The ProsenPeople

Ask Big Questions: When Do You Say No?

Thursday, April 16, 2015 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish a continuing blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. He is also the founding editor of Unpious, an online journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet Magazine,The Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

For the past three weeks, ever since the release of my book, All Who Go Do Not Return, I have been getting this question at least once a day: “Where is your anger?”

My book is a memoir of growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic world. From my current vantage point, I and many others see the society and community I grew up in as deeply problematic. From its education system to its economic structures to its social dynamics, the Hasidic community restricts its members’ freedom even when those members desperately wish to live differently. At present, the practices are such that by the time Hasidic men and women are mature enough to know themselves and their own aspirations, they are married with children, and highly dependent on the community and their social and familial connections in order to survive.

When I left, seven years ago, I was 33, after having established a family and, along with my then-wife, was raising five children within the all-Hasidic village of New Square, New York. My book recounts the experience of first losing faith, then feeling trapped within a society whose beliefs I did not share and whose worldview I came to fundamentally reject. At first, I stayed, because I feared the consequences of leaving, until I realized that a fear-based life, lying and hiding every day—to my wife, to my children, to my friends and neighbors—was too psychically devastating, and too morally corrosive. And so I made the decision to leave. I suffered for it, and lost a great deal, but I made my way out and survived to tell of it.

Now, some of my friends who are still within, look to me and say, "Shulem, where's your outrage? Where's your condemnation of this society? Why aren't you working to change things for us?"

With this, I am being called on to tell more than just my story. I am being asked to take on the role of activist. Of the one who rails against the ills of a particular society, and seeks to change it. And such a role makes me deeply uncomfortable. And to that, I have had to say no.

To be sure, I have not rejected activism entirely. As a writer and author on the subject of leaving the Hasidic community, I have been deeply involved in efforts to build community among those who've left, to allow voices on the fringes of the Hasidic world to be heard; I also serve on the board of Footsteps, an organization that assists those who wish to leave the Hasidic world.

My activism, however, is limited to supporting those who wish to leave. I am here to help people transition, to offer them choices and enable a richly fulfilling life that is self-determined, not imposed, not lived by compulsion, out of fear, or due to social, familial, or economic pressures.

But I do not seek to fundamentally change the society and community I come from. To that, when called upon, I say no.

I would like to say yes. There are indeed systemic problems with the Hasidic world. They stem not from faith. Or from tradition. Or from false beliefs. But from the complexities of ordinary humanness. Good people doing bad things, because their societies haven't developed the frameworks to protect against them.

Children ripped from parents, when those parents leave the fold; men and women with unorthodox beliefs ostracized; violence committed against individuals who refuse to conform. These occurrences point to systemic problems in how Hasidic society is formed, and how its members trained and conditioned. And these things are worth fighting against.

But I have to say no. Someone else can take it up, but not I.

An activist spirit requires a degree of moral certitude that I do not have. To be an activist, to offer full-throated condemnations of systems and practices that others believe to be correct, requires not only the knowledge that one is right, but also passion and conviction—the kind of passion and conviction that often blinds one to the complexities of lived experiences. The activist cannot afford ambivalence. The activist, in order to remain tireless, to remain active despite the inevitable exhaustion that comes from working against powerful forces, must be clear in what he or she is fighting for. And to maintain such clarity requires giving up on seeing nuance and shades of complexity.

I would have liked to say yes. I have family and friends within the Hasidic world, and I want them to have better lives, greater opportunities, more fulfilling and enriched futures. I have children and siblings and many nieces and nephews within the Hasidic world, and I want a better world for them.

But I do not have that activist temperament, and this question—"Why are you not angry?"—gets to the heart of it. I am not angry because I know the Hasidic world too well; I know that most Hasidic parents want the best for their children. Most Hasidic teachers want the best for their students. I know this, because for a good part of my life I was a deeply devout Hasid like any other, and I wanted then the same things they want. It was not anger that led me away, but an accident of fate, encounters with certain books, and certain individuals, and certain ideas. I had no deep and true grievances against Hasidic society when I lost my faith, and so I lack the passion, the furious energy that would drive me to change a world I have deliberately chosen to dissociate from.

