Last month, our friends over at Open Road Integrated Media launched the first ebook edition of Bel Kaufman's Up the Down Staircase, a classic portrayal of life in the New York public school system. Kaufman is a bestselling writer, dedicated teacher, and lecturer who specializes in the subject of Jewish humor. She is also the daughter of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Find out more about Bel Kaufman below:
I received a postcard today from a K. Satterfield in Berkeley, California with a picture of an elk cut and pasted from what looks like a magazine with a hand-written entry, “How long did he stand alone on Pike’s Road, due center, branched horns curling north?” I’m not sure I know the answer to the question, but I did wonder about it, admiring the red and yellow triangles pasted on the back of the card. K. Satterfield took care in sending this message, part of a weekly exchange amongst a list of poets.
The elk stands poised on the center of the highway. The edges of either lane appear hem-stitched in white. The road is empty. Not a car in sight. Why is the elk on Pike’s Road and what is it waiting for?
I am also waiting. Rain is coming from the northeast, rolling slowly into the parish. Birds hearing the same thing, call out to each other, anticipating a downpour as the skies begin to light. And crackle. The storm cannot be far away. It gets humid just when everything should be cooling down. The sky is dark and ponderous. Cars make their way to work. It’s Friday and everything can use a good soaking after a week’s worth of triple digits. One yellow leaf floats to the ground, then another. A breeze lifts the fronds of the ferns on the porch; mailboxes stand at attention. The Southern Oak across the street stretches its limbs. Suddenly everything gets quiet. Leaves rustle. Thunder marches closer. Lightning streaks the sky. Cassie, the cat, jumps into a rocking chair and sits next to me on the porch. Then she decides to stalk the marigolds and chews a blade of grass. I have been sitting here for more than an hour and I’m growing impatient. I hear signs and sounds of rain, but Mother Nature doesn’t deliver.
Isn’t that the way it is, the long wait for some new creative force that comes out of nowhere but was always there in the first place?
The elk and I are kin.
This evening I attended services at Temple B’nai Israel in Monroe, Louisiana. The rabbi noted that the birthday of Edna Ferber, author and writer of “Showboat,” had just passed. Her motto, he said, was “seize the day.” Somewhere between waiting and seizing, that’s where I must go.
“And you shall lay down, and no man shall terrify you….” Whenever I stand up in shul on Shabbat and recite those words from the prayer for peace, I am transported back in time to 1998, and across many miles to Laramie, Wyoming.
It was October, and I was all set to travel out west as the keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming. My bags were packed, and my speech was written. “Heather’s Mommy Speaks Out: Homophobia, Censorship, and Family Values” focused on the difficulties I had in getting my book Heather Has Two Mommies published, and how important it is for every child to see a family like his or hers reflected in a piece of literature. As a Jew growing up in the 1950’s, I knew what it was like to read books about children trimming the Christmas tree and looking for the Easter bunny. Books like Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah and A Mezuzah on the Door had not yet been written. Growing up without seeing a family like mine in a book or movie or on a TV show made me feel like I didn’t belong. There was no place for me.
As a child, I couldn’t articulate my need to see someone like myself reflected back at me by the culture at large, let alone do something about it. As an adult, I could write books for children whose families were considered “different” so that they did not feel so alone.
But two days before I was to step on the plane, Jim Osborn, the head of the University of Wyoming’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Student Group called. He told me his friend Matthew Shepard, who was also a member of the LGBT group, had been kidnapped, robbed, beaten mercilessly, tied to a fence, and left to die. He was discovered 18 hours later by a biker, and was now in the hospital, in a coma. Jim knew that Matt being attacked right before Gay Awareness Week started was not a coincidence. “I would understand it if you wanted to cancel your appearance,” Jim said to me.
The words that flashed through my mind were: If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? Jim seemed to think that any speech I could give would have a healing effect on his community. As a Jew, I take the job of tikkun olam very very seriously. So I told Jim that I had every intention of being there.
A few days later, as I gave my speech, my eyes kept wandering to an empty seat in the front row of the auditorium. I pictured Matthew Shepard sitting there. I had seen his picture in the newspaper. I knew he had been on the planning committee for Gay Awareness Week. I knew he had planned on being at my presentation. Instead he had died that very morning, killed by two men who hated him merely because he was gay.
