The hardest thing about breaking up with the Jewish guy I dated six years ago was breaking up with his parents. I loved his parents. His parents loved me. I knew that the guy and I would never be happy together, but I also knew that I would never find another set of parents who I connected with as much as his.
That fact hit me even harder the first time I met my future in-laws. Self-proclaimed “dyed in the wool Catholics,” they told me that they had never met a single Jew until their son(my now husband) went to college in the Northeast. They’re from Nebraska. A tiny little town called Broken Bow. It’s smack in the middle of the country, about three hours from the closest synagogue.
When I first realized that Ben was the man I was going to marry, I found myself mourning the loss of the in-laws I had always wanted. His parents didn’t effortlessly understand me. They didn’t appreciate that I could speak Hebrew and a few words of Yiddish. That I had gone to a yeshiva for elementary school and to Israel on my semester abroad. They had always fantasized about a Midwestern Catholic daughter-in-law. And I got it. I wanted my in-laws to be kvetching Upper West Siders.
But now, on the other side of the wedding, I find myself on the phone with Ben’s mom, lying on the quilt she handmade for us, happy to hear her laugh. Sometimes we make small talk (what we did that week, the joke she forwarded me, the weather), but just as often we’ll confide in each other about our bad days or trade family gossip. Like my connection to Ben, what we have in common goes beyond background.
It’s funny how people influence you in ways you don’t even realize. When we go shopping, Ben’s mom looks at the label of any item of clothing she likes to make sure it’s made out of natural fiber. This means no polyester, rayon or acrylic. I do this now, compulsively. Ben’s dad often starts sentences with the word “yes.” Like, “Yes, I told him I’d be happy to help him out.” And yes, it seems I picked that one up too.
I’d like to think I’ve also rubbed off on them. Ben’s mom often ends emails with “xo,” which Ben says she picked up from me, and during meals they order “for the table,” which is something my family always does but never thought was funny until Ben’s parents laughed at the expression and started using it themselves.
Falling in love is the easiest way to make the world smaller. Nebraska used to be a meaningless square on the map, as foreign to me as a village in Africa. But I’ve been there a number of times now and think of myself as someone with Nebraskan roots. I’ve also learned about the quilting process, how to make an alcoholic beverage called Gilligan’s Island, and how to be trusting without being naive. These weren’t the in-laws I had visualized, but I can’t imagine a more wonderful pair of machatanim.
I realized late in life that my parents weren’t your typical Baby Boomers. My dad wasn’t anti-establishment. My mother wasn’t a feminist. Ask them about Woodstock and my dad will tell you that he left early because the crowds made him nervous. My mom will tell you that her attendance was required on a family road trip that summer.
One of the things that they had in common was immigrant parents. Eastern European Holocaust survivors on my mom’s side. Israelis who lived on the land before it was a state on my dad’s side. You didn’t tell your Holocaust survivor parents that you wanted to go to a rock concert instead of sitting in the back of a sweltering car sandwiched between your two younger siblings the summer of Woodstock. And if you’re Israeli, it makes total sense to avoid any and all situations that might invite terrorism.
Jewish immigrant parents meant that you ordered your food – meat, fish, eggs – well done. You sent it back if it bore any resemblance to a living creature because at some point in the past there wasn’t high quality meat around. Jewish immigrant parents meant that you didn’t pursue a career in the arts, even if you could play virtually any instrument brilliantly and immediately by ear, like my dad could. You were to become a doctor, a lawyer or a businessperson. And girls weren’t supposed to major in math in college, like my mom did. They were supposed to major in Home Economics, or get their Mrs. degrees.
The way in which my parents do resemble Baby Boomers is the way in which they bridged respect for tradition with excitement about the future. My mother both understands Yiddish and loves Aerosmith. My dad’s wardrobe includes solemn high holiday suits and hip New Balances. And yet my issues with them – everyone has issues with their parents – are based somewhat on their residual ties to the old world. I’ve often felt I was deprived of the former hippies who are disappointed in how conservative I am. These guys seem to find my social activism impractical. They are clearly grossed out by how rare I like my steak cooked. And they’ve said very little about my so-called writing career, which was clearly little more than a hobby in their eyes.
But that all changed when I told them that my novel was being published.
