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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, June 07, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

On Writing a Novel About The Act of Writing a Novel

Thursday, June 06, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, David Samuel Levinson wrote about the beautiful catastrophe that is New York City and dedicating his first novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence (Algonquin Books). He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’m sitting on the back porch of my temporary lodgings in Atlanta, while two spiders go at it, the smaller invading the larger’s web. (Why? Who knows. Maybe he or she is lonely.) Larger lunges at smaller, until smaller retreats, and both settle down again to await the arrival of an unsuspecting fly. Watching them, I am reminded of Charlotte’s Web, which I read when I was boy, and how caught up I became in the struggles of Charlotte and Wilbur and how I never wanted the story to end. Unfortunately, it did, yet fortunately for me I found many other stories to get tangled up in—Encyclopedia Brown, The Westing Game, The Tales of Narnia, and The Bridge to Terabithia.

Back then, I read only for pleasure and escape and erroneously imagined these books I so loved to be handed down through a series of magic tricks to end up in my favorite bookstore. I had no idea they were written by real people, who sat at real desks and typed them out on real typewriters, arduous page after arduous page. These books, these authors, changed the way I saw the world, but more than this they changed the way I interacted with it. I learned about sleuthing, betrayal, love, and death by falling headfirst into these created universes, which matched the reality of my own only insofar as they resembled the familiar—houses, trees, the sun and moon, stars, streets, etc. Other than this, they were as fantastical as they were absorbing; I couldn’t wait to flip the page to find out what happened next.

While working on my own novel, I had a similar experience, yet now I was in complete control (or so I thought) of what happened next. The process of writing and publishing Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence took ten years and through it, I learned many valuable lessons, the most important of which is this: we writers have little say in the fate of our characters, who ultimately dictate to us how they want the story to be told and what will happen to them. So it was that one writer after another began to appear in the pages of Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence and I had nothing to say about it. No, really. They turned up and took over and suddenly the novel became more than a novel about a fraught triangulation of widow, critic, and ingénue. It became a novel that asked where stories come from and who owns them, how we write novels and why we do. Like a fly, I was trapped in my novel’s web and the less I struggled, the more I discovered about the characters and myself and the more I discovered, the more the impossible began to occur—the characters told me what was going to happen and held me to this, refusing to let me go until they were satisfied I'd told their stories as honestly and as well as I could.

Learn more about David Samuel Levinson here.

The Story Will Out: Why Folktales Still Matter

Thursday, June 06, 2013 | Permalink
by Sharon Elswit

Throughout the ages, folklore has spoken to people. From pulpits and hearth fires and in classrooms, these stories forge a connection between the generations, pass on the values of a community, teach lessons, and help us make sense of ourselves and understand the world around us. They connect us with each other, a shared history of knowing. They help us face our fears. They validate our dreams. They heal. They entertain. And they offer us choices. A story attributed to the Preacher of Dubno makes a case for Truth being much more palatable when it is dressed up as a Parable. 

Times do change, but underlying human truths and struggles do not. Relationships within families, between people and government, between friends and lovers—these go on. These are the subjects of folktales. There will always be a gossip, a miser, and a cheater. There will always be loneliness, sickness, and loss. There will always be someone else who bravely speaks up or cleverly thwarts a nefarious plan. Our folktales take this messy world and help us think about it by taking us on a journey outside of our own lives. They help us remember. They challenge us to make the world a better place within our own communities and outside. As in the tale of a captive bird that learns from the example of his cousin how to feign death and fly away, stories themselves show us how.

First told orally and then written down, these stories have been passed down from grandparents to children and their children, from teachers, from rabbis, from storytellers. We now find them, too, printed in collections and picture books and on the web. Sharing folktales with others is a gift. There are even folktales about the value of participating by telling stories and by listening: 

  • a father and daughter who have become separated recognize each other through a shared tale about a shofar 
  • a story passed down about a certain ritual and prayer performed by the Baal Shem Tov continues to help save the world, though the story itself is all that remains
  • King Solomon gets at the truth by telling a story and judging people’s reactions 
  • a disciple releases another man from the lie he has been living by bringing him a story which lets him know he has been forgiven
  • a man brings what comfort he can to others in Auschwitz by listening to their stories 
  • a haughty rabbi learns to make a difference by changing the tone of the stories he tells 
  • a king realizes how unfairly he has treated his wife when he overhears her telling a doll the story of her unhappiness 
  • and finally, as Avi Weiss asserts, people need to interact with the fire of stories in the Torah to forge new connections through the generations. 
The storyteller Joel ben Izzy makes a strong case in The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness for the relevance and necessity of folklore in resolving problems in one’s personal life. After he lost his voice, it was that title story—a folktale where King Solomon loses his identity when Asmodeus throws his ring across the world—which seemed to embody the storyteller’s own struggles to reclaim his world and his career. 