I have always felt that the pen is mightier than the sword. And so I wrote an essay called “Imagine” in honor of Matthew Shepard and have read it aloud to start off every college presentation I have given since my trip to Laramie. But I knew there was more that I could do. In the past few years, many young people who were bullied for being perceived as being gay had taken their own lives. How to stop the bullying and the suffering? What more could I do? As a published author, I had a voice that people listened to. With this gift comes an obligation. Tikkun Olam. The responsibility of repairing the world.
On the tenth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder, members of the Tectonic Theatre project, who had gone out to Laramie right after Matt’s murder to conduct interviews to create their theatre piece, The Laramie Project, returned to interview the people of Laramie once more. On the eleventh anniversary of Matt’s death, I attended a performance of The Laramie Project—Ten Years Later: An Epilogue. That night I couldn’t sleep. The words of my mentor, Grace Paley, echoed through my mind: Write what you know you don’t know about what you know. I knew a lot about what had happened to Matthew Shepard. I also knew there was a lot that I didn’t know. And so I picked up my pen. Immediately, a thought entered my brain: use your imagination to create fictional monologues from the silent witnesses of the crime, like the fence, the moon, the wind, and the stars. That’s crazy, I thought to myself. But then I remembered the words of another of my mentors, Allen Ginsberg: first thought, best thought. And with that in mind, I let the words flow out of my pen.
I knew that I would never know what happened to Matt that night. He wasn’t around to tell me. And the two men who killed him have recounted the events in ways that contradicted each other. Even if I could speak to them, I could not rely upon them to tell the truth. And so, I called upon the silent witnesses of the hate crime to tell me what they knew: the truck Matt was kidnapped in, the fence he was tied to, the moon that looked down upon him, the deer that kept him company all through the night. I trusted my imagination to create these fictitious monologues, to tell me what I knew I didn’t know. I wrote 67 poems that explore the impact of Matt’s murder, but when I came to the end of the narrative, I felt something was missing. The book was intended for a teen audience, too young to remember Matt Shepard. How to end such a book without devastating my young readers?
I knew the only way to find out how to end the book was to return to Laramie. Jim Osborn took me around town, to the bar from which Matt was abducted, to the courthouse where his murderers stood trial, and finally to the site where Matt had been beaten and abandoned. I stood at the fence, and hoping G-d would understand, counted the ground, the sky, the wind, two hawks that flew overhead, a pile of snow, several tufts of grass, and myself as a minyan in order to say Kaddish for Matthew Shepard. I placed a stone from my own garden on the fence to show that someone had been there and that Matt had not been forgotten. I sang “Oseh Shalom” with tears streaming down my cheeks, and when I got on the plane to return home, the last poem of the book came to me. Of course the book had to end with a prayer. A prayer for a better world. For all of us.
The land was sold and a new fence now stands about fifty yards away. People still come to pay their respects. - Jim Osborn, friend of Matthew Shepard
I walk to the fence with beauty before me The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
I walk to the fence with beauty behind me Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash
I walk to the fence with beauty above me Om Mani Padme Hum
I walk to the fence with beauty below me Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit
I reach the fence surrounded by beauty wail of wind, cry of hawk
I leave the fence surrounded by beauty sigh of sagebrush, hush of stone
As I write this post in August, I’m aware that the High Holy days are approaching. I recall the teachings of the rabbis at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, California where I’ve been a member. I’m wondering about that “still small voice” that resides somewhere inside me. Where is it, maybe hiding in my throat, balanced on my vocal chords and waiting to speak, embedded in an artery at some juncture between my heart and my foot, or in both places?
I know. Not likely.
The thing I loved about living in the in Bay Area all these years with its confabulation of marvelous music (Yoshi's in Oakland for superb jazz), techies galore (try Tech Liminal for expert help in getting your WordPress on), food (wonderful restaurants everywhere and note to reader, I miss baguettes slathered in creamy butter), museums (Jewish Museum, Oakland Art Murmur for a museum of the streets), incredible vistas (drive along Highway 1 to Bolinas), and a list that could fill up the remainder of this blog post, is also the thing that wore me out. With the constant availability of physical and intellectual riches and feeling like I could never miss an event, I found it difficult to know my own priorities. I guess I had a classic case of burn out.
