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Why Be Jewish? | Judy Batalion

Wednesday, October 05, 2016 | Permalink

For the first week of the year 5777, Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series features writers who were touched by Edgar M. Bronfman, z”l, and his dedication to Jewish life the world over. Read more about Edgar M. Bronfman’s vision and legacy in his final book, Why Be Jewish?: A Testament.


My earliest memory of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships is from the first night, when a bunch of us adolescents draped on cots in the 92nd Street Y, awkwardly getting to know each other. “What’s your denomination?” someone posed to the group.

“A crisp 100,” I wanted to joke.

But before I could, people went around the room and answered. “Orthodox, Reform, Uptown Conservative.”

Huh? I sunk back into a pillow hoping no one would turn my way. I had never even heard the word used to describe a type of Judaism—or was it synagogue? My denomination, I gathered, was “traditional Holocaust”. I came from a close-knit Polish shtetl transplant set in Catholic French Quebec, where almost all the synagogues were Orthodox even though none of the people were remotely observant. Most of us had survivor grandparents. We learned Yiddish grammar and Israeli poetry about army medics at our non-religious day school.

“I’m a Shoah-based lobster Jew,” I muttered, but no one heard as conversation had already turned to a radical deconstruction of Democratic housing policies according to Talmudic code.

And here was my first brush with American Jewry.

My Montreal Jewish community was small and self-enclosed. I had heard about the Bronfman program from an older alumna who’d attended my high school, one of the few who went to the United States for college. She dazzled me. Feeling suffocated, suburban and inconsequential, I craved a life that was bigger, worldly. I dreamed of sophistication. My parents did not want me to go to Israel (until the last minute they had refused to drive me to the interview in Boston), but I fought for this release. At 17, their unwillingness only fueled my fleeing fire. This was my first time doing something truly on my own, knowing no one, outside my country and my comfort zone. I had just graduated from high school, and here was the beginning of the rest of my life.

It wasn’t an easy beginning. I was like the other fellows, but also unlike them. I was raised with an immigrant, working-class, conservative values, self-deprecating background, perhaps a generation behind my peers, who seemed so comfortable in their Hebraic skins, earnest and centered with strong opinions on legislative issues I only overheard on Vermont public television. I had not gone to a progressive prep school, or taken standardized tests. I could not recite even one prayer, the American National Anthem, or Walt Whitman. I didn’t know the lingo de rigueur, and was intimidated by everyone’s vast knowledge and skill for presentation and debate. With time, though, I picked up on terms and ideas, and made lifelong friends.

I want to say that I spent six weeks in Israel deeply moved by the trip’s programming, that the impassioned lectures and poetic exchanges altered my self-concept and my understanding of Jewish history, that the tiuls (hikes, excursions) shaped me, inspired me, led me to become a writer. I want to claim that the proffered buffet of Jewish positions renewed my appreciation of culture and faith, taught me a love of the written word, endowed me with an awe for storytelling and the power of narrative.

But the truth is, at 17, I wasn’t there yet. I was busy rebelling and running away, newly embarking on a decades-long path of self-discovery. For me, this fellowship confirmed my agency. It showed me that if I wanted something, I could go after it and get it, and could find my way (albeit shamefully fumblingly) through the challenging patches. It initiated an understanding of my difference, an ability to own it, see it, run from it or be it, and empathically accept it in others. It was the beginning of a journey to responsibility and confidence, as well as the start of a self-consciousness about who I was and where I came from, as a person, as a Jew, as a Canadian. Edgar M. Bronfman’s program ignited in me the confidence to take risks, to chase dreams, to trot into the unknown, to select the communities and worlds I wanted to be part of—the traits and experiences I drew on many years later, when I began to write.

22 years post-Bronfman (GASP), with two children of my own, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I still spend too much time running away instead of running toward, I still cannot envision my next steps. But I do have a clearer sense of what’s meaningful. At my very first book launch I looked out to see four alums (five, including my brother); a few weeks later, four others showed up at an event on a cold night in Boston; another in Toronto; three wrote reviews; many more inspired and encouraged me, passing on practical career advice. Bronfman helped me become a writer by, decades later, offering me peers and mentors, supporters and readers, a community of people who’ve known me over time, who accept me even though they witnessed me through some wildly embarrassing adolescent moments, who endow me with a sense of belonging even if I sometimes don’t feel it. Why Be Jewish? Bronfman asks in his last book. I suppose that’s why.

Judy Batalion is the author of White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between. She is currently touring through Jewish Book Council as a 2016 – 2017 JBC Network author.

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Stuff: Is It Good for the Jews?

Wednesday, January 06, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Judy Batalion shared her experience of showing her mother her memoir about their relationship. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

My memoir, a tale of surviving the survivors, centers on how I endured my Mom’s and Bubbie’s hoarding. I hated the embarrassing piles—stashes of dresses procured from bargain-basements, frozen bananas waiting for their supposed transformation to loaf, mountains of handbags haggled over at bazaars across 1980s Montreal—that made me feel emotionally and physically blocked from my family. I spent my adulthood decluttering and running away. My flight, to England, to work as an art historian in cut-glass British museums and white-walled galleries, was in opposition to my family. But this militant minimalism was also, to some degree, in opposition to my Jewishness. “Curator” was the least Yiddish word I knew and I wanted in.

