Gerald Kolpan’s article “Blazing Saddles It Wasn’t” brought forth little known true stories of Jews in the Wild West: those who fought Indians and those who befriended them, and in some cases, joined them.
My personal interest in Native American culture and ceremony was a major inspiration in my setting to work on Jacob’s Return, my debut novel. Jacob Goldman is the protagonist, a secular Jewish man committed to tikkun olam by way of his investigative journalism focused on social and environmental justice. From the outset, Sheila Strongblood, Jacob’s wife, was destined to be a powerful character. She is a full-blooded member of a Native American tribe in California.
When I was eight years old, I wrote my first stories about Native Americans, who lived “back then.” It was a time I yearned for but which I believed was untouchable. I spent much of my youth in the swamp behind our house, imagining I was a scout in uncharted wilderness, discovering turtles and frogs in ponds and holes of mud and water. I sledded and tobogganed each winter down Indian Hill.
In my fifth grade school picture, my skin shines dark from the sun and a thin cord of rawhide circles my neck and hangs just below my collarbones. That precious cord held against my chest two buffalo teeth alternating with colored clay beads. In my high school years, the profile of an Indian warrior adorned my soccer jersey. When I was young, I nurtured a romance with symbols instead of an experience with the actual native people of the area where I grew up.
My interest in Native America continued even when my initial break from Judaism came as an adolescent and my ambivalence toward my heritage grew as I became an adult.
In 1998 I began work on my first novel, Jacob’s Return, at a time in my life when I needed to find out about Jewishness, but not through the Conservative channel in which I grew up. In my bones I was drawn to earth-based, tribal life and ceremony. Once I moved to Oakland, California, and friends of Native American heritage invited me to participate in sweat lodge, I did so as a Jew. I faced boundaries that I hadn’t even known I’d constructed as a way to keep distant from God’s creation: I was scared of being scalded in the lodge, of my muscles hurting from long-sitting on the hard ground, of my weakness in general. I feared that I was an interloper in others’ deeply personal cultural ceremonies.
Over time, I realized that I was among those who were freely sharing their spiritual tools with me so that I might discover my own. I became grateful to be among those who deeply knew powerful earth-based ceremony, and who had beautiful appreciation of plant and animal medicine. These people took on the yoke of being stewards of God’s creation.
During these early years of earth-based practice, I entered the story of Jacob’s Return with the question of how my own ancestors, the Israelites, might have lived on the land. I believed that Sheila Strongblood Goldman’s tribe would help me understand something critical about myself. My searching led me to the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California where I connected with an active tribe, the Tachi Yokuts at the Santa Rosa Rancheria. I contacted Clarence Atwell, then Chief of the tribe. He invited me to meet with him and the tribal historian.
I have always been fascinated by epigraphs — those borrowed words that authors choose to introduce and encapsulate the message of their books. And so, almost as soon as I started writing my own book, Crossing the Borders of Time, I found my thoughts exploring several possibilities, words whose power had won them space in my catalogue of memory.
The book involves a search to find my mother’s long-lost love, the young and handsome Frenchman she’d left behind in 1942, when — fleeing the Nazis — she was forced to board the last refugee ship to escape France before the Germans sealed its ports. She was Jewish and 18; he was Catholic and 21. “Whatever the length of our separation, our love will survive it, because it depends on us alone,” Roland had written to Janine in a farewell note before she sailed. “I give you my vow that whatever the time we must wait, you will be my wife.” But war and disapproving family had intervened, and even as she tried to build a different life than the one she had imagined, Mom shared with me her longing for the love that had been stolen from her.
The story of their star-crossed romance, culminating in my efforts to reunite the pair, first called to mind Bob Dylan’s paean to a young love that endures:
The future for me is already a thing of the past.
You were my first love and you will be my last.
Yet even in my silent reading, the gnarly twang of Dylan’s unique delivery resounded as unreservedly American. It set the wrong mood as the opener for a love story that unfolded in Europe of the war years, and its tone seemed too lighthearted for the period and the harrowing experiences I was depicting. Besides, Dylan belonged to my youth. His rebellious ballads could be interpreted as a rejection of my parents’ generation. Indeed, the disdain that he expressed was not lost on my father, who actually forbade me to play Dylan’s albums on his phonograph, as if their scathing lyrics might damage the machinery.
