Monthly Archives: August 2011

JDate and Superheroes

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Our dear friend JT Waldman alerted us to this cool little wink to the Jewluminati. This week, DC Comics — the company that publishes Superman and Wonder Woman — is completely rebooting its line of comics. What does this mean? Watch this video, and you’ll know more than you ever wanted to. (Don’t worry. It’s funny.)

A totally minor caveat: The video isn’t overtly Jewish at all until 1:27. Then, for the final 3 seconds, it is nothing BUT Jewish.

Oh, I know JDate is an easy punchline. But I have to confess (as someone who’s never been on the site), it does what it’s supposed to do. My sister met her boyfriend on JDate, and they’re getting married this weekend. Did you notice there’s absolutely no sarcasm in this post? JDate really does work magic.

Posted on August 31, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Gay Jewish Reading List

This entry was posted in Life on by .

Earlier this week, Wayne Hoffman wrote about a funny thing and shared the meaning behind the names of a few of his characters.

When I was first coming out 25 years ago, there were precious few books about being gay and Jewish. Thankfully, that’s not the case today. There are enough to fill whole bookcases. But will anyone who isn’t gay read them?

Conventional wisdom in the publishing industry says that non-gay people won’t read books with gay themes – with the notable exception of works by humorists, such as David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs, who play their lives for laughs. Straight people can’t relate seriously to gay life, the thinking goes; they don’t know from such things, and they don’t want to know.

Even if there’s a kernel of truth in that notion – and I fear, sadly, that there often is – straight Jewish readers in particular should be able to bridge this culture gap by choosing Jewish gay books: While some of the gay content might be unfamiliar, at least the Jewish content will provide a point of identification.

Where to start? Well, my own book, of course. (Here comes the plug.) Sweet Like Sugar includes characters representing a diverse array of Jewish practice, from secular to Orthodox, engaged to alienated. It’s a story of a young man named Benji Steiner, who’s rejected the Jewish traditions he grew up observing, searching for a place where he can still connect to his community. But it also follows Benji on his search for Mr. Right. If you’ve never read a book with gay characters and themes, I hope this’ll be your first.

But I also hope it won’t be your last. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of books on gay Jewish subjects. At the risk of leaving out many books and authors whose work is worth your time, here’s a brief list of GLBT books that non-gay Jewish readers will relate to. This list isn’t comprehensive, or representative of anything more than my own bookshelf, so feel free to add your own favorites.

Start with an anthology – it’ll give you a broad survey of what’s out there, and turn you on to authors whose work you’ll want to read more deeply. Nice Jewish Girls, a lesbian anthology edited by Evelyn Torton Beck, was the first of its kind, published in 1982. Twice Blessed, edited by Christie Balka and Andy Rose, came out a decade later, and includes dozens of personal and topical essays on everything from community to spirituality. Queer Jews, edited by David Shneer and Caryn Aviv, came out several years after Twice Blessed, and shows the continued evolution of thinking around GLBT issues for Jews. These three together provide a great historical background, as well as an introduction to some of the most important thinkers on these subjects.

Once you’ve got that foundation, check out a few more recent collections.Mentsh: On Being Jewish and Queer, edited by Angela Brown, features essays by some of the biggest GLBT literary names around. Found Tribe, edited by Lawrence Schimel, collects coming out stories from Jewish authors. AndBalancing on the Mechitza, edited by Noach Dzmura, is the first Jewish anthology to focus specifically on transgender issues.

If you’ve got a particular area of Jewish interest, there’s probably a gay-themed book that’s right for you. If enjoy reading about Israel, check out Between Sodom and Eden, by Lee Walzer, about the (mostly positive) situation for gay Israelis. If you’re drawn to Holocaust tales, read Gad Beck’s An Underground Life, the true (and truly amazing) story of a gay Jew who survived the Holocaust in hiding in Berlin. If you’re invested in cultural politics, Jay Michaelson’s persuasive God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality comes out this fall. Prefer books about spirituality? The Choosing, by Andrea Myers, recounts the unusual personal journey that led her from a Lutheran upbringing to an adult life as an ordained rabbi – and out lesbian. If memoirs are your thing, here are three to start with: Lillian Faderman’s Naked in the Promised Land, Stanley Ely’s In Jewish Texas, and Lawrence Mass’s Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite.

