he had abandoned them. Many were disillusioned and felt that not only had the rebbe let them down, but that God let them down. And so they drifted apart, and went their separate ways. Some joined other Chasidic groups. Some abandoned Chasidism altogether. That was, more or less, the end of the Halizcher dynasty, and the Halizcher Chasidim.”

“Hummm,” I said, chewing on the end of a pencil. “Okay, so I confess I don’t get it. Either your memory is wrong, or this woman heard a story which is wrong, or she’s not who she says she is.”

“My memory is not wrong,” Leah said in her usual confident manner. “If I were you, I’d get back in touch with the woman, and tell her what I just told you. The whole thing sounds like an old man’s fantasy. Break it to her gently. Tell her there are other ways she can do something special for her grandfather.”

I sighed. “Now that sounds easy and sensible, but of course, I don’t have a way to get in touch with her.” There was nothing I could do but sit and wait for her to contact me again. I was sure she would, and I was also sure that we would have a very interesting conversation when we did talk again.

 ***

Caleb was fast asleep but Hannah was still raring to go. I lay with her in bed, looking up at the glow-in-the-dark solar system on the ceiling above. This was my favorite time of the day, when the house and the kids were quiet and calm. Perched on the edge of the day just ending, we could look back on the day and towards the next. It was a time to take a deep breath and remember what really mattered – to remember how much I loved my kids, to forget about the dishes piled up the sink, the invoices to be mailed, the lack of cash in the bank. At this time of the day my kids and I came back together and reconnected. After the threats of brush-your-teeth-now-because-I-said-so and choose-pajamas-right-now and stop-teasing-your-brother, bedtime was a time to regroup and end the evening on a good note. My kids became younger at bedtime, the posturing of the day was shed and at nighttime they became sweet kittens who wanted to curl against me for comfort and assurance before they entered the world of sleep and dreams.

Our bedtime routine had to be followed exactly the same way each night.   After getting into pajamas and settling down, it was time to choose a story. Each child got to make a choice. Sometimes, if I was in a very generous mood, they even got to make a third, joint choice. Caleb had recently been stuck in a dinosaur rut — night after night we had been reading dinosaur books. Before that, it had been Edward and the Pirates for about eighteen nights running. But then again, I had already memorized The Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and Madeline. So what was one more? Hannah and I were in the middle of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was I enjoying re-reading for the first time since my own childhood.

After the story it was lights out. Each child would get a turn to be rocked in the rocking chair, while I sang a lullaby. Even though Hannah was four, she still asked to be rocked. I dreaded the day I was no longer able to rock my kids. Then there was a minute or two of hugs and kisses with each child separately in their own bed, while they said a prayer and told me whatever was on their mind. Sometimes those few minutes were the most important part of the whole day. It was a time to give voice to hidden fears, embarrassments, and disappointments of the day, as well as to share secrets and dreams about tomorrow. On nights when I was out of town or worked late, it was those few minutes alone with each child that I missed the most. I could spend the whole day with them, and never really know what was on their minds until then.

After the last round of hugs and kisses and glasses of water and admonishments to lie down and sleep, I would put on a tape and leave the room. At the moment, the kids’ favorite tape was a BBC recording of Winnie the Pooh. Listening to that tape, they would drift into sleep. But on this particular night, Caleb had fallen asleep while I rocked him, the victim of too many rounds of Superhero derbies at the park. So I grabbed the opportunity to spend a few minutes of uninterrupted time with Hannah. Hannah was a complicated child, given to mood swings and stubbornness and passionate outbursts of both delight and disgust. I knew that when she grew up, she was going to be a fascinating adult, the kind I would want to be friends with, but raising her was quite a job. Simon and I called Hannah The Lawyer, because she could talk herself out of or into anything. If we set down a rule, she would find the loophole, leaving Simon and I gazing at each other over her head as we tried not to laugh.