Next in top contention for my epigraph were favorite verses from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets:
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
The Nobel Prize-winning poet had completely captured the spirit of my story, as he spoke to how a past, imagined yet never lived, nonetheless persists in memory. The words that echoed in my mind, entrancing and enthralling me since childhood, were all my mother’s words—her stories from a rose-garden, a lovers’ garden, an Eden from which she had been exiled. Perfect. Except for one disturbing thing. Eliot, whose philosophical poetry I adored, was a reputed anti-Semite, as exemplified most clearly in his early work.
Could I comfortably enshrine the verses of an anti-Semite on the opening pages of a volume that I had devoted in large measure to describing the plight of European Jewry in the Holocaust? I struggled with the question. To make Eliot’s voice my book’s first voice felt like treason. A betrayal of the millions who had suffered and died for no other reason than their Jewishness. And yet it grated, in banishing the artist, to have to sacrifice the art – a dilemma far from new to us. We are used to squirming as we read literary classics from times and places in which loathing for the Jewish people was a cultural prejudice quite shamelessly expressed. Surely, I argued with myself, we cannot be expected to reject all the works where Jews appear unfavorably or whose authors are anti-Semites. And what about music? Must we always close our ears to Richard Wagner?
Even now, after months of debate with myself and with others whose opinions I respect, my answers to these questions feel muddled. Before my book went to print, however, and not without regret, I relinquished T. S. Eliot and wondered whether, had I written something different—a physics text on the nature of time, for example—I might have felt more free to honor his creative voice by quoting him in my epigraph.
As it was, in place of Eliot’s verses, I finally chose a cherished line from Thomas Wolfe:
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
It had the virtue of calling to mind for me the loss not only of Roland, but also of my father, who had died before the lovers reunited, and of Hitler’s countless victims. Beyond that, when my son asked me whether Wolfe, as well, might have been a secret anti-Semite, I was happy to assure him that while the great novelist had visited Germany repeatedly in the 1930s, he had publicly denounced the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Retaliating, the Nazis had banned his books in Germany. Wolfe’s longtime lover, I suddenly remembered then, had been a Jewess named Aline Bernstein. To her, “A.B.,” he dedicated his masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel, from which I drew my epigraph with the sense I had arrived at the right place.
German artist Gunter Demnig created these two Stolpersteine in memory of Samuel Sigmar and Alice Berta Gunzburger in 2005. He embedded them in the sidewalk in front of Poststrasse 6, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, the couple’s home until they fled the country with their children in 1938. These “stumbling stones” number among more than 30,000 that Demnig has embedded in countries throughout Europe to memorialize Hitler’s victims — each one individually at the site where he or she had lived before the Holocaust.
In 1989 I accompanied my parents and brother on my mother’s first visit back to her birthplace of Freiburg im Breisgau – a charming medieval city in the Black Forest region of southwest Germany. My mother’s family had fled from their home there in August of 1938, just three months before the terrors of Kristallnacht, and her return trip, more than a half-century later, was sparked by news that the city was reaching out to Jewish former citizens. Hosting a series of annual reunions, Freiburg invited Nazi-era refugees to return for a week of meetings and events aimed at reconciliation and remembrance. At the time I was a correspondent for The New York Times and, in writing about our visit for the paper, forged what would become a lasting friendship with the city’s press secretary, Walter Preker.
About fifteen years later, Walter informed me that a German artist,Gunter Demnig, had launched a remarkable nationwide project in which he was embedding memorial markers into the sidewalks of city streets. Demnig was placing so-called Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” outside the homes where Jews had lived before the Holocaust so that current residents and passersby would be confronted on a daily basis with stark reminders of Hitler’s victims. Each metal-covered “stone” was engraved with the name, birth year, and fate of the former inhabitants of the locations where the stones were set, and Walter wondered whether I would be interested in arranging for Stolpersteine to be placed in front of my grandparents’ Freiburg home at Poststrasse 6. He suggested it might be necessary to obtain permission from the current owners, still the same family, my grandparents’ former neighbors, who had “purchased” it from them at a grossly undervalued price in 1938.
Through work on my book – Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed – I had developed a good relationship with their grandson, Michael Stock. His family had divided the handsome building into five apartments, such that he continued to live there with his mother, along with several tenants. When I called him to broach the issue of the Stolpersteine, Michael raised no objection, and so in 2005, Gunter Demnig memorialized my grandparents, Samuel Sigmar Günzburger and Alice Berta Günzburger, in the sidewalk before the home from which they’d fled.
