The ProsenPeople

4 Jewish Cookbooks We're Excited About This September

Thursday, August 29, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

As summer winds down and we begin to prepare for the High Holidays (!), we've had something very important on our minds: food. Thankfully, this September brings with it four new cookbooks of particular appeal to our fellow members of the tribe:




Bonus: win a signed copy of Michael Ruhlman's The Book of Schmaltz, which was published earlier this month by Little, Brown + stay tuned for guest blogs from Jamie Geller later this month, whose new cookbook, The Joy of Kosher, will be pubbing from William Morrow in October.

The Walking Jewish Exhibitionists

Thursday, August 29, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Slash Coleman wrote about the first Jewish superhero in his family. His memoir, The Bohemian Love Diaries, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a keynote address at a middle school. My ever-proud Jewish mother insists on attending. As I’m waiting to be called to the stage, the principal and I start talking. He finds out my mom is in the audience. She’s been a teacher in his district for over forty years. He asks if he can go on a tangent before he introduces me. His eyes light up when he says the word tangent.

During his introduction he asks my mom to stand up and then he announces that she’s a Holocaust survivor. People applaud. This is the worst thing ever. It’s like pinning a bull’s-eye to my mom’s forehead. (If you don’t know, she’s the one in my book who reminds us each Hanukkah just as she wraps our menorah in an old rag and hides it in a mop bucket underneath the sink, “Don’t tell anyone your Jewish. They will find you. They will kill you. You will die.”) In some way, I know this is my fault. I’ve breached not only our family contract, but something more - I’ve put her survival at risk.

From backstage, I imagine my mom hunching over and figuring out how to make an exit. Finally, she stands up and runs out of the school.

When I call her afterward she says she’s sorry she couldn’t stay.

The problem with being Jewish is they make you do stuff,” she says. I've heard this before. She's quoting her favorite Jewish author, Eliezer Sobel. Whenever she wants to prove a point she turns to a certain page in his book Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken.

To make matters worse, Sobel is my friend, so whenever she quotes him it's like she's spooning on the Jewish mother guilt. "Eliezer says there are prayers for everything - upon rising, upon going to the toilet, upon eating fruit, upon smelling a new smell, upon seeing a deformed person, for baking challah, for building a sukkah."

I mostly tune her out and this gets me thinking about the 614th commandment that was added to our already long list of commandments that reads, “Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories. . . . They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz, lest their memory perish. . . . They are forbidden escape into either cynicism. . . . and a religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him.”

My mom says she doesn’t care about doing stuff anymore. She says she’s leaving that up to me and my nephew, Cody. She calls us The Walking Jewish Exhibitionists.

She refers to me in this way because of my first solo show, Slash Coleman has Big Matzo Balls, which debuted in 2007. In it, I attempt to come to terms with my mom’s surplus of perplexing social behaviors. During the show, I give birth to a matzo ball, have sex with a Jewish Fairy Godmother, do a stand-up routine dressed as Jesus, and talk to a sock puppet named the Super Cock.

The show manages to offend just about everyone. Many Jews said I didn’t have a right to tell the story because it didn’t belong to me. Christians threatened me. The reviewers hated it. Members of my synagogue dismissed my work saying, “He’s one of those (meaning a 2G). Let him do what he wants.” And, my mom hid in her room. She had spent a lifetime hiding her connection to anything Jewish and I was outing our family in the most public of ways.

When I hang up the phone, I call my nephew, Cody. He tells me he’s gotten another tattoo. This one, on his wrist, a Hebrew inscription - one of the most famous translations from the Torah. Moses asks God for his name and God answers “Eh-yeh Asher Eh-yeh” It means "I am that I am" or "I am what I am."

I think that things have come full circle now.

A generation of silence. A generation that questioned that silence and a generation that refuses to be silent.

When my mom finds out about the tattoo she calls and jokes that she needs a cootie shot. I think about holding her hand and drawing a circle and a dot on the back of it and repeating the phrase, “Circle. Circle. Dot. Dot. Now, I’ve got my cootie shot.”