Even though I missed Simon’s presence on those nights that he worked late, it also made bedtime easier. Because I was the calm parent and Simon the fun, roughhousing parent, bedtime without Simon was a much calmer affair.   So I’m not some macho P.I., slugging down a pint in a flophouse somewhere. Sometimes I crave the excitement, the adrenaline rush that those fictional P.I.’s get chasing down their cases. I envy them their ability to eat what they want, when they want, and with whom they want, to keep their own hours and have as many quirks as their editors will allow. But then again, they’re fictional, and I love putting my very real kids to bed.

           ***

After the kids were settled and I brought Hannah her last cup of water, I went downstairs to warm up dinner. Ronit, who was almost as good a cook as she was a baby-sitter, had made stir-fried vegetables and tofu in a ginger-peanut sauce that smelled divine. I turned the heat on under the pan and reheated the rice in the microwave. Then I took out plates, and glanced at the clock. Simon should be walking up the stoop and in the door any minute now. I was looking forward to going over the day’s events with him. I knew he would enjoy hearing about my new client, and not only because he would be glad that I had a paying client. I thought the story would fascinate him, especially when he heard the piece that Leah had contributed.

As I set the table, I allowed myself to wonder if Sarah Gelberman was for real. She seemed genuine and sincere. And yet something was wrong with one of the stories I had heard today, either hers or Leah’s. If she wasn’t on the level, what could her motivation possibly be? Suddenly I stood still, the napkins I’d been about to place on the table clutched in my hand. Leah had told me about the large sum of money that the Halizcher Chasidim had given their rebbe in order to ensure that his grandson got to safety. She had told me how the rebbe refused, and how he and his wife, his children and grandchildren were killed in the camps. But what she hadn’t mentioned was what happened to the money. And if there was one thing I knew all too well, it was that money was the biggest reason there was for people to lie, cheat, steal, and create false identities.

[To be continued…]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part I: Chapter Two

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 2. Enjoy! 

Chapter Two

IMG_2514Summer was already a fond but distant memory in the family photo album. The High Holy Days had come and gone. Senator Joseph Lieberman had recently become the first Jew to be nominated for high office, providing Jews with much food for thought and giving rabbis everywhere a surfeit of sermon ideas. New York was in the midst of an intense and ugly senatorial race, the mayor had prostrate cancer and a lady-friend who marched with him in the Columbus Day parade, and the Yankees and Mets were playing the first subway series in forty-four years. Miles away, the possibility for peace had come and gone, and war threatened to break out any day in the Middle East.

Despite all that, it was a quiet autumn morning in Brooklyn. Outside my office, the leaves in the backyard hadn’t started to turn yet, and the garden still looked like summer. The one straggly rose bush that had bothered to flower was top heavy with huge pink blooms. School thankfully had begun, and Hannah was safely stowed away in pre-K until three o’clock. Caleb was at the park with Ronit, the babysitter. The house was empty, the sink was clean, the laundry was done, and there was nothing domestic that needed my urgent attention. I turned my thoughts to my files, which sorely needed some care.I had a bad habit of taking out files, searching through them, and then putting them aside to search through more files, never putting away the discarded files. When I’m rich and famous, I’ll hire a personal secretary. In the meantime, I reorganize my desk and my files every few weeks, or whenever business is slow.

I had just completed a job for someone who wanted to find out the name of the ship on which his grandparents had come over from Portugal. He was preparing a surprise for their 60th anniversary. I managed to find out the name of the ship and get him the manifest of passengers and even a photograph of the ship. He was very pleased and had given me a check right away. There it was, balanced against the stapler. As I straightened the desk, I reminded myself to deposit it in our checking account so that it could go right back out of the account in the form of a check to Hannah’s preschool.