My mother lit up when I told her. I will always remember that lunch. How we ordered another round of food to celebrate. She asked me about every detail of the publishing process with wide-eyed wonder. My father didn’t sleep the night I told him, as he was excitedly brainstorming titles. It reminded me of that scene in Man on Wire where the most skeptical member of Philippe Petite’s crew, the one who most doubted his ability to tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, was the most affected when he did.
Intellectually you can know that your parents want you to succeed. Of course they want you to succeed, they’re your parents. But they want it on their terms because they don’t know any others. And emotionally that can come across as a lack of faith. But as much as they want you to do things their way, it’s even more thrilling when you go your own, and against all odds, it actually kind of works. Of course, if and when I have kids of my own, I really hope they become doctors. But I guess if they wanted to be lawyers, that would be ok too.
I’ve thought a lot about Isaac Babel’s lovely characterization of the Jew as a man with “[s]pectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.” The first part is easy: the man is an intellectual, a scholar, a thinker. He is frail, fallible; his eyes are weak and his touch, perhaps, is tender.
The second part is sexier, and more open to interpretation. What does it mean to have autumn in your heart? Is this just an aesthetic flourish, a fancy way of saying that Jews have the souls of poets, that our insides glow amber like sunlit leaves? Would the effect be different if Babel had said, instead, that the Jew has spring in his heart?
Perhaps I’m staring too closely, ignoring the forest for the view of a single tree. But ours is a culture of close reads and commentary–think of the Talmud, think of the overflowing comments section on almost any Jewish blog. This is why we wear spectacles on our noses–we study, we struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible. Think of the sages up all night in Bnei Brak, arguing over the haggadah. Think of what Hillel said — “the rest is commentary, now go and study” — who understood both the simplicity of morality (Do unto others…) as well as the infinite tessellations of its applications.
There is something about autumn. In autumn, we celebrate the new year. In autumn, the book of death is unshelved, left open for a week; the prospect of unwritten death hangs above us. As the leaves fall and the plants die, we face mortality. We savor the sweetness of life and humble ourselves before nature.
My favorite holiday growing up was Sukkot. Beginning five days after Yom Kippur. The harvest festival, Sukkot, reminds us of our history as itinerant agrarians. Our ancestors would sleep out in their sukkahs during the final weeks of the harvest, before the winter frost. They would sleep under the stars and celebrate the bounty of the harvest. We are meant to do the same.
My family wasn’t particularly religious — we occasionally, but rarely, attended a gaudy synagogue I found spiritually void. But we did have a sukkah every year. My mother, an artist, built one out of wood and painted it blue with white polka dots, and inscribed it with lines from Amichai poems. We would decorate the structure in hay, corn, gourds, and flowers. Friends and family would come over to feast and drink wine. When the crowd had dispersed and the sun disappeared I would make one last trip to the sukkah. I would lie on the grass floor and stare at the stars. I would feel the wind on my face. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but I remember feeling small, dwarfed by the universe. Perhaps what I felt was autumn in my heart.
There’s a great Seinfeld episode–and one I relate to–in which George Constanza worries that he must have cancer because his life is going well for the first time ever. “I knew God would never let me be happy,” George tells his therapist.
Like many secular Jews, I don’t believe in God, but I do fear His wrath. Whenever something good happens to me I can’t enjoy it because I’m waiting for retribution. Some of the best moments in my life have been ruined this way; achievements–both professional and personal — have been mired either by illness, or fear of illness. I’ve had the flu at every one of my birthday parties since the age of five. Whenever I’m taken to a nice restaurant, my overactive stomach won’t let me enjoy the meal. The year I was supposed to be the opening day starting pitcher for my little league team I injured my finger during pre-season and never pitched again. Like George, I don’t think God will ever let me be happy.
All my life, I have wanted to publish a novel. That dream will become a reality on Tuesday, so of course I’ve been sick in bed for the past two weeks with an unbeatable cold and a really uncomfortable throat infection. All I want is to enjoy my book party, and now it doesn’t seem like that will be possible. None of this surprises me. I don’t believe in God, but I do think he’s pre-emptively punishing me for the hubristic attitude I would have if I was healthy.
