The ProsenPeople

Why I Write in Yiddish

Monday, March 12, 2018 | Permalink

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of two recent books of poetry, The Education of a Daffodil: Prose Poems/Di bildung fun a geln nartsis: prozelider and A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-kratsers: geklibene Yidishe lider/A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems. He is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Someone recently asked me why I write in Yiddish. This is a question I receive with some regularity. Of course, it’s something that’s asked of those who engage in any prolonged way with the language. When I was a student in the Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, my Yiddish grammar teacher, the eminent linguist Mordkhe Schaecter, said something along the lines of that he never asked a student why s/he was studying Yiddish. Would a student of French be asked why s/he were studying French? The question implies that there is a need to justify the study of this language, the lingua franca for East European Jews for centuries and a cultural repository for so much that is Jewish, as evidenced by the language’s very name, which, after all, means “Jewish.” Aren’t these characteristics alone sufficient reason? I wondered if Dr. Schaechter wanted to turn the question on its head: Why don’t more people study Yiddish?

The question has added poignancy of late due to the publication of my most recent book, A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-kraters: geklibene Yidishe lider/A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems. As its subtitle suggests, the book is entirely in Yiddish. In fact, it is my first one to be only in Yiddish. It includes the Yiddish poems from my previous books as well as uncollected others. When I told a poet friend about this, she asked, “Who will read it?” I assured her there are indeed Yiddish readers left. I wasn’t satisfied with my response to that question. A more appropriate one might have been that the question of readership is separate from the question of writing. But neither was I satisfied with the answer I gave in real time to the question raised at the outset of this essay.

I write in Yiddish because I refuse to be denied my cultural heritage. Yiddish was a crucial element in the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world in which I was raised. Yiddish words and expressions peppered speech. The teachers and the officials of the yeshiva spoke Yiddish. My parents spoke Yiddish. I speak Yiddish today with my father. And yet growing up, I never read or even heard of the works of the canonical Yiddish troika of Mendele Mokher Sefarim, Isaac Leib Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem, let alone the works of more recent Yiddish masters such as David Bergelson, Jacob Glatstein, Itzik Manger, or Blume Lempel, an innovative writer whose work Ellen Cassedy and I spent many years translating.

When I read Yiddish literature today, I’m immersing myself in a world that’s familiar and also alien. That world is familiar because of the religious life cycle that figures prominently in many Yiddish texts, and alien because of how far we are from the world not only of the East European shtetlakh but also of cities such as Łodz, Warsaw, and Vilnius. And it’s distant because I have no memories of studying this literature in my youth the way someone raised in a secular Yiddishist environment, who attended a Workmen’s Circle school or a Yiddish school, would have.

When I write in Yiddish, I’m placing my own small flag, however tattered, however imperfect, in the realm of new Yiddish literature. I’m staking a claim for Yiddish as a current, dynamic, ever-evolving language for literary creation and my own tiny tent within it. In Yiddish, I can exist in the beys-medresh disputing Talmudic minutiae or studying ethical texts and at rallies and demonstrations fighting for justice. I can be in the butcher shop and the grocery store, perusing Paskesz candy offerings and in the salons sampling the latest literary releases. I can be singing Askinu sudose at the third Sabbath meal and “Harbstlid” by the Yiddish poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. I can … Well, you get the idea. All of that and more—past, present, and future—is simultaneously available to me.

And when I write in Yiddish, I don’t have to think about a glossary or about how to make the religious and other terms and expressions in my work accessible to readers. Readers of Yiddish will know the meaning of words like Shvues or havdole or shadkhonim. Nor do I have to think about the transliteration system I am going to use and whether I should transliterate words Yiddishly or Hebraically and what transliteration system I should use. My readers won’t need that guidance.

And yet, Yiddish is not my first language. I have to look many English words up in the dictionary—not only to determine their parallels in Yiddish, but also their genders. I have to think about the case of a particular linguistic context. I have to consider whether what I’ve written works idiomatically in Yiddish. I have to find someone to proofread. That person has to have both a profound knowledge of Yiddish and a proofreader’s sensibility. Once a manuscript is ready, I have to find a publisher willing to work with Hebrew fonts. This person usually doesn’t know Hebrew or Yiddish, which causes numerous design and layout challenges. I am extremely fortunate that I have found individuals who sustained my Yiddish work in so many ways at each stage of the creative process.

I am therefore constantly reminded of the audacity needed to create literary work in a language that is not one’s first. Some might call it folly. But this tension between comfort and struggle, between familiarity and distance, is ever present. Sometimes it feels like outright paradox: that which sets me free also weighs me down. The very tool used to explore my own heritage limits the essential freedom needed by the writer. Simply put, I can’t let Yiddish go.

Even if I don’t ask myself “Why do I write in Yiddish?” the question of “Will I continue?” is ever present. My commitment to writing in Yiddish is never a given for me; it requires constant renewal. The added layer of work entailed requires a self-interrogation: Will this project also entail Yiddish? To this point, the answer has been “yes.”

Of course, writers want readers. We want our work to be considered, absorbed, and savored. We want it to bring understanding, pleasure, or beauty into the cosmos of readers. But we also write for specific reasons, some of which have to do with our own histories and backgrounds, while others have to do with specific contingencies of the moment. Yiddish literature is replete with examples of those who didn’t start writing in Yiddish or who wrote in multiple languages. Arguably the national poet of Israel, Hayyim Nahman Bialik wrote Yiddish poems. Rachel H. Korn first published in Polish. Vladimir Medem, the Bundist theoretician, wrote in Russian first. And there were so many others. These writers had a range of approaches vis-a-vis multi-linguality. Some turned to Yiddish from other languages. Some turned away from Yiddish. Others wrote in multiple languages. Of course, there was a considerably more vibrant Yiddish context in their days, but my point is that my path is hardly a new one. And the examples of multilingual writers outside of Yiddish literature are vast. Think of Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, to name but a few.

