The ProsenPeople

How Some Jews Live

Thursday, January 24, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ilie Ruby wrote about the idea of b'shert. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I always begin like this, with Irv, my grandfather, and then I describe him, An angel on Earth, never another like him. I repeat this as I have been told, though he died long before I was born. I used to think about his life as a tree with roots reaching far into the future and encircling the past. Irv is my namesake, a hard act to follow. I can still hear my grandmother telling me at night, May you live as he did and be just as blessed. May you see those who are unseen, and hear those who don't speak.

What she meant, I learned later, were the stories of my grandfather, and more, of the people he knew. I'm told that when my relatives sat shiva for Irv, who died suddenly at 46, leaving a young wife and two daughters who would mourn him forever, strangers came from near and far to share untold memories of him—the gifts he bestowed, the countless lives he saved, the support he’d offered through money, counsel, friendship, always without judgment and without any fanfare. He was not rich, but comfortable. As a child, I thought him a saint, before his frailty and humanness appeared to me. Still, there was a divinity about his connectedness—to the wanderers and those who found themselves caught in moments of fracture. Today, I think about how difficult this must have been for him to embrace it all, given his own complicated and pressured life.

Because of his capacity, I think about the expansiveness of Judaism, about hands that pray over candles in the most traditional and unconventional of places. Blessings fill a home as prayers are sung, wherever that home may be, however it is made, regardless of its trappings or its architecture or its abundance or its lack. Whether those who pray are down on their luck, or up on it, whether they are the bestowers or receivers of gifts.

When visiting book groups, I am often asked about this unconventional Jewish family in my newest novel, a single mother and her two daughters who are homeless in Southern California, who find solace in the reflection of the female face of God, the Shekhina—perhaps an uncommon path. They wander through the desert, their enchanted landscape rife with Jewish ritual and magical realism. When I began the story, I wanted to know these wanderers, these complex and compelling souls I imagined my grandfather would have embraced. As I wrote I thought about the confluence of tradition and spirituality, of the way ancestry is passed down through both stories and inherited memory, of lives pieced together like a quilt, with colors of raw survival and mistakes and compassion and personal mythology. I wanted to write a book about a Jewish family navigating life on the fringes of contemporary society. Mostly I wanted to write about people stepping out from behind their circumstances and claiming their voices.

Perhaps Irv was the man he was because of of our Hungarian-Russian ancestry, comprised of many wanderers. There are familiar stories of pogroms. Of the Holocaust where countless relatives were lost. Of immigration. Of homelessness and of splendor. My own journey took me from Boston to Jerusalem, through the Mea Shearim, and into the lives of the kibbutzim. Climbing mountains near the Dead Sea and plunging hands into the mud below, clearing vines in a vineyard at dawn as if trying to unmask a collective Jewish unconscious are experiences I will treasure. I think about those who wander mostly inside their hearts and minds, too, about the warmth of my brilliant and curious grandmother’s kitchen, about her insights, and how her Yiddish still resonates within me like music. I think often about lively discussions where elbows bear down on worn tablecloths, where explorers and healers and naysayers and matriarchs refine and redefine how Jewish people live. Today, as I raise my own family I find solace in a prayer group of expansive thinkers. I think about the divinity that ignites in the space of creating, when a sense of rightness directs conversation, when moral compasses find their true North in integrity and forgiveness. My grandfather lived the way Jewish people live, and so did all the wanderers he knew. This knowledge, his legacy, is why I begin with him.

Visit Ilie's official website here. 

What's Meant to Be

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 | Permalink
Ilie Ruby is the author of The Salt God’s Daughter and the critically-acclaimed novel, The Language of Trees. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. 

One of the things that I find most compelling about Judaism is the idea of b’shert. It fills me with joy when someone says our meeting was b'shert, our friendship is meant to be, when a new connection seems predestined. From the time I was a child, raised slightly less traditionally than my Conservative grandparents, this paradoxical sense of destiny, elusive yet certain, made of equal parts fate and faith, resonated with me.

Perhaps it's the ethereal aspect of b’shert, the assertion that some things are meant to be while others are not meant to be, which skeptics undoubtedly dismiss as merely a lens through which to impose order on chaos. And yet, the promises of b'shert are vast. Those who were lucky enough to find their b'shert, well, it seemed somehow the divine favored them. They'd passed the test, were deemed worthy, and had been chosen.

No matter what else happened, they could claim this: they found theirs in this lifetime.

How many b’sherts did you deserve? And when would you run out of chances? What happened if you never found your b'shert?

My siblings and I were raised on the idea of b’shert, on its promise, told we would find ours—that it had been written. We honed our independence, but hoped to find our b'shert, too, just like the women in my novel, The Salt God’s Daughter do. My main character, Ruthie, yearns for true love, the sort that transcends time, space, and the barriers of her wild oceanic wilderness. But perhaps no one longs for it more than her mother, Diana, whose search for her own b’shert is all-consuming, and comes at great cost to her family.

The truth is that in books, as in life, some find their b'shert; others don’t. It seems there is little rhyme or reason as to why some search a lifetime to no avail. And others not only find it once, but twice, like my own grandmother, who was as deserving as anyone, and found it first as a young woman, and again, as a young widow. Two b’sherts in one lifetime, both mensches. Somehow her daughters never found theirs.

My grandparents were the only two people I knew who were a living testimony of b'shert, so when I'd visit as a teenager, I was an investigator of b'shert. I studied their relationship so as to recognize b'shert if it found me. I noted how their hands touched as they passed each other in the hallway. Watched how they discussed dinner during breakfast. Watched how he massaged her arthritic hands after Hadassah meetings, how she championed his work at B'nai B'rith, how they adored and argued and how they curled up at night while she knit afghans for the grandchildren while watching Wheel of Fortune. Watched how my grandfather carried his b’shert to the silvery-blue recliner after she became ill. Watched him shake his head with amusement and relief during our visits when my grandmother and I would sit close on the couch, arms wrapped around each other, and we'd converse in a made up language only the two of us understood—a blend of Yiddish and gibberish, which made her laugh until tears streamed down her wrinkled cheeks and her joy seemed powerful enough to heal her. And that last time, before she died, how my grandfather put on her favorite record and danced in the living room to entertain her, and she, too weak to move, beamed with pure love.

Second chances are always a theme in my writing. I’m fascinated by restoration, by lives redeemed after losses or mistakes, and by rebirth. In The Salt God’s Daughter I wrote about Mr. and Mrs. Green, whose marriage was b’shert. I wrote of Mrs. Green losing him after decades. About shiva, and the strangers who showed up to tell their untold stories of him. Of how a new circle of soulmates appeared after b’shert had disappeared, but hope did not.

All things have a beginning, a middle and an ending, even those things that seem predestined. And yet, what blossoms in the absence of what's meant to be offers rich territory for exploration, and remains as beautiful and wondrous.

Visit Ilie's official website here.