Lots of us prefer reading fiction. Sweet Like Sugar isn’t the only novel about gay and Jewish subjects. Two of my favorites are The Same Embrace by Michael Lowenthal (about twin brothers divided by religiosity and sexuality), and Faith for Beginners by Aaron Hamburger (about a mother and her gay son on a journey of surprising self-discovery in Israel). Other great family-focused novels include The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt (set in New York City) and Light Fell by Evan Fallenberg (set in Israel). Sarah Schulman has written daring and complex books – fiction and nonfiction – for decades; start with her novel Rat Bohemia, which will make you look at “family” in a new way, and then work your way through her other titles. T Cooper’s Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, is one of the more unusual novels in recent years, combining an old-fashioned Jewish immigrant story with a modern-day gender-bending tale of troubled youth. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues blazed a trail for other transgender stories almost 20 years ago, and remains a classic. There’s much more. When in doubt, pick up almost anything (fiction, nonfiction, essays, mysteries) Lev Raphael ever wrote – beginning with his short story collections Dancing on Tisha B’Av and Secret Anniversaries of the Heart.

Now I’m going to throw in someone who usually doesn’t make this kind of list: David Feinberg. His books – two novels and one collection of essays – aren’t “about” being Jewish in the way that many of the titles above are. But his stories are steeped in Jewish identity and culture, and focus on Jewish characters; if you think Woody Allen makes Jewish movies, you’ll understand why Feinberg’s books are Jewish, too. Sardonic yet earnest, enraged yet hilarious, Feinberg was also one of the finest chroniclers of the AIDS epidemic, until his death at age 37 in 1994. (I think of him as a cross between Larry Kramer and Paul Rudnick – a front-line activist, but always on the lookout for something to laugh about.) Follow his neurotic Jewish protagonist B.J. Rosenthal through Eighty-Sixed, Feinberg’s dazzling debut novel, which contrasts gay life in New York before the epidemic to a time when gay men started dying in droves. Follow B.J. again in the sequel Spontaneous Combustion, in which he continues his search for love and sex in what has become an unrecognizable war zone. Or pick up Queer and Loathing, Feinberg’s biting collection of nonfiction essays, published weeks after his death, to get a sense of just how horrible things became – yet how humor, coupled with resolve and anger, helped so many people endure and even resist for as long as they could. That’s something every Jew should be able to understand.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips. He is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book NETWORK. For more information on booking Wayne, please contact jbc@jewishbooks.org

Posted on August 31, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What’s in a Name?

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

On Monday, Wayne Hoffman wrote about a funny thing.

When it comes to a novel, what’s in a name? There are often dozens of characters in a novel, and some of their names have stories behind them. Others, less than it might seem.

In my first draft of Sweet Like Sugar, I had a very good reason – I can’t remember it now, but I remember that it was a very good reason – that all the characters my protagonist dated had to have names that started with the letter “C.” My husband Mark, who has been the first person to read my work for more than two decades, told me this was confusing. I revealed my very good reason for keeping the names despite the confusion, and he assured me that my reason was not so very good. He was right, of course; that’s why he’s the first person to read my work.

Some characters in Sweet Like Sugar are named for real people. Most notably, an older woman named Irene is based – in the vaguest way – on my great aunt Irene, who passed away last year. My aunt was never in the situations that define Irene the character, nor did she ever say the things that Irene the character says. But there’s something about my aunt’s soul, her perspective on life, her ability to bring people together, to be direct without being cruel, to be loving without resorting to guilt, that I wanted to instill in my character. Giving her my aunt’s name helped me understand my character’s heart, and how she might act in certain circumstances. She’s not my aunt – a woman to whom no writer could do justice – but she possesses enough of my aunt’s essence to warrant her name.