I often think of God not letting Moses into the Promised Land. Sure, maybe Moses was being a bit cocky from time to time, but didn’t he deserve to celebrate? I mean, they were in the desert for forty years! The punishment didn’t fit the crime. And then there was Job, whom God punished just to make a philosophical point.
Is this why even the secular among us fear God so much–because the Old Testament God could be cruel and vindictive?
I’d like to think it has nothing to do with God, that it’s not God punishing us for our hubris and moral shortcomings, but ourselves. I’d like to think it’s because we hold ourselves to high moral standards, and feel we must humble ourselves. We’re not being punished, so much as remembering our own humanity, our own mortality.
One of the strange things about having your first book come out is that you think you’ve written one thing, and then everyone decides you’ve written something else. I guess I don’t mean en masse, but I did think I had written kind of a sad, quiet novel, and now I’m getting pegged as the funny girl.
You know who was really the funny girl?
If you said Fanny Brice you’d be right.
I grew up on musical theater the way other people grow up on sports (some of my greatest triumphs were in competitive opera singing), and watched Barbra Streisand movies like an acolyte. Forget Julie Andrews (who I’m sure is very nice)—I loved Barbra: her voice, the twinkle in her eye, her nose. I’m not exaggerating when I say that watching her sing “I’m the Greatest Star” in Funny Girl changed my life.
Funny Girl is based on the life of Fanny Brice, who sang for the Ziegfeld Follies, acted on Broadway and in film, and played Baby Snooks on the radio for years. She made a life and career out of contradictions—a Yiddish “dialectician” who never knew more than a hundred words of the language, a skinny girl who couldn’t dance and yet sang for the glamorous Follies, an independent woman who married three times.
In his biography of the performer, Herbert G. Goldman quotes Fanny on her dual nature: “Self-aware and self-perceptive, Fanny once said she had always been aware of ‘two people within me. Almost like a mother and child. I have felt like I was my own mother, and when I would think about Fanny, I would always think about myself as a child.’”
What makes Fanny such a great talent is exactly this duality, between mother and child, serious and playful. Barbra has it too, on film. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. Although critics wrote mainly about Fanny as a comedienne, one of her greatest hits was “My Man,” which she always sang with her eyes closed, no doubt imagining her first husband, Nick Arnstein. It sounds soulful to me when I listen to it again now, and I think I know why Fanny sang torch songs—because those were the moments when she got to stop playing the funny girl.
My fascination with New Mexico began in 2007, when I moved to Albuquerque sight unseen to write my first novel, The Fallback Plan. The state is nicknamed “The Land of Enchantment,” and that’s one of the reasons I moved there, from the less exotic “Land of Lincoln.” In general, I found the people there to be very open to talking about unsolved mysteries—ghosts and disappearances, aliens and conspiracies. A neighbor told me that the Sandia Mountains were partly “fake,” built by the government to hide missiles near the air force base. Another said he’d seen la llorona in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande.
So I don’t generally associate the American Southwest with the Jewish Diaspora, but I do associate it with ghosts. And last spring, I went back to the Southwest on a kind of working vacation, to soak in some sunshine and work on a new book project, which is partly set there. I took a tour in Santa Fe and learned about one of the city’s most famous ghosts, a German Jew named Julia Staab, who died in 1896 and now haunts La Posada Hotel.
This painting hangs in her room at the hotel. It is assumed to be Julia, but
could be one of her descendants, as it wasn’t painted until 1939.
Julia was the wife of Abraham Staab, who emigrated at age 15 to escape military conscription and life in the ghettos, later becoming a wealthy merchant who made his fortune as a contractor for the U.S. army. Because of the lack of eligible (Jewish) wives in the area, he returned to Germany and convinced Julia Schuster, age 16, to marry him. As the story goes, Julia was reluctant to agree to a life in the Wild West, but eventually consented.
At first, the couple lived on Burro Alley in Santa Fe. I took this picture there in 2008.
By most accounts, Julia was sickly, and suffered from depression. She was also famously beautiful. Abraham built her a mansion north of the Plaza, in the French Second Empire-style, which stood in stark contrast to the adobe homes surrounding it. The third floor was devoted to a ballroom, where they hosted the best parties in Santa Fe.
