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But Wait, There’s More! (Part 2)

Thursday, June 15, 2017 | Permalink

Annabelle Gurwitch been guest blogging for the Visiting Scribe this week about her latest collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are. Her second post elaborates on the story about her mother's philanthropic side which she did not get to include in her collection.

As much as I was moved by mother’s recounting of her mission to aid the Refuseniks in Russia, I wasn’t able to fit that story into either my book or my assignment for Oprah’s website. This is an example of how even if you have a story that holds great meaning for you and it has intrinsic value on it’s own, it just might not find a home in what you are publishing.

Then, in December, a friend invited me to a ritual in celebration of the winter solstice. I typically roll my eyes at such things, but it had been a month since my mother’s death and the idea of communing with friends seemed comforting and I heard there would be wine.

At the ritual, our circle of friends was invited to share on the subject of when we felt the happiest and without thinking I blurted out, “When I am being useful to others.”

Without thinking I’d uttered the same phrase, with the exact same inflection as my mother and although I’ve never smuggled medical supplies into another country, I mentor high school seniors, an activity that I find deeply rewarding. At the same time, I could have easily answered, “When receiving a deep tissue massage.” Ok, in truth, being useful ranks a bit below the massage, especially if hot stones are included. I moved this section up closer to the mother’s statement so it would be connected. You can decide where this next section belongs.

Evolutionary biologists have shown that as a species we adapted in a way that makes us predisposed to want to help our communities, this is part of how Homo Sapiens managed to survive, thrive and to dominate the Neanderthals who never quite managed that level of cooperation with each other. So, this idea isn’t limited to Jews, to be fair, still Kelly, who was leading the ritual, then invited us to close our eyes and think of one word that could encapsulate a spiritual wish for our new year. I closed my eyes and quieted my mind. The only word I could think of was word.

That’s right, a certain kind of what I call, “obtusitude,” a prideful streak of obtuseness, runs in our family as well. Near the end of her life, my mother started calling the hospice rabbi, “Aquaduct,” which makes sense in a certain way so it was hard to tell if she was deliberately referring to the rabbi as a conduit to the source of all life or if her brain function was deteriorating. I noticed I’d passed this trait on to my offspring when my four year old was asked to draw something at a kindergarten evaluation and all the other children in the session drew colorful depictions of rainbows and families holding hands, while my kid refused to use crayons, instead, producing a pencil rendering of “a foot inside a foot.” That drawing hangs in a place of honor on a wall of my home. So, I planned to say, “Word,” on my turn.

One by one, people offered a variety of aspirational type wishes on the order of: ease, mindfulness, and centering. Just once, I’d love for someone to say: “self-deprecating sense of humor”at one of these types of things, alas no one did. Surprising myself, “Elegance” is what popped out of mouth when it was my turn. Elegance? I’ve never considered that a spiritual aspiration but it does connote a sense of ease, mindfulness, centering and another thing I place a high value on: quality footwear. What happened to “word”? Did it strike you that you had changed your mind?

Several days later the furniture I’d shipped from my mother’s apartment arrived at my house. As I gave my neighbor Barbara a tour of she stopped in her tracks in front of a pair of art deco lamps and said, “Elegant.”

For the record, I do not truck in any sort of mystical or “mean to be” type of thinking. After years of losing lucky necklaces, hoarding crystals and visualizing my great jobs and even better parking spots, I kicked that kind of thinking to the curb.

Still, sometimes the random universe gifts us with a reminder of a connection that even if it exists only in our minds, delights us with the promise of stylish shoes that are comfortable enough to run in and that keeps our bond to our ancestors alive.

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and New York Times bestselling author of I See You Made an Effort, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up with Jeff Kahn, and Fired!—the book and documentary. Annabelle co-hosted Dinner & a Movie on TBS, and appeared in Dexter, Seinfeld, Oprah, Bill Maher's Real Time, The Today Show, New York Comedy Festival and The Moth Mainstage. She was a regular commentator on NPR and humorist for The Nation.

But Wait, There’s More!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017 | Permalink

Annabelle Gurwitch, author of  Wherever You Go, There They Are, will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribes series. 