The following year, the Stolpersteine proved useful in an entirely unexpected way. A French businessman from Lyon, on an extended stay in Freiburg, stopped in surprise when he noticed a familiar name inscribed on two Stolpersteine on the sidewalk where he was strolling. An avid genealogist, he had dedicated a great deal of time and energy to tracing family history, and he immediately recognized Sigmar Günzburger as a relation. Indeed Sigmar’s father had been the brother of his own great-grandfather, which meant that we were cousins. Thanks to the artist’s representative in Freiburg, my enterprising cousin promptly got in contact with me – reconnecting branches of the family separated in the Diaspora of the Nazi years.
In 2007 he hosted a family reunion in Paris, and he graciously insisted that my son go to visit him in Lyon while studying in France in his senior year of college. Meanwhile, my cousin proved indefatigable in his continuing research. He discovered and financed the publication of Hebrew sermons written by a common ancestor, an esteemed eighteenth-century Alsatian rabbi. He organized a family expedition to Freiburg and its environs. And made a pilgrimage of sorts to Gurs, the French detention camp near the Pyrenees to which the Nazis in 1940 deported all the Jews who still remained in Freiburg and other regions near the Rhine. Supportive of my book research, he generously sent me photographs and documents and details of familial roots and shoots on an almost weekly basis.
Shockingly, I would learn that as children in France, his mother and aunt had been turned over to the Nazis by their own school principal. Both girls had been deported to a camp, my cousin told me, and his aunt had perished. Then came a revelation that, after all our previous discourse, somehow proved more shocking still: as a very young man, he had converted to Christianity. His wife was Christian, as were his sons.
He made this known to us one day when, visiting with my mother in her suburban Washington, D.C. apartment, he asked her for a copy of the Bible and read aloud the verses that predicted the coming of the Messiah. If the Jewish sacred text anticipated His arrival, our cousin challenged us, how was it that we failed to recognize that He had already come?
The moment proved awkward, as I struggled for an answer, and my mother gaped in disbelief. What had led this Holocaust survivor’s son, so devoted to Jewish family history, to spurn the faith of the forebears he revered? Was my newfound cousin, grappling with a painful past as I myself was doing, rejecting an identity that had spelled danger for many centuries? While tracing the branches of our tree, it seemed he was denying our common ground. His question lay between us like another sort of stumbling stone, but because I’d come to love him, I chose to step around it.
I met Peter Beinart in 1999 when he was writing an article for The Atlantic on Jewish community day schools. This was long before he became the bête noire of an anxious American Jewish establishment. He was sitting in the front office of The New Jewish High School (now Gann Academy) waiting to speak with the school’s headmaster, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, and we struck up a brief conversation.
I was familiar with his byline from The New Republic where he wrote mostly about American politics and foreign policy. Jewish education was well outside his bailiwick, and I was interested in what his angle would be. When the article was published a few weeks later it was clear that he was conflicted. He described the school’s environment as vibrant, intellectually exciting and mildly subversive (which was meant as a compliment).
His diagnosis of the reasons behind the rising support for day school education among the non-Orthodox (a trend that has since leveled off) reflected the conventional wisdom in a community that had long ago ended its unconditional love affair with the public schools and was struggling to respond to assimilation, a byproduct of the exceptionally hospitable American environment, where Jewishness was increasingly a non-issue.
When my ten year old daughter heads to sleep-away camp this summer she will follow a family tradition that began the summer after World War II. Fearing an outbreak of polio in New York City, my grandparents shipped my father off to Massad, a Hebrew-speaking camp in the Poconos. He was only five years old. My grandmother kept the postcards he mailed home. My dad was just learning to print and his penmanship was atrocious. Still, they weren’t difficult to decipher, and all were virtually identical: “I don’t like it here,” his postcards wailed. “Take me home!”
As a former camp counselor I know that dad’s homesickness was hardly anomalous. But by-and-large, his peers who attended Jewish overnight camps have very fond memories of their summers. Dr. Josh Perelman, the deputy Director of Programming and Museum Historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History recently told me that the section of the museum’s permanent exhibit dedicated to summer camping is easily one of the biggest draws. A section of the museum’s website is devoted to Jewish summer camps and guests are invited to upload their own camp photos and share memories.