Staab mansion in the 1880s
Julia had seven children, some miscarriages and at least one stillborn, who is buried in the family plot. They say that after the death of her youngest, she was so grief-stricken she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, and after two days of this she looked in the mirror and her hair had turned from black to white.
There were no more parties. Julia would not leave the house. In town, Abraham made excuses for his wife’s notable absence. Rumors circulated that she had gone mad.
No official mention is made of Julia until years later, when a brief notice of her death at age fifty-two appears in the local paper. No cause is stated.
The mansion is now a resort hotel: La Posada. Guests who have stayed in Julia’s suite have reported that the bathtub will fill with water on its own. (One rumor of her death is that she drowned there.) In the restrooms on the first floor, her face has appeared in the mirror. A hotel bartender has reported glasses flying off the shelves.
I am drawn to Julia’s story for a number of reasons. First, her history is in some ways a composite of my own ancestors’, half of whom are German Jews who became merchants in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, and half of whom are Scotch-Irish pioneers who became homesteaders on the Kansas plains. I sympathize with her displacement, imagining what it must have been like to arrive in arid New Mexico for the first time, an experience I also had as a young adult. If anything, Jewish history is one of exile, and the Staabs’ story is a fascinating tale of Jews carving a new life in the American Southwest. Finally, Julia’s story is so poignant to me because even now she is in exile, unable to return “home.”
But only if you believe in ghosts.
For more information on the Staab family, there is an interesting (and brief) memoir in the archives of the Center for Jewish history, accessible here.
Before I’d settled on acting or writing, my greatest aspiration was simply to “Be Anne Frank,” and when I was twelve, I auditioned for the title role in a community theater production of the Goodrich and Hackett play. I’m pretty sure I was one of the few, if not the only, Jew(s) to audition (in a town known for its Evangelical Christian college), and I thought I had it in the bag. All they had to do, I thought, was look at my last name and cast me immediately, to lend credibility to their production.
At callbacks, it was between me and one other Anne. I wore a plaid skirt and a pale sage cardigan with tiny rosebuds around the collar. I parted my dark hair on the side. While the other Anne smiled and laughed and generally behaved like she was at a food court in the mall, I delivered my lines with gravitas. I looked at the imaginary sky with longing. I was sarcastic, but never silly. I never let myself forget that Anne was a victim of the Holocaust, and it was my job on stage to honor that fact. More than anything, I felt I deserved to be Anne because I knew her so intimately after reading her diaries.
Shocker: the other Anne got cast. “But you look so much like her,” the director told me on the phone, as a consolation prize. “It was really tough.”
The only thing I could console myself with was the fantasy that after I died, God would rectify this injustice by allowing me to play the role in Heaven. (It’s funny that I imagined this and not, you know, actuallymeeting Anne there in the afterlife.)
One of the reasons I loved Francine Prose’s recent book, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, is because it tells the fascinating and fraught history of the theatrical adaptation. Reading it fourteen years after that fateful audition was a revelation: it wasn’t my fault that I was wrong for the part of Anne. It was the play’s fault. The play reinvents Anne as some kind of Jewish Polyanna. Prose really hits the nail on the head when she compares the insightful diarist with her characterization:
On the page, she is brilliant; on the stage she’s a nitwit. In the book, she is the most gifted and sharp-sighted person in the annex; in the play, she’s the naïve baby whom the others indulge and protect. For all her talk about being treated like a child and not knowing who she was, Anne saw herself as an adult and the others as children. In the drama, those relations have been reversed.
Years after I first read her diary, Anne is still an inspiration to me. Prose’s book is an excellent account of her aspirations as a writer (Anne hoped her diaries would be published, and revised scrupulously), and I recommend it highly. I also can thank Prose for leading me to this twenty-one second video, the only video footage known to exist of Anne, in which we see the young diarist briefly from a window, flickering, alive.
Like most people, I used to view doubt and faith as occupying two opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. In my mind, there were people of faith, True Believers, and then there were the Doubters, like myself. A vast and impassable ocean separated these two groups. Or so I thought.