Many years ago, during my career as an actress, while reading for one of Martin Scorceses’ films, he mentioned to me that he’d never been happy with his film The King of Comedy. He just hadn’t gotten it right. If he could do it again, he’d make changes, he said in so many words. “What? I love that film, it’s perfect,” I replied. In my corner of the creative universe, I can relate to that sentiment. It’s not unlike those old Ginzo knife infomercials that always included the phrase, “But wait, there’s more!” and here’s one story about my mother that I wish I’d found a way to include in my latest collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are.

A year before her death, when we knew that her time was limited, I asked her a series of questions for an article I was writing for Oprah’s website about end of life conversations to be sure to have with your loved ones. My mother told me that she was the happiest, “When I am being useful to others.” I have to confess, this took me by surprise because all of our conversations of late had centered on my parents’ health and financial woes.

During the mid-nineteen seventies, my mother and her friend Deanna signed on to a tour of major cities of Russia and smaller towns further east. Both Deanna and my mother loved to travel, but they had another agenda.

Through contacts assembled by Hadassah, Deanna and my mother obtained a list of medications that were badly needed by Jews in Russia known at the time as Refusniks. These were both secular and religious folks who were seeking to emigrate from Russia who’d been denied or refused visas. Many had been arrested, were unable to find work and were suffering an impoverished existence.

Shirley and Deanna made appointments with their doctors in Miami Beach and asked for prescriptions. Not a single one of the doctors they approached said no. In addition to the medications, they packed suitcases full of clothing, like blue jeans, that the Refusniks could wear or sell on the black market.

When they arrived in Moscow, they had to sneak out of the hotel past the “key ladies,” the tour guides who sat watch in the hallways to make certain that tourists didn’t wander off. Once on the street, they located pay phones and dialed the phone numbers they’d been given. Because she was fluent in Russian, Deanna was able to converse with the contacts in Yiddish and they got directions and took subways to the apartments of the various people to deliver the medications and clothing.

They returned to the states with empty suitcases but with rich memories of their encounters with these marginalized Jews. This trip remained one of the highlights of her life.

Because my mother passed before this book, which is about family legacies, was published, this story’s absence seems particularly bittersweet to me. As aware as I was that I’d inherited numerous of her attributes: her long limbs and her wry sense of humor, I didn’t connect my own do-gooder streak to an inheritance from her while I was writing the book. That only came more recently.

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and New York Times bestselling author of I See You Made an Effort, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up with Jeff Kahn, and Fired!—the book and documentary. Annabelle co-hosted Dinner & a Movie on TBS, and appeared in

Dexter, Seinfeld, Oprah, Bill Maher's Real Time, The Today Show, New York Comedy Festival, and The Moth Mainstage. She was a regular commentator on NPR and humorist for The Nation. Check back on Thursday to read more from Annabelle Gurwitch.

Going Tribal

Tuesday, June 06, 2017 | Permalink

Excerpted from Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To (Blue Rider Press, April, 2017) the latest collection of essays by New York Times Bestselling author Annabelle Gurwitch that Oprah's Magazine calls a "vivacious, hilarious, madcap memoir."

When it was time to find “the next place” for my parents, my mother decided she wanted to go tribal.

My mother wants to return to “her people,” only she doesn’t mean our family. Between cherished long-​standing grudges and more recent perceived slights, she is on speaking terms with only a handful of family members. No, she’s making the great leap backward, aligning herself with our ancestors.

My grandfather’s family, the Maisels, were teachers and rabbis. We would like to believe that the namesake of the Maisel Synagogue in Prague, a mayor who held office during the sixteenth century in the Jewish ghetto, was a relative. That’s about as much as we know about them, but we do know a lot about my grandmother Frances’s lineage.