Sometimes hardly anything connects the characters to the people I’ve named them for. In Sweet Like Sugar, for instance, the main character’s roommate is named Michelle, and her boyfriend is Dan. I named them for my own college roommate Dan and his wife, simply swapping which person lived with me. The characters in the book bear some passing resemblance to their namesakes -– Michelle has dark curly hair and alert eyes, while Dan is blond and tall (or taller than I am, at any rate, which is also true of half the men in the world). There aren’t any deeper specific resemblances beyond the physical, though. I just needed names for a wonderful straight couple for whom I could feel some personal affection, and they’re the ones who came to mind.

More often, there are characters who are based on real people whose names have been changed. A dancer from Rochester who opens my protagonist’s eyes about his own sexuality? He’s based on a real person in my life, but his name wasn’t Donnie, as it is in the book. A guy who chases after Jewish men, calling them “bagel boy,” hoping it’ll seem endearing instead of grossly fetishistic? He was real, too, but I changed his name to protect the not-so-innocent. Ditto a bully at summer camp, a finger-wagging grandmother, and a girl with whom I found myself in a compromising (albeit entirely innocent) position as a teenager.

If they’re based on real people, why change the names? This is fiction, remember. Sweet Like Sugar is not my autobiography. Benji, the protagonist, might be a gay, Jewish man from suburban Maryland, but despite those similarities, he’s most definitely not me: We’re from different generations, have very different families and friends, and have traveled decidedly different journeys both as gay men and as Jews. His story isn’t my story. So it’s only right that the characters in his story have different names from the characters in my real life – even in those instances where the characters are based on real people.

Although readers wouldn’t know the difference, giving characters new names allows me to disconnect them from my reality, and it lets me tweak their personalities, actions, and motivations if need be, without worrying about misrepresenting any real people.

There’s one name in Sweet Like Sugar that’s a nod to another author. It is not Rabbi Zuckerman, the old man who befriends young Benji. Yes, I’m well aware that Philip Roth has made the Zuckerman name quite famous already; my father is a Newark native who went to the legendary Weequahic High School just a few years after Roth, so I’m well aware of most everything Roth does. I had reasons – I can’t share them without spoiling the plot, sorry – for choosing that name, but rest assured, I chose it despite Roth, not because of him.

No, the name I borrowed – consciously – from another author is Zisel. A Yiddish nickname meaning “sweet little thing,” it’s also the mysterious moniker of a character in Sweet Like Sugar. I borrowed it from Isaac Bashevis Singer. In his short story “Two,” a young yeshiva student named Zisel “began to find virtues in his own sex,” and built a loving, if covert, relationship with another man. The story has a tragic ending, and the sexual politics of Singer’s shtetl are far from my own. But I loved the name, and thought it would be appropriate for my story, where two men try to bridge the vast gulf between contemporary gay life and longstanding Jewish traditions.

I don’t know if my readers will get the reference, or see the connection. But I do.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips.

Posted on August 30, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Funny Thing Happened — True Story!

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Wayne Hoffman‘s most recent book, Sweet Like Sugar, is now available. Hoffman is the deputy editor of Nextbook Press and will be blogging for theJewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog all week.

My mother has always been a great storyteller: In recounting any anecdote, she knows exactly which details to leave out and which ones to exaggerate for maximum impact. She has a keen sense of the ridiculous. Plus she’s got impeccable timing. Meet her for the first time or the hundredth time, and she’ll launch into a story that’ll have you laughing in thirty seconds.

Okay, maybe that makes her more of a stand-up comedian than a storyteller. But we’re Jews. It’s a fine line.

With her excellent sense of what makes a story compelling, she’s always on the lookout for her son-the-writer. “Here’s something you could write about,” she’ll tell me as she launches into a new bit, almost begging me to steal her material. Or, after I tell her something she finds particularly amusing, she’ll advise me: “You should write a book about that!”

If I wrote a book about everything my mother thinks is book-worthy, I’d have a very busy literary agent. But the truth is, the things I find fascinating or hilarious for a few seconds would rarely retain my interest for an entire book, while the events that inspire me to write a novel aren’t always neat and self-contained anecdotes.