My work takes place in the context of ongoing Yiddish literary activity around the world today. Contemporary Yiddish writers include Velvl Chernin and Michael Felsenbaum, the Israel-based publishers of my most recent book and central forces behind the Library of Contemporary Yiddish literature; poets of the Yugntruf Yiddish writing circle in New York, and many others, from Melbourne to Los Angeles and Indiana. Many of these writers purposely create in several languages. I take heart from the multilingual example of these forebears and contemporaries as well as sustenance from their enduring creativity. I find meaning in moving between languages, in communicating with readers through these different means. Perhaps Dr. Schaechter would be pleased.

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of six books of poetry. Tsugreytndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yidishe lider/Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music, was released in 2014. He was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award.

Image via Library of Congress

Notes from a Formerly Terrible Jew

Thursday, March 08, 2018 | Permalink

Mark Sarvas is the author of  Memento Park: A Novel. He is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

"I’m a terrible Jew," I used to say—by which I meant that I was wholly ignorant of tradition, taking a sort of perverse pleasure in the shock value of the comment. I was raised by postwar, secular European parents who decided they’d had enough of religion. I didn’t know Sukkot from Shavuot, and we grew up with Christmas trees and Easter eggs. Researching this essay, I learned that into her teens, my younger sister thought one of our parents was Catholic and one was Jewish. I remember being asked to sign the ketubah at her wedding (her husband was observant), and looking blankly at the rabbi when he asked me my Jewish name. He ended up coaching me, with some reproach, through a hastily imitated Hebrew “Moishe.”

So when it came time to write my second novel, which deals with the recovery of stolen Nazi art, I realized I was trying to send my protagonist on a journey of Jewish self-discovery that I had not experienced for myself. I confided my difficulties to Rabbi David Wolpe, who directed me to the American Jewish University’s eighteen-week “Introduction to Judaism” course, largely designed for people looking to convert for marriage.

I signed up at once, and was the only Jew in my class. The other students would look at me from time to time with a combination of what I took to be pity and mystification. They were trying to gain admittance but I was already in; what was I doing there? Over eighteen Tuesdays, I received a remarkable education and made some lasting friendships. The highlight was my engagement with the idea of the Sabbath (about which, more presently); the nadir was my benighted attempts at reading Hebrew, which eluded me as thoroughly as it had at my sister’s wedding.

I enjoyed the class, especially the historical perspectives, but I was aware that too often I was experiencing it almost clinically, with an intellectual detachment. Yet, I was drawn back again and again to Sabbath. (I’d already read and been deeply moved by Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath World.) I loved this notion of sanctified space and time; in the incessant hurly-burly of the internet age, a slice of time preserved for quiet contemplation seemed a gift from God, even to an atheist like me.

Yet I’d never been to a proper Sabbath dinner. At some point, I confessed this to the young rabbi who taught my course, hoping for an invitation, which is precisely what he offered. I remember how nervous I felt as I arrived early, bearing flowers, certain I would be seen as the dilettante, the fraud I knew myself to be.

It was a small family gathering with a few other friends present. I explained that I was writing a novel and was there to watch and learn. They indulged me, even incorporated me into the evening’s routine, but I could never fully shake off feeling on the outside. I didn’t know the prayers; I didn’t know what to do. I thought of my Hungarian maternal grandfather, who was observant. When he visited America in my early childhood, I would go to temple with him on Friday nights, but that was the extent of my Jewish education. I wondered what he’d make of this tableau—of his grandson, tentatively returning to the fold. (My parents and sister remained resolutely but respectfully irreligious; no such stirrings of a Jewish awakening seems to have stirred in them.) Would he be pleased, or disappointed that I’d been gone so long?

I watched my rabbi and his friends and family lapse into easy, friendly discussion after prayers, and I envied them. I have experienced it before and since, when I’m in a synagogue or anywhere with a large number of Jews; I have also felt outside of this warm, welcoming rapport, denied something by my religion-free upbringing.

And yet. At the same time, there is something in those rooms I always recognize, something I cannot help but feel a part of. Eventually, my spasms of resentment toward my parents’ choices fade, and although I often find myself feeling that I’m too far gone, too old, that it’s too late for a fully realized Jewish self, I can at least see that I’m not a terrible Jew, not anymore.

Mark Sarvas is the author of the novel  Harry, Revised, which was published in more than a dozen countries. His book reviews and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Threepenny Review,  Bookforum, and many others. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, PEN/America, and PEN Center USA, and teaches novel writing at the UCLA Extension Writers Program. A reformed blogger, he lives in Santa Monica, California.

The Forgotten Jewish Element of the Women's Liberation Movement

Wednesday, March 07, 2018 | Permalink

Joyce Antler is the author of  Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women's Liberation Movement, forthcoming from NYU Press. 

Jewish women were a prominent presence in the radical wing of the feminist movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s—only no one knew it. Participants in this fiery and transformative movement known as women's liberation talked about every aspect of social and sexual life as they raised consciousness together; but in some women's groups, although many members were Jewish, there was one subject they never addressed—their Jewish backgrounds. “We never talked about it,” said Naomi Weisstein of Chicago's West Side Group, the first women's liberation group in the country. Neither did historians.

In good part, this omission was due to the fact that Jewish women participated in the movement not as Jews—as members of an ethnic minority—but as universalists promoting a common sisterhood. “Why would we identify ourselves as Jews when we wanted to promote a vision of internationalism and interfaith and interracial solidarity? asks Vivian Rothstein, another West Side member.

Despite historical inattention to Jewish women in radical feminism, in some women's liberation collectives in such cities as New York, Boston, and Chicago, perhaps two-thirds to three-quarters of members were Jewish. Jewish women's articles and books became classics of the movement, providing influential ideas and models for radical change. Even a partial honor roll of Jewish women’s liberation pioneers needs to include such figures as Shulamith Firestone, Ellen Willis, Robin Morgan, Alix Kates Shulman, Naomi Weisstein, Heather Booth, Susan Brownmiller, Rosalyn Baxandall, Marilyn Webb, Meredith Tax, Linda Gordon, Ellen DuBois, and Ann Snitow. These women’s visions and actions helped generate widespread revolts against sexism that ultimately became a mass movement.