“The problem with being Jewish,” I say to her, “is they make you do stuff.”

There is, as expected, only silence on the end of the line.

Slash Coleman is the author of The Bohemian Love Diaries, the personal perspectives blogger for Psychology Today, and an advice columnist at howdoidate.com (Ask Uncle Slash). He wrote, produced, and starred in the PBS Special The Neon Man and Me, which also won the United Solo Award for best drama and is creating The New American Storyteller for PBS. Visit his website here.

The French During the Holocaust and the Complications of History

Thursday, August 29, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lauren Grodstein wrote about her strange relationship with her son's all-American looks. Her most recent novel, The Explanation for Everything, will be published next week by Algonquin Books. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For the past eight summers, I’ve taught creative writing at the Paris American Academy, a small school in a neighborhood dotted with plaques celebrating French heroism during World War II. The plaques are placed high on the walls: this one marks where one Resister was shot, that one reminds us of a reassuring speech of DeGaulle’s. But when I leave this neighborhood and cross a few bridges to the Marais, a traditionally Jewish neighborhood, I lift my eyes to other sorts of plaques: this one marks where Jewish children were taken from their school and shipped to Auschwitz, that one remembers the complicity of the French.

The complicity of the French. My family is of Polish and Russian descent; during the early part of the 1900s, they fled their Eastern European shtetls and headed west. Those who had the money kept going to New York. Those who couldn’t stayed in France. Many of those who stayed were sent to Auschwitz during the war. The few who survived, my cousins, live in Paris.

Every summer, while I’m in France, I have dinner with these cousins, and we talk about all sorts of things: travel and books and movies, nothing too serious. They’re wonderful cooks and serve very French meals, h’ors d’oeuvres to start, cheese to finish. We sit out in their garden after and sometimes I steal one of their cigarettes.

This summer, I mentioned that I’m working on a new novel, and that one of the characters has a grandmother who survived the war in France. My cousin Francois was curious. "How did she survive?"

I was embarrassed that I hadn’t hashed out the details yet – maybe she’d been hidden by a dairy farmer? Maybe her father had been a butter dealer before the war and used his connections to save her?

"Absolutely not," Francois said. "The Jews weren’t in the butter business, and anyway the dairy farmers were in Normandy, which was occupied by the Germans. Your character would have gone south, as close to Spain as she could. She would have stayed with subsistence farmers."

We went back and forth on the logistics of this character’s story for a while, with Francois describing the way the police kept records of its French citizens, the way they rounded up all the Jews one night, the way they stuffed them into a stadium and then onto the cattle trains. This all happened when his mother was seven years old; she’d spent the night of the round up away from home, with her mother. When they returned they found their apartment ransacked, her beloved aunts and uncles all gone. Within weeks her mother found her refuge with peasants in the south, where she lived out the bulk of the war. Many of the people she knew died in the camps.

As the details grew more gruesome, I found myself feeling off-balance. How could I spend summers here so blithely, in a country that hunted down my own family? And how could Francois be so proud to be French, to have married a French woman, to be raising French kids? To serve me these entirely French meals? "And you’re sure this wasn’t the Germans, doing these things?" I was used to thinking of Germans as the enemy.

"No no," he said. "It was the French."

I paused, then said something rather impolite, especially considering Francois’s eternal hospitality. "I just don’t understand how you can live here."

"Well," he said, calmly topping off our glasses, like we were discussing the weather. "How is it that you can live where you live? In the USA?"

"Francois, the USA never hunted down its own people!"

"Didn’t it?" he said. When I didn’t answer, he gave me that French shrug meant to convey the unsayable. I looked away.

"Listen, all countries have their own horror stories," he said. "And you know, it was French farmers who saved my mother, a French policeman who told my grandmother to stay away the night of the round up. French resistance members who found my grandmother her false papers. And years before that, it was France that welcomed them when they escaped the Cossacks."

"Yes, but – but then they -" He was right, of course – but I was also right, a little.