There are stories for each stage of the life cycle. In one, Lailah, the angel, tells unborn children the history of mankind and their lives to be, and then touches them right above the upper lip so they forget all the moment they are born. Need a story to celebrate a couple getting married? Wish for the couple to have children who will thrive just like them, as told in “The Wedding Blessing” in Peninnah Schram’s Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another. Share “The Magic Gourd” by Debra Gordon Zaslow from Goldie Milgram’s Mitzvah Stories, where a couple postpones using a wedding gift which may only be used once by relying on themselves and each other throughout their lives together. Trouble with marriage? A man who has had no luck providing for his family is harshly sent by his wife to bang a drum in the cemetery, where he encounters a sympathetic bear. With children? In one tale, a father anguished by his teenage daughter’s escapades prays for her to become a bat. Aging? An elderly cantor does not take well to being replaced and sends his raspy voice to haunt the young new cantor. In another story, Moses pleads that it is not yet his time to die. Three sons, whose father has just died, wonder which of them now possesses the true ring. Two sons in another story try to puzzle out just what is the treasure their father said he was leaving them, as they continue to work the land they have inherited. 

Folktales are not just for children. In one story, a man who doubts his wife’s fidelity takes revenge with an arrow shot through Rabbi Adam’s magic mirror. In another, a woman’s brothers bring the husband who has turned away from her to the king to hear a story of a trespassing lion so he will know that his wife did remain true to him. Howard Schwartz’s fantastical collections, such as Leaves from the Garden of Eden, Elijah’s Violin, Miriam’s Tambourine, and Lilith’s Cave spin timeless tales filled with sensual imagery and supernatural occurrences. 

The stories that take hold of us and won’t let go, we keep and change. We need the narrative, the wonder, the danger, the humor, and the magic. Folktales are malleable. That is their resilience. Stories have changed with the teller and with the countries in which people live. Some sumptuous Jewish tales either inspired or were inspired by Tales from the Arabian Nights. Humorous Joha tales differ from the Djuha trickster/fool in Arabic lore only by some of the traditions portrayed. And Peninnah Schram and Rachayl Eckstein Davis turned the American story of the boy who goes looking for a little red house with no windows and no doors and a star inside into The Apple Tree’s Discovery, a tale of self-esteem, with special relevance for Rosh Hashannah. Some general Internet anecdotes that reflect Jewish values are included in Seymour Rossel’s newest collection The Essential Jewish Tales. Just about eight of the stories told by fifty-four rabbis in Laney Becker’s Three Times Chai, have been adapted from universal tales. 

More recently, it seems that adaptation is also going the other way around, with Jewish stories as a base for other cultural adaptations. You might not call Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride a Jewish story, but his film certainly took flight from the Hasidic story of the young man who playfully places his wedding ring on a tree root he finds sticking up like a finger from the ground only to find out that he is now wedded to a demon. General versions of It Could Always Be Worse, that tale of the rabbi who keeps advising the man in the overcrowded house to bring more animals inside each day, abound. Eric A. Kimmel is our most prolific story culture mixer. He recently set an Arabic Joha character in a Jewish Yemenite story of “The Answered Prayer.” His out-of-print Mishka, Pishka, and Fishka combines Ukrainian and Jewish culture in tales told to him by his Jewish grandmother. 

Good stories will out. You can find a version of “The Treasure,” where a man goes to Prague looking for the treasure he dreamt about only to discover that the treasure has been buried back at home, set in China. There is a Jewish version of “The Magic Pomegranate” and one with three Middle Eastern princes and a special orange. There are African and Chinese versions of the story where a man brings water instead of wine to the barrel for a communal celebration, thinking no one will notice when it mixes in, and several Jewish takes, including the one by Nina Jaffe where neither husband nor wife put in the coins they promised while saving up to buy hamantaschen for Purim. And stories with Chelm-like humor have been told by the Uygur People in western China. 

