The ProsenPeople

Different Jokes for Different Folks

Wednesday, August 03, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Melissa Fay Greene shared the story behind the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

Twenty years ago, as I set out upon my very first book tour, for Praying for Sheetrock—my 1991 work of nonfiction about the heyday of a corrupt ‘courthouse gang’ on the flowery coast of Georgia and the belated rise of civil rights there—I discovered I had a line in my book-talk that only Jews laughed at.

It was unintentional on my part. I thought it was funny; I didn’t realize until I criss-crossed the country with it, like a stand-up comic, that it wasn’t funny to non-Jews.

The scene: “the blazing summer nights of 1975, as darkness dropped…” when the rural black citizens of McIntosh County, enraged by the police shooting of an unarmed man and by the deliberate neglect of the all-black public school system by the all-white school board, stormed across the sand parking lot, illuminated by bare light-bulbs dangling from wires strung through the live-oak trees, and crowded into the weather-beaten Shorters Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

I read aloud from my book: “Every pew in the church was packed; well-dressed people lined the walls and crowded into the rear of the church; and a choir in royal-blue satin robes led the congregation in rich and heartfelt music. The choir held hymnals without looking into them and swayed heavily back and forth in unison, stamping once as they leaned left, stamping again as they leaned right, and the congregation in full voice joined in.”

Then I told a story that was not in the book.  “Whenever I attended one of these political prayer meetings,” I told my audience, “I was always seated up front, an honored guest, the only white person in the room. It was a disadvantage because I couldn’t really see what was going on, without constantly looking over my shoulder.  One night the minister, to be especially welcoming to me, invited me to come up and lead a hymn. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t,’ I stammered, ‘for two reasons: first, I can’t sing like THAT, like these incredible voices. And secondly, I’m Jewish and I don’t know the words.’

“’Welcome to you!’ cried the tall skinny perspiring coal-black reverend, dressed in a tight-fitting coal-black suit like a mortician. ‘The black and the white, the Greek and the Jew, we’re all children of Christ.”

That’s when the Jewish people in my audiences laughed. From New York to Seattle, from Madison, Wisconsin, to Austin, Texas, Jews laughed at that line.  If I heard one laugh only, I could glance up from my notes and spot him or her instantly: Of course, Mrs. Goldberg, there you are; oh, Dr. Stein, how are things here in Kansas City?

It wasn’t a funny line to Christians, though. It comes from Scripture (I learned, on the road), from the Epistle to the Colossians (as it was pointed out to me) wherein it is written: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.  [Colossians, 3. 9]

So I had to help my Christian friends see the humor. If I delivered the reverend’s line and no one laughed, I added: “I hadn’t ever heard it put like that before.”

I picked up a couple of chuckles here and there with that annotation, but it took another comment—“You know, that’s not what our rabbis tell us”—to really bring them home. Then everyone could laugh, because then they got why Ithought it was funny and it suddenly struck my audiences as a funny scene after all.

My high point with that line occurred here in Atlanta, at Central Presbyterian Church located in the heart of old downtown. I gave my Sheetrock talk and delivered my ‘We’re all children of Christ’ line and the entire audience exploded with laughter.

I was so stunned I couldn’t go on.

I came completely out of my author persona.

“Wait… what?” I said. “Why did you all laugh at that?”

The hearty audience laughed harder.

“But… but that’s a line that only Jews laugh at.”

Now they howled.

I looked hard at them, through narrowed eyes. “Are there a bunch of converts from Judaism in this church?”

Now they were shrieking.

“I don’t get it,” I said. I stood quietly, waiting for an explanation.

“Melissa,” said the hip young minister kindly. “I think we are laughing because we understand why that was funny to you.”


In 1996, I went on book tour again, this time with The Temple Bombing, about mid-20th  century white supremacist extremism and the 1958 attack on a Reform temple in Atlanta whose rabbi, Jacob M. Rothschild, was a fire-breathing advocate for racial justice.

Oddly, on this book tour, I ended up with a line that only Christians laughed at.