"Then they what? Some French people were good, some were not so good. History is complicated," he said. "It’s complicated for me, and for you, too, non?"

What to say to that? I picked up one of his cigarettes, compelled by the force of an old bad habit. France is complicated, and being Jewish anywhere is complicated, I know that. My own country is complicated, and so is the story of how I came to live there. But that night, lulled by the wine and the smoke and the cool French air, I gave in to not knowing how to feel. It wasn’t an argument I could win, nor was it one I wanted to win. What did I want to prove? France was bad? Its people were? Then why was I so happy there, with my French friends, French cousins, French summers? Why were people so gracious to me? Why had I eaten, on its sidewalks, some of the best Jewish food of my life?

I lit my cigarette, defeated by the complications and my heavy belly. So instead of solving anything, I decided to be grateful to be where I was, with the family that survived.

Lauren Grodstein’s books include the novels The Explanation for Everything, A Friend of the Family, and Reproduction is the Flaw of Love and the story collection The Best of Animals. Lauren teaches creative writing at Rutgers-Camden, where she helps administer the college’s MFA program. Visit her website here.

A Poem: The Quantum Rabbi

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 | Permalink

A poem from the recently published To Sing Away the Darkest Days: Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs (Holland Park Press), a new poetry collection from Norbert Hirschhorn:

The Quantum Rabbi

Nu, Einstein, with your ferret’s brain,
come sit at our Rebbe’s table and learn
a thing or two. So you made a rocket

to shoot at the stars? Which makes you 
a wonder? Ha! Our Rebbe opens his 
umbrella and he’s dancing on Mars.

You discovered relativity? Our Rebbe can fly
faster than light to greet the shabbos bride
from the previous night, returns looking younger.

Don’t beat the kettle about your Big Bang!
Who do you think was virtually there when G-d,
Master of the Universe, created time, heaven, earth!

And when the moshiyekh, the Anointed One,
comes to rebuild our Temple, our Rebbe will be
alongside – sanctifying, cantillating, praying.

© Norbert Hirschhorn 2013

From Norbert Hirschhorn’s poetry collection To Sing Away the Darkest Days: Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs, published by Holland Park Press

To Sing Away the Darkest Days is the culmination of a five-year project which saw Norbert Hirschhorn source more than one thousand Yiddish songs. The songs helped Norbert to rediscover and trace his own Jewish cultural history. However, some of the songs ‘spoke’ to him as a poet and begged for a new translation, or ‘re-imagining’ as he calls it, into English poems. The resulting collection tells the story of the emigrant, the Jew in the Diaspora. Norbert Hirschhorn is a physician specializing in international public health, commended in 1993 by President Bill Clinton as an ‘American Health Hero.’ His poems have been published in over three dozen journals and won a number of prizes in the US and UK. To Sing Away the Darkest Days is his fourth full collection.

A Southern Jewish Superhero

Tuesday, August 27, 2013 | Permalink
Slash Coleman is the author of The Bohemian Love Diaries, the personal perspectives blogger for Psychology Today, and an advice columnist at howdoidate.com (Ask Uncle Slash). He wrote, produced, and starred in the PBS Special The Neon Man and Me, which also won the United Solo Award for best drama and is creating The New American Storyteller for PBS. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
 

The call comes in the middle of the night.

“Your nephew’s got it in his head that he wants to have a bar mitzvah,” my mom says. “And you’re going to have to make it happen. Your sister wants no part of it and I’m too busy.”

“I’ve got this,” I say.

Cody is my sister’s kid. He’s one of two nephews I have that are half-Jewish and half-descendants from the great Southern war hero Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president of the United States and the last president to actually own slaves. You don’t get any more “good ol’ boy” than Zach.

Cody is being raised in a low income apartment project without a father a few miles from where I was raised in Richmond, Virginia - the capital of the confederacy. Like me, he’s groomed on bacon sandwiches, NASCAR, and chicken on the bone. His mom did what my mom did. She intermarried. But then she took it a step further and became Baptist. Cody wouldn’t know a Jewish star from a rock star.