Current retellers pick stories they love and dig into character and motivation to make them relevant in today’s environment. Some exciting story reinterpretations have made an appearance in picture book form in the last few years. Gathering Sparks by Howard Schwartz, Ann Redisch Stampler’s The Wooden Sword, and Kimmel’s Joseph and The Sabbath Fish reach out to connect with new subtleties and warmth. One can truly believe that the prince in Stampler’s The Rooster Prince of Breslov has accepted acting like a human when, on his own, he thinks to share the blanket with his shivering teacher. Each year brings new retellings of the Golem legend and “If Not Higher,” for these are stories which stir powerful emotions, unforgettably strong and beautiful. Possession in “The Dybbuk” has been explored through dance, puppets, video, and theater, some of them parodies. 

There are original tales, too, created with beloved folklore characters. Kimmel caused a sensation in 1994 with Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, based on the character Hershel of Ostropol. He also refashioned some traditional Chelm stories in The Jar of Fools so that the events take place during Hanukkah and invented some of his own Chelm tales, a difficult task to do well. 

When things have already happened, then it is poetry which brings succor or rejoices with us and gives words to our feelings so right on that a breath catches. When we stand on the cusp or in the middle of an event and decisions have to be made, then we need a story with characters to help guide us through. Here is the captive bird wondering how he will get free; here is the brother who has sent his own brother to Azazel, rather than help him prepare for Passover; here is the king who goes into a little hut to remind himself how it is for the people he rules; here is the wife whose husband has wrongly accused her of misconduct; here is the grandmother hugging her grandson after he almost drowns in the ocean and, in the same breath, berating God for not returning his hat; here is the daughter who does not want to wear her mother’s wedding dress. There are folktales for all of these situations. What happens next may be fantastical—demons holding the girl prisoner inside her new dress—but she has our empathy. Meaning grows from understanding. An old tale freshly told, one that has taken the hand of people through years and even centuries, may bring laughter and wisdom, warnings and warmth to befriend us. We may become the human heroes of our own journeys with folktales to light the way.

Sharon Elswit, head hibrarian at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School, is author of the first and second edition of The Jewish Story Finder: A Guide to 668 Tales Listing Subjects and Sources, as well as The East Asian Story Finder.

I Was Born a Rambling Man

Wednesday, June 05, 2013 | Permalink

Yesterday, David Samuel Levinson wrote about dedicating his first novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence (Algonquin Books). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When someone asks me where I’m from, I never hesitate to say that I’m from New York City. Then, a little ashamed, I often confess that I’m not really from New York, that I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. While I did not spend my formative years in the city, I have always considered myself a New Yorker, which probably has to do with all those summers I spent on Long Island with my mother’s parents. The day trips to Jones Beach and into the city to see a play or wander around Macy’s! Some of my favorite memories still involve being stopped between stations on the subway or the Long Island Railroad. And then our slow approach into Penn Station and the skyscrapers obliterating the sky and my mother leading my brother and me up into the beautiful, congested fray that is Manhattan.

Every step I took along those overpopulated sidewalks, every museum and bookstore I wandered through, every salty pretzel I pulled apart and devoured—all of it was leading me closer to my future self. At the time, I had little idea that years later I’d live in and among those crowds, museums, bookstores, and pretzel carts, though I should’ve suspected as much, given my early fondness for the city. When I was a boy, I fell head over heels in love with the city, yet it wasn’t until I finally moved there as a young adult that I came to really believe what Le Corbusier meant when he said, “A hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe and 50 times: It is a beautiful catastrophe.”

A beautiful catastrophe, unlike any other in the world, especially for a young man who wanted desperately to become a writer. Even now, when I think about it, I am still filled with a sense of the romantic and haunted by that earlier version of myself, who traversed the sketchier and verboten neighborhoods of Morningside Heights and Spanish Harlem on his bike, who lived on 107th and Central Park West, in what was and would continue to be for ages the biggest, most amazing apartment he ever lived in—a doorman building with view of the park, our rent only $1,400 a month. I shared the apartment with a friend, another Columbia undergrad, and eventually set a short story there. It was hard to leave an apartment like that, but leave it we had to do. After graduation, I moved downtown, then ultimately to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where I stayed for over a decade, until it was time for me to go. I had become too hard, too covetous of what other people had, and New York was killing me.