The Bay Area with its swirling diversity of all things made possible, also made it difficult to hear my still small voice, especially at a time when my muse was advising me to dig into new territory. With a greater maturity that age and experience brings, I felt ready to begin that exploration, much like the way Rabbi Isaac Luria and his followers advised that a person only study Kabbalah after developing some serious life chops.
Can I hear my voice more clearly in Monroe, Louisiana where my own true love resides, where I enjoy daily bike rides around Bayou Bartholomew and watching the neighborhood kids stride across the bayou ditch, hunters in search of small prey?
I’m told that to skin a squirrel, you must nail its head to a tree, slit it up and down its middle and pull off its fur.
There’s something reassuring about the specificity of those directions.
I’m in the process of relocating to Monroe, Louisiana from Oakland, California. Love is the reason and answer.
Most of my friends who live in California where I’ve resided for the past 20 or so years can only relate to New Orleans—thank you Gulf Oil Spill, Hurricane Katrina, and also Louis Armstrong.
Monroe is about four and a half hours away from New Orleans, located in the northeast corner of the state. When I explain this to my friends, they respond with a clouded look of pity.
I wonder to myself, "Can I move to the south from Oakland, California, a city that is smack dab in the middle of the flourishing Bay Area where almost anything is possible to a place where there are no direct flights from or to anywhere and frankly, where I feel like I'm a conversoamid blocks and blocks of Baptist churches, where I’m always sweating in 95 degree plus summer heat?"
Okay. You got the drift. So back in the Bay, I was working in high-tech. A specialized niche as a writer. Now what, I ask myself, recently returned from a writing workshop in Istanbul where I attended Shabbos services at an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue, Neve Shalom. The synagogue was bombed twice, the last time being on November 15, 2003. The bombing turned the synagogue into ruins and killed many people. Since then, the building has been restored. Security is tight. I had to submit a copy of my passport several days in advance to be admitted.
The once active community surrounding the synagogue, located near the Galata Tower in the Beyoglu District of Istanbul, has dispersed. Services are held only on Shabbat mornings, special holidays, or occasionally rented out for weddings.
Mel Kenne, a poet and expatriate who translates many outstanding Turkish poets and who lives near the Galata Tower, told me that he often hears Jewish neighbors speaking Spanish. So it seems that all congregants living in the area have not completely moved away.
When I left the synagogue after Kiddush, an accordion player stepped out on the cobblestone streets and started to play Tumbalalaika, a well-loved Ashkenazi tune. Istanbul is a mélange of languages, cultures, and civilizations. When I was there, I wrote a poem entitled, “Faith Has No Name.”
So what am I going to do in Monroe? I don’t want to be a cashier or a security guard, job posts that frequently appear on indeed.com. There’s a different economic basis here, a back and forth between environmental cleanup and ongoing pollution thanks to companies like Dow Chemical, Georgia Pacific, and refineries that form the underpinnings of Baton Rouge. Maybe after years of being a single mom and raising a family, I could dedicate myself to writing fulltime…I mull the thought over and it mulls well.
One of the strange, but nice, things that come from publishing a book is that people start to take you seriously—with certain exceptions. Largely as a result of my having written Am I a Jew? I was invited to teach a class on religious journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. This has been a fun and challenging experience for me as someone with a full time job as an editor of Men’s Journal magazine, a book currently on the shelves, and a third child, who is just a month old.
The students in my class are all bright, ambitious, and sophisticated. They are at the graduate level, which means they can write, understand reporting, and want to engage with the world in a serious way. I find myself humbled to think that they show up once a week to hear me talk about telling stories that involve religion and spirituality. I also find myself pretty impressed with me. NYU! Graduate students! I must be doing something right, no?