If you’re familiar with my book, then you know I had a very unorthodox introduction to Judaism. I was taught Hebrew from a rent-a-rabbi out of a Volkswagen bus located in the middle of the woods. The rabbi and his orange bus are long gone and so I send queries to all the synagogues in the area asking how someone like me can help someone like my nephew become a bar mitzvah.

Rabbi Schmuley is the only one who writes back. A week later, I’m sitting in his office telling him that I don’t understand why a kid who’s successfully assimilated would want to embrace something that’s caused so much pain to so many people in our family. I flash back to the time in middle school when I’m beat up in the empty lot by the Stromboli sisters for being Jewish.

“Inside the hearts of all Jews,” he says, “there is a self-activating-randomly-firing-super-Jew-fuse enabling our personal path to Heebdom. If we did not have this, we would have been diluted in half and in half and in half and into nothingness by mixed marriage long ago.”

He says the fuse, in Yiddish, is called the “Pentele Yid.”

“The mysterious Pentele Yid is a tiny Jew ember that is carried through the Jewish blood line - it holds our passion, our rituals, and our world famous matzo ball recipe.”

He explains that Halfies - those with one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent - like Cody and I, encompass over 80 percent of the entire Jewish population. For guys like us, who barely connect to the meaning behind what it means to be Jewish, our Pentele Yid is but a tiny, cold, blackened seed, passed along to future generations. Cody’s Pentele Yid is like my own - a cigarette butt stuffed in the bottom of a Pabst Blue Ribbon can.

“Yet, for whatever mysterious reason,” the rabbi continues, “the Pentele Yid can and does ignite into flame, sometimes skipping one generation and hitting another one many years down the road.”

And it’s true, in less than a year, Cody’s Pentele Yid not only mysteriously ignites, but the heat is so intense that it singes my entire family. In less than a year, the little no-Jew sprouts into a sort-of-Jew and then blossoms into the first Jewish superhero in my family. He conquers Hebrew with a southern twang, starts Shabbat services in his mother’s house, and brings dates to the synagogue (young red-neck girls who smell like honeysuckle, shellfish, and pork rinds) who laugh with him in the back seat of my car on the way to shul. He not only wants to re-convert our entire family, he wants to convert his entire apartment complex as well.

At his bar mitzvah the two sides of my family reunite for the first time in many years. The super Jews beside the sorta Jews – my sister in a halter top beside my uncle in a thousand dollar suit and a yarmulke. It’s inspiring, heart wrenching, and profound.

How does a descendant from a slave owning good ol’ boy blossom into the first Jewish superhero my family has ever seen? Because like a heart that has been forgotten or a soul that has been misplaced, our Yid has been ignited and with it the heart and soul of my family returns.

“The Jewish soul is always inside the body,” the rabbi whispers to me after the service, “it is the individual who must follow the yearning to return to that soul when the time is right.”

Read more about Slash Coleman here.

Interview: Ofir Touche Gafla

Tuesday, August 27, 2013 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Jewish Book Council recently had the chance to speak by Skype with Ofir Touché Gafla, whose first novel, The World of the End (Tor Books), was a bestseller in Israel and is now available for English speaking audiences to share the author’s vision of a consoling afterlife beloved by readers of diverse religious stripes. The book is about to be translated in Taiwan, Turkey, and France, so its appeal is clearly universal. Gafla is as funny and thoughtful in person as on the page, as our conversation ranged over a discussion of themes of his book and readers’ reactions, being a prose writer who teaches at a school for film and television writers (the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem), the importance of humor, what happiness is, and how he coaxes the best work from his students.

Beth Kissileff: Where did the story of this book come from? Not where did your ideas come from, but the story itself.

Ofir Touché Gafla: Whenever I start writing a book, there is a question. For me every book is the project of the question. I don’t have to answer it, but I have to make my reader ask it as well.

When I came up with this idea, I came up with the notion of end. The only endings that I know are manipulations, not genuine. This is not just in art. For example, when a person dies, that person doesn’t really die, he or she continues to exist in your memory.