From there, I went to DC, then to Gettysburg, PA, then back to New York for a brief stint that lasted a summer and fall. Then, it was to Berlin, then back to Gettysburg, then Durham, NC, then Gettysburg yet again. Now, I am in College Station, Texas, soon to be moving to Atlanta—but, but, but…I left my heart in New York, just like so many of my characters in Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence. No matter where I have gone, no matter where I have lived, New York always beckons me back. She is an impossible place to leave for long, even more of an impossible place to untangle from. Just ask Antonia Lively herself, or Henry Swallow, or Catherine Strayed. Just ask any of these characters where they’d rather be and they will tell you, “Well, New York City, naturally.”

Unfortunately, we do not always get to choose the places in which we live; some places choose us. Antonia, Henry, and Catherine live in Winslow, a small college town in upstate New York, and it chose them. It also chose me and it is where I have lived, in my imagination at least, for over ten years. I know the town just as well as I know New York City, perhaps even better than that, because I created it whereas, in some ways, New York City created me.

Learn more about David Samuel Levinson here.

Writing What You’ve Never Seen: Janice Weizman and Historical Fiction

Wednesday, June 05, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Janice Weizman wrote about the bildungsroman and the Jewish woman. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

All fiction writers have a streak of audacity. To make up something and then ask readers to suspend their disbelief and give themselves over to your vision is, well, a little outrageous. Among the most audacious are the writers of historical fiction. How can anyone presume to know what it was like to live and work and raise a family in a time other than their own? How can one comprehend the hopes, the limitations, and the challenges of people who lived their lives in historical periods with radically different circumstances and assumptions?

Logic says that it’s impossible. Yet the imagination insists that it’s not. It insists that, with a little bit of help, it can transcend space and time and understand something beyond the here and now.

Allow me to offer an example. Let’s say you want to write a scene in which a character goes to a bathhouse. You could do worse than to make your way to Acco, a city in the North of Israel. When you get there, you may want to linger for a few minutes on the boardwalk, enjoying the vista of the bright blue sea, but don’t stop there. Continue along the boardwalk, and head for the old city. You’ll know it by the shops and vendors at the entrance, selling nargillas, Armenian pottery, olive wood carvings, humous, and fresh pomegranate juice. Look for the signs on the walls pointing the way to the Hammam – the public bathhouse. When you get there, you’ll have to take the tour. Maybe you’re the type that doesn’t like tours, but do it anyway. That way you’ll get to see the inside. You’ll be shown the various pools, now dry and empty, and hear the stories about the generations of balanim – bathhouse attendants who would scrub you down with sponges and brushes and fill you in on the latest gossip. And then there will be a moment when the group moves on, but don’t follow them. Remain behind and linger a little longer.

Instead of the empty stone pools, think of steam rising from the hot water. Instead of the scent of moldy walls, imagine wafts of rosewater and jasmine oil. And now, in the dim light and the silence, try to hear the voices. Hear the groans of the women being scrubbed with rough sponges by stern-faced attendants, the trills of laughter from a group listening to the town matchmaker tell a racy joke, the soft whispering of two girls in the corner, pointing to a third and whispering, “Look at that stomach. If she isn’t pregnant, then I’m a Rabbi.”

If you can see all this, then you’ll feel it in your bones—how the very drama of life played out alongside the tiled bathing pools. And as you emerge into the alley that leads back to the market you’ll know, from some mysterious place in your head that you never knew existed, exactly how to write the scene in the bathhouse.

