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

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

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

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

So here goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good Books, Fall 2014 Edition Part 1

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

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

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

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

The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee

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

To Rise Again as a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

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

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

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

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

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A Story for Rosh HaShanah

IMG_2312

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Yossel nodded and went on his way home.

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry—” said Shmulik.

“I’m sorry too,” said Yossel.

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe, but it will be hard.”

“Yes, it will be. Very hard.”

And now Yossel shrugged. “We can try.”

“Yes, we can.”

“I forgive you and wish you well.”

“Thank you, and I, you.”

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

 

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Cognitive Dissonance: An Elul Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Long, Painful Summer: Thoughts On Israel

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

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

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

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

It’s been a long, painful summer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2632These Ancient Stones

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

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

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

God of generations,
Let tranquility enter the land.

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

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

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

A Prayer for the Wounded

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

A Prayer for the Israel Defense Forces

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

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

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Some Good Books, Summer 2014 Edition

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

17465453The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert 

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

18142324All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

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

15803141The Flameflowers by Rachel Kushner

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

16176440We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler 

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

17857652Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart 

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

Happy reading!

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Wanderings and Arrivals: After the Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louis Person c. 1959

Louis Person c. 1959

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

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

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

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

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Passover and Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unchanging Change: Passover Cooking

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

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

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

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

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

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

imageVegetable Farfel Stuffing

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

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

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 cups chopped butternut squash

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

2-3 cups chopped mushrooms

fresh sage, rosemary and thyme

1/2 carmelized onion

6 cups whole wheat matzah farfel

8 eggs

4 cups vegetable broth (use more if too dry)

salt and pepper to taste

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

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

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

4. Mix well until all ingredients are blended.

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

6. Pour into large greased pan.

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

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

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More Good Books, Part 4

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

Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat

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

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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

Someone by Alice McDermott

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

The Position by Meg Wolitzer

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

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

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

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

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

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

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

 

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