A friend died at twenty-seven in a car accident, and whenever I think of her— I think quite a lot about her—I think of her as living, because the only memories we have are from living people. She continues to exist in my mind. She was a musician. When I play a CD that I think she would like, I think of her.

A month after she died, a CD came out by Portishead, a British band. I remember I went out to buy the CD, and thought, there is no way she doesn’t know about this CD, so I was thinking about the idea of ending, what does it mean….And then I thought, let’s write a story about a person who is writing endings for a living, who is looking for an ending to his own story.

I think this book is about the idea of possibility, people’s notions or idea of the process—what comes afterward, what they think, what they have been told over the years. It was very important to me that if I talk about something like the afterlife it would be unlike any of the conventional afterlives that you read or hear about, since there always has to be an alternative to familiar ideas. The very idea of an alternative is incredibly comforting.

BK: Your protagonist writes about his time in the afterlife, "The beginning of a story. It takes place here. In the Other World. The potential for storytelling in this world is simply endless." Is there something particularly Jewish in this optimism, not in staying in an end but creating a world of beginnings in the afterlife?

OTG: It is interesting because, as you may imagine, I’m not a religious man, although some of my family is very religious. My grandfather [Rabbi Yosef Mizrahi of Rehovot] was a big rabbi. I have always said I don't lay great store by the fact that I am Jewish because I had no say in the matter.

Having said that, I have a deep spiritual aspect. A good friend of mine, from France, who speaks Hebrew, read my books—we became friends through my books—argues with me ‘you are the most religious person I know. Your books are so religious, the way you translate religion.’

BK: Why write about the afterlife with humor?

OTG: I think that if there is one thing Judaism has that other religions lack it is humor. Seriously, you don’t find enough humor in other religions.

Whenever I saw other works that had to do with the post-mortem world, they were very grim and severe, I didn’t like it. I mean, can you imagine the promise of eternity without some humor?

BK: What is the genre of this book? It was published by a science fiction imprint, but I know nothing about science fiction, nor do I care to, and I found it wonderful.

OTG: I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, which might surprise some. I write fiction in the broadest sense of the word. If there's anything I truly dislike it is pigeonholing.

BK: You wrote in a lecture you gave in Iowa a few years ago about writing being your "work at happiness in progress." Care to add to that?

OTG: I think I wrote in another book of mine, The Day The Music Died, about the paradox of happiness—you are only happy whenever you forget about yourself. I only forget about myself when I read and when I write. This is true bliss, pure happiness. I am talking about reading because of all art forms, it is the most intimate and I think one can reach that state of happiness at the most intimate moments.

BK: Let’s talk about other parts of your life. How is it to be a prose writer at a school for aspiring filmmakers?

OTG: I am proud of this school because it aspires to excellence and indeed the students keep getting awards, international and local, every year for their excellent work. It is fascinating to be working with such students, to see how they start and how they end in terms of the evolution of their stories. My students encompass all of the Israeli DNA, a human map, it could be a reality show: religious, gay, Arab, settler, hard-core left winger.

BK: Tell me something of your sense of Israeli writing today, as part of a younger generation of writers.

OTG: First of all, I think something very good has been happening over the past decade. I think that writers are more selfish, and that's a compliment. When I say selfish, I mean a writer has to write about things that interest him, truly interest him. A good book is a book in which one can hear an engine of truth pulsating. Israeli writing today is very idiosyncratic; we write about stuff that really interests us. I think it makes for much better literature.

BK: Does this connect to how you teach students?

OTG: I do encourage them to self-probe—to write about the subjects that are dear to their hearts, to phrase and paraphrase key questions, or in other words, to find and explore their hidden subtext and then translate it into texts.

Ofir Touché Gafla’s other novels include The Cataract In The Mind's Eye, Behind The Fog, The Day the Music Died and The Book of Disorder.

