The ProsenPeople

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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A Legacy of Fear

Friday, June 20, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Devan Sipher wrote about a travel story in the bible that goes terribly wrong and shared six things he learned writing about weddings for The New York Times. He is a writer of the Vows wedding column in The New York Times, the author of the novels The Scenic Route and The Wedding Beat, and has also written for other publications, including The Forward and The Huffington Post. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was biking recently in the foothills of the San Jacinto mountains in southern California, and I found myself far more uncomfortable on the descent than I was on the way up. I realized that I’m used to making extra effort. It’s the easy things that scare me.

It’s no accident I’m a writer. Or Jewish.

My great-grandmother Sophie fled the Cossacks as a teenager, and that’s pretty much all I or anyone in my family knows about her. I remember asking where she came from, and the answer was uniformly, “She had a hard life.” I remember asking if she had brothers or sisters, and the answer was the same, “She had a hard life.”

I should note that it was said with pride. My great-grandmother struggled, and through her struggle she survived. Fleeing the Cossacks was both a cross to bear and a badge of honor.

Now I don’t want to generalize, but I think that Jews sometimes have a hard time getting over adverse events. I mean it’s been three thousand years and we’re still trying to get closure about being slaves in Egypt.

The thing about fleeing Cossacks or Nazis, or ancient Egyptians for that matter, is that you never entirely stop fleeing. I believe it can become part of your identity—and part of your legacy. And it can become what you pass down to your children, like candlesticks and kiddush cups.

I was raised to believe Cossacks could appear at any moment. But there aren’t a lot of Cossacks in suburban Michigan. So my family worried instead about things like salmonella, Radon gas, and poorly wrapped Halloween candy.

Fear was considered a virtue. Fear makes you careful. Fear keeps you safe. And safety was the number one concern. As it probably has been for millennia.

My book The Scenic Route is about someone who places safety above all other concerns. The protagonist is a Detroit doctor determined to make safe and prudent choices in life. But in a world where hospitals—and even cities—can go bankrupt, is there such a thing as a safe choice?

It seems doubtful. Hard work doesn’t guarantee health and happiness. Continuous vigilance can be exhausting. The moral of The Scenic Route is that life is what happens on the way to where you’re going, and I firmly believe that. Yet I continue to put in extra effort fighting uphill battles in everything from my writing to my exercise regimen. I guess I’m scared not to.

Devan Sipher 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. Read more about him and his work here.

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The Path of a Wandering Jew

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Devan Sipher shared six things he learned writing about weddings for The New York Times. He is a writer of the Vows wedding column in The New York Times, the author of the novels The Scenic Route and The Wedding Beat, and has also written for other publications, including The Forward and The Huffington Post. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I never intended to write novels.

I also never intended to write for The New York Times. When I was 17, I was accepted to medical school. And my parents are still trying to figure out what went wrong.

After being a medical student, I was briefly a rabbinical student. I have also been a presidential campaign coordinator, an entertainment news show producer, an information technology consultant, a computer graphics artist, a book editor, a bookkeeper, a playwright, and an advertising copywriter along the way. In short, my career trajectory resembles the path of a drunken sailor—or perhaps a wandering Jew.

So it’s appropriate that my second novel, The Scenic Route, is about people taking the long way around. And I would argue that taking the long way is a Jewish tradition. After all, we spent forty years in the desert.

Traveling is a key part of the biblical narrative, central to canonical stories from Noah to Jonah to Joseph. However, travel is also unpredictable, and the patriarchs (and matriarchs) often end up in destinations far from where they had intended to be. (Joseph never planned to go to Egypt, and Jonah was dragged to Nineveh kicking and screaming.)

In The Scenic Route, life is what happens on the way to where you’re going. And I believe one could argue that’s also a message of the bible, as story after story illustrates people tackling unexpected challenges and changing the course of human history in the process.

Nowhere is this more true than in the momentous but little known verses about “the woman of Gibeah,” who wasn’t even from Gibeah, a town in ancient Israel inhabited by the tribe of Benjamin. The woman is the wife or concubine (the bible is unclear) of a Levite priest who is traveling from Bethlehem to a northern city.

The Levite and the woman stop for the night in Gibeah and are offered food and shelter in the home of an elderly man. But the home is besieged by townsmen angered by the presence of the foreigner in their midst, and demand he be handed over to them. His host refuses, but instead offers the woman.

The next morning the Levite finds the ravaged woman on the doorstep and (for reasons that must have made more sense in biblical times), he carves her into 12 pieces, sending one piece to each tribe—as evidence of the wrong done to him.

