On Monday, Laurel Snyder blogged on writing a book about inclusion and diversity. She is the author of the picture book Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher. She will be blogging all this week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
For a long time I’ve wanted to write about Baxter’s dedication, which reads: “This book is dedicated to Jerry Sorokin, who offered me a place at the table. But also, this book is dedicated to anyone who ever felt excluded in any way. Which is to say, this book is dedicated to everyone.”
Now — the second part of the dedication is obvious in its meaning. But a lot of people out there have no idea who Jerry Sorokin is, or why Baxter is his book. So I’d like a chance to explain.
Jerry isn’t my husband or my father or my esteemed ex-writing-professor. Jerry Sorokin is the director of Hillel at the University of Iowa. For one short year of my life he was my boss, at the job I only took because I was tired of waiting tables, and because I needed healthcare. It was a year that changed my life in many ways.
I didn’t just grow up in an intermarried home. I also grew up “in the city,” far-removed from most of the suburban Baltimore Jewish community. I didn’t really have any Jewish friends, certainly none in my neighborhood. Then I moved to Chattanooga, where I was one of twelve Jews at my college. With the exception of a semester in Haifa, Jewish practice had nothing to do with community.
By the time I got to Iowa for grad school, my Judaism was something almost entirely inside myself — largely academic. I read Jewish books and watched Jewish movies. I fasted alone on Yom Kippur.
But then Jerry offered me a job, and this huge new world opened up for me — this world of community and support. I was intimidated by all that I didn’t know — the prayers I couldn’t say and the mistakes I made, by the fact that the students knew more than I did. But Jerry made that all seem just fine. He said things like, “You know things they don’t know.” He reassured me in a way that felt like the truth.
So I learned to keep a kosher kitchen. I studied with Orthodox rabbis. I built a sukkah and lit candles every Friday night. I couldn’t believe it! Me – Laurel Snyder! Instead of fasting alone that year, I gave a D’var Torah at Yom Kippur services, and I did it my way. Over a year I learned something I didn’t know it was possible to learn. I learned comfort.
And when I left at the end of the year, to move to Atlanta for personal reasons, I felt terrible. I apologized to Jerry, and he said, “Never apologize for doing what is right for your family.” I remember this clearly.
And that was when I knew he was part of my family too. He taught me that everyone has something to contribute. He made me believe that all these Jewish values we talk about are true, enacted daily in this rich diverse community of Jews.
He made me feel like that was my job too.