The Golden Child

Monday, August 26, 2013 | Permalink
Lauren Grodstein’s books include the novels The Explanation for Everything, A Friend of the Family, and Reproduction is the Flaw of Love and the story collection The Best of Animals. Lauren teaches creative writing at Rutgers-Camden, where she helps administer the college’s MFA program. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Recently, one of my writing students turned in a story featuring an adorable, vulnerable child whose blue eyes were “wide with wisdom” or something similarly icky. Although I otherwise liked the story, I warned my student – my entire class, in fact – against this particular cliché, the urchin who spouts soul-ennobling maxims while either bringing the adults together or putting them in their place. This child is usually between the ages of four and eight, preternaturally mature, humorless, and almost always blond. I call him the Golden Child, and he annoys the crap out of me.

After I finished teaching that day, I met my four-year-old son for lunch in the campus garden. My son is blond. My son is blue-eyed. My son has a good sense of humor, but still: my creative writing students saw us in the garden and said, kindly, that it looked like I had a Golden Child of my own. I smiled through my cringe. They were right: Nathaniel is golden, as all-American as a fourth of July firework. I, on the other hand, look like I was just crowned Miss Shtetl 2013. In other words, my son doesn’t look like me at all, and he doesn’t look particularly “Jewish.”

I have a strange relationship with my son’s all-American looks. Of course I think he’s beautiful, but I’m always surprised at how frequently people comment on his appearance, and especially how people admire him for his blondness. I’ve never been blond in my life, so before Nathaniel was born I’d never witnessed, really, the power of blond hair, even when it’s on the head of a little boy. People like to touch it, pat it, remark on its lemony highlights. People have even praised me for it, as though it was something I gave him on purpose. And more than once, people have asked me if his father is Jewish, if his father is the source of the kid’s lucky looks.

These sorts of comments bring up all kinds of funny feelings in me . On the one hand, I want to shake the person: Jews look like all sorts of things, dummy, including like Captain America over here. On the other hand, I want to acknowledge my own pride in this beautiful blond boy - blond like the Vikings, blond like the sun. And on the other other hand, I sometimes wonder if my son’s connection to Judaism will be affected by what he looks like. Already the threads feel looser in him than they are in me: no, his father was not born Jewish, and yes, the blond hair comes from his father’s side of the family.

Is it easy for me to be Jewish because I look so classically Semitic? Will it be harder for him because he doesn’t? And what does it mean that I even think about these things?

On Friday night we light candles; on Jewish holidays we celebrate with family. Last fall we ate in a sukkah together, and we look forward to doing that again. This fall he’ll start Hebrew School at our wonderful synagogue. Still, like many Jewish kids – like me when I was his age – he’d rather celebrate Christmas than Hannukah and has no real interest in being different from his friends. And unlike me, with my stereotypically Jewish face, my Jewish name, he’d have an easy time passing one day for someone he isn’t.

For the moment, however, my Golden Child is a font of dubious knowledge. “I’m not blond!” he says. “I’m brown like you!” This is patently untrue, but strangely, it provides some solace. He wants to be brown-haired because he wants to look like me, he says - because he’s my son and we’re family. How wonderful to hear him say this! Even if it’s ridiculous. My son is not brown-haired like me, but he is Jewish, like me. He loves his family, like I do. “See!” he says. “I’m just like you!”

Just like all children and their parents, he is and he isn’t. But occasionally, despite the cliché of it, he is wise beyond his years.

Read more about Lauren Grodstein here.

Why Did You Marry When You Knew You Were Transsexual?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013 | Permalink

This week, Joy Ladin, the author of Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders blogs for The Postscript on an unanswered question that many readers ask. The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Joy at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

“Why did you marry, when you knew you were transsexual?” people who read my memoir often ask me.             

I married for love, and I married in fear, and I married so young, 21, I couldn't tell the difference.             

I met my future wife during college orientation. We couldn't stop arguing that semester. I was flattered when she told me how dumb my opinions were. We were officially “involved,” as we put it, by semester's end.              

Over spring break she met my family. A true New Yorker, she expected Rochester, NY, to be so small that she could get off the train and ask anyone where I lived. When my mother made her look at my boyhood photos, she burst out, “Why does Jay” – I was “Jay” then – “look so miserable?”             