The result is a war between the tribes, which ends with the near-decimation of the tribe of Benjamin. And it is largely because of that devastating civil war that the twelve tribes decide they need a king, which leads to the anointment of the first king of Israel, King Saul, who, for the sake of reconciliation, was chosen from the tribe of Benjamin.

Everything that follows: the kingdom of David and Solomon, the rise and fall of the two temples, and all of Judeo-Christian history. It is all the aftermath of a war, a rape, and a travel story that goes terribly wrong.

Devan Sipher 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. Read more about him and his work here.

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6 Things I Learned Writing About Weddings For The New York Times

Monday, June 16, 2014 | Permalink

Devan Sipher is a writer of the Vows wedding column in The New York Times and the author of the novels The Scenic Route and The Wedding Beat. He has also written for other publications, including The Forward and The Huffington Post. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My first novel, The Wedding Beat, was loosely based on my experience as a single Jewish guy writing the Vows wedding column at The New York Times. (“Always the wedding columnist and never the groom,” is how the New York Observer described me.) There are a lot of things I learned that didn’t make it into the book, and here are a few of them:

1. MEN ARE ALSO FROM VENUS

Beneath the stubble and the SportsCenter addiction, most men are as confused, vulnerable, and romantic as women when it comes to falling in love.

I’m not sure where people got the idea that romance is primarily a female thing. When it comes to grand romantic gestures, from sweeping someone away for a weekend in Paris to getting down on one knee on a white sand beach, there’s usually a guy involved.

2. A RECEPTION IS A RECEPTION IS A RECEPTION

If you’re in the midst of planning a wedding party, trust me when I say no one will remember the color of the napkins.

Every wedding ceremony has a personal element unique to the bond of the two people getting married, but receptions tend to blend together. Some are fancier. Some are quirkier. But once the jackets are off and the guests are boogying down on the dance floor, the Rockefellers don’t look much different from the Rubinsteins. And I can say that with assurance because I covered two Rockefeller weddings – and one of them married a Rubinstein.

3. THERE’S A BIG DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ATTENDING A WEDDING AND WORKING AT ONE

The New York Times has a strict policy about accepting anything that could be construed as a gift. So when I go to a wedding I don’t eat. I don’t drink. Bill Cunningham, the iconic Times photographer (and the subject of the documentary film “Bill Cunningham New York”) has said he doesn’t even accept water.

Working at a party is precisely that. Working. Watching other people enjoy a gourmet meal is a fat-free and frisson-free experience. As an added bonus, when guests see me with a pen and pad in my hand, they often mistake me for a waiter and give me their drink orders.

4. SAYING “I DO” ISN’T WRITTEN IN STONE – OR NECESSARILY EVEN IN INK

Oddly, a lot of people who make submissions to The New York Times wedding section aren't planning a legal wedding. And I’m not talking about gay weddings. There are couples who have previously eloped and never told anyone. And there are couples who want a wedding party, but haven’t yet decided if they want to make a legal commitment to each other. But the most popular reason for making non-binding vows is that many couples want their ceremony performed by someone who isn’t legally sanctioned to officiate, and they don’t want the hassle of a separate civil ceremony at City Hall to make the marriage legal. This is what divorce lawyers’ dreams are made of.

Before writing an article, I always have to verify if a legal marriage is taking place. And it can often take a great deal of detective work. A colleague has joked that the name of our department should be “wedding investigations.”

5. GREAT LOVE IS NOT PERFECT LOVE

I find the healthiest relationships are the ones based on mutual respect – not just for each other’s virtues but also for each other’s flaws. Couples that can acknowledge (and laugh) about their partner’s imperfections (and their own) seem to have the strongest foundation.

Love stories that are too good to be true usually are, and when I hear someone describe their mate as "perfect," it's a red flag. "Perfect" is not an option in politics or marriage. A truly happy bride isn’t someone in a state of bliss but rather someone looking forward to what’s coming next.

6. HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE

I think people like reading Vows columns for the same reason I like writing them. They affirm life by showing that love can happen at any time, at any place and at any age.

So many things belong to youth: such as time, health, and Justin Bieber hair. But it turns out that love isn’t one of them. Happiness is always possible. As long as you’re alive, there’s always hope that something new and exciting is around the corner.

Falling in love is a little like writing a book. You can feel a spark about a person or an idea. The trick is paying attention to that spark and choosing to pursue it.

Devan Sipher 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. Read more about him and his work here.

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