I don’t think that way anymore. After traveling the world and diving into several of the world’s major religions (and a few minor ones), I’ve concluded that doubt represents not an absence of faith, but rather, is an integral part of it. I wouldn’t say I celebrate doubt, not anymore than I celebrate that pain in my left knee telling me I need to see the doctor. But I do accept it, value it, and recognize its role in the spiritual life.
True some religious people desire certainty— and only certainty. For them, doubt represents weakness, an absence of faith, or at least an incomplete faith. In short, doubt is the enemy. But that is only one way of being religious. There are others. Psychologists have identified the “quest personality.” That is one category that I – and many others I expect– fit into perfectly. A Quester is someone who seeks knowing full well she will never find definitive answers.
Doubt can paralyze, yes, but it can also motivate. The opposite of doubt is not certainty but action, forward momentum. As E.F. Schumacher, the renegade economist put it, “Matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.” In other words, matters that are beyond doubt have nothing to teach us.
In my travels, I’ve met many deeply religious people who, nonetheless, live comfortably with doubt. My friend James, for instance, is a Buddhist who still has many doubts — about reincarnation, for instance—but this does not prevent him from practicing his faith, and benefitting from it.
Nearly all religions, in varying degrees, acknowledge the role of doubt, but perhaps none more so than the Jains, the ancient faith based in India. The Jains have a term, syadvada, which literally translates as a “multiplicity of viewpoints,” but is also referred to as “maybe-ism”.
Essentially, syadvada says that for every “truth” that we hold dear there are other, equally valid, truths. For the Jains, syadvada is a way of life, and it permeates every aspect of their faith, including their doctrine of nonviolence.
The Jains know instinctively that where certainty reigns, nothing else can survive. Where there is doubt, there is also possibility. And life.
A version of this article appeared on Washingtonpost.com.
When I was a kid, I got sent to a sports camp outside of Philadelphia. Which was sort of the ultimate nightmare for a Jewish nerd. This summer, our friend and MJL writer Josh Lambert (and author of JPS’s American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide) is running a weeklong program at the Yiddish Book Center for high-school juniors and seniors who want to
read, discuss, argue about, and fall in love with some of the most powerful and enduring works of modern Jewish literature. Participants will study with some of the nation’s most respected literary scholars, meet prominent contemporary authors, and connect with other teens from across the country.
Oh: And, thanks to philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, it’s free. If this sounds to you like the coolest thing ever, then you just might be right for it. Go here to get more information and apply. Oh, and — if you see the ghost of my teenage self, looking happier than he’s ever been, say hi for me.
I’ve written a book about my “spiritual journey,” fully aware what an oft abused, dangerously clichéd term it is. The problem with “spiritual journey” (one of many, actually) is that it is usually used aspirationally. We venture far from home, in search of something, and so we convince ourselves we found it.
Just because we label a journey spiritual, though, doesn’t make it so, and the fact is: sometimes we’re better off staying at home. “The farther you travel, the less you know,” warns Lao-Tzu, the Taoist sage.
Yet this was the same sage who gave us the wonderful aphorism: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Was Lao-Tzu conflicted? Was he deliberately trying to confuse us?
I don’t think so. He knew that it’s not whether we travel or not, but how that matters. Travel, done properly, disorients us, and it is through this disorientation that any spiritual journey actually lives up to its name. This is the sort of travel Henry Miller had in mind when he said that “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.”
If different places didn’t evoke different feelings, different ways of experiencing, we might as well stay at home, especially now, given the enhanced interrogation techniques that pass for air travel these days.
But we must choose our places carefully. Many supposedly sacred places disappoint. Freighted with history, and our outsized expectations, they collapse under the weight of their own sacredness.
Such a fate has befallen many a shrine or temple. Whatever spiritual essence once existed there has long evaporated, siphoned off by opportunists and posers. Today they possess all of the divinity of a Greyhound bus station. They are dead places.
Then there are places like Tzfat, in northern Israel. There, the air is soft and plush. It is no dead place. Ever since the 16th century, Tzfat has been a center of Kabbalah, the mystical arm of Judaism, and it still attracts those looking for taste of the ein sof, or infinite.
The denizens of Tzfat are spiritual free agents, cobbling together a bit of this, a bit of that, and somehow making it all work. It is one of those places that the early Celts called “thin places,” locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and, for perhaps the first time, we can taste the divine.