My interviews with dozens of pioneer women's liberationists reveal that Jewish backgrounds and Judaism's ethical imperatives played a major part in shaping Jewish women's feminist activism. The women grew up in Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and even Orthodox congregations, attending synagogues, Hebrew school classes, Jewish summer camps and community centers. Others went to Yiddish shules. They were inspired by parents, other relatives, and immigrant ancestors (including Socialist and Communist Party members). Family and community members' direct experience and historical memories of the Holocaust deeply affected them.

Within a few years, other Jewish women, more openly identified with Jewish religion and culture, began to rebel against inequities in Jewish life. In 1972, a religious women's study group, Ezrat Nashim, disrupted the Annual Meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly with demands for more equal treatment of women. Assertively Jewish, they opened the door to a new kind of identity politics. Other Jewish-identified feminists challenged assimilation, asserting the need for Jewish women to proclaim their distinctiveness rather than trying to “pass.” For some women alienated from their pasts and interested in exploring woman/woman relationships, lesbianism became a channel into a deepening Jewishness; becoming visible as both Jews and as lesbians were linked processes. Although efforts to meld feminist ideas with Jewish identities could entail considerable struggle, Jewish feminists successfully brought feminism to the Jewish mainstream and Jewish feminism to the Left.

The complex identities of both Jewish women's liberationists and identified Jewish feminists should be recognized as important parts of the histories of feminism and Judaism. Today, when the politics of identity are frequently derided as diversionary or labeled deleterious groupthink, the legacy of these pioneering feminists is instructive. Their contributions show that activism rooted in ethnic or faith traditions can instigate broad-based social change. Rather than fragmentation, these women's politics embody goals shared within and across social groups.

The Jewish legacy that helped to spur these women’s activism was a product of the universalism embedded in the Jewish credo, an ethos that regarded Jewish values as universal truths and positive social norms. In its concern for ethical values and consciousness of human commonalities, this Jewish vision harmonized well with the pluralist politics of the 1960s and 70s. In the social movements of those decades, Jewish participants projected the racial liberalism of colorblindness and empathy toward the oppressed, values that their families had taught them and which found roots in Jewish thought and experiences.

The revolutions started by women’s liberationists and Jewish feminists provided a touchstone for the next generations’ attempts to come to grips with the sometimes-confounding elements of their own Jewish identities. Connections to roots provided powerful incentives for social action. So inspired, the women created change for the entire world.

Joyce Antler is the Samuel J. Lane Professor Emerita of American Jewish History and Culture and Professor Emerita of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of  You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother (2007) and The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America (1997) and is the author or editor of many other books on American Jewish history and women’s history.

Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Billie Jean King Accompany Torch Relay Runners into Houston, 1977 via National Archives

In Music, Salvation

Tuesday, February 27, 2018 | Permalink

Vesper Stamper is the author and illustrator of What the Night Sings. She is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

My grandparents were my first and most important musical influences. My grandfather was always singing, doing little jigs around the house. He had a rich baritone that I can still hear now, even fifteen years after cancer took his voice out of the world. My grandmother, too, was a very forward alto who could (magically, to a little girl) whistle through her teeth. WQXR, the classical station in New York, was always on in their house. When I was far younger than you’d expect a little kid to sit still, my grandfather would take me to see the New York Philharmonic. I was mesmerized by the music, and the spell never left me. My childhood was quite troubled, but my grandparents were a salvific presence, and so was their music. Music, for me, has always been associated with hope.

I attended LaGuardia High School of the Arts in Manhattan, where I was positively immersed in classical music, not from some distant stage, but from my fellow teenaged friends, in the hallways and classrooms. Even though I was an art major, I managed to sneak into the Senior and Gospel Choirs. I couldn’t imagine doing only art and not music. I doubled down on my very lousy piano playing, teaching myself some satisfying Bach, Beethoven and Mozart pieces—for my own enjoyment, never for an audience. At fifteen, I picked up the guitar and never looked back, going on to become a touring and recording singer-songwriter alongside my career as an illustrator.

I’m not sure when the character of Gerta first revealed herself to me as a musician, but she had to be a singer, a lover of the great German-language operatic tradition that stemmed from Hildegard von Bingen (whose 12th century Ordo Virtuum could, some argue, be considered the first opera), flowed through Bach’s heavenly oratorios, and blossomed into Mozart’s masterpieces and beyond. Before she and her father are deported from the musical town of Würzburg, Gerta does not know she is Jewish. Thanks to an elaborate and necessary ruse by her father, she believes herself to be thoroughly German, and is preparing for her operatic debut, the aria Erbarme Dich from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

A complex and lengthy work, the St. Matthew Passion is full of pathos and tragedy. It recounts, in both narrative detail and reflective mediation, the last hours of the life of Jesus. What strikes me about the meditative movements within St. Matthew is that they do not directly reflect the story, but are expressions of grief and loss that stand on their own and apply to all of us.

The St. Matthew Passion begins with the words Kommt, ihr Tröchter, helft mir klagen: "Come, O daughters, help me lament."  Even several years since I began work on What the Night Sings, I cannot get through the first measure of that chorale without weeping. The story of the Passion, after all, is a closeup on the story of the ancient Roman persecution of the Jewish people—one of many catalytic events that culminated in the fall of Jerusalem, resulting in the Diaspora to Europe. The Diaspora has been characterized, as I point out in the book, by roughly 70-100 year cycles of Jewish persecution, right up to the present day. It is a reality we have not been able to shed in two thousand years.

One of the many things that punctuates the insanity of the Holocaust is the fact that the same German culture that gave us Bach and Schumann also produced the gas chambers and Mengele. It was important to me, therefore, to juxtapose the greatness of Bach with the depravity of Auschwitz, and to have that serve as a mirror to Gerta’s struggle with her own recently discovered Jewish identity, and her reemergence into herself as a woman of agency, a young adult, and an artist. She wrestles with the subject of her identity throughout the book. The fact is that within each of us lies this tension. The human being is itself a paradox—created in the image of God and therefore imbued with great dignity and capacity for goodness, yet easily tempted toward self-interest, tribalism, and evil. This echoes historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s assertion in The Gulag Archipelago that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Music is a transcendent force. It can be hijacked for propaganda; it can be painfully associative. But it can be potent in its ability to heal, to lift people out of the hell they may be experiencing at that very moment, if only for a moment. Music exists, in a sense, in a reality above good and evil. As Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a cellist in the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, says in this interview: “[Mengele]…did not spoil Schumann or the Träumerei for me.”