I am not an activist, because I am not angry enough.

However, I am troubled, and so I look to others who are angry, and hope that it will spur them to action.

“Why are you all so angry?” many in the Hasidic world often ask of those who leave. We hear this as a condemnation, as if our anger points to some character flaw, some failure on our part to retain our collective composure. And it's true, many of my friends who have left are indeed angry, traumatized by past abuses, enraged over the injustices that have led many of them away. It does not please me that they are angry, because anger is a difficult emotion to have. But it does give me hope. Because I do not see it as a character flaw. I see it as the essential motivating trait that will drive one or many to bring about change in a society that desperately needs it.

I am not angry enough, furious enough, and so when asked to step up as an activist for change, I say no.

But I look to those who do have that rage, that fury, that truly righteous and holy indignation, and I am grateful, because it is they who will one day say yes.

Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and leaving the Hasidic Jewish world, out last month from Graywolf Press. Follow him on Twitter at @shdeen

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Ask Big Questions: How Do We Connect?

Friday, February 13, 2015 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish a continuing blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Ilana Garon works as an English teacher at a public high school in the Bronx. She is currently on tour through the 2014-2015 JBC Network with her first book, "Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?": Teaching Lessons from the Bronx.

Once, in the midst of a particularly bad breakup, I was counseled by a good friend to expect more from people I was dating. “You deserve better,” she told me, earnestly. “And when you expect it, that’s when you’ll be treated that way.”

Her observation was well-intentioned (and likely correct), yet it made me bristle. The idea of “deserving” has always rung false with me; it seems somehow entitled to think that way, let alone to expect that what people get and what they deserve will ever have anything to do with each other.

We come into all relationships with expectations. In professional relationships, these are expectations are for the most part universal, and clear: We expect a doctor to diagnose and treat our illnesses, a bus driver to conduct the bus along the appointed route as safely and quickly as possible, a garbage collector to retrieve our bagged trash on the appointed days. These expectations circumscribed within these roles are mostly unambiguous, and the possibility for misunderstanding is limited.

In emotional relationships, the expectations are far murkier. The Greeks exemplified the diversity and nuance of emotional attachments with multiple words for “love”: Agape, godly love or benevolence; Eros, sexual passion; Philia, friendship or affection between equals; Storge, love between parents and children. Strains within relationships of all stripes are often the result of a mismatch of expectations, both about the intensity and the very nature of love itself. We expect, implicitly, that our feelings towards others will be mirrored back at us; discordance between that expectation and reality leave us feeling imbalanced, hurt, and even angry.

But perhaps the most vulnerable we feel is not in having the expectations, so much as in conveying them to others. At least, that’s been my experience. It can be hard and scary to tell someone, “I love you.” It is harder still to ask for love in return, however basic and universal a human need it may be. To explain how we need to be loved is the hardest yet—perhaps because it requires more self-knowledge than many of us possess. To have reasonable and viable expectations of others requires us to be fully cognizant of our own wants and needs, and aware of what role—if any—another person can play in helping us to create the lives we want.

In that respect, it can feel terribly exposing to have expectations of those closest to us, when the threat of misunderstanding or rejection is ever-present. Yet, it is also imperative that we do so: To be open to meaningful human connection, one must convey oneself fully and vulnerably to another person, making one’s own expectations known, as well as being ready to receive the expectations of another reciprocally and empathetically.

It’s scary to have expectations of others, to constantly subject oneself to the possibility of being hurt. “We all make mistakes,” I wrote in a (slightly overwrought) email to the ex who had spurned me, “but we have to tread carefully with those we brush closest to in life and love.” And in the end, it’s what we must do to make any meaningful connections in life—maintain our expectations that we’ll be treated with empathy and care, and meet each new encounter with all the optimism and hope that that entails.

Ilana Garon lives, writes, and teaches in New York City. She is the author of "Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?": Teaching Lessons from the Bronx.

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Ask Big Questions: How Do We Love?

Friday, January 16, 2015 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish a continuing blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Devan Sipher is a writer for The New York Times and is currently touring through the 2014-2015 JBC Network with his second novel, The Scenic Route.