All night I had had a recurring anxiety dream that I went to my job in an office, sat at my desk, and couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be doing. On good days I was happy with the choices I had made. But then there were days like today when I got frustrated, and in my frustration let myself give in to that ugliest of emotions—envy. I was envious of the mothers at the preschool who had serious, important careers, expensive suits, and business-trips that took them out of town to hotels where they could order room service and have someone clean up after them. What happened to my great ambitions, my plans to do something important? I hadn’t finished my PhD, I didn’t have a title before my name, and I didn’t make enough money. I hadn’t published a novel, written a screenplay, discovered the cure for AIDS, or launched a business. But I liked what I was doing. Some of the projects that came my way were actually interesting. The research was fun, and challenging. And I loved having time for my kids. I had made a choice. But the truth was I was not only envious of the working moms, I was also envious of the full-time moms who were always there after school, in the playground, and at the mommy-and-me classes. No way to win, either way.

I sighed and stretched my legs. Too much self-reflection can be a dangerous thing. Thinking of Hannah’s preschool and those moms reminded me that there was also a phone call I needed to return. Last spring, in a fit of generosity, I had donated five hours of my professional expertise to the fund-raising auction at Hannah’s school. The woman who “purchased” my services had left a message on my machine last night. I had met her several times and didn’t feel like dealing with her, but I convinced myself to call and get it over with.

I called, and it turned out that she wanted me to go undercover and get evidence, graphic photographs and all, that her husband was having an affair. I explained that that was not my line of work, but that if she wanted me to do some historical research, genealogy, or to trace missing documents, I’d be happy to oblige. She said she would think about it, but I could tell from her tone of voice that she was already writing the whole thing off as an unfortunate waste of money. As we were graciously saying our good-byes, the doorbell rang.

I went to answer, assuming it was either the meter reader or Ronit back from the park with Caleb. Instead, I found a nervous young woman. I was sure I had never seen her before, because she was surely someone I would have remembered. Despite her obvious nervousness, she was beautiful in a striking and unusual way. Her hair was the brightest red hair I had ever seen, her eyes a deep, liquid blue. Her porcelain skin was flawless, making the gold stud in her left nostril appear particularly prominent. She was of medium height but strong and athletic-looking, and despite her apparent youth had a presence about her, like someone usually at ease with herself and only at a temporary loss. She had a backpack slung over one shoulder, and clutched a piece of paper with an address scribbled on it, which made me think at first that she must be a student looking for an apartment to rent who had come to the wrong address. But before I could re-direct her, she addressed me by name.

“Hi, are you Abby Marcus?” she asked hesitantly. “Have I come to the right place?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Can I help you?”

“Do you mind if I come in? You were recommended to me by someone who thought you could help me. May I?”

My clients never just drop in. Most of my friends don’t even drop in, this being New York and all of us having highly over-scheduled lives. Plus Simon would have a fit if he knew that I was letting a perfect stranger into my office when no one else was even in the building. But she was a young woman, practically just a kid, and she looked perfectly harmless. I should have known right away that her stopping by in person was only the first of many things that would be unusual in this job.

I cleared away Hannah’s crayons and coloring books, and sat her on my couch while I took the adjacent chair.

“I really need help,” she began.

“Well, let’s start at the beginning,” I said. “You know who I am, but I have no idea who you are.”

She cleared her throat, paused, and began to speak rapidly. “My name is Sarah, Sarah Gelberman. I’m trying to do some genealogical research, but I’m running into a lot of roadblocks, because I’m not a pro and I don’t know what I’m doing. I hear that you are really good at it, so I want to know if you can help. Plus I’m busy. So if you could help, that would be great. I don’t have a lot of time. How much do you charge?”

“Well, Sarah, let’s slow down and talk first about what you’re looking for. Where is your family from?” I reached for a pad and pen, ready to listen.