Menasha Lidinsky, later Anglicized to Moshe, and then Morris Laden, my grandmother’s father, fled the Ukraine with his wife, Sarah, when my grandmother Frances was five years old. Fleeing the pogroms, they came over on the Prinz Oscar, having made their way to Germany from Russia in 1913. Moshe’s profession was listed as dry goods salesman. My great-​grandfather was what villagers referred to as a “swaybacked-​mule junk dealer,” or peddler, trudging from town to town earning a meager living selling goods off of an ancient animal’s back. If we had a family crest it would feature a donkey, a potato, the one pot we had to piss in, and the family motto: “My feet are killing me!” (Moshe and I actually have a lot in common, as the day‑to‑day life of a swaybacked-​mule junk dealer is much like being an author on a book tour. I’ve sold books from the trunk of my car.)

Bubbie Sarah and Zayda Moshe opened a dry goods store across the street from the famous Jewish Exponent newspaper on Pine Street in downtown Philadelphia. They had an apartment above their store, like many shopkeepers at the time. They never ventured far from their community, spoke mostly Yiddish, and lived in fear of that multitasking God who had enough time to concern himself with not only the workings of the entire universe but with whether a tiny subset of a single species on a spinning blue ball in the outer suburbs of the Milky Way dared to defy his grand plans by mixing dairy and meat.

This is why the Tel Aviv Gardens is on our list of senior living facilities to visit this weekend. It’s on a twenty-​five-​acre campus with housing options that range from independent-​living apartments to hospice care. My mother imagines that her mother, Frances, our nanny, would have felt at home there.

Nanny never spoke of spirituality, but she did believe that Jews were a kind of chosen people— the tribe entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the planet spic-​and-​span. Cleanliness was not just next to godliness for her, it was a devout calling. In the same way that nuns see themselves as brides of Christ, Nanny pledged herself to Ajax, lord of germs, whose dominion covered the expanse of surfaces in her home and the domiciles of her offspring. Her idea of keeping a kosher kitchen entailed producing flavor-​free food; at least that’s how it seemed to us grandchildren.

A typical meal at Nanny’s might include iceberg lettuce, meat, and a starchy vegetable. Lettuce was scoured and scrubbed with so much vigor that each lifeless leaf emerged from these interrogation sessions virtually translucent. These were the years when lima beans were the most exotic item offered on dinner tables in suburban America. Not only was it a punishment to eat them, Frances seemed to want the beans to suffer for their own failure to be more appetizing. The legumes would be liberated from a can, only to be subjected to a pressurized moisture-​extraction process that included several rounds of squeeze-​drying in layers of paper towels. Chalky and granular; eating them sucked the moisture from your mouth.

Beef was purchased only from a kosher butcher, but you could never trust people entirely, so it was subjected to repeated rinsing and salting and then would be secreted into paper towels for additional dehydration. Biting into it was like gnawing on particleboard. The number of trees sacrificed for meals prepared in Nanny’s kitchen is unfathomable. I hope those quarters we collected in the ubiquitous tree-​planting campaigns for Israel in the 1970s added to the aggregate number of trees in the world enough to balance it out.

My mother never showed any interest in keeping kosher, but she’s pining for Nanny, whose personality she experienced as exacting. Death has conferred an almost saintly quality on her memory. My mother has adopted Nanny’s mercurial housekeeping habits and is reaching further back to Bubbie’s dutiful observation of holidays. My mother wants to attend the weekly religious services at the Gardens. She has started lighting Sabbath candles. She pictures her grandmother’s hands gently resting over her own as she mouths the words to the prayers recited in a language that she herself never bothered to learn.

She’s also taken to needlepointing mezuzah covers and prayer shawl holders, which in my secular household become makeup bags. I have so many of these that my makeup bags have their own makeup bags. During my childhood, she crafted intricate Japanese designs, but her lotus flowers and white cranes have given way to mournful scenes of Eastern European village life. It’s all Chagall, all the time. The way she churns these things out, you’d think she was commissioned by an army of nomadic zealots who need carrying cases for their talismans. I tried to convince my son to take his lunch to school in a sack decorated with a forlorn goat wrapped in a prayer shawl playing the violin. For the record, why wouldn’t that goat look pained? Inner monologue of Chagall goat: Why do I have to play the violin and wear this schmata? The Bible is like a goat genocide, can’t I catch a break? It’s really hard for a goat to keep a scarf on. My son looked at me like I’d suggested he pack his sandwich in a moldy sneaker.

