Sometimes, standing in line for airport security toward the beginning of my book tour, I felt I knew what my ancestors experienced on Ellis Island — you know, minus the fumigations and crushing anxieties about how they would ever make it in this country. (I use the term ‘ancestors’ loosely here.) Excepting a supply of what I’d like to think of as shrewdly dispersed contact lenses, I had not packed well.
I’ve always thought of my profession as nothing like my father’s. Throughout much of my childhood, he earned his living as a traveling diamond merchant. Last summer, though, as I began touring for my first book, Precious Objects, my job began to resemble his just a little bit more.
When I was young, my family ascribed a sense of solemnity to travel. Baggage claim was something grave and sobering. The women would step aside and wait for my father and grandfather to push through the throngs and tug at our suitcases, sometimes faltering and being pulled along the conveyer belt for one terrifying moment before they got the better of gravity and lifted the mammoth thing from the belt. I watched as they threw their weight into it, like a sport.
Our job (my mother’s, my grandmother’s, my sisters’, and mine) was to try and spot our bags, which we did by looking for black, nondescript suitcases with ribbons my grandmother had tied around the handle, as had every other traveler. Our other job (my mother’s, my sisters’ and mine) was to prevent my four-foot ten-inch grandmother from crossing the line from waiters to luggers to try and help with the heavy lifting.
I myself am actually a relaxed traveler. Having spent a few years commuting for work and school, I’m used it. And now, after more than thirty events in about twenty cities, I’m even more used it. I’m so used to it that when I had a late-night layover in a time zone different from both my departure and arrival cities, which coincided with a run of three different events in three different states, I didn’t tell everyone about it. Only the lady at the boarding counter. She clearly cared a lot.
Since that first tour stop, I’ve also managed to pick up on a host of traveling tricks—for example, that the C-line on Southwest is something like the lowest level of the Titanic. (This is actually not true; the C-line has landed me in a seat between two of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and who were more than generous vis-à-vis armrests.)
I learned that when you travel a lot your hair smells like a different flower in every city,
owing to the array of hotel bath products.
I learned that after a full week of consecutive travel, I do not look like my author photo.
I learned that no one does not have an iPad.
But most importantly, I learned that everywhere, in every city, there are readers.
Passionate, enthusiastic, razor-sharp readers. I feel hugely grateful to the Jewish Book Council and to everyone who’s been having me over at their community centers, book stores, libraries, and clubs for allowing me to meet an incredible and eclectic sample of bibliophiles. This is amazingly heartening for a writer, and not just because it implies the possibility of an audience, but much more so, because writers love readers. Writers are readers.
My favorite thing to think about every time I get on a plane is that all over the country, there are millions of people who read in between job shifts, who get together to talk about books; people who can’t help themselves, people don’t want to help themselves. And I love them for it.
I went to a Modern Orthodox elementary school. For eight years I learned Hebrew (Modern and biblical), participated in Shabbat onegs and wrote and performed Torah-related songs and plays. I learned every Jewish prayer by heart, wore only below-the-knee skirts and painstakingly studied Talmud in Aramaic in a rabbi’s study. I was impressively Jewish. And then I went to a secular high school and, except for going to temple on the high holidays, attending Passover Seders and lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, I became unimpressively secular. It wasn’t until I met my Catholic-raised husband that I started actively observing Judaism again.
On our first date I told him that if we were to ever have kids, raising them as Jews was nonnegotiable. That’s right, our first date. Religion had come up in previous relationships and I had learned to be firm about what I wanted at the start to avoid surprises later. He nodded and said he would be comfortable with that. Ben believed in the general ritual and ethical guidance of religion even more than he believed in the specifics of his religion. Apparently the extent of two people’s religious belief can affect compatibility more than the religions themselves.
The first thing we decided to do was learn about Judaism together. We signed up for a four month Union for Reform Judaism course. I joked that I could teach it, but once it started I was surprised at how little I already knew. Reform Judaism was everything I had sifted from my Orthodox education without the orthodoxy that had felt so oppressive to me. The liberal politics, reverence for nature and inclusiveness of the community paralleled my own belief system, and Ben and I marveled at how time and again, the laws of Reform Judaism were laws we would create for ourselves if we were creating a religion from scratch. Our class was white, black, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay and straight. We were all there, not by obligation, but by spiritual choice.
Perhaps because of my Orthodox background, I had always been dismissive of other branches of Judaism. I had also become so fixated on the technicalities of being Jewish (matrilineage, for example) that I forgot that religion is a philosophy, and we don’t automatically know or believe in a philosophy just because we’re born into it. If I had simply married another unobservant Jew, we wouldn’t have had to earn our Judaism, it would have already been part of our identities. But Ben and I worked for it, reading, debating and journaling every topic, theme and ritual, from the holidays, to the state of Israel, to the afterlife. I had always assumed that if I were to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish he would take on my religion as his own, but I never realized that in that process of learning about Reform Judaism I would take on a new religion as my own too.