Vesper has a BFA degree in Illustration with Honors from Parsons School of Design and an MFA in Illustration as Visual Essay from School of Visual Arts, NYC. She lives near her native New York City with her husband and their two children.

Reinventing the Black-Jewish Alliance of the 1960s

Monday, February 26, 2018 | Permalink

Marc Dollinger is the author of Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s  (Brandeis University Press). He is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Since the end of World War II, American Jews and African Americans have journeyed through more than 75 years of inspiring political alliances that brought national attention to Jim Crow segregation, witnessed Jewish participation in some of the most dangerous civil rights actions of the 1950s and 1960s, and celebrated monumental legislative victories in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The relationship has also suffered fractures. When black nationalists rallied around the emerging Black Power movement, they pressed whites, meaning Jews, to the margins of their organizations’ leadership. Anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic statements from some blacks alienated Jewish leaders while Jewish racism undermined African American confidence in the strength of white liberalism to get the job done. For most observers, the black-Jewish alliance started with a strong spirit of consensus, only to suffer when the radical politics of the late 1960s balkanized ethnic and racial groups across the American political landscape. A closer examination, though, reveals a far more optimistic, if surprising, story.

Between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, a time civil rights historian Murray Friedman called “the golden age” of the black-Jewish alliance, the two groups celebrated the hope and optimism of the Cold War consensus. Blacks and Jews forged interracial alliances while religious leaders across the Protestant-Catholic-Jew triad advanced interfaith dialogue, all part of the larger effort to promote the United States as a center of democracy, pluralism, and opportunity for all. With these efforts, Americans across the political spectrum aspired to realize the nation’s dictum: E Pluribus Unum, from many, one.

When President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the legal separation of the races ended. In the years that followed, many white liberals paused their civil rights efforts, cheering their legislative achievements. While African American civil rights workers celebrated a hard-earned victory, they also understood that the most challenging work, fighting the institutional racism woven into the very fabric of American society, remained. They tended to look with even greater skepticism at white, and Jewish resolve. After a series of high-profile altercations throughout the mid-1960s, the black-Jewish alliance seemed to break, with each side tending to its own group’s needs.

Contrary to conventional thinking, though, the end of the black-Jewish alliance and rise of black militancy did not end the interracial consensus. It simply redefined it for a new identity-politics based era. At the very time when the two communities split over fundamental differences in political approaches and strategies, Jewish leaders sensed opportunities to leverage Black Power thinking to strengthen Jewish education, identity, and political activism. When young progressive Jews faced rebuke from black militants intent on maintaining African American leadership of civil rights organizations, they responded by borrowing a page from the Black Power handbook. Across the Jewish communal landscape, young Jews turned inward.

Jewish leaders and organizations offered strong and public support for Black Power. In 1968, the American Jewish Committee praised Black Power for its emphasis on “black initiative, black self-worth, black identity, black pride.” Philadelphia’s Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, playing on the popular “Black is beautiful” slogan, assured his congregants that “we have always felt that Jewish is ‘beautiful.’” Boston’s famed rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, a member of President Harry S. Truman’s presidential civil rights commission, argued “the positive aspect of black power is its search for ethnic identity. This, we Jews of all peoples should be able to understand and approve. The American Negro today is in this respect retracing precisely the experience of American Jews a generation or two ago.”

American Jews internalized Black Power’s message in a host of new Jewish-centered initiatives. One quarter of the activists in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry earned their training in the civil rights movement. Its leader Jacob Birnbaum proclaimed, “Many young Jews today forget that if injustice cannot be condoned in Selma, USA, neither must it be overlooked in Kiev, USSR.” When the State of Israel earned a dramatic military victory in the 1967 Six Day War, American Jews, buoyed by the rise of black nationalism, surprised even their own communal leaders with their newfound Zionist activism. Giving to Israel-related funds doubled the year after the war while some 7,500 students gathered their passports and traveled to Israel to lend their support. As Gittelsohn claimed, “The Black Power advocate is the Negro’s Zionist. Africa is his Israel.”

As African Americans rediscovered their ancestral homelands with African dress, names, style, and culture, so too did the Jews. “The Jewish Catalog,” a 1960s-inspired “how to” volume that taught otherwise assimilated Jews how to return to tradition, emerged as the Jewish Publication Society’s second-best selling book. Only copies of the Hebrew Bible outpaced its sales. Even right-leaning Jews joined the new militant consensus as Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League emulated Black Power ideology in its calls for greater Jewish activism.

The “alliance go smash” model that periodized black-Jewish relations as warm and welcoming from 1954-1964 only to be ruined with the rise of Black Power fails to account for a powerful new consensus that brought Jews and blacks back together again. Even as the two groups appeared separate, divided, and even antagonistic towards one another, they still walked down the same identity-politics inspired path together. Sometimes, outward difference masks internal consensus.

Dr. Marc Dollinger holds the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University. He is author of Quest For Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism In Modern America published by Princeton University Press, California Jews, co-edited with Ava Kahn, and American Jewish History: A Primary Source Reader, both published by Brandeis University Press.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

My Most Precious Inheritance

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 | Permalink

Anne Raeff is the author of the novel Winter Kept Us Warm (Counterpoint Press). She is blogging here as part of the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the summer of 2008, my wife, Lori and I went to New Jersey to spend time with my father, who had recently been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (A.L.S.), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. My father's condition was deteriorating rapidly. He kept falling. Though for most of his adult life he had started his day with writing letters, his fingers were no longer strong enough to type, so I became his secretary, typing as he dictated. The letters usually went something like this: I am sorry that it has taken me longer than usual to respond to your letter, but I find that with each day I have less and less strength . . . My daughter, Anne, has been so kind as to offer her secretarial services, so I am taking this opportunity to write now, though, alas, I cannot take pen in hand to do so. My parents had recently moved to an apartment in a retirement residence, and my wife, my sister, and I stayed in their almost empty house, my childhood home. In addition to helping my father and spending as much time as possible with him, we took care of the final tasks of preparing the house to go on the market.