How do we love, when we know that the person we love will eventually leave us, voluntarily or involuntarily?

For the last ten years, I have written about weddings for The New York Times. (In the movie 27 Dresses, the actor James Marsden was said to be portraying me, but with better hair.) So I have heard more than my fair share of couples vowing unmitigated passion and devotion. (Bridal couples aren’t known for understatement.) But every promise made on a wedding day has an explicit expiration date, i.e., “as long as we both shall live.”

Even at the moment when we are most focused on uniting with another person, we are also focused on the finite nature of that union. Without even addressing the many ways a relationship can deteriorate over time, the best case scenario for love is mourning the loss of the person we hold most dear (or being the one to leave that person bereft).

We hope that moment is many decades away, but it could just as easily be much less. Planes drop out of cerulean skies. Cancer cells invade supple tissue.

As Jews, we don’t believe in a hereafter where we have the opportunity to be reunited with loved ones. It would be easier if we did, but “dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return” is not a philosophy that lends itself to romantic notions of an afterlife.

So love, like religion itself, becomes an act of faith.

We leap into love hoping that the joy we will gain offsets the pain we are likely to eventually endure. We gamble our youth and our vital energy on something that is invisible and inscrutable, all the while knowing that the more we cherish someone’s companionship, the more profound will be our loneliness in its absence.

So it’s no surprise that many hesitate at the altar of commitment. Books and blogs and women’s magazines overflow with tales of those unable to trust completely and love wholeheartedly. For many people, there is a fear of giving oneself completely and being depleted in the process. And to what end?

I have written about people who have lost spouses prematurely to horrible diseases. I have written about people who have watched loved ones wither physically and mentally over grueling months and years. It’s exhausting to merely contemplate the strength and stamina required.

But perhaps, like the physical body, the spirit only grows when it encounters resistance.

If we don’t run or swim or lift weights or spin, our bodies have a tendency to get lumpy and misshapen. And it is very possible the same is true for our souls. It is possible that the moaning and the crying, the hoping and the praying, and even the late-night binges on pints of ice cream all play a part in strengthening our souls. Of course, there’s no guarantee that we have souls. There’s no guarantee of anything about life, except for death.

And there’s the rub. Love potentially magnifies the existential pain of our mortality. Yet love is a force strong enough to allow us to believe we are more than just dust. When we love do we transcend the physical limitations of our muscles and molecules? Or do we fall victim to a cosmic Ponzi scheme? Is love a sign of a divine spark within us? Or is even asking that question presupposing things we can’t possibly know?

In the end, we don’t know. We hope. We fear. But we don’t know. Or at least, not until it’s too late. It would be the ultimate irony to be provided with the answers to life's questions on the threshold of death. And it would potentially be the ultimate loss. So maybe the question isn’t “How do we love?” but “How do we not?”

Devan Sipher is a writer of the Vows wedding column in The New York Times and the author of two novels. He has also written for other publications, including The Forward and The Huffington Post. He graduated from the University of Michigan, received an M.F.A. from New York University, and he is a former junior cantor of Temple Israel. For more, please visit www.devansipher.com.

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Ask Big Questions: Why Bother?

Thursday, December 18, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish a continuing blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro is a fiction and non-fiction writer, currently touring through the 2014-2015 JBC Network with her memoir, Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture.

“To bother” is an odd verb. I usually think of it as synonymous with Why make an effort? It has come to mean that, but it also has a more specific origin. The verb “bother” dates back to the 1700s, and means to trouble, worry, or pester. It can also mean “to trouble oneself with thinking.” To make a fuss, to be troublesome. It has a meddlesome quality.

As children, we’re often told not to bother people. When children bother, they ask unending questions, or poke their sibling in the eye. “Stop bothering me!” says the child or adult who is fed up beyond politeness. How do adults bother? We both bother to dress and do work and fulfill responsibilities, but we can also protest and meddle and irritate. When we see injustice, we can still poke at it. Instead of fingers we use words, our thoughts, our physical presence.