The following winter we were still together, so I told her.
              
“I'm transsexual,” I said.             

“What does that mean?” she asked.             
“I've always felt female,” I told her.             

“How do you know what female feels like?” she asked.             

I didn't know, and she didn't care, as long as I seemed like a man. I had been consciously acting male since first grade, terrified my secret would be discovered. She was the first – for most of my life, the only –  person who loved me even though she knew that I wasn't man who, to her, I was.             

“Why did she marry you, when she knew you were transsexual?” people at book talks ask me. She married for love, and she married in denial, and she married so young, 22, she couldn't tell the difference.             

We lived together for two years during college, in four apartments. Number three was a tenement built for the waves of European immigration that had washed ashore six out of eight of our grandparents. The realtor insisted that we do the renovation – floor-sanding, wall-stripping, priming and painting. I'd agreed to act like a man, so I did most of the work myself.   

My attempt to play handy man when I neither handy nor a man was disastrous. Since early childhood, I had had “gender crises,” times when I was consumed with the need to become female – to become myself. But I'd never experienced crisis like this. I shaved my legs and couldn't think of anything but what was then called “sex change.” There was no internet, so I looked for a therapist in the Yellow Pages. Only one ad mentioned gender identity. My therapy lasted precisely one hour, during which the therapist, a fully credentialed  transsexual psychiatrist, offered to strip to show me how good a post-surgical transsexual body could look.             

Traumatized, I decided to deal with my gender crisis the way I always had – by repressing my feelings and acting male. My girlfriend, relieved, made a coded joke out of the encounter, calling the psychiatrist “the Podiatrist.” For the next couple of decades, we referred to my gender issues as “the podiatry problem.” It was consensual denial at its best: witty, kind, honestly dishonest, as companionable as it was lonely.             

A gender crisis or two after my abortive “podiatry” session, graduation, and adult life, loomed. Where would we live? How would we explain our relationship to her traditionally religious parents, who didn't know we'd been living together? We started planning a wedding, visited restaurants eager to host our reception – and choked when we tallied the cost on our hand (no PCs yet) calculator. Our families wouldn't pay, and we couldn't afford what they would consider respectable. We came up with a brilliant plan: borrow money to go to Greece, where my best friend's grandfather, a Greek Orthodox priest, could marry us in a place our families couldn't even find on a map. We would avoid their questions by moving to San Francisco instead of returning to New York.             

We borrowed, graduated, flew to Greece, and I called the number my best friend gave me. Someone answered – in Greek. I panicked and hung up. I was too embarrassed to call again, so we dressed in our best clothes – I wore white linen pants and jacket, resplendently strange with my untrimmed beard and wild Jewish Afro – and went to the Greek equivalent of a Justice of the Peace. When we got there, we realized that Greek phrasebook didn't include “We want to get married.” We fled back to our hostel in what we'd thought would be our wedding clothes.             

We landed in San Francisco with no money, friends or marriage license, rented a studio in the Tenderloin and started temping full-time. We couldn't afford furniture so we slept, ate and did everything else on the floor.             

We came up with another brilliant plan: if we got married, we would get money from our parents and gifts from their friends.  
           
We went to City Hall and waited our turn in a bare-bones room filled with no-frills couples. No white suit; it was almostThanksgiving. The judge was what I thought of then as an old man. His eyes, kind but sharp, poked and prodded us. I wondered if he knew I wasn't ready to spend the rest of my life as a husband. As a man. But I loved, and she loved, and we needed the money, and I was afraid no one else would ever love me knowing I was trans.            

 “This is serious,” the judge said. “I don't want you back here to get divorced.”             

We're ready, we nodded, lying in unison.        

“We do,” we promised, one at a time.             

“I now pronounce you man and wife,” the judge said.             

Our parents didn't send us money. But for the next twenty-five years, for better and worse, richer and poorer, from gender crisis to gender crisis, man and wife we were.