At the end of the summer the house was ready, my father had given up trying to walk and was permanently in a wheelchair, and we had to say goodbye. I am a high school teacher and the school year was starting, so I reluctantly went home to San Francisco. A week after my return, a package from my father arrived in the mail. It is time for you to be the keeper of these documents now, the note said. In the box were three sets of documents. They are what I like to consider my most precious inheritance. The first set contained my maternal grandparents' passports issued in 1938 by the German Reich. They were stark documents. On each of their covers was an eagle with its wings spread, sitting atop a swastika. The passports contained the visas and seals tracking my mother's family's escape from Vienna to safety: Amsterdam, Panama, Chile, and finally Bolivia. The second group of papers consisted of my father's exit and transit visas from France through Spain to Portugal, and then to the United States. He did not have a passport. Up until my father left Europe in 1941 at the age of eighteen, he had lived almost all of his life as a stateless refugee. My grandparents were Russian Mensheviks, Socialists who, in contrast to the Bolsheviks, did not believe in violent revolution. Still, in the early days, they supported the U.S.S.R, and my grandfather, an engineer, was sent by the Soviet government to Berlin to oversee the purchase of industrial equipment. In 1926, when my father was three, my grandfather was called back to the Soviet Union, but my grandparents decided, due to the increasingly totalitarian direction of Stalin's rule, not to go home, becoming by that simple act of self-protection, stateless—citizens of nowhere.

The final group of documents was a separate, familiar folder that contained twenty-five sheets of onionskin paper. Upon each sheet was a letter typed in German accompanied by my father's awkward English translation. The letters were all dated June, July, or August of 1944 and were written by German prisoners of war at the P.O.W. camp in Arizona where my father was stationed. Not even a year after arriving in the U.S., my father had been drafted, and since he suffered from asthma and was not fit for combat, he served the war effort as an interpreter and a censor. After the war, my father went on to become a professor of Russian history. Recording these letters was, perhaps, my father's first act as an historian.

When he first showed me these letters, he made no comment except to laugh and say that copying them was the most dangerous thing he had done as a soldier. When I finished reading them, he put them away without asking for my comments, so I never told him that I found them disappointing, banal even. They were mostly about being homesick and how at the camp they were given cigarettes and chocolates and ice cream. Some of them praised the Führer or worried about the outcome of the war, but I wanted more. I suppose I wanted to hate these soldiers, but there wasn't enough cruelty and hatred in their words to stir up such an extreme emotion.

Despite my disappointment, I was drawn to the letters and, often, when my parents were out, I took them out of the file behind my father's desk and reread them. I did not read them to imagine the atrocities that they had committed or witnessed. I read them imagining what it was like for my father to read them, to be confronted with the yearnings and fears, the sorrows and small pleasures of these soldiers, who, before they were captured, had been fighting for a regime whose principal goal was to rid the world of people like my father and his family. I imagined him trembling with anger. I imagined how difficult it must have been for him not to destroy the letters and, on top of that, to record them, knowing that so many people in Europe would never get the chance to write to their loved ones, let alone have their thoughts preserved for posterity. It was this act of imagination that led me, so many years later, to write my novel Winter Kept Us Warm. Indeed, every time I sat down at my desk to work on the book, I thought of my father, the young asthmatic refugee, the soldier, the Jew, recording for posterity the letters of the enemy.

As the novel began to take shape, the P.O.W. camp in Arizona became essential to the story. Yet, just as my father never wrote a book or article about the German prisoners, I too did not write about them. In Winter Kept Us Warm, the chapters that take place at the camp focus instead on what for me was the most compelling of my father's P.O.W. stories. It is the tale of two Uzbeks, a father and son, who had not even known there was a war going on, but had been swept up by what my father called “the claws of history” and landed in the camp in Arizona. It was a story that I asked my father to tell me over and over again; he always agreed, even though it made me cry.

Still, though the letters are not part of my book, they are always nearby when I write. I keep them in a drawer in my desk, my father's desk that I have also inherited. It is the desk he sat at to write about history and the one I sit at now to write fiction. So, I suppose the letters are part of the story after all. They are part of my father's story, which is part of my story. They remind me that history is always part of the story.

Anne Raeff is the author of Winter Kept Us Warm. Her short story collection The Jungle Around Us won the 2015 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in New England ReviewZYZZYVA, and Guernica, among other places. She is proud to be a high school teacher and works primarily with recent immigrants. She too is a child of immigrants and much of her writing draws on her family's history as refugees from war and the Holocaust. She lives in San Francisco with her wife and two cats.

Image via Wikimedia Commons 

Lessons on Eating

Thursday, February 01, 2018 | Permalink

Jonathan K. Crane is the author of  Eating Ethically: Religion and Science for a Better DietHe is blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of our Visiting Scribe series.

A little boy taking strawberries off of a cutting board on the countertop

I vividly remember one evening when I, a ravenous teenager, sat before a heaping pile of chicken bones. For reasons now lost to legend, I had just finished some kind of fried chicken eating competition. Irrespective if it was with my two brothers or just with myself, I recall now how my stomach ached then. I had glutted my gut. And it hurt. I waddled over to the couch, flopped down, and wheezed into oblivion.

One Purim we guzzled hamantaschen. But who could blame us? Our mother’s were famous for their homemade jam filling and orange zest crust. Then there were her blintzes for Tu B’Shvat, the Pesach charosets, the dozen pies for Thanksgiving, the five flavors of homemade ice cream on the Fourth of July, and don’t get me started on the double-chocolate brownies.

