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.
- Essays: Growing up Jewish, Jewish Roots, and Childhood Tales
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