Hoarding is thought to affect a staggering 3-4% of the American population. As Randy Frost and Gail Steketee point out in Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, hoarding behaviors are not necessarily related to a history of war or deprivation. However, many Jews tell me they can relate to my story. “My great-uncle-in-law was a survivor and has a house full of tomato sauce!” or “Oy, my poor newspaper-collecting cousin…” I wonder if accumulation is a Jewish tendency, in reaction to the Holocaust and in a broader way. We’re familiar with stereotypes about excessive calories, volume, words, and I sense it’s similar for objects. You’d think a nation known for thousands of years of nomadism would have perfected the art of living lightly, but it appears that Jews have lots of things. Nu, why?

There are practical reasons. A priest recently came over for Friday night dinner and confessed his envy. It’s easier to get a younger demographic to follow Jewish custom, he explained, because most of its rituals take place, not in the unpopular church, but in the home. But for those rituals, I thought, you need ritual items. (See: formal set of pareve Passover salad tongs.)

There are emotional reasons, I guessed. Our baggage, when unpacked, might function as an aggressive attempt to lay roots. When we settle, we do so with a vengeance. Hey, I’m planted here, along with 300 kippahs collected at bar mitzvahs since the 1960s. Possessions can form a protective wall. We feel cuddled and coddled surrounded by our things, womby and warm.

I had a nosh with environmental psychologist Sally Augustin who confirmed that our belongings make us feel good, in different ways than I predicted. She explained that objects are important for identity. “We didn’t evolve in a minimalist box,” she said. Our trinkets remind us of what we value, how we see ourselves, what image we want to project to the world, and who we want to be. On top of this, objects provide social clues. We make conversation around a boot collection. We subconsciously act more distanced with people whose surroundings are sparse because we are distracted, confused about who they are. Could it be a vicious substance circle? Jews are talkative, and have tchotchkes, so they’re talkative… I’d always seen a hoard as a blockade, but now I considered how our clutter might enable connection.

Of course, one chat wasn’t enough for this Jewess. I called my friend and professional organizer Elizabeth Savage who told me of a client of hers who madly collected purses. “Holocaust roots,” she said, knowingly. I knew. Bubbie had hundreds; the “pushkin” is the meta-symbol of safety. “In our mobile and transient culture, everything moves so quickly. We cling to our things because we don’t want to die!” Liz cried. Survivors or not, our objects comfort us.

Makes sense. Stuff links us to our pasts, marks our memories, challenges the inevitable demise of our biodegradable beings. Our stashes can be a hassle to store, organize and use, which is perhaps a little bit like Jewish heritage. It’s there, it’s hidden, it’s out, it’s too much, but ultimately, it feels good too.

Judy Batalion is the author of White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between.

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My Mom, a Character

Monday, January 04, 2016 | Permalink

Judy Batalion is the author of White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Let’s just say, I wasn’t eager to share my book with my mother. My mom was born in 1945 during my Bubbie’s return voyage from Siberian work camps to Poland, in Kirgizia, in a makeshift hospital staffed solely by a distracted janitor. Mom was a refugee before knowing what home was. She spent her formative years in Wroclaw and then Israel before settling in Canada. She was a depressed hoarder, filling our house with walls of tuna cans and thousands of videocassettes. My memoir explores my attempts to reconcile our complicated relationship and her pathologically messy home when I found out I was about to have a daughter myself.

I couldn’t shake a story I’d heard about a memoirist who showed her mother her manuscript; her mother was appalled, told her she could never publish it, then dropped dead the next day. My own mom’s mental state was increasingly fragile, her depression deepening, her suicidal threats frequent. She hadn’t left her house in years. I toyed with the idea of keeping my book a secret. But she used Google, and one day, outright asked to read it. I couldn’t deny her request. Last summer, when I was in Montreal—nearby in case of an emergency—I decided it was time.

I printed the pages, put them in a grocery bag, and left them in my car for 3 days. Then I handed them over. “This book is dedicated to you,” I said, leaning into her shrinking physique, the small, soft mass that overshadowed my entire life. “I tried to be honest. You should tell me if I wasn’t.”

Radio silence.

Until three days later, when I was chasing kids in a berry orchard, and her number showed up. “I read your book.” Her voice was hushed, thin like candy paper. I felt the car keys in my pocket, knew I could get to her in 20 minutes. “The tone in Chapter 17 is really off.”

“Mom, I—” Wait. What?

“I like how you braid together humor and pathos, but the comedy is jarring in that scene. You lose emotional impact.”

I was shocked, relieved, delighted and confused. I wrote a whole book about her emotional states and that was her response? But I reminded myself that we’d always connected through literature. As a kid, most of our conversations ended in tears and slams, but I cherished memories of us laughing together as she unpacked Amelia Bedilia puns. When I left home, we developed a nurturing long-distance rapport analyzing my romances on an Aiden/Mr. Big scale (it was the ‘90s). A few years earlier, she’d read a short piece of mine about her hoarding. “How could I not have known how much this affected you?” she’d said. “Now I understand.”

“Thanks, Mom,” I now said, realizing she was right about Chapter 17.

When I left Montreal, Mom handed me back my pages—with notes. (And I’d thought it was stressful opening mark-ups from an editor!) After another few days in the plastic bag, I glimpsed them to find just a few comments. One was an explanation about her behavior on a particular day, about how her absence had been in attempt to help me, not a withdrawal. Sitting there, clutching the sheets that her fingers had also grazed, I thought about how despite all her hoarding, she’d given me space to make sense of the world as I needed. Room to grow.

Judy Batalion is the author of White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between.

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