I also remember the many years when my parents would take us across the Kent Valley south of Seattle to a pea patch. Hunkering down into our plot’s dark dirt, we would pluck weeds, harvest edibles, and talk about what we would can and preserve that season. Every summer we’d find a nearby alley where wild blackberries aggressively vied for dominance. Armed with thick gloves, sticks to leverage back vines, long sleeves, and buckets strung to carry around our necks, we’d pick gallons of succulent berries, a few of which we’d put in the buckets instead of our mouths. When we were especially hot from plucking strawberries off ankle-high plants or apples from an orchard in the Cascade foothills or blueberries in an island’s grove, we’d stop on the way back home for root beer floats at a local drive-through. Back in the kitchen, taking over every surface available, we’d clean, prep, and cook up a storm—jams, pickles, applesauce, whole fruits, savory and sweet sauces, breads of all sorts—laying away goods in the storeroom and freezer to enjoy in the long dreary Northwest winters.

Throughout, my mother repeated her mantra: get the best ingredients you can and do very little with them. In her view, fancy recipes often undermine both the taste and nutrition of ingredients. Simplicity allows foods to express themselves without being gussied up or disguised. This never stopped her, however, from experimenting with different cuisines. Our table fare ranged broadly and my brothers and I were obliged to at least have a “no thank you” portion of things we anticipated disliking. For eighteen years I ate at that round table in our kitchen. During those eighteen years, my parents rarely asked, “Are you full?” or imposed “Have more!” Rather, I recall them asking, “Have you had enough?” or, with a slight concerned tone and wrinkled brow: “Are you sure you’ve had enough?”

They asked this, too, of my childhood friend, Steve, every Friday evening. His Catholic family ate dinner at 5:00. Upon finishing that meal, he would wander down the street, open the kitchen door with a hearty “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Crane. Shabbat shalom!” and slide on into his chair next to me. He’d sing the Shabbat blessings with us, thankfully more on tune than my parents. He loved our family’s Shabbat dinner: freshly made challah with butter and jam, roasted chicken, vegetables galore, and invariably some seasonal dessert. During the years we lumbered through puberty, my mother and father asked Steve if he had had enough with deep parental joy. Eating Ethically: Religion and Science for a Better Diet by Jonathan K. Crane

While I am ever grateful my mother and father taught me how food gets from seed to sauce, how to chop onions and not my fingers, how to read recipes and navigate grocery stores, I am more thankful for their attitude toward eating itself. They impressed upon me the importance of listening to my body. Except when ill, eating nothing was not acceptable, as it would only undermine my well-being if done chronically. At the other extreme, eating too much was discouraged. Of course, there were exceptions. Sometimes my parents would ask which of us could “help out management” and eat the last few potatoes or green beans. Steve invariably volunteered, saying that his karate class was especially challenging that day. On the whole, we were to eat to satisfy our personal hungers yet never so much as to deny others access to the food. I came to realize that “family style” means more than cooking large portions; its most significant meaning is sharing and ensuring others have the opportunity to partake.

Now it’s my turn. 

Now I ask my three sons to have a "no thank you" portion. I ask them to ensure that others at the table also get some of that dish. I inquire whether they have had enough.

When we visit Seattle, they cook with my mom, relishing the chance to make jams, ice creams, applesauce, and more. At home some Fridays, they bake challah with me or my wife, supervise French toast the next morning, and eagerly shuck corn. They love hosting guests and especially sharing Shabbat dinner with friends and family.

Whenever I can, I take my boys to farms, orchards, vineyards, even alleyways. Grabbing bags and baskets from the trunk, they race to see who can pick the most apples or blueberries or green beans—and of course, wild blackberries. Sometimes they even put one or two in their buckets.

Jonathan K. Crane is the Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar of Bioethics and Jewish Thought at Emory University’s Center for Ethics. He is also an Associate Professor of Medicine, Emory School of Medicine, and an Associate Professor of Religion, Emory College.

2,000 Year Old Mom

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 | Permalink

Dara Horn, author of Eternal Life, writes for JBC's Visiting Scribe series on how her new novel corrects the dearth of female characters in stories about immortality.

When I told people I was writing a novel about a woman who’s been alive for two thousand years, many of my older friends and relatives instantly replied, “Oh, like Mel Brooks! You know, The 2,000 Year Old Man?”

Despite being about thirty years too young to have listened to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner on LPs, I have indeed heard their 2,000 Year Old Man routine—the now-classic Borscht Belt-style shtick about an old Jewish guy whose 2,000 years of life have led him to conclude that the best thing ever invented is Saran wrap. (Bah-dum-chchhh.) The routine is over fifty years old and still pretty funny. But you know what would be just as funny, or possibly funnier? The 2,000 Year Old Mom.

That’s pretty much what my new book, Eternal Life, is—the story of a Jewish woman who can’t die. You might say that Mel Brooks got there first. Of course, you also might say that the author of the Epic of Gilgamesh got there first. Stories about immortality or the quest for it are as old as literature. But when I thought of those stories of immortal characters, from Gilgamesh through to Mel Brooks, I noticed something very strange: almost none of them are about fertile women. My main character, Rachel, has also been around for 2,000 years. But unlike the 2,000 Year Old Man, she’s been pretty busy. She’s been married about forty-five times and raised hundreds upon hundreds of children, and she’s had it up to here with eternal life. She’s been driven so crazy that in the 21st century, she winds up in a psychiatrist’s office. (She’s of course already tried the rebbes, the barber-surgeons, the alchemists, the sages and the high priests.) When the psychiatrist asks her whether she ever has thoughts of killing herself, she says, “All the time, but it’s just a fantasy.” The psychiatrist is relieved.

That doesn’t seem to be a fantasy of the remarkably untroubled 2,000 Year Old Man. But then he didn’t spend multiple centuries pregnant and nursing, or dealing with hundreds of teenage sons and daughters telling him he was an idiot who had ruined their lives. He probably didn’t spend centuries cooking dinners and doing laundry—all while simultaneously running a family business or holding down a full-time job (since only ten of those 2,000 years took place in the 1950s). He didn’t wake up every day at dawn and go to bed every night past midnight while maintaining everyone else’s lives, like the woman in the poem "Eshet Chayil" whose candle doesn’t go out at night—and he also didn’t go through all that while listening to every single stranger say to him, nostalgically, “Enjoy them, it goes by so fast!” That’s not the life of the 2,000 Year Old Man. It’s the life of the 2,000 Year Old Mom.