An example:

Several years ago, I was working as managing editor at the Forward, an English-language Jewish newspaper. We shared space with the legendary Forverts, our sister newspaper, published in Yiddish. One day, an editor from the Forvertscame into my office and asked if one of his employees could rest on my couch. I looked up and saw a man behind him, holding himself up against the wall. He had a full gray beard, thinning hair and spectacles and a yarmulke on his head, and I figured he was somewhere past his 80th birthday.

I didn’t know him, didn’t know his name, and didn’t even know if he spoke English – not everyone at the Forverts did. But he was very ill and clearly needed to lie down, and my office had the only couch in the newsroom, so I said yes. He came in, kicked off his shoes, and lay down on my couch without a word.

Every few minutes, one of my reporters would walk into my office to ask me a question or complain about something. (That’s what managing editors are for.) I’d hold up a finger to shush them, and then point at the couch. They’d give me a confused look – they didn’t recognize this man either – but they’d back out and leave him in peace.

Periodically, I’d look over at him as he lay there, snoring or moaning or mumbling, and I’d be amazed that the two of us were sharing this space, even temporarily. I wondered what we could possibly have in common – an elderly Orthodox man who spoke Yiddish, and a (relatively) young, gay, secular Jew who was more comfortable in Spanish. If he woke up, what would we say to each other? What could we say to each other?

There’s no great ending to this scene, no punch line; eventually the old man got off the couch and went back to work. But that afternoon started the gears turning, and eventually inspired the opening scene of Sweet Like Sugar. It’s not what happened that captured my imagination. It’s what might have happened that drove me to spend the next few years writing the novel.

Plenty of other fascinating things happened in that office. There was the night an unmarked package that was ticking arrived in the newsroom, and I was the designated person to deal with it. (“I’m running toward the bomb as fast as I can,” I assured my boss when he got on my case. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a bomb, but an ill-advised promotional toy from the NBA.) There was the time we sat around trying to come up with the most outrageous headlines for a story about an elderly Yiddish poetess who’d started writing erotica. (Most of them were too bawdy to mention, but I’ll include my favorite headline-that-dared-not-be-printed: “Oy, Me So Horny.”) There were all the wonderful typos that made it into print despite our best efforts – including an error that turned the title of a show about Golda Meir from Golda’s Balcony into Golda’s Baloney, which has a very different ring.

Those are all great stories. I tell them all the time. But I’m not going to write a book about them, no matter what my mother thinks.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips.

Posted on August 29, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Pro-Israel? Anti-Israel? No, Just Israel.

This entry was posted in Israel on by .

Earlier this week, Darin Strauss wrote about wrestling with faith and about what we believe. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Last week, the American Jewish Committee renounced a statement made by one of its staffers. The AJC’s Director on Anti-Semitism suggested that some Israel supporters are distorting the 1964 Civil Rights Act when they argue that colleges – that hire anti-Israel professors and support anti-Israel rallies – are in violation of the law. The director said that the Israel supporters went too far.

I am a college professor and a Jew – and a supporter of the State of Israel –  but the issue is too complicated for me to address directly, with anything like authority. But it did remind me — as it probably does you — of dealings I’ve had with relatives. The issue is too divisive to leave many Jewish families untouched.

In my case, I have relatives who will brook no criticism of any Israeli government.  (And I’m sure they’d complain that I criticize Israel too quickly.)

I feel passionately about it. I have argued that current Likud policies are unjust and what’s more – though I don’t think there shouldn’t need to be a “what’s more” – strategically bad for Israel. For this criticism I’ve been asked: “Why do you hate Israel?” “Why are you a self-hating Jew.” Neither of these things is true about me: I don’t hate Israel and I’m not a self-hating Jew. (Well, there are things about myself I dislike, but Judaism isn’t among them.) The point isn’t just that any disapproval of Israel over any issue is taken for anti-Semitism; it’s that both sides are so emotional, and disagree so heartily about this when they agree on most other things.