When I was researching the origins of Jewish culture camping for The Benderly Boys I was struck by the central role that overnight camps played in the Jewish identity formation of my informants. Decades after the closure of Cejwin Camps, the oldest Jewish culture camp, hundreds of alumni remain connected through an online discussion group and social media. A Camp Massad Facebook group has almost 600 participants. Another venerable overnight camp, Modin, which still thrives in Belgrade, Maine, recently held a 90th anniversary reunion gala at a swanky Manhattan venue with over 500 former campers in attendance. And a 1998 reunion of the oldest Yiddish-speaking camp, Boiberik, drew 450 alums and merited an article in theNew York Times.
I suppose my father’s memories of camp were not all bad. The summer I turned ten, he and my mom signed me up for a month at Camp Massad. I spent three glorious seasons at Massad Bet and would have returned. But dwindling enrollment compelled the camp to close, in 1979, the same year that the Boiberik campgrounds, in Rhinebeck, New York, was sold to a meditation center. Cejwin, which paved the way for camps like Massad, was shuttered a little over a decade later, in 1991.
Various reasons have been given for these camps’ decline. My guess is that the phenomenon can largely be explained by their failure to keep pace with the rapid socio-economic advancement of the Jewish community. As much as I loved Massad, the truth is that the camp facilities were terribly outdated by the 1970s. I doubt that they were ever in mint condition. But whereas an earlier generation was willing to write off overgrown playing fields, dilapidated communal shower houses and leeches in the lake as symptomatic of the camp’s rugged charms, such blemishes could not be overlooked by middle class kids thoroughly acclimated to the creature comforts of suburbia. Certainly not when there were other well-manicured, flashier alternatives competing for the same clientele.
Moreover, the ideological core of these camps — their devotion to Zionism, Hebrew or Yiddish language and culture — did not tug as deeply at the heartstrings of the third generation. By and large, their parents left their immigrant ideologies in Brownsville and Roxbury when they moved to Great Neck and Newton.
My hypothesis is borne out by the opposing fates of Cejwin and Modin. Established within a few years of one another (1919 and 1922, respectively) and sharing some of the same founders, the former catered to a working class clientele and placed Jewish culture front and center, while the latter attracted the children of professionals and businessmen, enticing them with bourgeois activities like horseback riding and (later) waterskiing. In the 1940s and 50s, Cejwin was teeming with campers and seemed to be in permanent expansion mode. But in the long run, Modin’s formula had greater longevity. The same summer that Cejwin closed, the current owners of Modin relocated their high end camp to a first class facility on the picturesque Belgrade Lakes with a state-of-the-art fitness center and recreation pavilion. The 2011 brochure features panoramic views and happy children of privilege, sailing, windsurfing, white water rafting and wall climbing.
Even Orthodox Judaism had gone bourgeois by the 1970s. In the 1980s I worked at Camp Raleigh, the “sports camp in a Torah environment.” Raleigh boasted private showers in each bunk, a gleaming swimming pool, and a pastry chef who’s creations could rival anything one might find at the nearby Grossinger’s resort hotel. A colleague and fellow member of the Massad Diaspora mockingly referred to Raleigh as “Camp Fress,” from the Yiddish word for pigging out. But camps like Raleigh and Seneca Lake embodied the American Jewish zeitgeist of the late twentieth century, the Age of Fress.
Twenty years later, there is a new trend in Jewish camping: the boutique or niche camp. In 2010, the Foundation for Jewish Camp created a camp incubator that facilitated the launching of five non-profit specialty camps, with names like Adamah Adventures and 92Y Passport NYC. The incubator experiment was so successful that plans for a second incubator are well underway. According to the American Camp Association, the Jewish interest in specialty camps mirrors a larger trend in American camping. Rabbi Eve Rudin, a veteran Reform Jewish camp leader and former Director of the Department of Camp Excellence and Advancement at the Foundation for Jewish Camp is positively bullish on the new specialty camps: “Before specialty camps, young people had to chose between their area of interest and their Jewish interests. Too often, they chose to opt out of the Jewish community in order the gain the skills and mentoring they desired. In these new settings, young people can lead Jewish lives, have Jewish experiences and still receive the sophisticated training and opportunities in their areas of interest.”
Individual Jewish summer camps may come and go and the trappings and programs of these camps may adapt to changing times. But the idea of Jewish camping is as fresh and as full of promise for Jewish identity building and personal growth today as it was when the first Jewish culture camps were founded almost a century ago. My daughter will be attending one of the new specialty camps, Eden Village, a religiously pluralistic camp in Putnam Valley, New York, focusing on Jewish environmentalism and organic farming. Like her counterparts twenty, fifty and ninety years ago, she is breathlessly counting the days until summer.