A quick survey of the last few weeks of news are enough to make even the most resilient of us run for the fainting couch. The repeated failure to indict police in the prevalent shootings of unarmed black men. The unravelling Rolling Stone UVA rape story, which threatens sexual assault victims’ future credibility in the future and shifts attention from the serious and real issue of campus rape. I saw a fake New York Times issue where the lead story was titled “Everything’s Fucking Awful”. Headlines included “Seriously You Get Punished More for Jaywalking Than This Asshole Did for Shooting an Unarmed Kid”; “Oh, and Don’t Even Bother Escaping to the Arts Section, That Loveable Comedian We Grew Up Watching Basically Raped Everyone For Fifty Years”; and “Pizza Causes Cancer”.

Oh, and since I wrote the previous paragraph, 148 people have been murdered at a school in Pakistan, most of them schoolchildren.

It’s hard to feel like anything one might do would matter. Multiple distresses and disappointments have a way of piling on, and making one feel overwhelmed. Being meddlesome takes time and effort, and as we grow we understand that our time and effort is limited.

Every day, we make choices about which things to bother with, and which things to leave alone. Today I bothered to take a shower. I bothered to eat three meals and walk my dog. I read the paper. I did some work and I talked to a friend on the phone. The roof leaked; I put a bucket under it. Those things are normal and expected, but could we apply the same logic to larger issues? What is the bucket that we could put under this particular leak?

For a second I actually believed I might answer that, but the truth is I have no idea. I do think it involves bothering. It involves, at the very least, troubling ourselves with thinking. It may involve being meddlesome and troublesome. That behavior may look different on different people. This is how I bother: I write things. It feels useless and futile sometimes, to be sure, but I do it anyway.

Children understand that being bothersome is part of being alive, and that bothering is a kind of power. When they play the irritating “I’m Not Touching You” game, they are asserting themselves, and rejoicing in their ability to annoy without explicitly breaking rules. Bothering can be fun. What if we could bring the joyful irritant energy of “I’m Not Touching You” to bear on something powerful?

Bothering is an act of defiance. It is an assault on futility and hopelessness. It is a recognition that we live in a society, that our actions affect others, and that our lack of action also has consequence. If you bother, someone benefits. If you don’t bother, someone also benefits. Opting out is a false concept. You have opted in simply by existing. Perhaps the right question is not why bother, but how bother?

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro is the author of Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture and a former fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Believer, and McSweeney’s.

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Ask Big Questions: Who Represents You?

Monday, October 20, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Miriam Karmel is an award-winning short story writer. She is currently touring through the 2014-2015 JBC Network with her first novel, Being Esther.

Recently, my town’s Selectmen gave a small-time developer the go-ahead to build a very large gas station on a pristine piece of land.

The land abuts a rocky river at the southern gateway to the Berkshires. Tourists flock to the Berkshires for the woods, the hills, the clean air, the small town charm. The place is a haven for city folk, a balm for the spirit when the city becomes too much. Now, the Selectmen, all three of them, have let the city in. Coming soon: a round-the-clock gas station with eight pumps, a separate fueling area for diesel trucks, plus a Subway on the side. Or perhaps a Dunkin Donuts. Welcome to the Berkshires!

The Selectmen are elected to represent our town’s citizens. To represent means to speak or act for another. Yet when they voted to allow a developer to set up shop in our wilderness, they did not speak or act for me. “Tax dollars,” they said, to those who protested. “We need a gas station.” Both may be true. The town is strapped for money. Yet why does this feel like selling one’s soul to the Devil? And we haven’t had a gas station since a runaway truck took out the single pump that had been here forever. The truck destroyed the adjacent country store, too.

There must be a name for this phenomenon, for the feeling that your elected representatives do not represent you. Let’s call it helplessness. It’s the feeling you get when you see the train wreck coming and there isn’t a thing you can do to stop it. I did what I could. I wrote opinion pieces for our local paper condemning the plan. I spoke up at town meetings. It was like howling in the wind.

Our town will survive. Yes, the landscape will be altered, though perhaps not forever. Detroit, I have read, is becoming a haven for foxes. The critters are moving into downtown Detroit, into places where people once lived. Woodland and prairie are blooming where houses once stood. “Nature heals the cuts that we’ve made,” a fox researcher said. I should take heart in that.

Still, I feel helpless. I dread the coming of the mega-station. The fast food joint.