As for me, I understand why my arguments drive my relatives crazy. The reasons are clear. 1) The other side is worse; Arab nations and the more radical Islamists among them are unreasonable, and frightening, and undoubtedly behave worse than Israel does. 2) There is a disproportionate response in world opinion; Israel is condemned for every misdemeanor it commits, while much more serious violator nations face no public opprobrium, at all. The reason seems to be anti-Semitism. 3) Israel has been attacked by belligerent neighbors and so needs the support of its supporters at all times.

These are all true. But it’s equally true that Israeli supporters in the U.S. often have a hard time admitting that hardships were suffered by Arabs during the 1948 War of Independence: that the Palestinian grievance is real. (Ironically, Israelis have come to terms with this – and are more honest about it – than we Americans are. Read any of the Israeli “New Historians.”) And it’s also true that, on the settlements issue, there is a lot of room for disagreement. Being critical of a particular government’s particular policy does not equal abandonment.

Again, I know the other side would disagree and call me naive. What strikes me is that, if we can’t agree among ourselves about it — if American, pro-Israel Jews are so divided — is it any wonder that the problem has persisted for over 50 years?

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoy.

Posted on August 26, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Quiz Challenge!

This entry was posted in General on by .

So, you think you’re smarter than a Jewish website?

quiz

UPDATE: We’ve raised the prize amount — Answer the most questions, and $25 on Amazon could be yours!

MyJewishLearning’s Quiz Challenge has just kicked off! If you haven’t taken any quizzes on MyJewishLearning, check it out — it’s one of the most fun parts  To participate, just take any quiz in any subject–from Jewish humor to Jewish holidays and beyond. (Make sure to register first with your email address; we’ll use it to keep track of your points and send your prize!) If you forget to register, just follow the link on top of any quiz page.

Then take another quiz. And another. Each month, we’ll award the person with the most correct answers a $10 gift card to Amazon.com. For the first month, September, you’ll also win a pony! Because everybody has always wanted to win a pony.*

So get answering those questions now! Astute-minded readers will notice that the person with the most correct answers wins, not the person with the highest percentage of correct answers or whatever. So if you don’t score 100% the first time, just poke around the site, learn some stuff, and come back! (Or, yes, you can just keep guessing.) On the first of every month, the count will reset. And then you’ll have a chance to win all over again.

____
* — You have always wanted to win a pony. Trust us.

Posted on August 25, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

[Insert Your Holiday Pictures Here]

This entry was posted in Culture, Holidays, Life on by .

Here at MJL headquarters we spend a lot of time trying to make our articles nice loking. We got a nifty redesign a couple of years ago, we like to divide out articles with helpful subheads, provide lots of links, and most importantly—pictures!

But see, getting Jewish stock photos is kind of a major pain in the tuchis. Put anything remotely Jewish into a stock photo search engine and you’re likely to get a handful of pictures of the following:

apples and honey as seen on your grandma’s table

Haredi men in black hats wandering around Mea Shearim looking intimidating

Jerusalem

“Rabbi”

People celebrating the 8th night of Hanukkah

A man blowing a shofar

Matzah


Hebrew books

These pictures are boring. They are also annoying in that they tend to include almost exclusively men. They feel (and are) painfully staged. And they perpetuate the annoying point of view that it’s only Orthodox Jews that do Jewish rituals, when in fact I know lots and lots of people who regularly do Jewish rituals but don’t look like haredim.

We’d like to feature way more pictures of non-stock photo Jews. Which is to say, we’d like to feature you and your family here on MyJewishLearning. Because we know that real Jewish families are more interesting and fun to look at than the kind on stock photo services. And because we like real people—real people like you!

So we’re having a contest. We’ve opened a flickr group for Your Best High Holiday Pictures. Upload your pictures to the group. Anything you or your family does to prepare or celebrate the High Holidays, take a picture and send it along to us. We’ll pick the best entry, and he or she will receive a $50 Amazon.com giftcard, and the picture will be featured prominently on MyJewishLearning.com. Do you go apple picking? Make your own New Years cards? Make an amazing brisket? Do kaparot as a family? Whatever it is, upload the photo and you could win. Don’t feel limited to things you’re doing this year—we’ll accept any pictures from any year, and you’re welcome to submit as many pictures as you like. (By submitting your picture to our flickr group you’re allowing us to use your picture on MJL even if you don’t win the contest.)