I wasn’t thinking of Mel Brooks when I wrote this book, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we both created characters two millennia old. It’s the age of the Jewish exile, the vast expanse of time between the destruction of the second temple and the emergence of the state of Israel, the stretch of not-quite-forever during which Jews, based on nearly every historical parallel and precedent in the history of humanity, really should have gone extinct. As one dear friend—a renowned scholar of Jewish literature—told me, “It’s as if you set out to write a novel about Jewish history from the point of view of the Jewish mother, which is far more frightening than the point of view of God.” Raising children is frightening and full of absurdity. In that sense, it closely resembles Jewish history—and both are equally miraculous.

So what would she say on her outmoded comedy LP, this 2,000 Year Old Mom? She might well praise the invention of Saran Wrap. But she might also agree with her mortal counterparts that it really does go by so fast. To be honest, she barely remembers the first 1,500 years. You know, she’s got a lot going on, and she really doesn’t have time to sit around talking about this. She’ll talk to you later. Much later.

Dara Horn is the acclaimed author of five novels, including two National Jewish Book Award winners. A scholar of Yiddish and Hebrew literature, she has taught at Harvard University, Sarah Lawrence College and City University of New York, and has lectured at over 200 universities and cultural institutions throughout North America, Australia and Israel. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

Image credit:贝莉儿 NG/Unsplash

Jewish Comedy Bits, Songs, Shows, and Films Everyone Should Know

Thursday, January 18, 2018 | Permalink

Erica S. Perl writes for JBC's Visiting Scribe series about the most iconic Jewish comedy skits, television shows, and movies she revisited while writing her book All Three Stooges. 

As good Jewish parents, my mom and dad introduced me and my brother to the finer things in life. Namely: potato knishes, bialys, kasha varnishkes...and comedy.

Today, thanks to the miracles of YouTube and other online video archives, it’s even easier to find a smorgasbord of Jewish comedy, which helped me a LOT while I was working on my new novel All Three Stooges. It's a middle grade novel (for ages ten and up) about Noah and Dash, two Jewish boys who are best friends and comedy junkies, and the family tragedy that threatens to end their laughter as well as their friendship. I watched as many comedy clips as I could, and put many of them in the book. This experience led me to create this slightly subjective and far-from-complete list.

The Stateroom Scene: The best bits from the Marx Brothers' films may seem familiar because many comedians have paid homage to them by repeating or riffing on their routines. Here's one famous example: 

Coffee Tawk (Saturday Night Live): One of the most famous Jewish characters on Saturday Night Live, Linda Richman, the host of  "Coffee Tawk," was created by (non-Jew) Mike Myers as a tribute to his Barbara Streisand-obsessed Jewish mother-in-law. Her signature catch-phrases (“it’s like buttah” and “tawk amongst yuhselves”) were delivered with studied – and hilarious - realism. It should be noted that the real Jewish First Lady of SNL was, of course, Gilda Radner. Her inventiveness and willingness to make fun of herself made her a role model for many.


Seltzer Fight: Unlike the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges were not all actually brothers. However, as Adam Sandler notes in "The Hanukkah Song," ALL Three Stooges were in fact Jewish. The Three Stooges made close to 200 movies, mostly from the 1930s--1950s. Their physical comedy is based largely on slapstick and other Vaudeville traditions. Some find their frequent bouts of injury and associated histrionics off-putting. Many, myself included, find them hilarious.

Seinfeld: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld's sitcom, which dominated the screen in the 1990s, may be off the air but lives on in the streaming universe. The show created an extremely Jewish (and extremely funny) New York-centric universe for the world to see, enjoy, and imitate. 

Young Frankenstein: Want to see a Jewish comedy horror movie? Try Young Frankenstein. A Jewish comedy Western? Blazing Saddles. How about...Well, you get the picture. Mel Brooks, who was the Jewish comedic genius behind these and many more classic comedy films (many of which starred Jewish actors, like Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein) is why these films exist. Full disclosure – some of the humor in some of Mel Brooks’s films can be off-color, raunchy and/or dated, but most of Young Frankenstein stands the test of time.

The Princess Bride: Thanks to Rob Reiner’s direction and the contributions of many hilarious Jewish actors (including Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal and Carol Kane), this film – based on a book that is as awesome, if not more so - is not only a comedy classic, but one with a distinctly Jewish sensibility. Have fun storming the castle!

The Hanukkah Song: Adam Sandler’s classic, which he’s updated regularly, is comic gold as well as the definitive list of cool and interesting folks you never realized were Jewish. (Captain Kirk AND Mr. Spock? Yup!)

National Brotherhood Week:  Tom Lehrer gets my vote for the funniest satirist (and best rhymer) who ever lived. This song is extremely biting and dark in its sarcasm...and very funny. I also appreciate his work for "The Electric Company," a fantastic educational television show of my youth. My favorite of his "Electric Company" songs is about adverbs, called simply "L.Y."


Funny Girl: This 1968 film is a two-fer, since it stars Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice, the pioneering Jewish comedian. It is funny and lovely to watch how Fanny was able to take the very things that allegedly stood in her way as an actress (her “ethnic” nose and looks) and use them to catapult herself to stardom simply by being willing to embrace them and celebrate what made her different and special and, well, Jewish.

Erica S. Perl is the author of All Three Stooges, as well as When Life Gives You O.J. (Sydney Taylor Notable, Amazon Best Book of the Month, P.J. Our Way selection), Aces Wild (NPR Best Books of the Year, P.J. Our Way selection),  and The Capybara Conspiracy. Erica is a crowd-pleasing presenter at schools, libraries, and conferences. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, two daughters, and two dogs. To learn more, visit and follow @ericaperl on TwitterInstagramFacebook and Pinterest.

Why I Write Stories About Religion

Monday, January 08, 2018 | Permalink

Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalistswrites for JBC's Visiting Scribe series about how growing up in an interfaith family has inspired her to explore issues of faith and religion in her writing.