Well, there is one group of people in my life not quite as impressed—my family. Each and every one of them—my wife first and foremost—have had the same reaction to learning I would be teaching this class. Religious journalism? Try to hear the tone of incredulity reach across genders and generations from my wife to my mother to my father to my brother and beyond. A big shot! Mr. Expert on God, here.
In honor of Haley Tanner being named a 2012 "5 under 35" honoree by the National Book Foundation, this week's "Book Cover of the Week" is the paperback edition of her novel Vaclav and Lena, published this past February by Random House. Read Haley's posts for the Visiting Scribe here and also check out fellow 2012 "5 under 35 honoree" and Visiting Scribe Stuart Nadler's posts here.
I found my first error in my book in this sentence in the introductory chapter, “Hidden Jew”: “My stepfather [Randy]…knew from very early on that my mother was Jewish. His rather conservative family didn’t, and they still don’t.”
This was, to the best of my knowledge, true at the time of my writing it. There is, in fact, a later, and longer, passage in the book devoted to this very subject: namely, that my mother was so proud about my success as a writer that she couldn’t help telling her family and friends in Mississippi about it—but she was so committed to keeping her Judaism a secret that she never told them what the book was about. (I’ve written about this online in some detail. Please read here to see what I’m talking about.)
Anyway, I recently returned from a family trip to Mississippi, where the discussion of the book was very much a dinner table topic. My step-grandmother, Anne, a wonderful woman with whom I’ve always had a great, if-not-entirely-frank, relationship, chimed in with this over our red beans and rice:
“I suppose it’s time to let the cat out of the bag,” she said, hushing everyone. “Right after your mother and Randy fell in love”—when I was about 12 or 13, or around 1986—“he said, 'Now, Mom, she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s Jewish. So don’t say anything.'”
There were a couple of implications here. First, our circumspection, or downright lying, through the years had been for nothing—they had known we were Jewish. What’s more—and no one said this, but it was implied—they had known without our saying a thing, assuming it somehow from our manner, appearance, and attitudes. Which is a little discomfiting, but still amusing from where I sit. As I have always said to my mother whenever she tries on a bit of a southern accent: “Ma, you can take the girl outta Queens. But you can’t take the Queens outta the girl.”
As this is my first post, please allow me to introduce myself: I am the author of Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself, which tells the story of a secular Jewish kid (me) who moves from New York to Mississippi, where he is forced by his mother to pretend he is a Christian. As an adult, I determine to understand what place, if any, there is in the religion of my birth for a kid who sang lead in an Episcopal school choir, studied the Bible, and took Communion. There’s more to it—everything from Jewish Catholic priests in New Mexico to my ten-minute bar mitzvah as a 38-year-old—but that’s a fair start to understanding where I’m coming from.
I sometimes struggle to explain what renewed my interested in Judaism. As I write in the book: "I visited a Holocaust Memorial site on vacation in the Czech Republic (it moved me to be sure, but not in this direction); I had children (I love them but that didn’t do it either); I lost members of my family (I miss my grandparents but I’m not [doing this] for them). The truth, banal as it might sound, is that I simply wanted to know. Or, more precisely, I needed to. Like my mother, I had my own myth to make real. Only mine, instead of entailing the abandonment of a specific and defined heritage, would require its embrace."
So I lack a simple answer for what motivated the project and process of answering my question. I do, however, remember the specific thing that convinced me to re-enter the world of Judaism, in my own way: the Manhattan eruv. Most readers of this blog, I assume, are familiar both with the concept of eruvin as well as the unique history of the one located in Manhattan (you may not, however, know, that a certain Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side holds a—admittedly ceremonial—99-year lease on the entire island, at the bargain price of just one dollar), but I didn’t, and when I happened one day some years ago to notice the wires of the Manhattan crisscrossing the avenue outside of my office, I was inspired enough to learn.
The presence of this massive, symbolic Jewish household suggested a few, very important things to me: first, I was in a Jewish world already and I didn’t know it; second, that world was complex and meaningful, even if I couldn’t really accept its spiritual underpinnings; and last, and most important, if I didn’t make the effort to see that house—that world—it would, for all practical purposes, not exist. Now, I wander the city doing something very un-New York: looking up, scanning the streetlights for evidence of eruvin.