One of the greatest dilemmas I faced while writing The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education was how to refer to the group of Jewish educators who were mentored by New York Bureau of Jewish Education director Samson Benderly. At first glance the answer seemed deceptively simple. Benderly referred to his protégés as my “boys,” and the moniker “Benderly boys” was widely used both by members of the group and their colleagues in the field.
And yet, the appellation is problematic. For one thing, in today’s world the term “boy” or “girl” when used in reference to a grownup has taken on a pejorative, or at the very least, a paternalistic connotation. This usage has largely become anachronistic, a relic of the “Mad Men” and “Driving Miss Daisy” era.
More fundamentally, the term “Benderly boys” is misleading. Although the majority of Benderly’s disciples were men, the group also included a number of women. A few attained leadership positions in schools, community centers, camps and other organizations. And while most voluntarily “retired” after marriage or the birth of their children, a few became career women long before the feminist revolution. Libbie Suchoff Berkson, for example, directed Camp Modin, in Canaan, Maine, while Elsie Simonofsky Chomsky served for many years as the principal of Gratz College‘s well regarded Hebrew teacher’s program, the School of Observation and Practice. Still other women gave up leadership positions but continued to wield influence in the field. Rebecca Aaronson Brickner, who served as Benderly’s veritable right hand during his early years at the New York Bureau, officially left education in 1919 when she married Rabbi Barnett Brickner. But her influence continued to be felt in the religious school of Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue Temple (later called the Fairmount Temple), where her husband spent much of his rabbinical career. Likewise, Mamie Goldsmith Gamoran and Elma Ehrlich Levinger published dozens of religious school textbooks, storybooks and other educational materials years after they supposedly embraced domestic life.
Benderly, apparently, did not hesitate to apply the ‘Benderly boy’ appellation to his female disciples. In my book, I discuss the implications of this curious usage. Benderly reflexively used gender as a marker for his closest disciples. If you fulfilled his criteria, which included studying at Columbia Teachers College, assuming administrative responsibilities at the Bureau or one of its affiliated schools, and attending his daily, early morning schmooze sessions, you were considered one of the boys, regardless of your anatomical make-up. Contemporary scholars, however, have been less sanguine about using the term “Benderly boys,” with some preferring gender neutral terms like “group” or “bunch.”
The term “Bureau bunch” was adopted in the 1910s by the larger team of workers at the New York Bureau, while the inner circle of disciples referred to themselves as Chayil , an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “education is our national foundation,” and a word meaning valor or virtue. While I intersperse the term “Benderly group” throughout the book for the sake of variety, I will admit to finding neither “Bureau bunch” nor Chayil compelling. The latter seemed obscure and, in any event, was confined in the day to an exclusive group of insiders. I wished to cast a wider net. The latter, meanwhile, was irredeemably hokey-sounding, particularly in the ear of one who was raised on a seemingly continuous loop of Brady Bunch reruns.
In the end, I decided to stick with “Benderly boys,” despite its drawbacks, and not merely due to its alliterative appeal. For me, the use of the appellation by Samson Benderly and its embrace by his disciples was decisive. By retaining the term “Benderly boys” I felt that I was at once remaining true to history while also honoring the memories of these men and women. But I did not entirely give up on the desire to problematize the designation. That is why I was thrilled to come across a crisp photograph of Benderly walking arm in arm with three of his closest disciples, including Libbie Berkson, while working at theAmerican Jewish Archives. I knew immediately that it needed to adorn the book’s cover. This photo of Libbie, surrounded by men, but clearly accepted as a full member of the Benderly team, juxtaposed with the book’s title, is purposely discordant and meant to induce perplexity. Here was a case where a picture could truly speak louder than words.
Here is hoping that the publication of The Benderly Boys (along with Carol Ingall’s 2010 volume, The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education) helps to encourage a rediscovery of Benderly’s “girls.”
What happens when the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, the Ninth of Av, which memorializes the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, coincides with you learning about the U.S. women’s victory at the 1996 Olympics, arguably the happiest gymnastics moment in my twenty-year relationship with the sport? Should I cry for the Temple? Or flip for the Magnificent Seven?
Unfortunately, the rabbis never bothered with these (and other) questions in their responsa. I was forced to answer them on my own (I flipped and then felt guilty about it, thus covering both my Jewish and gymnastics bases).