Mom rarely attended services during her childhood, and although my parents insisted on a Jewish education for us, after my sister and I left home, neither she nor my dad went back to temple. Not even once. Suddenly, forty years of secular life are immaterial to her newfound identification.

Actress and New York Times Bestselling author Annabelle Gurwitch's new collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories about My Family You Might Relate To, is one of Oprah's May book picks. You can read about it in, "Shalom Y'all, bittersweet family tales from the Deep South" in the J Weekly of Northern California.

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.

When 50 Happens to Good People: Part One

Tuesday, May 28, 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 will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I turned 50. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I do yoga. I moisturize. I still fit into the same jeans I’ve had for the last 15 years, though they do sit differently, but you can’t escape it, no matter how Vitamin D you’re taking (even though some studies say it doesn’t do anything of significance). As an actress, I always played roles sometimes even a decade younger than myself. This was before IMDB made it impossible to lie about your age. I’d told so many people so many different ages over the years I’d even convinced myself that my driver’s license might not even be accurate. There is precedence for this in my family. My father’s mother, Rebecca, shaved a few years off when she arrived in Alabama as a teenager around 1919 from Russia—I can only assume to make her self more attractive marriage material—but then she tried to have it corrected to collect her Social Security earlier many years later. We’re Southern, so a bit of Blanche Dubois tends to seep in from time to time.

In my 20s, I was an erstwhile punk. I was ahead of my time. No need for a New York Times Magazine cover to convince me of how germs are good for you. On a sunny September morning in 1981, I picked up a tattered black leather motorcycle jacket for 25 dollars from a guy under the Cube on Astor Place, put in on and didn’t take it off again for the next 3-7 years; it was the 80’s, so who can remember the exact number. I furnished my entire apartment with items I found in dumpsters. Ok, the entire place was only about 200 square feet. But still. Now, time has caught up with me. It’s not like this happened overnight, but as the days approached leading up to my 50th birthday, I was waking up at night, well, at 4am, the witching hour for all hormonally challenged women, thinking there’s been a mistake. The math is wrong! I’m just not ready for that number yet. That number is so huge; but when you start experiencing your youth like it was yesterday, never mind that 30 years have come in between me and the time when a jacket could symbolize a life choice, well, that’s a sure sign that the math is right, a big birthday is afoot. That was also the last time in my life when I thought there were good people and bad people. Now I know there’s just people and I’ve done things that anyone could easily label bad, just ask my son; he’s got an entire list of my transgressions.

At the same time as I was speeding toward 50, my son was reaching a milestone age as well. 13. Again, this had to be a mistake. My sonwho used to regularly spout adorable esoteric insights as children are want to do, like at age 7 when he announced, “When I was younger, Mom, I wasn’t sure life was going to be so great, but it’s so much better than I expected”was now becoming my biggest critic. He’s Ben Brantley to my Alec Baldwin. For instance, I was on The Oprah Winfrey show giving millions of viewers a tour of a landfill, thinking I was serving a greater good, and hoping to make my son proud, but no, even this was not to his liking. “Mom, you picked up a volleyball in that pit and you called it a soccer ball! Who would ever listen to anything you say now? You suck.” My cooking, my clothing, my comments, everything was just horrible now to him.

That was just one of reasons why I decided he just had to have a Bar Mitzvah. It would be a way of bringing us together.

There was also a practical consideration. Both my husband and I are atheists and secular Jews. We came to the conclusion that if he’s inherited even a smidgeon of my opinionated personality, he should at least have a working knowledge of what he might later want to rebel against. I’m not proud of it, but it is a passion of mine to argue against things I know very little about. Movies, books, and people I haven’t met are some of my favorite targets, but I aspire for my son to be a more informed critic. All things considered, I told myself, it was a good thing I’d done some time in the Women’s Correctional Facility in Chino.

To be continued…

Read Part Two of "When 50 Happens to Good People" here.

Read more about Annabelle Gurwitch here.