Monthly Archives: December 2013

Obscene Recommendations

unclean-lipsSome of the literary works I deal with in Unclean Lips are relatively well-known—Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1935) and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), for example, are two of the most widely read novels by and about American Jews. But some of them even most scholars haven’t heard of.

Here’s a short recommended reading and listening list, in case you’re eager to learn more about the literary encounters of American Jews with taboo language and explicit discussions of sex.

1. Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot (1974), an extraordinary novel about an obese Jewish prostitute in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s brutally, unsparingly frank, and radically feminist, too—and it earns a mention in Ruth Wisse’s The Modern Jewish Canon.

2. Theodore Dreiser’s The Hand of the Potter (1918), a four-act play by one of the most prominent (non-Jewish) American authors of the early 20th century, which tells the tale of a young Jewish man who can’t resist raping and murdering little girls. (It’s actually not anti-Semitic.)

3. Some people remember Robert Rimmer’s novel The Harrad Experiment (1966), which was marketed as “the sex manifesto of the free love generation” and sold millions of copies. But people don’t tend to remember how much of the novel focuses on a Jewish character, Harry Schacht, and his traditional Jewish family. (Turns out his great-grandmother posed for nude photographs.)

4. The short stories by the American Yiddish playwright David Pinski that were translated into English under the title of Temptations in 1919 were censored thanks to the efforts of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. But you can read the book online now, including Pinski’s story about the time that Rabbi Akiva had to resist a couple of prostitutes sent to seduce him.

5. Lenny Bruce wasn’t the only Jewish comedian who got busted on obscenity charges; in the same years, Belle Barth was telling filthy stories on stage, with some punchlines in English, some in Yiddish. You can hear her circa 1960 album If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends online, and don’t worry if you don’t speak Yiddish: “There’s only two words you need to know in the Yiddishe language,” she tells her audience, “and that’s gelt and shmuk: ’cause if a man has no gelt, he is.”

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on December 20, 2013

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

Is “Schmuck” a Dirty Word?

One of the points I make in my book is that what’s dirty in Yiddish isn’t always dirty in English, and vice versa. Here’s one example that I didn’t have space to include in its entirety.

At Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trial in Los Angeles, in February 1963, a Yiddish-speaking police sergeant named Sherman Block translated, for the jury’s benefit, a few of the Yiddish words Bruce had used in his act. What Sherman said, among other things, was that “throughout his narration, suspect [Bruce] interjected the terms ‘shmuck’ and ‘putz,’ which are Yiddish, and mean ‘penis.'”

Bruce disagreed. On the 1965 album Lenny Bruce Is Out Again, he countered:

Shmuk! The word shmuk is a German word. And it means literally in German a man’s decoration. Emes, a boutonniere, a lapel watch. I don’t think, uh—in a Yiddish dictionary, the Harkov [sic] dictionary, it says shmuk: ‘A yard, a fool.’ So there we have the literal—I don’t think the colloquial—any Jew gave it a different inference: ‘You’re acting like a man’s penis.’ I’m not going to be a penis anymore, let Nate be the penis from now on. So shmuk don’t mean shmuk, except to some putz who digs it.

Bruce was a comedian, not a linguist, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is funnier than it is, uh, true. Here’s the relevant entry from Alexander Harkavy’s 1928 Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary:

To native speakers of Yiddish, “shmuk” still has just as much power to offend as “cojones” does in Spanish, or as “cock” or “prick” do in English. But that didn’t stop the word from becoming increasingly prominent in all sort of English-language publications since the 1960s. Here’s the Google n-gram:

You can say “shmuck” in English now on the radio, on billboards, even on a television station as squeaky clean as QVC. So, is it a dirty word or a clean word? Simply depends on who’s listening.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on December 19, 2013

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 Best Overlooked American Jewish Novelist

Stephen DixonStephen Dixon is, in my opinion, the best and most overlooked American Jewish fiction writer in the country. If I left out “Jewish,” he would still be the best. He has just published his 32nd book, a novel entitled His Wife Leaves Him, which is partly based on the death of his own beloved wife. Like Philip Roth,Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Beller, Jennifer Belle, Jonathan Lethem,Bruce Jay Friedman, and such predecessors as Saul Bellow,Henry RothIsaac Bashevis Singer, Daniel Fuchs, Grace PaleyTillie Olsen, and Wallace Markfield, Dixon’s Jewishness is not an orthodox or institutional one, but simply a fact that informs and haunts much of his work. It is hard to understand Dixon’s obscurity; he’s a two-time National Book Award finalist and has won four O. Henry Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award. In 1994 the Boston Globe wrote that “It will take writers twenty years to catch up with what Stephen Dixon is doing.”

His output is mind-boggling: in addition to his novels, he has published hundreds of stories and is completing a new book, Late Stories, with hundreds more. Nevertheless, Dixon is not about quantity or longevity. Dixon is about freshness and quality. Among his gifts—which include narrative inventiveness without a trace of pretension or convolution, a hilarious sense of humor, and a memory that seems to evoke every single thing that has ever happened to him—he writes the most moving and lasting love stories I have ever read. Among them are his immortal story Sleepin which the narrator imagines, with infinite pain and loss, the death of his wife.