The text above is a snippet from the introduction to Heresy on the High Beam. In it, I allude to a story that I never ended up writing out (though I did tell it at my Leotard Optional book launch party, which was just like a “black tie” event except with a lot more spandex). Since I didn’t include the anecdote in any of the essays, I’m giving it away for free here.
During the summer of 1996, I was at sleepaway camp in upstate New York. This camp, a place I attended for nine summers, had strict rules about correspondence — letters only. You weren’t allowed to receive care packages nor were you allowed to make or take phone calls from your parents. This was only feasible in a pre-cellphone, pre-internet age. I know that I’m dating myself here but I don’t mind. I’ll even do the math for you — I’m 29. (Can someone tell me how it works at camps nowadays? Do kids check in on Foursquare when they arrive at the dining hall? And what does the mayor of the mess get? An extra cup of bug juice?)
Anyway, back then I was 13 and was quite sad to be missing the broadcast of theSummer Olympics from Atlanta. The 1996 Olympic Team was my Dream Team, comprised of athletes I had followed ever since I started doing gymnastics at age 8, including Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and Kerri Strug. I demanded regular letter updates from my mother back in Brooklyn to know what was going on in the gymnastics competition. She also sent me information about the platform diving since it was similar enough to gymnastics to merit my attention.
During the waning hours of the Ninth of Av, which for Jews is the saddest day on the calendar because it is when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, I was summoned to the camp office. Weak from fasting, I trudged over. “You’ve got a phone call,” I was told. “It’s your mother. She said she needs to talk to you about your scoliosis.”
I took the phone, utterly confused. Though my scoliosis had already been diagnosed, my mother and I were both under the impression that it was minor. (In a few months, however, we’d discover that it was severe and would require spinal fusion surgery. But I digress.) Why would she be calling me about that, I wondered.
“Mom?” I said.
“They won!” my mother practically shouted into the phone.
“The Americans! They won the gold medal!” she yelled.
In the background, I could hear my older sister add her two cents. “Tell her about Kerri Strug on the vault!”
This, as many of you probably recall, was the famous vault on a sprained ankle that the squeaky-voiced (and Jewish) Strug did to the bellowing chants of “You can do it!” from her Romanian coach, Bela Karolyi. She vaulted, stuck it and then had to be carried off the podium, helping clinch the first ever team gold medal for the U.S. (Actually, it turned out that they didn’t need her score after all of the numbers were crunched. They would’ve defeated the Russians even if they needed to count a fall from Dominique Moceanu. But forget I mentioned that. Math ruins stories.)
“I wanted to tell you myself,” my mom said, explaining her deception in gettingme to the phone, which I obviously couldn’t openly signal in any way since a campadministrator was watching me carefully. I thanked her tonelessly and hung up.
There was still an hour left to the fast and I had been taught at camp that I should feel sad because the Temple was still burning, at least in a historical sense, and would be for several hours, even after we’d been given the OK to eat.
But as I walked along the path back to my bunk, I wasn’t remotely sad. I was happy, jubilant even. My earlier lethargy had been replaced by joy. I started to skip. Then I stopped. Then I started again. I couldn’t help it. My gymnastics idols had won the gold!
I tried a few more times to rein my feelings in and feel sad for something that happened over two thousand years prior but I couldn’t, not when something so wonderful happened less than 24 hours earlier. And I was so touched that my mother, who used to complain endlessly about driving me to and from gymnastics practice, had gone so far as to lie to tell me about the gold medal as soon as possible.That, I thought, is what family is all about.
And, two days later, the entire newspaper arrived in the mail.
As a writer, I’ve paid scant attention to the images that accompany my work. I’m usually too preoccupied with the phrasing and timing of jokes to fret over the all-important. That’s why one of my websites looks like this. (I hope you didn’t just die of purple.)
I’m not at all trying to downplay the importance of art in storytelling. I’m simply admitting to my own deficit in this department. And I would’ve probably gone on not caring about the visual component to my work had it not been for Margarita Korol, the urban pop artist that who created the vibrant cover to my new book, Heresy on the High Beam.
Allow me to backtrack for a moment. I met Margarita while I was an intern at Tablet, where she creates illustrations that accompany many of the articles. Almost right away, I decided I liked her when I realized she wore earrings as big as mine. Yes, a big pair of hoops is all it takes to secure my friendship.