Janice Weizman was born in Toronto, and moved to Israel at the age of nineteen. She is a graduate of the Creative Writing program at Bar-Ilan University, where she initiated and serves as managing editor of The Ilanot Review, an online literary journal. Janice’s fiction has appeared in various literary journals including Lilith, Jewish Fiction, and Scribblers on the Roof. Her first novel, The Wayward Moon, was recently awarded the Gold Medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards and first place in the Midwest Book Awards, both in the category of Historical Fiction. Visit her website:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Book Dedications

Tuesday, June 04, 2013 | Permalink
David Samuel Levinson's stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner, West Branch, and the Brooklyn Review, among others. He lives in New York City. Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is his first novel. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I knew I was going to dedicate my first novel, Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence, to my maternal grandparents long before I ever set out to write it. Or let me rephrase that: until I was tasked with dedicating the novel, I had no idea just how clear it had been that I would dedicate it to them. During the years it took me to write the novel, I never thought about the dedication, nor did I think much about my dearly departed grandparents, though in retrospect they were always with me, whispering their story into my ear.

No, the novel isn’t about them, not literally anyway, but it does touch upon certain themes—displacement, trauma, assimilation, ambition—about which I would never have plumbed had I not known the intimate details of their struggles. Marianne and Stephan—Mimi and Steve to their friends—were both born in Vienna, where they met and married. Both full-blooded Jews, their Jewishness never played a significant role in their upbringing. They were Jewish, just not religious, and rarely attended schul.

Long before their conversion to Catholicism in 1930, long before they fled Austria in 1936, it seemed they had already begun the slow, arduous process of shedding themselves of their Jewish identities to live a Jewish-less life in America. They arrived on Ellis Island in 1938, after having spent time in Istanbul, then Geneva. They bought a house in Manhasset, NY, and there raised my mother and my aunt as good Catholic girls, never once alluding to the war, or to what they left behind in Europe.

Like my grandparents, who loved Vienna and missed it every day, many of the characters in Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence yearn both physically and emotionally for a place to which they cannot return. How then, my novel asks, do we make a home elsewhere? How then do we find happiness in a strange place when we have been stripped, or have stripped ourselves, of our identities, that which made us who we were?

I wrote the novel to answer this question, among many others, for myself. When you read it, I hope you will find an answer or two for yourself.

Learn more about David Samuel Levinson here.

Making the Invisible Visible: The Bildungsroman and the Jewish Woman

Monday, June 03, 2013 | Permalink
Janice Weizman was born in Toronto, and moved to Israel at the age of nineteen. She is a graduate of the Creative Writing program at Bar-Ilan University, where she initiated and serves as managing editor of The Ilanot Review, an online literary journal. Janice’s fiction has appeared in various literary journals including Lilith, Jewish Fiction, and Scribblers on the Roof. Her first novel, The Wayward Moonwas recently awarded the Gold Medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards and first place in the Midwest Book Awards, both in the category of Historical Fiction. Visit her website: She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A young man leaves his home and sets out on a journey. He is impressionable, sensitive, and inexperienced in the ways of the world. Because he is young, everything is new, surprising, a revelation. He is awkward, but also hopeful. He knows little, but he is eager to learn. He is betrayed by those he trusts, and happily surprised by people he thought were his enemies. So it goes as he journeys in and out of chance meetings, mishaps, and adventures. And ultimately, after feeling the full weight of his experiences in his soul, he comes to understand a truth about himself, about the world, and his place in it.

The literary term for this sort of novel is the bildungsroman. In English, we might call it a novel of self-discovery and it is a classic genre in both Western and world literature. Our literary canon is full of such tales of self-realization. Tom Jones and David Copperfield are examples of the genre as are Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, and A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Though works involving a heroine are few, Jane Eyre comes to mind as a rare exception. But generally, women, and particularly Jewish women, are absent from the genre.

This is not at all surprising. Traditionally, Jewish women were not the protagonists of stories about self-discovery. Rather, they were usually married off and on their way to motherhood while still teenagers. The trajectory of a Jewish woman’s life was set out for her from the day she was born, and it did not involve venturing into the world to seek one’s fortune.

But what would have happened if a woman was forced by circumstance to undertake such a journey? What if she had to make her way in the world alone? What would be her fears? Her concerns? Her particular vulnerabilities? How would she survive? What would she learn about the world? What would she learn about herself?

In The Wayward Moon, I’ve put my heroine in precisely this situation. Rahel Bat Yair is a 17-year-old Jewish girl living in the Babylonian town of Sura in the 9th century Middle East. The story opens on the eve of her engagement, and Rahel, entirely content in her own world, has no desire to travel anywhere. Unlike the typical male hero of a bildungsroman, she has no use for experience or adventure. When circumstance forces her to take to the road, like Homer’s Odysseus, she wants nothing more than to go home, but unlike him, she has no home to return to.