Dear Reader, You Are My Precious Object

Wednesday, August 14, 2013 | Permalink

This week, Alicia Oltuski, the author of Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family and a Way of Life blogs for The Postscript on signing books and an author's personal touch. The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Alicia at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

I’ve always meant to become the kind of person who writes thoughtful messages in the books I give as gifts. Usually, though, I just end up summarizing these sentiments less eloquently in person. When I started my book tour for Precious Objects two years ago, I inadvertently became an inscriber, because part of touring means signing books. Which I loved. It’s a great way to connect with readers after an appearance; to meet and greet the crowd to whom you chatted about spying on your dad in his workplace.

Honestly, it was one of my favorite parts of the tour. I met some incredible people. As for the signing, I usually went with some combination of “Thanks for coming out tonight!” “Great to meet you!” “Best wishes,” and a wisecrack about my ears. Something short (unlike my ears) and sweet to keep things moving, but also to acknowledge that a human being had taken time out of his/her week to come hear me, and had subsequently taken money out of his/her wallet to purchase my book. I was overcome with gratitude.         
    
Every once in a while I got requests. People had birthday and Christmas gifts to fulfill for loved ones, places on the title page where they preferred my signature, a predilection for documenting the event’s date (which I sometimes found, after a busy week of touring, I did not know). They wanted a special message for a special someone, and had done me the favor of selecting the exact wording through which to communicate it. 

People got creative. I obliged. 

I’d put some effort into avoiding diamond puns inside my book, but on the Roman numeral pages that precede it they now abound in Sharpie print. It turns out, people adore diamond puns. So over the past few years, I’ve referred to countless men and women—only a fraction of whom I’ve met—as “a diamond in the rough,” “this girl’s best friend,” “flawless,” and “my precious object.”  
          
 “Would you mind writing the message I put on this Post-it note?” someone in line would say.        
     
No problem.         
    
“Dear Marshall,” I wrote, “You are my precious object and the love of my life. Thank you for forty wonderful years.” This was sweet. I looked up at the lady on the other side of the table and asked for her name so that I could attribute the thoughtful sentiment.             

“Oh, just sign your name. He knows mine.”        
     
Really? Even though she, not I, had been married to Marshall for forty years?      
       
Yup.             

Fair enough. So I’d sign my name, close the book, and thank Marshall’s lovely wife for joining me at my reading.             
This kind of thing happened with surprising frequency. Dear Joy, You sparkle brighter than any diamond. I love you. Love, Alicia Oltuski. To a gem of a gal: Ashley. You rock. All the best, Alicia Oltuski. Happy diamond anniversary, James and Leigh! Wishing you many precious objects! Alicia Oltuski. 

Somewhere out in the world lives a stash of my books with notes varying from sweet to borderline creepy directed at a group of men and women I’ve never met but to whom I wish only the best—and often more than that. And sometimes also the date.       

Every so often I wonder about these books, whether anyone will find their inscriptions strange; whether one day, years from now, they’ll cause confusion as someone sorts through a loved one’s old things. It’s something I’m willing to risk. 

One of the nicest things about publishing a book is getting the opportunity to thank those who have been good to you—personally, professionally, and often in both capacities. These people (or their loved ones) had been good to me, too. They made sure I didn't read to an empty room. They laughed at my ear jokes. They asked me questions about diamonds and writing and books. They took the time to wait in line so that I could personalize their copies. 

I’m fairly certain I won’t get a letter asking me why I penned a romantic memo to someone’s father or aunt. But if I do, I’ll just explain that this is all a perfectly normal part of book signing. I don’t know, I’m fairly new to this.

To read more from Alicia, see her posts for The Visiting Scribe here

August 2013 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Monday, August 12, 2013 | Permalink
What we're reading this month:
Carolyn: In the Land of the Living (Austin Ratner) | Joyce: The Liars' Gospel (Naomi Alderman)
Naomi: Curriculum Vitae (Yoel Hoffmann) | Suzanne: A Dual Inheritance (Joanna Hershon)
Carol: How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick (Letty Cottin Pogrebin)
Nat: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Adelle Waldman)