After my internship was over we met up for coffee at my behest. I had an ideaI wanted to discuss with her and needed her visual expertise. I had just been called “The Anti-Girlfriend” by a guy, a former flame, to which I responded, “Because just like the antichrist, I’m Jewish and I have curly hair?” Next, I did exactly what anyone in my shoes would’ve done—bought the domain and resolved to create a website by the same name.
Well, you might be wondering, what’s art got to do with it? I was wondering thesame thing myself. For some reason, the notion that this site should have a strong visual storytelling component got stuck in my head. It might’ve had something to do with all the graphic novels I was reading at the time.
Thankfully, Margarita was game and we started working on dating comics for the site. I would send her dialogue sets and she would return with comics that far exceeded anything I had imagined when I jotted my thoughts down. She didn’t merely illustrate—she improved the stories with her visuals and sometimes edited my words for the better.
Plus, the collaboration was fun. As a freelance writer, you spend so much time working alone with little input from others that it was wonderful to pool my ideas with another creative person who possesses similar sensibilities.
Obviously, Margarita was the natural choice to create the cover for my essay collection. When asked what went into creating the vibrant image that introduced the text, she responded, “Heresy on the High Beam channeled some of my favorite things: a strong female lead, ethnic struggle, and a Lisa Frank palette.”
She forgot to mention big earrings. I guess that’ll have to wait until our next collaboration.
When you tell someone that you used to do gymnastics, she frequently answers that she, too, did it. When she was seven. And hadn’t thought about it in years. The implication is clear — gymnastics is the sort of sport you’re supposed to outgrow. In most instances, you start doing it before you know how to sign your own name and it’s over by your first adolescent growth spurt, joining the childhood hobby trash heap, which in my case includes rollerblading and playing with Barbie dolls.
But in my case, I couldn’t seem to shake the sport unlike the rest of my practice peers, who ended their involvement with gymnastics by the end of high school. There I was, about to start grad school in Creative Nonfiction at twenty-three, still checking the online message boards devoted to the sport daily in order to learn which Romanian gymnast had a new vault or who was injured and or who quit and so on. (The gymnastics community, both online and in real life, is especially tight knit for the same reasons that Jews tend to cluster together — there are so few of us who give a damn.)
As I was trying to figure out the topic for the first essay I wanted to write for my workshop, my mind drifted to the sport, which I hadn’t really written about much (even if I talked about it ad nauseum and watched YouTube videos of competitions from two decades prior merely to admire the way a particular Soviet pointed her toes). Hey, I said to myself, I’m still as obsessed with gymnastics in my 20s as I was at seven. In a very Seinfeldian way, I wondered — What’s that about?
So I wrote my first essay exploring the role of the sport in my life. Like Genesis, I started at the beginning, or at least what I thought was the beginning — my seemingly coming-out-of-nowhere obsession with gymnastics. In those earliest examinations, it seemed like I had woken up one day and decided that I must learn how to flip over my hands. It was a pretty unsophisticated piece, both in writing and insight, and thankfully none of it made its way into any formally published work.
But even in those early efforts, what was becoming very clear was the role that my family’s strict observance of Orthodox Jewish rules was playing in my participation in the sport and how it added fuel to the fire of my obsession. There was the fact that I couldn’t go to a real competitive gym because their afterschool classes started too early for someone with the longer hours of a yeshiva student. Or that leotards posed a religious problem to someone who wore only skirts and longer sleeved skirts outside of the gym. And nearly all competitions took place on Shabbos. When it came to the lower level ones, I simply wasn’t allowed to compete. As for the elite, televised ones—I had to learn how to program the VCR so I could eventually watch them after the stars came out on Saturday night. All of these limitations imposed by Judaism simply made me want to do and think about the sport even more. I like to imagine that if I had been totally unfettered by religious doctrine, I probably would’ve left the sport behind when it became apparent that I simply wasn’t any
good at it.
During one after class drinking sessions at a local bar, my workshop professor, who had been subjected to a semester-long barrage of gymnastics, tipsily looked me in the eye and said, “You’ve got this whole Potok thing going on. Except with a weird thing about gymnastics.”
While my personal essay collection, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, bears little resemblance to Potok’s novels—fiction vs. nonfiction, male vs. female protagonists, different eras—I’d like to think that perhaps had Potok been enamored with gymnastics instead of the national pastime then maybe Reuven Malter, the main character in The Chosen, would’ve hit his head on the balance beam instead of getting nailed in the eye by a baseball. That would’ve been cool.