Typically, at the end of a bildungsroman, the hero has achieved a modicum of self-knowledge, and whether he returns home or begins anew, he is able to utilize his experiences in forging his life as an adult. Would Rahel Bat Yair be able to utilize her experiences? Would there be a way for her to draw on her hard-won knowledge to enable her to contribute to her community? Or would she choose to conceal what she has seen and done?

Considering how little has come down to us about women’s lives in Jewish society of her time, we can easily speculate about the answer.

Check back on Wednesday for Janice Weizman's next post for the Visiting Scribe.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 31, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Introducing Inspector Avraham Avraham

Friday, May 31, 2013 | Permalink
Today on the Visiting Scribe, D. A. Mishani continues with his series "The Mystery of the Hebrew Detective," where he has been investigating why it's so difficult to write a detective in Israel. His first detective novel, The Missing File, was published in the U.S. by HarperCollins. The second novel in the series, A Possibility of Violence, will be published in the U.S. in 2014. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I can honestly say I was concerned by this "Mystery of the Hebrew Detective," mainly before and after writing the first installment in my literary detective series, The Missing File.

As I come from a family of Mizrahi origins, and since I admire the literary tradition of the realistic police-procedural, I chose not to back down. My protagonist, Inspector Avraham Avraham, is a peripheral character, from Mizrahi origins, like police officers in Israel usually are, and certainly like they are in Israeli culture.

He works in Holon, my home town, which is an urban, lower-middle-class, suburb of Tel Aviv. He didn't grow up in a kibbutz, he doesn't work for the Mossad, and the cases he's investigating don't have any national importance. He doesn't chase old hiding Nazi criminals and not even Muslim terrorists. In The Missing File, he's just looking for a sixteen-year-old boy, as unimportant as him, who went missing.

Still, I tried to address the problem of writing a detective in Israel in some ways.

For example, my inspector, in this first novel, is not very bright and not always successful. My plan is that he'll get better and better as the series continues, until he's as good as Sherlock Holmes. My hope is that his slow progression will make it easier to accept him as a realistic literary hero.

I also gave him a female boss, from Ashkenazi origins, toward whom he has complex feelings of admiration and fear. With this set-up, I tried to reflect the ethnic and social tensions which affect the possibility of him becoming a true Israeli hero.

Have I succeeded? Will Inspector Avraham become "a mythological character in Hebrew literature" as one of the novel's critics wrote?

I still don't know.

I do know that the response to his character and to the novel in foreign countries and languages to which it was translated, were sometimes even stronger than they were in Israel. It seemed to me that it was sometimes easier for foreign readers to accept him as true Israeli protagonist than it was for readers here.

But I can tell you one thing about Inspector Avraham Avraham—he never gives up.

And neither do I.

We're both determined to put an end to this "Mystery of the Hebrew Detective"—solve it, once and for all.

Learn more about D. A. Mishani here.

When 50 Happens to Good People: Part Two

Thursday, May 30, 2013 | Permalink
Actress, author, and activist Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of two booksYou Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up and Fired!—and the e-book single Autumn Leaves (available from Zola Books), a chapter from her comedic memoir for Blue Rider imprint at Penguin, to be published in Spring 2014. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Read Part One of "When 50 Happens to Good People" here

Ok, so I hadn’t done time in prison, I’d just spent one day there.

I’d just covered what was believed to be the first Bat Mitzvah in an American women’s prison for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. It was the only time I’d been in a temple where the person sitting next to me was tattooed with the words "Suicidal Freak." There’s a saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but it should amended to, “and in penitentiaries.” If I am ever incarcerated you can bet I’ll be signing up for every form of religious education available as they serve snacks and the non-denominational chapel at Chino is air-conditioned. (In fact, there is a relatively new organization, Atheists in Foxholes, that does great work in the field, not sure about the quality of their snacks, though.) I figured if that rabbi could handle prisoners, he could do just fine with my son whose teenage years were starting to feel like a hostage situation.