She began to tell me, still in the same halting manner, that her grandfather Jack was having an important birthday in January, and the grandchildren wanted to present him with a family tree. She had heard stories that her grandfather was the great-grandson of the great Chasidic rabbi Leib of Halizch, known as the Halizcher Rebbe, and she wanted to know if I could definitively deny or confirm that rumor. As she spoke, she played with her hair and adjusted and readjusted her legs, looking ill at ease on my comfortable couch. When I asked her if it would break her grandfather’s heart to find that the rumor was not true, and was it worth doing so, she insisted that the family would love knowing one way or another. I wasn’t sure she was right, because having worked in this business long enough I knew that people greatly treasured their stories of grand rabbinic or royal lines, no matter how fabricated they were. But when she told me that the other goal of her search was to find, if he was still alive, her grandfather’s brother, from whom he had been separated in Europe in 1945 following Liberation, I was hooked. I’m a sucker for happy endings, and I knew that if anyone could find the brother or his descendants, I could do it. We agreed on a price, which appeared to be no object to her. She unfolded a creased envelope, counted out the full amount in cash as a retainer, and departed, leaving me with a file of some basic information with which I could begin my search.

After she left, I laughed to myself. What a funny place is this world of late 20th century America, I thought. I was just talking to a young woman who may be the great-great-great-great granddaughter of the Halizcher Rebbe, who sat on my couch dressed in jeans and Nikes with a gold stud in her nose. Then several important things occurred to me at once. One, I had no way of getting in touch with her. The piece of paper on which I had asked her to provide her contact information was gone, and somehow I doubted she had taken it with her accidentally. Two, she had never told me who recommended me to her. Three, her story, which was fairly standard and unexceptional, in no way explained her extreme nervousness, or why she would not have wanted to leave me her phone number or address. Little did I know just how much she had to be nervous about.

[To be continued….]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part I: Chapter One

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand.  Here is Part I, Chapter 1. Enjoy! More to come. 

Part I

IMG_0487The Internet makes everything so easy. It’s criminal how easy it is. All the information is right there. People don’t even realize it. The most intimate information is there, if you know how to find it. All I had to do was put in her name, and put in his name, and put in the name of the town, and voila, there it was, right there for me, more details than I knew what to do with. Like some kind of divine intervention. Like playing God. Even better actually. Because everybody thinks that no one controls the Internet. Everybody thinks it’s just a jungle of information. But it can be controlled if you know how to use it. Just like people. People are so easy to control if you how to do it. If you have the right information. And I do. Just like God, I can make them jump, I can make them sing, I can make them move, I can make them run. I can make them feel safe or I can make them feel threatened, terrified. He thought he was God, he knew what to tell them to do. But he was wrong. They all died, and it was his fault. And those who managed somehow not to die were still damaged. That’s how I wound up like this, a man without a past, a man without a family. Imagine what it would have been like if the Internet was invented back then. The history of the world would have been completely different. The right people would have gotten the right information. It wouldn’t have been possible to ignore the truth. It wouldn’t have been possible to ignore the cries.

But that’s in the past. This is about the future. I can’t change the past, but I can act now to change the future. I can control it because I have information, I have power. Even God can’t do this. It’s up to me. It’s all in my hands. I’m going to set it right. I’m going to make sure it can’t happen again. He couldn’t do it then, but I can. Now.  

Chapter One

I walked in, threw my bag on the floor, and turned on the light. Everything was just as I had left it.   Piles of papers and folders covered the desk, my black sweater hung over the back of the chair, and a half-full coffee cup balanced on a pile of books dangerously close to my laptop. The afghan on the couch lay draped across the arm and trailed down the floor, where one corner served as a parking lot for matchbox cars, tractors, and Batmobiles. The light on the answering machine blinked furiously.

What a mess. While I’d been gone it would have been nice if the offices gnomes could have paid a visit and cleaned the place up. Would have been nice too if they could have done some filing. But no, no sign of those ever elusive gnomes. Then again, it was nice to open a door and not have to worry that some lunatic was waiting to grab me.

Home sweet home. I threw myself on the couch, put my hands behind my head, and stared up the ceiling. What a case it had been. Tough. Dangerous. Complicated. And I had done it. I had untangled the mystery. Of course, not by myself. And not without complications. Still, damn I’m good, I thought to myself, and smiled.

Abby Marcus, P.I. Nice to meet you.   That sounds good. Well, okay, I’m not a P.I., but I did always want to be one. That was my fantasy growing up. I wanted to either be a P.I. or a spy. In college I thought briefly about joining the CIA or the FBI. That’s what comes from watching too much Get Smart as a kid. It was the shoe phone that did it. Not the gun in the pool stick, no, the shoe phone. Of course, who needs all those pretend gadgets today? It’s the year 2000 – we have devices that are better than any television, so when we’re at the baseball game we don’t have to miss our favorite soap operas. We have phones that fit in our pockets, and are better than any camera. Anyone can order sophisticated spy equipment over the Internet. So who needs Agent 86 and his paraphernalia?

I’ll start again. I’m actually Abby Marcus, freelance researcher. I’m thirty-something, getting closer every day to forty-something. When I look in the mirror, I can see one or two gray hairs, but it’s not too bad. Most people think I’m younger than I am, which I’ve found is often an asset in my line of work. I’m on the short side, to be honest, and could be in better shape than I am, but that’s life. Having two kids hasn’t helped my figure any. Maybe next year.

I live in Brooklyn, New York. Park Slope to be exact. We, being my husband Simon and I, along with our progeny, Hannah and Caleb, live in a brownstone three blocks away from Prospect Park, which by the way is bigger than Central Park. We Brooklynites are very proud of our borough. Along with the best cheesecake and great micro-brewery beer, Brooklyn also boasts the largest member-owned and operated food coop in the United States, of which we are longtime members. In fact, my grandmother can’t believe it, but Brooklyn is in the middle of a renaissance. It’s actually become a cool place to live. People are even saying it’s become more expensive to buy a place in Brooklyn than in Manhattan, but I wouldn’t know – we bought our brownstone a long time ago.

We live in the two middle floors of our brownstone, which we were lucky to buy before real estate went crazy. Even with Simon’s salary as co-owner of a firm that makes its money providing financial data, and the small amount of money that my research jobs bring in, we’d never be able to buy this house today.   We have a part-time tenant who happens to be my grandmother living on the top floor during the warm months when she’s not in Florida. The ground level floor is divided in half, with the front half a small apartment where our babysitter lives with her boyfriend rent free, and in the back is my office, looking out on the yard. Having space for a live-in babysitter has been a brilliant stroke of luck. My parents are not around to help, because they are busy chasing their long-deferred dreams. Since my father retired from his practice and my mother’s new-found career as a travel writer has taken off, they are away more often than not and don’t have time for babysitting.

And speaking of the kids, Hannah is four, and Caleb is two. Which gets me back to the freelance researcher thing. I never did become a P.I. or a spy.   I went to college, where I studied literature and art, and then to grad school. I worked for art magazines doing photo editing and research, and worked on my Ph.D on the history of photography. With all that school, I became pretty good at research and at writing, so I started taking on freelance research jobs to help pay the bills. First it was pretty basic stuff, going to the library – this was before Google changed the world – for some professor and collecting data, or tracking down an obscure fact. That turned into tracking down obscure books. Then it became tracking down obscure people. Well, I got very good at not leaving any stone untouched, and people I didn’t know started calling and asking me to find things for them – names, numbers, people, objects. Most people don’t realize how much you can do with the Internet, libraries and some basic knowledge about how to get people to say more than they mean to. Now don’t get me wrong, I have never done anything seriously illegal or immoral. No, I’ve actually helped a lot of people locate lost relatives, track down old high school sweethearts, and find biological parents. Along the way, I’ve become sort of a specialist in genealogical research.

When I got pregnant with Hannah, I took a leave of absence from the Ph.D. program. I couldn’t think straight anymore about theory. I decided to devote more time to my research business, to see if I could make a living at it. It’s a perfect job for me, since I can work at home and make my own hours. Most of the time I love what I do, and feel incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to create a career for myself. And in some ways, with a little imagination, it’s not all that different from being a P.I. or a spy. It’s been fun, challenging, and it pays a small fraction of our bills. I like the puzzles my cases present, and I love arriving at solutions and answers. There’s a bit of a letdown when I’m done with a case, although not for too long because there’s always another one waiting for my attention.