So what are you waiting for? Head on over to our flickr page and start uploading to win now! Contest ends on Sunday September 25th at Midnight. We will announce a winner on Monday September 26th.

PS—If you’re looking for more stock-photo-induced hilarity, head on over to our very own Molly’s Sh*t I Found On Shutterstock Tumblr.

Update: We have announced a winner! Check out the blog post to see who won!

Posted on August 25, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What We Believe

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

On Monday, Darin Strauss wrote about wrestling with faith.

I’ve done an informal poll — I admit, it’s very informal — among Jews I know: What do we believe? A pretty fundamental question, right? And yet there is no consensus of belief, even regarding the most bedrock principles of faith.

What’s more, this belief discrepancy doesn’t exist just between our religion’s big three wings (between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox); it exists within them, too. Ask a few observant Jews what happens to us after we die.

Some will say: “We sit at the hand of G-d — and the closer we are to Him, the more kindly we had been on Earth.”

Some will say: “We live on, in the memories of our friends.”

Some will say—and these are people who believe, as Madonna does, in the Kabbalah — that there are seven actual heavens.

This sort divergence existed among us even in olden times, well before we’d split into our three current camps. In the Second Temple Era, the Pharisees believed in bodily resurrection for the dead, while the Essenes believed that the soul itself is immortal. And the Sadducees — an old sect I had never before heard of — believed, apparently, in neither: Not in an immortal soul, nor in any afterlife. (Maybe that’s why they had “sad” in their name.)

Another point of eternal Jewish dispute is the Messiah. Maimonides wrote a commentary that argued for a non-mystical messiah:

Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. However it will be very easy for people to make a living…

Don’t you love the modern sound of that? You can hear the blustery uncle at a 21st-century seder table in that last bit, the “very easy for people to make a living” part. (Maybe, like my uncle, Maimonides had a Garment Center guy who could get him a nice suit for a good price.)

I don’t write this to be disrespectful. I think it’s a wonderful fact about Judaism — at least about the approach to Judaism I most relate to: there are no universal answers, we don’t have it all figured out, G-d is unknowable.

I wonder: Is this uncertainty, this lack of knowledge we have about the thing that is so central to so many other faiths? Is it because so many of us spent so many of the last 2,000 years forgetting Hebrew? Praying in a language a lot of us could phonetically sound out but not fully understand?

That is probably too simplistic; certainly the most devout among us — certainly a Maimonides — spoke and understood Hebrew fluently. But how many American Jews, say, actually speak Hebrew with real understanding — how many understand all the words to all the prayers?

Moreover, how many subscribers to such “hip Jew” publications as Heeb and Jewcy have a real textual understanding of the religion with which they so identify? These are unanswerable questions. But compare all this Jewish uncertainty with the inflexible sureness of evangelical Christians (not to mention fundamentalist Muslims.) This is, paradoxically, why I know I feel a kinship with Judaism that goes beyond the cultural and familial bonds I have with the faith: the not-knowing.

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoy. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.

Posted on August 24, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Darin Strauss on Faith

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

Darin Strauss’s most recent book, Half a Life: A Memoir, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Faith is a private issue. At least, I consider it to be one. (Try telling that to Tea Party evangelicals, though…) I consider myself a Jewish writer—even if my characters frequently are not Jewish—in the same way, I guess, that I consider myself a Jewish man, even though I don’t often attend shul.

In another post I’ll talk about my books (particularly Chang & Eng, a novel about the famous and Asian conjoined twins, and Half a Life, my non-fiction book about me). Here, today, I want to discuss faith.