Our son, Ezra, took to calling the rabbi a nickname, Rabbi Nudgey. He had so little experience with Judaism that he didn’t know that many rabbis hover in the vicinity of nudgey—that's their job, to nudge you away from delicious shellfish and towards God. It would be like I’d started calling my proctologist Dr. Thorough. Ok, I lied, I don’t have a proctologist, but I’m old enough that I should have one. That’s just another thing on my To-Do-Now-That-I’m-Aging List that I keep misplacing and re-write every week all over again. Really, my son should have called him, Rabbi to be Expected.

Here’s one thing I hadn’t expected to have to think through—where we would hold our event. Our home, with its temperamental seventy-year-old plumbing, is not ideal, and the rabbi’s congregation meets in a doublewide trailer on the grounds of the Chino Women’s Correctional Facility, so that wouldn’t seem to be the best choice. Ultimately, we snapped up a generous and unexpected offer of the large, airy meeting room at the Episcopal elementary school our son had attended. It was their first and I believe to this day only Bar Mitzvah.

Being an atheist had never stopped me from enjoying the ritual, community singing, gay friendly, and general “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” sentiment of the school’s Episcopal chapel services, plus, the school had amazing camping trips. A camping trip that includes margaritas? Really, what’s not to like? My son and I had also spent many hours volunteering in the soup kitchen feeding the local homeless population there, so to have the ceremony in the same space seemed ideal.

The administration apparently didn’t hold it against us that Ezra held the distinction of being the only kid to ever refuse participation in the annual kindergarten Christmas pageant. It wasn’t because he objected to the message. My son didn’t want to wear his costume. He was assigned to be an angel and he wanted to be a shepherd. If you saw my round-faced, golden-locked cherubim at that age, you would have cast him as an angel. People used to stop us on the street and say, “Your kid would have gotten a lot of work in Michelangelo’s time.” He looked like he’d floated down from the roof of the Sistine chapel. Normally, I wouldn’t have indulged this kind of behavior, but before I had a chance to intervene, his teacher had negotiated a deal with him. As long as he agreed not to recruit other students to boycott along with him and faithfully (as it were) attend rehearsals, he could recuse himself from the performance. That he kept his end of the bargain exhibited a certain maturity that I had to admire. Even during the play, when I leaned over and whispered, “Don’t you miss singing with your friends?” he remained firm and stated, “I’m singing along in my head.” I had to give it to him.

The Bar Mitzvah went off with just a few minor glitches. The only accommodation the rabbi had requested was that any crucifixes be removed or covered during the ceremony, something the church officials were kind enough to agree to. It wasn’t until the service was underway that my husband and I noticed our goof. We’d inadvertently placed him and our son in front of glass windows perfectly framing them between the two life size statues of Jesus in the courtyard garden. Thankfully, no one pointed it out to him and I thought it made a gorgeous ecumenical triptych.

After the ceremony, as I prepared to say a few words, my son leaned over to me and issued a stern warning, “One wrong word and you could ruin my life forever.” I’ve been around long enough to know how to share the spotlight, so I said very little, instead giving the stage to my much-funnier-than-me husband. Plus, we had a surprise up our sleeves. Jeff’s dad was too ill to travel, so we’d arranged for Jeff’s post-college roommate, the brilliant actor Harry Lennix, star of the upcoming NBC series The Blacklist, to stand in and deliver Bob’s prepared remarks. The Internet has been filled with stories speculating that Harry might be the next James Bond, and I hope it happens; I can’t think of a better candidate than Harry. He’s tall, handsome, charismatic and, selfishly, I could always hold it over my kid’s head that we got James Bond to speak at his Bar Mitzvah.

I jumped up and down with happiness that day—so much so that I broke the heel of my Dolce and Gabbana shoe—but it was worth it, because I know that if my kid waits until he’s the age that I was to get married (36), I’ll be 71. I’ve got make the most of every celebratory event while I’m still ambulatory. In fact, many people have deemed my generation as helicopter parents; it’s often said that we’ve fetishized raising kids, but maybe we’re just trying to make the most of every moment because we suspect we might not be around to see our grandchildren. Our children are our grandchildren as well. I am hoping that the vitamin D supplements I’m mainlining are doing something positive for my long-term health, and, in the meantime, I’m going for the joy.

Read more about Annabelle Gurwitch here.