But nothing I had done up to now had prepared me for this case.

[To be continued….]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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Good Books: Summer 2015 Edition

Summer is here and it’s time to read.  Here’s a round up of some recent good books, mostly fiction and, as an added bonus, one memoir. None are exactly beach novels, but they’re all worth a read. Enjoy!

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rivka Brunt
UnknownThis novel is at the top of this list for a reason. It is a coming-of-age story about a fourteen year old, June, who has a very special relationship with her gay uncle. The story takes place in the mid-80’s and her uncle Finn, a famous painter, is dying of AIDS.  When Finn dies and she begins to grieve her loss, family secrets begin to shake loose. In the process, she develops secrets of her own, including a growing friendship with Finn’s hidden boyfriend, Toby, who her family labels as a murderer for infecting Finn with AIDS.  The many strands to this tale are interwoven beautifully as June deals with the loss of Finn, her strained relationship with her older sister Greta, her feelings of both anger and love for Toby, and all the attendant struggles of growing up.  The depiction of how AIDS was viewed in the 80’s rings all too true.  There is also an interesting and wonderful Oscar Wilde-like strand of this novel which involves a portrait that Finn has painted of June and Greta.  The painting is the linchpin upon which the whole story hangs, as it too develops and changes along with June and Greta.  Brunt’s homage to Dorian Gray is an outstanding element in this smart, tender, and moving novel.

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay 

Unknown-1A girl named Moth is at the center of this work of historical fiction. Called Moth by a now-absent father and raised by a Gypsy fortune-telling mother on New York’s Lower East Side during the post-Civil War era, she is born into a life of extreme poverty and want.  One day she is sold into servitude by her mother and taken to work uptown for a wealthy but cruel woman. Moth is the kind of plucky heroine that these types of books needs to stay interesting, and she is indeed wily and resourceful. She soon finds herself in training to become a prostitute, at a time when syphilis is ravaging New York City and men of means are on the prowl for young girls who can provide them with the “virgin cure”.  Moth grows up quickly as she figures out what she needs to do to survive, and without providing any spoilers, survive she does.  McKay has done a good bit of research about this era, and her insights into life on the Lower East Side, women’s lives, women’s healthcare, and some historical figures, especially a female physician committed to women’s health, make this a worthwhile read. The fact that this physician is based on McKay’s actual great-great-grandmother adds a little extra flavor to this dish that, while tasty, could use a little more depth.

After Birth by Elisa Albert 

Unknown-2Where to start with this one? For one, if you are a woman and aren’t sure if you want to have a child, don’t read this novel yet. But if you have had a child, or are the partner of someone who has birthed, absolutely read this book. It would be easy to say that this is book is about postpartum depression but it’s so much more than that.  The protagonist at the center of this searing depiction of birth and early motherhood is Ari, who is an isolated, lonely, and depressed new mother.  She lives in Vermont with her husband, an academic, where she has few acquaintances and essentially no friends. She loves her son, Walker, but feels horribly alone in the post-birthing experience. Albert is brutal in her condemnation of the medicalization of birth, the way in which modern medicine disempowers women and disconnects them from their own bodies, and how Western society has disabled the tradition of women mothering one another through the transitions of birthing, breast-feeding, and child raising. One of Ari’s contentions is that c-sections are a form of rape perpetrated upon women by the medical establishment.  As a two-time c-section birther, and even though I know that way more c-sections are performed than are medically necessary, some of this felt uncomfortable and even extreme. But that is part of the power of this difficult novel. Albert has masterfully written a character who is not “nice,” who does not conform to societal expectations, who is angry and grieving and far from the soft-focus stock image of new motherhood. Her body is unfamiliar, her scar throbs, and her breasts have taken on a life of their own. (Those particular depictions are oh so resonant!). Having had the experience of birthing taken out of her power, she feels out of control and can’t find a way back to ownership of her body or of her life.  No one understands her and what she’s going through, not even her husband. She is desperately alone and the idea of ending her life is never far from her mind. And then she makes a friend, another new mother, who is surprisingly in worse shape than she is.  Through that friendship, and that friend’s new baby, she regains some control and comes back from the edge.