I often attribute my interest in religion to the fact that, after my parents’ divorce, I grew up with two of them. My mom is the daughter of an Episcopalian minister, and as a child, I went to Sunday School at our local Episcopalian church. My dad, meanwhile, is ancestrally Jewish but presently atheist. I often tease him about the fact that his first wife is a minister’s daughter, and his second—my stepmother, Ellen—is a Jewish spiritual director.

Ellen grew up in Lorraine, Ohio, in a conservative Jewish family. Now a member of San Francisco’s reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El, she brought Jewish history and culture into our home. I was fascinated by the stories, the language and the traditions, from praying over candles, wine and challah on Shabbat to the rituals of Passover. When I asked Ellen to teach me Hebrew, she found an introductory textbook clearly geared toward children half my age and helped me learn.

As the years passed, I did not go through a confirmation or a bat mitzvah. Still, I remained curious about religion. (Broadening my purview, I even asked for Islam for Dummies one birthday!) I never felt pressure from either side of my family to choose. My dad still identified as an atheist, though he went to temple with Ellen. My mom’s side of the family has always been progressive, pro-gay rights, feminism and rebellion in a church that didn’t always feel the same way. Encouraged, I explored religion in my work. The thesis for my graduate program in Creative Writing was a collection of linked short stories that followed one family’s experience of Christianity and sexuality. Religion was less prominent in my first published novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, but it became a focus again in my second, The Immortalists, released this month.

The Immortalists follows the Golds, a conservative Jewish family in New York’s Lower East Side. In 1969, the four Gold children hear of the arrival of a mysterious woman who claims to be able to tell anyone their date of death. The grandchildren of Eastern European Jews who fled persecution, the siblings receive their prophecies on the fifth floor of a building on Hester Street. The novel then follows each of them over five decades of American and interpersonal history—and questions the way that the fate, chance and expectation shape their futures.

The Gold siblings each have different orientations toward Judaism, just as they have different orientations toward their prophecies. Simon, the youngest, is a gay man who feels condemned by Leviticus. Klara becomes a magician whose belief in magic parallels her father’s strong religious faith in surprising ways. Daniel is a military doctor whose wife, Mira, brings Judaism back into his life. And Varya, the eldest, identifies most with Judaism’s emphasis on the power of words and stories.

I was drawn to Judaism in the context of this novel for multiple reasons. While Christianity places great focus on life after death, Judaism’s gaze remains fixed on olam ha-ze: this world. I was curious about how the siblings would approach their mortality without the imaginative “escape hatch” of heaven. I was also eager to plumb my own family history on my father’s side. Like Saul, the patriarch of the Gold family, my great-grandfather, Max, ran a tailoring business in New York City. And just as the parents of Saul and his wife, Gertie, came through Ellis Island from Eastern Europe, so too did my ancestors enter the country in New York after long journeys from Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania.

My grandmother’s ancestors were Jews who fled from Poland, as well as the Ukrainian pogroms. My grandmother attended Hebrew school, but organized religion was not often mentioned in the family home. Still, she found herself fascinated by the range of cultures that surrounded her in New York.

“When I began to study French at Fieldston,” she wrote to me, “my teacher invited members of the class to attend the group performance of Handel’s Messiah. I was dazzled and began a lifelong habit of annual attendance to the event. With a boy in my class, I spent many Saturdays investigating the varied ethnic enclaves of Manhattan: Hungarian, Polish, Greek. Each visit included a meal in a local eatery. This was our own idea and firmly fixed in my mind a leitmotif of what I call ‘OPR,’ or other people’s religions. Without naming it as such, I was a budding anthropologist, visiting the core institutions of polyglot New York City. This has been my most compelling interest ever since.”

Years later, as a more mature woman and a mother, she became involved in her local Planned Parenthood. It was there that she met a man named Ed Lane, a Unitarian minister, and began to attend his church. Eventually, she completed a Masters Degree at the University of Pennsylvania in primitive and ancient religions.

“I have found favor with a quasi-religious affirmation of the sanctity of the human mind,” she continued. “The investigation of others’ adherence has remained compelling. With Felix Adler, the Jewish founder of Ethical Culture, I find that ‘The place where men (sic) gather to seek the highest is holy ground.’ With Martin Buber, I think that God is ‘in the transactions of one human mind to another.’”

My grandfather, meanwhile, grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood in New York City’s Upper West Side. His parents belonged to a Conservative temple on West End Avenue; he has memories of being stopped on the street and asked to help make up a minyan. Some of my favorite family stories come from his upbringing—such as the time his mother, my great-grandmother, buried the silverware after she caught one of her children using it for something non-Kosher! When he chose to leave the family business, his parents worried about how he would function in a Gentile world. Finally, his father took him to lunch with a group of Gentile businessman friends, who helped to lessen those fears.

Although my grandfather eventually moved away from Jewish observance—even exploring Unitarianism with my grandmother—he told me that he still feels culturally Jewish in many ways.

“I was emotionally attuned to Israel’s welfare in its battle to exist,” he wrote. “In my culture, the Jewish religion was never a big deal—but the sense of being Jewish was. So there was not much rebellion in going to a Unitarian Fellowship. It didn’t seem to threaten my sense of Jewishness much, if at all.”

His comments drove home to me what I’ve heard many of my Jewish family members and friends say: that what it means to be Jewish goes beyond attending religious services, that it is a much broader cultural identity. Like my grandparents, I remain fascinated by the ties that bind Jews to other Jews—and those that bind Jews to all religious seekers.

In the delightful and surprising way that life brings things full circle, my stepmother, Ellen, became a counselor for interfaith couples: a perfect fit for our diverse, modern family. I can’t help but see the parallels between family and religion. Both ideally offer a sense of solace and community—a connection to what lies beyond the self. Like my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents before me, I’ll hold tight to those I love as I keep searching.

Chloe Benjamin is an author from San Francisco, CA. Her first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2014), received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was long listed for the 2014 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Her second novel, The Immortalists, was released by Putnam/Penguin Random House in January 2018.

Image via Flickr/Ze'ev Barkan