It went like this:

“We had a hard time coming up with a name for this book,” I told my audiences. “I wanted to call it When the Wolves of Hate were Loose, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning column, denouncing the bombing, written by Ralph McGill of theAtlanta Constitution the morning after the attack.

“But my publisher said it was too long a title; they said I could call it The Wolves of Hate.  But I said the book wasn’t about the wolves of hate; it was about a time when the wolves of hate were on the loose.  Then the publisher said there were too many wolves on the bookstore shelves already—there were wolf calendars, wolf address books—so forget the wolves. Then my mother got into the act, because she loved the title. She said, ‘Sweetie, why don’t you just find a different animal?’

“’Oh great, Mom,’ I said. ‘You mean like …When the Gerbils of Hate were Loose?’

“That’s when a friend came up with his great idea. ‘Melissa,’ he said. ‘Just call the book A Bomb In Gilead.’”

And that turned out to be a line that only Christians laughed at.  Why?

Because (I learned) ‘A balm inGilead’ is a common phrase in the Christian church. There is a popular African-American spiritual and Christian hymn (I learned) that goes like this:

There is a balm inGilead/To make the wounded whole;

There is a balm inGilead/To heal the sin-sick soul.

If you can’t preach like Peter,/If you can’t pray like Paul,

Just tell the love of Jesus,/And say He died for all.

Meanwhile, Gilead has been used by black preachers to refer to the American South. So my friend’s punning book title, A Bomb in Gilead, worked.

For Christians.

But it happened, with my Temple Bombing talk, that I had reams of fantastic material that was mildly amusing to Christians, but really funny for Jews, about some of the traditions that emerged among the Classical Reform temples in the middle of the 20th century, like blowing a trumpet instead of a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah because a ram’s horn was too Jewish; or the High Holy Day Shrimp Fry in a Louisiana congregation; or the time an Orthodox fellow found himself in a Southern town with only one Reform temple in which to daven on Yom Kippur and when he began knocking on his chest during the Al chet confession of sins people rushed to his aid because they thought he was having a heart attack.

So, I did this: I clipped together about six pages of my funniest stories for Jews and had them ready to go.

If, when I delivered the Bomb in Gilead line, there was widespread laughter among my listeners, I—while continuing to gaze smilingly upon my audience—subtly removed my paper-clipped pages and pushed them to the side, to be saved for another day.

But if the Bomb in Gilead line got no reaction, I looked out happily across my blank-faced audience, slipped my paper-clipped pages to the top, and prepared to give my fellow Jews a rollicking ride.

Now I’m touring with my new book, No Biking in the House Without A Helmet, my first truly light-hearted book, about raising our nine children: four by birth, one adopted from Bulgaria, and four adopted from Ethiopia.

I got into trouble with it my very first night out, the very first time I introduced material not from the book but from family life.

It concerned bringing five-year-old Helen from her Ethiopian orphanage into our family and into Judaism. She’d lost both her parents in the vast HIV/AIDS pandemic and had landed in a evangelical Christian orphanage in Addis Ababa, where we found her. At six years of age, she sat between me and my husband at Yom Kippur services. I whispered to her the importance of this day. “Thousands of years ago,” I said, “it was on this day only that the High Priest stepped into the Holy of Holies inside the Temple and—on this day only—he pronounced God’s name.  He was the only person alive who knew God’s name and these days nobody knows it.”

“I know God’s name,” the adorable little girl whispered back happily.

“You do?” whispered seven-year-old Jesse from my other side.  “What is it?”

And Helen tossed her braids happily and pronounced in a voice loud and clear enough for all to hear: “Jesus Christ.”

Unfortunately I was 80% of the way into the telling of this story—I had reached “I know God’s name,” whispered the little girl—when I suddenly thought, What on earth am I doing?? this audience is three-quarters non-Jewish! this is not going to be funny!! I’m going to offend people!!

Frantically I tried to invent, on the spot, a different punch-line.

But once you’ve reached, “You do? What is it?” in that story, it’s too late to invent a new punchline.

There was no way around it; I had to go through it. “Jesus Christ,” I said miserably, now whispering myself, and then I briskly turned the page and began with religion-neutral material.