I felt sheepish this week when I admitted to someone that I pray each night. My prayer is improvised—though like some standard jazz performance, the improv happens within pretty strict parameters—and asks for nothing. It wasn’t always this way.

prayed every night for as long as I can remember—at least since my Israel bar mitzvah some 27 years ago. But until recently I would ask G-d for favors. Nothing extravagant, nor even of a material nature. But my prayer was a homemade mix of thanks and request. I didn’t use a standard, Jewish prayer-book prayer because 1) I don’t speak Hebrew, and 2) it seems to me that if one doesn’t know the meaning of what one is saying, that ignorance is an impenetrable barrier between oneself and G-d. Now, I could’ve learned Hebrew, sure. But it seemed (and I’ll admit this may have been my laziness) that talking to G-d directly was a better way of expressing my own personal feelings of belief and appeal and doubt and gratitude.

But recently, as my own comprehension of my faith increased, I realized there was much I didn’t believe. Or, not that I didn’t believe, exactly, but that I had serious doubts about a few things. For example, it struck me as unlikely that G-d involves Himself with the daily minutiae of every single life on the planet. That an omnipotent creator of life would find himself shackled with that duty seemed improbable—it struck me as beneath Him. Also, how to explain the conflicting nature of some prayers? E.g., What to do when a million people pray for one thing, and another million its opposite? And what about not only the Holocaust, but every year’s untold tsunami and earthquake victims? Hadn’t they prayed? And sick children—etc.

All the same, I believe in G-d, and also that Judaism is closest to what my conception of G-d is—not to mention I have a steep cultural attachment to this religion and her people. And so I decided to keep on praying, but just not to ask G-d for anything. The thing is, I truly am profoundly thankful to G-d for all the blessings I have received in my life, beginning with the gift of Life itself. Now, whether my not asking for good things to happen to me is subconsciously intended to win me brownie points with G-d is something I can’t answer. But I do feel the need to give thanks, and also not to feel hypocritical by asking for things when I have doubts that G-d would answer me.

That is not to say I haven’t broken my little rule; that I haven’t taken up the mantle of hypocrisy now and again. But I do so for my three-year-old son. (He has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and I have prayed, and will continue to pray, for his health and comfort.) It seems to me a little hypocrisy in the service of fatherhood may get a bit of a divine pass.  But who knows.

This homemade ritual feels right for me; I’m not saying anyone else should embrace it.  I hope others would give me the same wide faith devotional birth.

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoy. He will be blogging here all week.

Posted on August 22, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The History of People

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Earlier this week, Douglas Stark wrote about the best Jewish basketball team ever and about researching Jewish sports. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

To me, history is telling stories about people. I have always been fascinated by people’s lives, the decisions they make (or don’t), and ultimately what happens to them. One of my objectives in writing The SPHAS was to have an opportunity to tell the stories of the players and, in some cases, the fans who attended the games. Who were the SPHAS? Where did they come from? Why were they attracted to basketball? Who were they as people?

As I crafted the book, I decided that I would try and tell the story of each season through one or two players. This allowed me to combine the stories of the players with the game-by-game story and drama of each season. It also proved a fairly easy way to organize the book.

One of the challenges of writing a book about a defunct basketball team whose heyday was in the 1930s and early 1940s was that most of the players had either passed away or were very old. I had two paths to take. One was to interview family members of the players from the 1930s. The second was to speak with players who played in the 1940s. Both proved invaluable.

The family members of the 1930s players were able to provide information about who the players were as people and about their childhoods. But in many instances, they were unable to talk about the playing days. Some were too young to remember. Some maybe never asked. However, many of them had scrapbooks of articles and these proved to be a tremendous source of information. Athletes from a certain generation actively kept scrapbooks chronicling their careers. The articles, programs, and ticket stubs contain valuable information. Athletes today do not seem to have the same desire in maintaining scrapbooks.

I was also able to interview quite a few players from the 1940s, and, although they might forget some information, they all loved talking about their playing days. Their faces light up and they can recall a game 70 years ago better than what they had for dinner last week. As they talked, they were young again, playing basketball, traveling 5 or 6 in a car from one town to another, and growing the game.

They all had interesting stories to tell and seemed grateful that someone today wanted to hear their stories. It was my honor to tell their stories and I hope that I did it well.

Douglas Stark’s The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team, is now available.

 

Posted on August 19, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy