Earlier this week, Melissa Fay Greene wrote about the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia, and telling jokes at church. Her new book, No Biking in the House Without A Helmet, is now available.
My husband and I are white people. We shop at R.E.I. for the clothes. We have cousins on both sides who are vegans and have attended more than one bean-filled wedding reception. We could move to Dubuque, Iowa, or Bangor, Maine, if we wanted to, without anyone wondering what on earth we were thinking. If pulled over by a traffic cop for a moving violation, we await him at our driver’s side window with the wide-eyed innocent-looking expectation that the exchange will proceed cordially and without undue suspicion. We are well-acquainted with the many bonuses of what is known on the street as White Skin Privilege.
We were born just this side of the mid-20th-century, to Jewish parents, when ethnicity was on the verge of being accepted as an acceptable American lifestyle. Jerry Lewis, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Danny Kaye, and Sammy Davis, Jr., were major Jews of our childhood. We weren’t told about the Holocaust.
In 1980, my husband Don Samuel and I, newlyweds, moved to Rome, a northwest Georgia hill-town that hadn’t gotten the news yet that ethnic people were just regular folks. “Where y’all from?” everyone asked us. Our new neighbors asked us, the landlord asked us, the Big Boy’s waitress asked us, the filling station man asked us. The people down the street whose car had a bumper sticker reading, “Oil Yes, Jews No,” did not ask us.
We’d moved to Rome, Georgia, from Athens, Georgia, after Donny graduated from the UGA School of Law, but our Rome questioners — “Where y’all from?” — felt perplexed rather than satisfied when we replied, “Athens.” “Athens?” said the Big Boy’s waitress, squinting at us. “Y’all Greeks?”
A variation on “Where y’all from?” was offered by citizens who had once accidentally seen a Woody Allen movie. Those people knowingly asked, “Y’all from New York?” It made us not want to confess that Donny was from New York.
No matter how we hedged, saying we were from Athens, mentioning that I was born in Macon and that Donny used to work in Brunswick and that we’d gotten married in Savannah, everyone had a sure-fire follow-up question. “Well, what church do y’all go to?”
Then we had to say it: “We’re Jewish.”
On Monday, Melissa Fay Greene shared the story behind the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
Twenty years ago, as I set out upon my very first book tour, for Praying for Sheetrock—my 1991 work of nonfiction about the heyday of a corrupt ‘courthouse gang’ on the flowery coast of Georgia and the belated rise of civil rights there—I discovered I had a line in my book-talk that only Jews laughed at.
It was unintentional on my part. I thought it was funny; I didn’t realize until I criss-crossed the country with it, like a stand-up comic, that it wasn’t funny to non-Jews.
The scene: “the blazing summer nights of 1975, as darkness dropped…” when the rural black citizens of McIntosh County, enraged by the police shooting of an unarmed man and by the deliberate neglect of the all-black public school system by the all-white school board, stormed across the sand parking lot, illuminated by bare light-bulbs dangling from wires strung through the live-oak trees, and crowded into the weather-beaten Shorters Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
I read aloud from my book: “Every pew in the church was packed; well-dressed people lined the walls and crowded into the rear of the church; and a choir in royal-blue satin robes led the congregation in rich and heartfelt music. The choir held hymnals without looking into them and swayed heavily back and forth in unison, stamping once as they leaned left, stamping again as they leaned right, and the congregation in full voice joined in.”
Then I told a story that was not in the book. “Whenever I attended one of these political prayer meetings,” I told my audience, “I was always seated up front, an honored guest, the only white person in the room. It was a disadvantage because I couldn’t really see what was going on, without constantly looking over my shoulder. One night the minister, to be especially welcoming to me, invited me to come up and lead a hymn. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t,’ I stammered, ‘for two reasons: first, I can’t sing like THAT, like these incredible voices. And secondly, I’m Jewish and I don’t know the words.’
“’Welcome to you!’ cried the tall skinny perspiring coal-black reverend, dressed in a tight-fitting coal-black suit like a mortician. ‘The black and the white, the Greek and the Jew, we’re all children of Christ.”
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in November 2001, I pulled up to the gates of the compound of the Beta Israel people (disparagingly known as Falashas [strangers]), hoping to be admitted, along with my brand-new daughter, to Shabbat morning services.
Arriving among these religiously-observant and destitute people, of rural origin, by taxi rather than on foot was likely to make a poor impression. But I’d known no one in the area to ask for Shabbat hospitality and my hotel stood half a city away from this dusty ramshackle neighborhood of mud huts and corrugated tin roofs. It was my first trip to Ethiopia. I’d flown seven thousand miles to report for the New York Times Magazine on conditions among some of Africa’s orphans of HIV/AIDS (which eventually gave rise to my book, There Is No Me Without You (Bloomsbury, 2007) and to meet a five-year-old girl named Helen, whom my family was adopting.
We were an American-Jewish family of seven, living in Atlanta; we had four children by birth and one by adoption from Bulgaria. The year the children were 6, 9, 13, 17, and 20, I lingered at the sunny kitchen table one morning and read in the newspaper that the United Nations was calling Africa “a continent of orphans.” Fourteen to twenty-five million children had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. I read those pages not only as a concerned world citizen, but as a journalist, and as a mother aware that a perfectly good twin bed upstairs was going unused. “Could I write about this?” I wondered. I’d only stepped foot in Africa once, in Morocco, in my 20s. “Can you adopt from Africa?” I also wondered. “Can you adopt one of the fourteen to twenty-five million orphaned children?”
Aware of Israel’s airlift of 20,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 in Operation Moses (Mivtzah Moshe) and another 15,000 in Operation Solomon (Mitzvah Shlomo) in 1991, I located online an organization called the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry [NACOEJ], which helped support Jewish organizations in Addis. I phoned their New York office and asked, “Are any of the Jewish children orphans in need of adoption?”
The answer was yes, there were orphans, but no, they were not available for adoption. NACOEJ’s mission was to bring the people to Israel. They told me of an American orphanage in Addis, and I phoned there next, asking the same question in reverse: “Are any of the orphans Jewish?”
“They may be,” I was told, “but many don’t know what they are. We have a quarter-of-a-million orphans here. Is that your only criteria?”
By November I was on a plane to Addis: the New York Times had commissioned a story; and my family had been matched with Helen, a tiny, bright, and darling (non-Jewish) girl who’d lost her father when she was two, and her doting mother just a few months earlier.
Our first afternoon together in Addis Ababa, I took Helen shopping for new clothes, including shul clothes, and watched as she stepped out of her dusty orphanage jean overalls and into a complicated plaid wool jumper, a white blouse with a lace collar, and a royal blue corduroy jacket with brass buttons. Curly yarn sheep were affixed to the jumper and jacket. The ensemble seemed designed to be worn in Scotland at Christmastime rather than on a dry African plateau in 90-plus-degree heat to a jerry-rigged local synagogue. While I paid for the outfit and a new pair of sandals, she hopped beside me in excitement.
Helen wore her new clothes that Saturday morning as our taxi parked outside the Jewish compound. Half a dozen young men—guards—surrounded our car and looked through the windows. Helen scooted under my arm in shyness. Our driver got out of the car to explain that I was an American Jew hoping to attend services. Arguments seemed to follow, with a lot of gesticulating, while more young men jockeyed for a closer look at us through the windows. I rolled down the window to greet them with my paltry number of Hebrew words. I displayed my Chai necklace, but they turned away. The discussion grew heated outside the car, until the taxi driver got back in to report that the guards did not think I looked Jewish. The child looked Jewish, but I did not. If only I’d brought a letter from a rabbi or from the Israeli embassy in Ethiopia, they would have welcomed me happily; but, without anyone vouching for me, they were obliged to turn me away.
In America, I look Jewish. In Ethiopia, I did not look Jewish. In Ethiopia, Helen looked Jewish. But, in America, Helen does not look Jewish. She has borne this bravely, while embracing Judaism with a full heart.
I’ve been a vegetarian for almost twenty years, but I’m intentionally chill about it. I won’t eat meat or poultry but I never tell anyone they should follow my lead. I honestly don’t care if other people are carnivores or not as long as my plate stays meat-free. But I have to be honest and say that reading this article in the Harvard Business Review did make me feel a weensie bit self righteous. The article says that if you want to reduce your carbon footprint you can try eating local, but even if everything you buy is local, you’ll still do better by just cutting the meat out of your diet.
• Food is transported a long way, going about 1,000 miles in delivery and over 4,000 miles across the supply chain.
• But 83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.
• Different foods have vastly different greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity, with meat requiring far more energy to produce, and red meat being particularly egregious, requiring 150% more energy than even chicken.
So the journal article adds this up to an obvious conclusion: if you want to reduce your food’s carbon footprint, eat less meat. In short, “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”
So if you’re trying to compensate for all the air conditioning you’re using this summer by using a bit less fossil fuels in other parts of your life, how about having a vegetarian Shabbat this week? Here at MJL we already have a nice little database of Vegetarian Entrees, but here are four more of my favorites:
What are your favorite vegetarian Shabbat entrees?
A few months before my mother died, someone bought us a gong (someone else bought us a pretty painted tambourine, but that’s another story). The gong was sent because we were having a problem with people coming over to visit and staying too long. And by too long, I mean for four hours.
I will be the first to say that we really really appreciated all the love and support we got from our community, and visitors were incredibly important to keeping my whole family—not just my mother—from going crazy during the horrific business of dying. Still, it could get overwhelming. Also, this might be rude, but we like some people more than others. A lot more. And when some of the less fun people came over to chat and stayed for more than about twenty minutes, I found myself getting a wee bit stabby. My mother could legitimately take a nap or close her eyes in the middle of a conversation. I did not really have that option. So, a friend sent over a gong, and when we’d had enough of the hordes of visitors, we banged the gonged and ushered people out. I think we only did this once, but people got the point, and started shortening their visits to a more manageable length.
The gong was one of a few things we picked up that made life easier. In case you’re wondering, we were also fans of:
Google Docs spreadsheets that allowed our friends to coordinate who was bringing us dinner. Takethemameal.com does it even better.
Caringbridge.org, a website that allows you to share information about how someone is doing with a select audience. We used it to update our friends and family on my mother’s status, and to post things like details about when people can come over to visit.
Healingthreads.com –clothes designed for people who have post-surgical drains. This seemed like a strange thing to buy and quickly became indispensable.
Heatpads that stay hot—when she was in pain my mom liked these heating pads that stay hot for a long time, and can easily be reheated.
And if you have a friend or relative who is seriously sick I strongly recommend The Awl’s Actually Awesome Things to Say to a Cancer Patient and the New York Times’ You Look Great and Other Lies, a list of things to never say, and other things TO say to those in the throes of illness.
We at MJL have our own very comprehensive list. It’s a useful and important thing to reread every six months or so.
I have always wanted to join a Chevra Kadisha, a Jewish burial society, but I was nervous about what it would really involve. What is it really like to wash a dead body for burial? The Progressive Chevra Kadisha is featured in a Chicago Tribune article that shows some members of the society being trained to do Tahara, the ritual washing, using a live volunteer. It’s a cool video, and it’s giving me what I need to call my local Chevra Kadisha and sign up. As you may know, caring for the dead is considered one of the most important acts of lovingkindness that a person can do.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that the most difficult to observe of all the 613 commandments is “Honor your father and mother.”
I inherited my love of hosting Shabbat meals from my mother. Growing up we had company for at least one meal every Shabbat. Friday nights were often a family affair, but Saturday lunches often involved 10-12 people. Preparing and serving a meal for a dozen people once a week is the kind of task that intimidates a lot of people but my mom taught me the skills to make the whole thing very low-stress and rewarding.
I’ve been living in New York for almost three years now, and I still host one meal a week (but I actually think I’m going to cut down to one every other week because wow is it expensive to cook that much!). One thing that has gotten to be more and more of an issue is dealing with guests who have a myriad of dietary restrictions. Not just vegetarians and/or strict kosher keepers, but celiac disease, lactose intolerance, people who “prefer no refined sugar or flour.” It can be very complicated to plan a menu to satisfy everyone.
JTA has an article today about dealing with hosting Shabbat meals with lots of dietary hoops to jump through, and it quotes me (among others).
So yes, allergies and whatnot are a concern when planning meals, but allow me to introduce you to a little thing I like to call The Internet, where you can search for and easily find recipes that you can serve to any permutation of allergy-ridden guests. For instance, have some vegans and a gluten-free friend coming over and want to serve a decadent dessert that doesn’t involve (ugh) tofu? How about this baby—a chilled double chocolate torte that looks amazing.
Looking for some more tips on how to plan and execute a good Shabbat dinner? Look here! And The Kitchn offers some good basic tips for making your guests feel comfortable, a big part of the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim.
It’s gotta be tough to be a struggling actor. You gotta go from audition to audition, trying to act professional while the casting director throw tasks at you that sometimes look like they are just messing with you–seeing if you will crack under the pressure.
So what would you do if you were an actor auditioning for a role as a parent, and you were asked to act more Jewish? Would you even know what to do? In fact, what does that even mean–act more Jewish? What if you weren’t even Jewish? Would you have the slightest idea of what to do?
Our friends at Kveller.com took these theoreticals and brought it to life, staging a casting call, bringing in real actors…and putting them in uncomfortable situations.
Check out the hilarious results:
“Man is born as an object, dies like an object, but possesses the ability to live like a subject, like a creator, an innovator, who can impress his own individual seal upon his life and can extricate himself from a mechanical type of existence and enter into a creative, active mode of being.”
Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.