Now I look forward to touring amongst the Jewish Book Festivals this fall, with the confidence that—if there’s a story none of you finds funny—it may play very, very well in New Hampshire.

Melissa Fay Greene’s latest book, No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, is now available.

Raising an Ethiopian Jewish Child in Georgia

Monday, August 01, 2011 | Permalink

Melissa Fay Greene is the author of No Biking in the House Without a HelmetShe will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog series.

The whole family at Yosef's bar mitzah party, 2010

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in November 2001, I pulled up to the gates of the compound of the Beta Israel people (disparagingly known as Falashas [strangers]), hoping to be admitted, along with my brand-new daughter, to Shabbat morning services.

Arriving among these religiously-observant and destitute people, of rural origin, by taxi rather than on foot was likely to make a poor impression. But I’d known no one in the area to ask for Shabbat hospitality and my hotel stood half a city away from this dusty ramshackle neighborhood of mud huts and corrugated tin roofs. It was my first trip to Ethiopia. I’d flown seven thousand miles to report for the New York Times Magazine on conditions among some of Africa’s orphans of HIV/AIDS (which eventually gave rise to my book, There Is No Me Without You (Bloomsbury, 2007) and to meet a five-year-old girl named Helen, whom my family was adopting.

Helen in the orphanage

We were an American-Jewish family of seven, living in Atlanta; we had four children by birth and one by adoption from Bulgaria. The year the children were 6, 9, 13, 17, and 20, I lingered at the sunny kitchen table one morning and read in the newspaper that the United Nations was calling Africa “a continent of orphans.” Fourteen to twenty-five million children had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. I read those pages not only as a concerned world citizen, but as a journalist, and as a mother aware that a perfectly good twin bed upstairs was going unused. “Could I write about this?” I wondered. I’d only stepped foot in Africa once, in Morocco, in my 20s. “Can you adopt from Africa?” I also wondered. “Can you adopt one of the fourteen to twenty-five million orphaned children?”

Aware of Israel’s airlift of 20,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 in Operation Moses (Mivtzah Moshe) and another 15,000 in Operation Solomon (Mitzvah Shlomo) in 1991, I located online an organization called the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry [NACOEJ], which helped support Jewish organizations in Addis. I phoned their New York office and asked, “Are any of the Jewish children orphans in need of adoption?”

The answer was yes, there were orphans, but no, they were not available for adoption. NACOEJ’s mission was to bring the people to Israel. They told me of an American orphanage in Addis, and I phoned there next, asking the same question in reverse: “Are any of the orphans Jewish?”

“They may be,” I was told, “but many don’t know what they are. We have a quarter-of-a-million orphans here. Is that your only criteria?”

By November I was on a plane to Addis: the New York Times had commissioned a story; and my family had been matched with Helen, a tiny, bright, and darling (non-Jewish) girl who’d lost her father when she was two, and her doting mother just a few months earlier.

Our first afternoon together in Addis Ababa, I took Helen shopping for new clothes, including shul clothes, and watched as she stepped out of her dusty orphanage jean overalls and into a complicated plaid wool jumper, a white blouse with a lace collar, and a royal blue corduroy jacket with brass buttons. Curly yarn sheep were affixed to the jumper and jacket. The ensemble seemed designed to be worn in Scotland at Christmastime rather than on a dry African plateau in 90-plus-degree heat to a jerry-rigged local synagogue. While I paid for the outfit and a new pair of sandals, she hopped beside me in excitement.

Helen now

Helen wore her new clothes that Saturday morning as our taxi parked outside the Jewish compound. Half a dozen young men—guards—surrounded our car and looked through the windows. Helen scooted under my arm in shyness. Our driver got out of the car to explain that I was an American Jew hoping to attend services. Arguments seemed to follow, with a lot of gesticulating, while more young men jockeyed for a closer look at us through the windows. I rolled down the window to greet them with my paltry number of Hebrew words. I displayed my Chai necklace, but they turned away. The discussion grew heated outside the car, until the taxi driver got back in to report that the guards did not think I looked Jewish. The child looked Jewish, but I did not. If only I’d brought a letter from a rabbi or from the Israeli embassy in Ethiopia, they would have welcomed me happily; but, without anyone vouching for me, they were obliged to turn me away.

In America, I look Jewish. In Ethiopia, I did not look Jewish. In Ethiopia, Helen looked Jewish. But, in America, Helen does not look Jewish. She has borne this bravely, while embracing Judaism with a full heart.

In my book, I describe preparing Helen for her conversion to Judaism at age six, including a visit to the mikveh. Jesse, then age 7, tried to explain:

Jesse had loved converting to Judaism! Well, he hadn’t loved the in-hospital under-total-anesthesia circumcision, but he didn’t really remember it. He had loved going to the mikveh. To attain a state of ritual purity, religious men and women disrobe and immerse themselves in a cistern, a natural spring, a flowing river, the ocean, or a very small indoor pool. Jesse fearlessly, nakedly, cannon-balled into the water of a tiled mikveh at a local synagogue under the gaze of an Orthodox rabbi; he immersed himself the required three times, and for good measure did a somersault, his little white butt flashing briefly above the water line.

Now, in the back seat of the car, he excitedly prepared Helen for her visit to the mikveh. “The blue-green water will cover all your body and make you Jewish!” he enthused.
“Yes! You take off all your clothes and you jump in!”
“Wait. You take off all your clothes?” she asked.
“Yes! And you jump in the blue-green water!”
“And the rabbi’s there?”
“Then I’m not taking off my clothes.”
“Yes, you have to,” he insisted. “The blue-green water touches every part of your body and makes you Jewish.”
“I’ll wear a swimsuit,” she said.
“You can’t! Right, Mommy? You have to be naked so the blue-green water can touch every part of your body and make you Jewish!”
“I am not taking off my underpants.”
“You have to!” he said again,, alarmed by this unforeseen obstacle. (In fact, it would be conducted with modesty and privacy.) Jesse was nearly weeping now: “The blue-green water has to touch every part of your body to make you Jewish.”
“Forget it,” Helen pronounced, looking out the window to end the discussion. “I am wearing my underpants.”
“FINE!” yelled Jesse. “Fine! But your BUTT is NOT going to be Jewish!”

Though Helen had been reassured of the modesty of the mikveh ceremony, she nevertheless panicked when the big day was upon us. She refused to emerge unclothed from the dressing room. “I don’t need to do this! I’m already Jewish!” she cried through the closed door. “My mother was Jewish!”

“Helen, REALLY? How do you know?” my husband and I called back.
“Because we always celebrated Chanukah!”
“OK, sweetie, hang on, let us ask the rabbi.”

The rabbi laughed merrily. “She picked the wrong holiday!” he said. “Ethiopian Jewry is older than Chanukah. If she’d said Sukkot, we’d have had something to talk about.”

“Helen, no, you’re not Jewish, come out!” we called, and she came.

She’s been trusting us ever since. She believes us that not all Jews are white people, although she was the only child of color in Religious School (until a family arrived with an adopted biracial daughter). She was the only child of color at her Jewish sleepaway camp. She was a gorgeous and historically-accurate Queen of Sheba (who was from Ethiopia) in Atlanta’s Purim parade. She helps make Shabos every Friday night. She davened so beautifully and hauntingly at her bat mitzvah, and then at her younger brother’s bar mitzvah—leading the Torah service, reading from the Torah, chanting the Haftorah, leading Minchah—that elderly men wept and asked where she’d been all their lives.

When Helen has outgrown her Jewish sleepaway camp, we will be happy to send her to Israel for travel and study, like her older siblings have done. I believe it will be obvious to everyone in Israel—teeming with Ethiopian Jewry—as it is obvious to us and to our congregation: this is what a Jewish child looks like.

Melissa Fay Greene‘s No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is now available. She will be blogging here all week.

Improving Moral Vocabulary

Thursday, July 28, 2011 | Permalink

Eric Greitens is the author of The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Author Blog.

In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how stories give us strength in trying times. Stories also have the power to repair and transform the reader and the writer.

The Jewish word tzedakah is usually translated as charity, but the word actually has a root that is closer to “justice,” and in this sense, tzedakah is understood not as something that is extra, but as something that is required. The allied Jewish concept of Gemilut Chasadim refers to the spirit in which the highest form of tzedakah is given, a spirit of all-loving kindness. We are required not only to repair the world and make it just, but we do this work best when we act with the spirit of loving-kindness.

We often live today with an impoverished moral vocabulary that limits our thinking about charity to questions about what we might do with our spare money, and our thinking about compassion to questions of what we might do with our spare time. If we give the resources of our time, our wisdom, and our wealth in the right way and at the right time, this can save lives. But there is a deeper power still. If we give in the spirit of loving-kindness practiced from one person to another, then we have tapped into an overwhelming power that can change our own lives just as we contribute service to others.

As a writer, the process of writing has allowed me to share stories of Marines hunting al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq and nuns who fed the destitute in Mother Teresa’s homes for the dying in India. Being able to relive these moments has enabled me to see how I’ve developed over the years. I’ve also had many readers tell me that the book has impacted them. Many have told me that they’ve been inspired to serve. And that, for me, is the most rewarding thing a writer can hear.

Eric Greitens’s newest book, The Heart and the Fist, is now available.

The Strength of Judiasm. The Courage of Social Justice.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011 | Permalink

Eric Greitens‘s most recent book, The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe.

In the preface of The Heart and the Fist, I explain to the reader that I’ve been lucky enough to learn from amazing warriors and humanitarians alike. Through this book, I hope to share how their work and their stories inspire me.

How do stories relate to the narrative of social justice and Judaism? The human mind is narrative; we tend to think in stories, and there is a strength in story and tradition. In some of our most dire times, we look to stories because they give us strength.

I spent time in Rwanda working with unaccompanied children who had survived the genocides. I spoke to many children, women, and men that had endured the unimaginable. One young man, who had studied English in Kigali and hid with his sister and two young neighbor girls during the violence, told me that during the violence he thought of Elie Wiesel—the Holocaust survivor—and he asked me if I’d read Night.

The world is full of stories of courage, too infrequently told. I’ve read accounts of courageous people who took risks to care, and they often drew upon stories from their faith and their family. These stories were enough to assure them that, though they may have felt alone at the time as the only person providing secret shelter, they were in fact standing in a deeper, wider stream of conscientious people throughout history who have stood against injustice.

Check back on Thursday for more from Eric Greitens, author of The Heart and the Fist.

An Empty Mental Space

Friday, July 22, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dr. Erica Brown asked, “What are the Three Weeks, anyway?”, and wrote about learning to mourn. Her new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available.

Jewish law is based generally on the assumption that our emotions follow our actions. If we act charitably, we will become, over time, more compassionate human beings. We don’t wait for a moment of empathy to hit before we obligate ourselves to give. Yet we are commanded when it comes to certain emotions: we are supposed to love God, supposed to refrain from hate towards others and feel reverence for our parents.

During the Three Weeks, the summer stretch of time that is marked by two fasts commemorating the destruction of the Temples and any other persecution of Jews in history, we are obligated to mourn. Our mourning consists of many behaviors designed to minimize our sense of joy. But if you look carefully at the Shulkhan Arukh, the sixteenth century code of Jewish law written by Rabi Joseph Karo, you notice a small but stunning appeal to the emotions.

In addition to the Three Weeks as a calendar marking, there are a set of laws that we are supposed to observe to remind us of the loss of our holy Temples. We break a glass at a Jewish wedding and some have the custom of putting an ash mark on the forehead of the groom. In other words, our happiest moments are tarnished – if just a little bit – because we realize their incompleteness without our ancient spiritual center. These practices are still common today.

Less common is the idea that whenever a woman wears her full set of jewelry, she should leave out one piece. Whenever we set our tables for a holiday feast, we leave one place setting empty and whenever we build a home, we leave a space free of plaster near our front door. All of these practices share one common theme: emptiness.

It is near impossible to mourn something we have never experienced. The closest, perhaps most honest response to loss is to leave a space empty that should not be filled. This approach has characterized many memorials to loss in recent years. The Oklahoma bombings have been commemorated with a field of empty chairs. The 9/11 Pentagon plane crash has been marked in a similar way, with empty benches for the number of people who died in that terrorist attack.

Right at the end of the code of Jewish law that presents these practices, we read that no one should experience complete happiness in this life. This goes far beyond table settings and to the heart of what loss means. If you ask anyone who has lost a very close friend, a child or a spouse, they will tell you that although – over time – they live “normally,” they never experience complete happiness because a piece of themselves is always missing. That, I believe, is what our sages of old wanted us to experience – a loss of a collective spirit and connection to the divine that we can only approximate but never fully understand, that we carry with us always.

Dr. Erica Brown has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearningHer new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available, and she will be tweeting during the Three Weeks at @DrEricaBrown.

Reference Find

Thursday, July 21, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Just found out about this beefy-looking reference collection on Jewish Americans–a new addition to an ongoing series from Salem Press.

The 4-volume Great Lives from History: Jewish Americans  features 646 essays covering 653 people from the 18th century to the present.

Bonus: schools and libraries that purchase the book set also get access to the online version of the content for free.

Sample articles on Hannah ArendtChaim Potok, Henry Kissinger, and others are available for pre-purchase perusal.

Learning to Mourn

Wednesday, July 20, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Dr. Erica Brown asked, “What are the Three Weeks, anyway?” She will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s the Visiting Scribe.

We have become who we are as a people not only by celebrating our most joyous collective occasions, like Passover and Shavuot, but also by our capacity to mourn as a group for that which we’ve lost or never experienced. This is best embodied by the demands of the season – the Three Weeks – that are bookended by two fasts all grieving over the loss of the TemplesJerusalem and other tragedies of Jewish history.

I’ve heard people complain that they can’t get worked up about something that happened so long ago and has little relevance to their lives today. But I imagine that pilgrimage to Jerusalem must have been a remarkable sight. Seeing people stream into the holy city from every possible direction with their families in tow must have created an expansive feeling of pride and unity, one that is hard to imagine in today’s Jewish world.

We don’t have many occasions that bring us together, let alone three pilgrimage holidays a year that characterized our ancient service. We should mourn the loss of this collective place of gathering, if only because we know its absence too intimately in contemporary Judaism. We have no such gathering place for our collective guilt, tears, happiness and consolation. It must have been special to have a central holy site to bring all of our tears and prayers of thanksgiving, to travel to with all our good and bad news. And even if we were waylaid and couldn’t make it to Jerusalem, there must have been comfort in merely knowing that such a place existed.

One of my beloved teachers calls the Kotel, the Western Wall, God’s office. I laugh every time he says it. But I know that the spiritual world looks different to those who feel that God has an “office” in this world even if you don’t live close by it.

Today, we are so distant from an appreciation of Jewish history that we do not even know how to mourn or even that we are supposed to mourn. The Three Weeks isn’t for “antique” Jews, those who live in some distant and unfathomable past. It is a period for all Jews to take stock of what community and peoplehood means from a spiritual and historic perspective. When we talk about redeeming the future we have to create a picture of what that collective future might look like. As Jews, we do that by looking back at our past first.

Dr. Erica Brown’s new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available. 

It’s tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011 | Permalink

A reminder to everyone looking forward to the JBC Twitter Book Club tomorrow–

Discussion of The Eichmann Trial with Deborah Lipstadt (@deborahlipstadt) will begin at 12:30pm Eastern.

Search for the hashtag #JBCBooks on Twitter to keep up with the conversation.

What Are the Three Weeks, Anyway?

Monday, July 18, 2011 | Permalink

Dr. Erica Brown is the author of In the Narrow Places, a daily meditation for each day of the Three Weeks. She will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Visiting Scribe.

I recently spoke at a Melton graduation that marked a two year commitment of adults studying Judaism seriously through a global curriculum out of the Hebrew University. The rabbi who introduced me mentioned my current book In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks followed immediately by, ‘If you don’t know what the Three Weeks are, please sign up for Melton.” I was happy to be used as an advertisement for the course but less happy with the realization that this time period is virtually unknown outside of traditionally observant circles.

Let’s face it. It is odd to have any commemorative period referred to by the number of days it occupies, and the fact that it happens during the summer does nothing to help its popularity. The Three Weeks is officially called “bein ha-mitzarim” – between the straights or narrow places from the biblical book of Lamentations. This quiet quasi-month of mourning is marked by two fasts: the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av.

The three week period includes these fasts at both ends and a general mourning period in between which is solemnized by reducing our daily sense of joy. Traditional Jews do not go to public concerts or movies. Many men do not shave. We reduce our personal hygiene somewhat and minimize the role of music in our lives. But these small daily inconveniences have not necessarily added up to the period of introspection that should characterize this time on the Jewish calendar.

The 17th of Tammuz represents the beginning of the siege of ancient Jerusalem and the weeks that ensue take us sadly to the destruction of both the first and second Temples. The Ninth of Av is the strictest fast we observe after Yom Kippur. It is 24 hours in duration, and we are also forbidden from wearing leather shoes, washing or perfuming ourselves or engaging in sexual relations. Congregants sit on the floor in the evening, listening to the book of lamentations read in a haunting melody and then recite kinnot the next morning, a litany of complex, mostly medieval poems in acrostic fashion that take us from one calamity in Jewish history after another. It is an emotionally draining day. Adding to the hunger is the fatigue of loss that envelopes the mourners who reflect on how tragedy shapes us and our values.

Mourning does shape us. Recognizing what we have lost is an important way that we value what we have. And it is time that as community we stretch back farther than the Holocaust to realize just how persecution and loss has shaped our past and how survival and redemption constantly shape our present and future. The Three Weeks is a gift of collective introspection at a time when we need to enhance our sense of group values and our shared memories.

Dr. Erica Brown’s new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available. 

Behind Farm 54: The Making of the Story “Houses”

Friday, July 15, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Galit and Gilad Seliktar shared the making of the first story and the second story in Farm 54In their final post, they share the background behind “Houses,” the third story in their graphic novel. They have been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Galit: This story is the most autobiographical of all three texts, the most true-to-life. I was drafted to compulsory army service in 1989 during the first Intifadah and, after basic training as an educational non-commissioned officer, I was assigned to a base near Bethlehem. Already on the first night I asked for a transfer away from the occupied territories but, while my request was being processed, I had to remain there for about two weeks. As in the book, on the very first night I went on a nocturnal house demolition mission, replacing another female soldier who did not want to go. The night left its mark on me and for many years I repeatedly retold the events, until I decided to write them as a short story. With the hindsight of a writer I realized that, beyond the actual events, what was perhaps worse was revealed by the way I described the heroine – as a person completely insulated from the situation and from the suffering of the others. While this dovish character manages to refrain from directly and deliberately harming the Palestinian residents placed under her responsibility, I now think that her (that is, my) decision to obey such orders with little protest is almost as harmful as keen participation.

Galit Seliktar during her military service, 1989/1990

An egg-sorting warehouse used as reference for “Houses”:

Gilad: There were parts in this story that I found to be too direct or dramatic, too loud. As I approached it, I decided to lower the volume by giving several scenes an understated quality, which is more characteristic of my work, as opposed to some of Galit’s writing that often tends to be more explicit. One of these scenes was the part where the female officer takes the rabbit from the Palestinian boy. In the original text (and, according to Galit, also in reality during that night in 1989) the boy was crying, asking the officer to give the rabbit back to him. Instead of showing the boy crying I drew him sitting quietly on the stairs, staring at how the officer hugs the animal, holding it close to her chest and cheek. The picture of that lone rabbit took me the greatest number of drafts by far. It was meant to facilitate calming the scene while introducing a charged and frozen silence that captures the moment with all its fear, resentment, and banality.

Early sketches for the scene in which the Israeli female officer is taking the Palestinian boy’s rabbi:

Photographs from a Palestinian village used as reference for “Houses” (name withheld at residents’ request):

Galit and Gilad Seliktar’s graphic novel, Farm 54, is now available.