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Unknown-3Cody Epstein knows how to tell a good story. Her characters are always richly drawn and fully realized, and the situations into which she places them are always well researched and ring true.  This novel is no exception. Told from several different perspectives and spanning several generations, this an epic story of the war in the Pacific during World War II.  The main character is a young Japanese girl, Yoshi, who life is radically changed when American bombers rain napalm down on her city.  The other strands of this story all connect through Yoshi but stand on their own as part of the legacy of destruction and pain caused by war, including Cam, the pilot of one of the American bomber planes, Anton, an architect who is caught up in the war despite himself, and Billy, who is posted in Japan following the war.  It is Yoshi who connects all the other characters and perspectives in this compelling tale of war, loss, secrets, and identity. The details of each character’s outer and inner lives are wonderfully drawn and pull you right in – this could definitely one of those books you can’t put down until it’s way, way after lights out.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman 

Unknown-5This book sat on my reading list for a long time before I finally dove in and read it. I’m so glad I did. This novel takes place in Rome, and involves the private lives of reporters and editors at an English language newspaper on the verge of extinction. Each of the characters, from the editor in chief to the obituary writer, to a stringer in Cairo is a tale unto themselves. They are struggling to keep the paper afloat as the world of publishing changes swiftly around them, and as control of the paper shifts to a new publisher. The details about each person’s life seems just right, with enough provided to bring each one fully to life. There are unexpected twists, a good dose of snark, and great insights into the relationships they have with each other. Humor is mixed in with sadness, cynicism fights with idealism, and despair and anxiety are laced with hope.  This novel is robust and vivid, artfully drawn against the romantic backdrop of Rome and full of all the attendant elements related to news paper publishing in the 21st century. This was a deeply satisfying read.

All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen

Unknown-4There has been a spate of memoirs over the last few years by people who have left the world of Hasidism. I admit to having a mild and inexplicable obsession with these memoirs, and yes, I’m sure there is something voyeuristic to my interest in them. But this memoir by Deen is different. Deen, who had been part of the world of the New Square Skverers, left as an adult in his mid-thirties, not his early twenties as others have done. This is not a vivid expose of sexual misdeeds or brutality (though there are some disturbing depictions of corporal punishment in educational settings).  There are depictions of faith-based violence and vigilante behavior, but while Deen comes to oppose this and see it as a very negative form of behavioral control, he also writes honestly of having been part of it at one point. This is all to say that he has not written a black and white, me versus them kind of memoir.  He also clearly want to protect certain relationships he has with people in the Hasidic world, and so he stays away, for the most part, from the kind of salacious details which might most interest outsiders already prone to be critical of the Hasidic world.  This is not to say that he shows fondness for the world he left – he is very critical of their brand of thought control, the substandard education provided within the community, and the ways in which they subvert the legal system. As an outsider who has read a lot on this topic, it is still shocking for me to learn (or have confirmed) that most adults in the community can barely read or write in English, and have no math skills – this is part of the way in which the community “protects” its members from the outside world, or isolates them and disables them from participating in that world.  He is critical too of the ways in which poverty is built into their way of life, again “protecting” them from the outside world. But there is a great deal of nuance and struggle here, along with deep pain. He is not, for the most part, writing about the world which he chose for himself for some period of time, but rather about his very deep struggle to make sense of meaning and faith within a world in which questions were discouraged and the rebbe had ultimate power over every aspect of life.  This is a tale of his own rebellion against that power, and his long journey to gain knowledge and free his mind.  He writes beautifully about his thirst for education, his dangerous questions about belief, his passion for ideas, and his need to find a supportive community. Though his choices caused him a great deal of pain, especially in regard to his children, this memoir is a testament to the need to fight for one’s own truth in the face of extreme pressure to conform to destructive communal norms.

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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 was 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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