Lately, at times like this, I find myself turning to Esther Lustig and wondering: What would Esther do? Esther is an 85-year-old widow who lives alone in an apartment in Chicago. She is the protagonist of my novel Being Esther.

Esther has good reason to feel helpless. She is active and bright. Her life is full. Yet her daughter Ceely wants her to move to Cedar Shores, an assisted living residence.

After Marty died, Ceely started placing glossy brochures on Esther’s coffee table, her nightstand, and even tucked between the pages of her latest book. The other day, she held one open and pointed to the pictures. “Look, Ma. You’ll have your own room.”

Disparagingly, Esther calls the place Bingoville. Esther intends to stay put.

“Thank you very much,” she told Ceely, as she handed back the brochure. “I’m happy just where I am.

Ceely is relentless. She is her mother’s self-appointed representative. She buys groceries for her mother, though Esther has explained how much she enjoys her outings to the supermarket. Ceely buys the wrong things. At one point, deaf to Esther’s preference for Lucky Charms, Ceely pulls a box of All-Bran from a grocery bag, as delighted as a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat.

Ceely pours the All-Bran into Esther’s favorite blue bowl, and as she slices banana on top she lectures her mother on the benefits of potassium.

Then she sets the bowl in front of her mother. After Ceely leaves, Esther dumps the cereal into the garbage and rinses out the bowl.

This is a small act of defiance. Yet in it Esther has asserted control over her life. Though she does not say so in the book, I can hear her telling Ceely: Thank you very much, but I can represent myself.

Some things, though, are beyond our control. I can’t stop the gas station. And Esther can’t stop the aging process. At some point she may end up at Cedar Shores.

So what would Esther say? She might say that as long as we are alive, we can represent ourselves by waging small acts of defiance. For Esther, that means staying in her own apartment. It means chucking the All-Bran and eating Lucky Charms.

Me? I’ll continue to speak out. And I’ll be on the lookout for moments of grace. For now, that includes finding comfort in the image of foxes taking up residence in a hollowed-out city. I’m holding on to the notion that nature heals the cuts we make.

Miriam Karmel's writing has appeared in numerous publications including Bellevue Literary Review, The Talking Stick, Pearl, Dust & Fire, Passager, Jewish Women's Literary Annual, and Water~Stone Review. She is the recipient of Minnesota Monthly's 2002 Tamarack Award, the Kate Braverman Short Story Prize, and the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction. Her story "The King of Marvin Gardens" was anthologized in Milkweed Edition's Fiction on a Stick. Being Esther is her first novel.

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What’s Your Intention?

Sunday, September 14, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Lodro Rinzler is a 2013-2014 JBC Network author and a contributing columnist for such publications as The Huffington Post and Marie Claire. The former director of the Boston Shambhala Center, Rinzler teaches and lectures throughout North America.

Technology is a tool, like a hammer. You can use a hammer in a positive way, placing a nail in a wall and hanging beautiful art, or in a negative way, bashing someone’s head in. The hammer itself is not good or bad, it is our intention in using it that makes it so. The same can be said for technology.

Connecting to others through technology can be an overwhelmingly positive thing. Take, for example, protestors tweeting injustices half a world away, such that news channels can follow up in order to receive on-the-ground updates. I teach meditation classes, and thanks to video sharing technology, I can offer that tool for peace and presence to thousands of people I would not have access to if I was limited to meeting with everyone in-person. Perhaps more poignantly, I recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post detailing my experience with depression and suicide that went viral, leading to many many people sharing their own stories and finding support in appropriate channels.

On the flip side, technology can be used in a hurtful manner. Take the new ways of cyber-bullying that we did not have to deal with a generation ago. Rumors have always been around but now we can propagate them anonymously and in ways that millions can read. Plus, the Internet never sleeps so we can procrastinate nonstop. Whether it’s Wikipedia, Facebook, or online shopping, we all have some way that we prefer to avoid our work or our present reality.

In my work as a meditation teacher I always begin by asking people what their intention is for meditating. Meditation is hard and people tend to get disheartened unless they are very clear about why they want to do it. And I’m a firm believer that in all of our activity we always have either a conscious or unconscious intention. One leads us to a joyful existence, the other leads to trouble.

I’ll give you an example. You might want to go out with friends on a Saturday night. Also, you might drink, and likely dance and/or talk to members of the sex you’re attracted to and maybe even make out or something. That’s cool. Really. I’m all for it, if you consciously intend to do those things, after actual reflection.

More often than not we go out with friends, launch into a new relationship, or jump ship from one job to another without a clear understanding of why we’re doing what we’re doing. We never pause and develop a conscious intention and, as a result, things tend to get messy down the road.

To return to our example you could have had a rough week and you go out straight from work. No time to pause and reflect, and try to live with a conscious intention. So you drink too much to forget the jerks you work with, then because you drink too much you end up tripping over yourself while dancing, making a fool of yourself around people you want to make out with, and continue to drink to avoid dealing with any of these rough emotions. You end up sick and regretting the whole experience.

Let’s step back and do the same scenario but with a conscious intention. You leave work but you decide to take a respite first. You go for a walk or sit in a park. You take some time and reflect on your job, allow for the transition from work to fun happen, and then contemplate, “What is my intention for tonight?” After a few minutes of returning to that question you realize that you just want to connect with the friends you’re going to see because you don’t get to see them enough. You head out and instead of getting wasted you enjoy a few drinks with them, relax together, and reconnect. Whether you dance or meet other people or not it’s all okay because you’re living in line with your conscious intention.

When you live your life in line with conscious intentions, as opposed to unconscious ones, you live a happier, more connected life overall. To return to our discussion about technology, you can catch yourself when you’re about to click tabs over to spend some time on Facebook and ask yourself, “What’s my intention here?” Have you been meaning to check out photos of your friend’s wedding? Or are you just looking to mindlessly distract yourself? The more we ask ourselves why we do what we do, the more we can put technology to use in ways that help us make a positive difference in the world.

If we can learn to be very conscious with our intention about why and how we engage our technology, as well as the rest of our life, the ramifications are infinite.

Lodro Rinzler is the author of the bestselling The Buddha Walks into a Bar . . ., the award-winning Walk Like a Buddha, and the new books The Buddha Walks into the Office: A Guide to Livelihood for a New Generation and Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation. His columns appear regularly in The Huffington Post and Marie Claire, and he has been featured in numerous publications, including Bloomberg Businessweek, Real Simple, Tricycle and the Shambhala Sun. He is the founder of the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, a leadership training and job placement organization.

Ask Big Questions: How Do You Recharge?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Joshua Henkin is the author, most recently, of the novel The World Without You, which was named an Editors' Choice Book by The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune and was the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. You can read more of his blogging for the Jewish Book Council here.

The story goes that in 1923, when my father, a shy five-year-old, arrived at Ellis Island, he refused to talk to immigration officials, and they suspected he was a deaf mute. My grandfather couldn’t get my father to talk, and the family was threatened with deportation. But my father loved math, so my grandfather asked him some math questions. My father answered the questions, and the family was let in.

My grandfather was a well-known Orthodox rabbi and, as such, a teacher of Jewish law, and though he would have liked my father to follow in his footsteps, my father was hoping to teach math. Eventually, he went to law school, and after some years at the State Department and the U.N., he settled into life at Columbia Law School, where he was a professor for fifty years.

So the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. And the apple spawned more apples: one of my brothers is a professor of history, the other a teacher of music. Did I have a choice but to become a teacher myself?

Yet I am, first and foremost, a novelist. Every morning, once my daughters are off to school, I walk the fifteen blocks to the Brooklyn Writers Space, where I find an empty cubicle, and where, keeping a promise to myself, I haven’t learned the Internet password. No food, no drink, no cell phones: although I’m surrounded by other writers, there might as well be no one else in the world besides the people I’ve invented who light up my screen.

But then afternoon comes and my stamina slackens and other obligations call. How does a novelist retool? The way anyone else does, I suppose. We watch movies and read books and eat out in restaurants. We spend time with our family, and with our friends. Two years ago, I started to take piano lessons. I’ve even begun to work out with a personal trainer: no surer sign of encroaching middle age.

But the real way I retool is by teaching. It’s strange, I know, to look at my day job in this way, but I do. I direct the fiction MFA Program at Brooklyn College, which means that I get to teach some of the finest young writers in the country. In a typical year, we get close to 500 applicants for fifteen spots.

Teaching fiction writing brings me back to my own roots as a writer. I’m often asked whether I always wanted to be a writer, and the answer is, Yes, I always wanted to be a writer, but then I also always wanted to be a basketball player, and at some point you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough.

I was, in fact, a decent basketball player; I was the captain of my high school varsity basketball team. But I went to a small Jewish high school in New York City, where being captain put me in mind of that line from Ethics of the Fathers: He’vay zanav la’arayot, v’al t’hee rosh la’shooalim. Be the tail of the lions and don’t be the head of the foxes. Well, being the captain of my high school basketball team wasn’t like being the head of the foxes; it was like being the head of the mice.

And, so, I went off to college understanding that basketball wasn’t in my future. I felt the same way about writing: it was a dream. But then I graduated and got a job at a magazine where one of my tasks was to be the first reader of fiction submissions. I saw how many terrible ones there were, and I felt oddly inspired. I thought if other people were willing to try and risk failure, I should be willing to try and risk failure, too.

I tell this story, in part, because a fiction writer risks failure every day. But I tell it, also, because I was intuitively good at figuring out what wasn’t working in other people’s stories long before I was good at writing fiction myself. I had to teach myself to become a more intuitive writer.

It’s what I continue to do when I teach my graduate students. I’m teaching them, but I’m also teaching myself. I may be more experienced than they are, but we’re all struggling with the same things: how to tell a story, how to make our characters jump off the page, how to use language that sings. Writing workshop meets in the evening, and the next morning I’m ready to take my own advice to heart, ready to log in the hours.

The other thing about teaching is you’re engaged with actual human beings. This might seem obvious, but it’s easy for fiction writers to forget this. We spend so much time with imaginary human beings, it’s a relief to be in the company of real ones. Teaching enlivens me. Or, in the words of my late father, whose mother tongue was Yiddish, it’s a mechaye.

10 Ways to Win Big Like a Bohemian at Sports, Love, & Life

Thursday, February 20, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Slash Coleman is a 2013-2014 JBC Network participant and author of The Bohemian Love Diaries. Read more of his writing for the Jewish Book Council here.

Hanging on my father’s studio wall is a newspaper clipping, ripped from the 1973 Richmond News Leader. The headline reads: “Freaks vs. Pigs.” In one of my earliest sports memories, the sculpture department where my father attended college—a.k.a. The Freaks—beat the City of Richmond Police Department— a.k.a. the Pigs—in a fundraising softball game.

My father scored the winning run, his plumber’s butt became famous, and a celebration ensued that lasted months.

Underneath the article a photo shows my shirtless father and I standing beside his freaky, shirtless artist friends on the softball field. To his right is Frank “Half Man” Creasy, a painter who shaved the hair off the entire right side of his body. This included the hair on his head, face, eyebrows, eyelids, armpits, chest, arms, legs, and big toes. To my father’s left is Britta Garrison, a tiny printmaker who rode a pink miniature horse to class. I’m nuzzled into her elaborate softball uniform (an ornate gold and silver Elizabethan gown) basking proudly, romantically (and shirtlessly), feeling like I’ve just won big at Bingo. A moment after the picture was taken she kissed me on the lips. I was instantly in love with winning.

Unfortunately, this would be the closest I’d ever come to winning at sports again. Yet, the hook sank deep. Girls liked winners and as a five-year-old batboy Casanova who liked being kissed by girls (especially ones in Elizabethan gowns), the syllogism seemed logical. Play sports. Win. Win the girl.

Finding (and winning) the girl of my dreams set my subsequent quest for happiness on a hapless course that included a long and risky sports career, scores of painful trips to the emergency room, and plenty of broken hearts. Along the way, I learned a thing or two about winning. Mainly, that I was an artist trapped in a jock’s body who probably wouldn’t live his life as a professional athlete.

Whether your intentions are to win a heart like Don Juan, win a game like Peyton Manning, or win big with personal success, my list below is sure to help you feel like a winner:

1. Win the “Emulate Your Hero” Award

My grandest romantic obsession involved winning the affections of my beautiful and single third grade teacher, Ms. Ottenbrite. For an entire year, I dressed in a white denim pantsuit with a red pillowcase tied around my neck and imagined myself as the infamous daredevil Evel Knievel. I’d see myself flying through the sky in slow motion and into her arms as John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” played in the background. Win this award with your best iTunes playlist.

2. Win the “I Won by Losing” Award

I joined the varsity wrestling team to win the heart of our homecoming queen Savannah van Houten. As a result, I became the only wrestler in the history of my high school for two years straight to lose every match within the first five seconds. Yet, Savannah never knew I existed. This was the ultimate personal homage to the wrestling uniform—an outfit tailored to resemble a girl’s one-piece bathing suit with strange ear protectors that remind me of a yarmulke thong. Win this award with a big slice of humble pie.

3. Win the “Fashion Forward Podiatry” Award

Jewish mom’s are famous for their guilt, especially when it comes to leaving the house wearing clean underwear. “Just in case you’re in an accident,” they always say. Take it from a guy who’s accident prone, undergarments are way overrated. Let’s be honest. The first accessory anyone notices about a man is his shoes. My dad won that softball game in a pair of Chopines, a lace-up boot made of wood and covered in deer skin. Win this award by downgrading from boxers to briefs.

4. Win the “Wet Straw and Stale Horse Smell” Award

I started wearing Brut by Fabergé at the age of ten. This is the cheap cologne that comes in a plastic green bottle made famous by Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain, and James Bond. This is the smell that screams, “Go where no man has gone before!” Follow your heart to the men’s personal grooming products isle at Walgreens and then follow your nose. Win this award exclusively at Walgreens.

5. Win the “Big is Small” Award

I once bought a one way ticket to Alaska (with my remaining bar mitzvah money) and lived like a caterpillar in a tent without poles (I’d forgotten them) for nearly a year in an attempt to woo my very first girlfriend. I thought my larger-than-life gesture would win her heart. Instead, she left me for the curmudgeonly, wrinkled manager at the fish cannery in Nikiski. Win this award by crying on your best friend’s shoulder.

6. Win the “Small is Big” Award

As a southerner, I was raised with a certain flavor of manners that has always translated into small gestures of kindness towards others. These days kindness has become some sort of radical mitzvah that needs to be added to a to-do list. Be nice, period. Win this award with small, kind gestures.

7. Win the “I Really Feel it” Award

Coach Monday called what happened during the competition an “anatomical enigma.” I would be the only gymnast in competitive history to be knocked out of my tights during a Big Ten Conference competition after slinging myself off the high bar and knocking myself out on one of those halogen lights on the gymnasium ceiling. I woke up in the arms of the lone female judge and then threw up on her blazer. Win this award with your sensitive side.

8. Win the “Power Through Patience” Award

On my honeymoon, my wife and I shaved our heads to prove that love was based on more than just physical appearances. I’m ashamed to say I realized the very next day the depths of my shallowness. I felt like I’d married a big bald man! It took Raleigh's hair nearly two years to grow back. By then, I’d won my superficial freedom back and lost my wife. Win this award with patience.

9. Win the “Boring Excitement” Award

Every day after school and on weekends until dark, I’d lay in the garden behind my parent’s house under a huge stack of old car tires. I thought if I distributed the weight of the steel-belted radials in just the right way I could get my leg to break. You see, I craved wining the kind of personal attention that might only come with a leg cast and a set of crutches. Grappling with my personal issues like a modern day Don Quixote became a metaphor for grappling with life. Ultimately, many more obstacles will stand before me and my dreams, but only I can ever prevent myself from achieving those dreams. Win this award with your next dream.

10. Win the “Change Your Story” Award

Ultimately, our words create our beliefs, our beliefs create our actions and our actions create our reality. What do you want your story about winning to be? You’re the writer. Change the words and you’ll change your reality. Win this award by writing inspiring words on the back of your hand.


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 creatingThe New American Storyteller for PBS. He is the February 2014 featured author for Ask Big Questions as part of a new partnership with the JBC,