And now we have in His Wife Leaves Him, perhaps the most complete love story ever written in the history of American letters. And it too is a story told in the face of death. Martin’s wife, still young, is diagnosed with a degenerative disease that, over the years, is unrelentingly cruel and ultimately fatal. I am certain that American literature has never created a husband who gives of himself so deeply, so fully, taking care of his wife even to the point of physical exhaustion. And it is a story told without false sentimentality or embellishment, which renders it all the more touching and believable.

Martin Samuels, the protagonist, has spent the first forty years of his life bumbling about—as a bartender, actor, reporter, wanderer in Paris, but always a dedicated writer—in search of a true love.

When he encounters Gwen, he finds everything he has been looking for: a truly beautiful, gentle but strong woman of exquisite kindness, sensitivity and literary sensibility, a person of the highest moral standards who shares his values and passions and is ready to start the family he has been yearning for.

She is a translator of the Russian literature he reveres, with a profound knowledge of the literature of the Gulag, Nazism and the inspiration of the Soviet Jewry movement. And she is Jewish, not a small matter to him. Gwen says, “Though I’m by no means a religious or observant Jew—at most, I’ll buy a box of egg matzos for Passover, though I’ll continue to eat bread and rice over the holiday—my Jewish identity is very strong and important to me because of my family history. In fact, the reason I’ve never been seriously involved with Gentile men since high school, or really only one and not for long, is because I never felt they could understand my experience of growing up as the daughter of Holocaust survivors.”

Although he is Jewish, he has not dated a Jewish woman seriously before. “That’s why I said before,” he tells her, “that I was glad you were Jewish. Fact is, for want of a better word this moment—maybe because I am so thrilled—I’m thrilled.” Everything about Gwen fills Martin with gratitude, and it will be a procreative life filled with their children, beautiful environments (Maine, Riverside Drive) and a passionate immersion in creative work—work they both engage in. Martin cries at his own wedding. His mother says, “It shows how sensitive you are and how much she means to you. I’m only saying I never saw or heard of any groom doing it before, and I’ve been to plenty of weddings. I can just imagine how you’ll react when your first baby comes out and you’re in the room.” This kind of dialogue, affectionate, funny and sad, richly steeped in a lived history, is totally representative of Dixon.

The novel is a summing up of the totality of a marriage, its incredible joys, epiphanies, smoldering sensuality, tenderness and moments of frustrated rage as Martin is engulfed, in the later stage of the marriage, in an endless round, night and day, of ministering to Gwen in her terrifying decline. And Dixon summons Gwen back to life unforgettably through her dialogue, and we see a precious person, a brilliant character, rendered real and palpable.

It’s hard to believe that Dixon’s encyclopedic memory has left a single thing out of this account of an extraordinary marriage. Dixon manages it not only through memory, but with a particularly intimate, vulnerable style of writing, a writing of deep feeling in which nothing is held back, even though it is artfully shaped and the ordinary details and tedium of life are transmuted by a master novelist. Dixon is an obsessed writer (great ones usually are) but he is not solipsistic; his work encompasses everyone he encounters and paints with vivid colors. He blankets the reader with specifics, but specifics so unique and compelling that they have universality. His work will stand as a penetrating record of what a man’s love for a woman can be, and what it means to be a humane, sensitive, flawed, passionate participant in life in our time.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on December 18, 2013

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

Can We Print “Motherfucker” Here?

By | Tagged

curb your enthusiasmThere’s a little experiment I’d like to try, knowing that this blog post will be published by the Jewish Book Council and a MyJewishLearning blog.

The following is a passage from the conclusion of my book, describing the third season finale of Larry David’s television show Curb Your Enthusiasm, which aired in 2002:

The episode centers on the grand opening of a restaurant in which David’s fictional character, also called Larry David, has invested. In the middle of the meal, the chef, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and cooks in an open kitchen, involuntarily shouts a string of taboo words: “Fuck-head, shit-face, cocksucker, asshole, son-of-a-bitch.” A strained silence descends, and David recalls a group of high school students he saw earlier in the episode who had all shaved their heads in solidarity with a classmate undergoing chemotherapy. He decides to act on the students’ example, showing his support for the chef by mimicking his behavior, bellowing, “Scum-sucking, motherfucking whore!” David’s assembled friends and loved ones follow suit: “Cock, cock, jizzum, grandma, cock. . . . Bum, fuck, turd, fart, cunt, piss, shit, bugger, and balls. . . . Dammit, hell, crap, shit. . . . Fellatio, cunnilingus, French kissing, rimjob.” David’s father on the show, played by the veteran comedian Shelley Berman, chimes in to add a set of Yiddish taboo words—“Shmuk, putz, tukhis-lekher”—to the episode’s catalog of obscenities before the camera zooms in on David’s satisfied face, and the episode comes to an end.

What I’d like to know is whether the two websites who are scheduled to publish this post will reproduce the taboo language in the post’s title and in that quotation. Will they bowdlerize this with dashes or stars or other symbols? Will they euphemize words like “motherfucker” and “cunt,” but leave in words like “bum” and “fart” and “putz”? Will they print a warning at the top of the post, alerting readers that taboo language follows (and, if so, how will they phrase that warning)? Or will they refuse to publish the piece entirely, to avoid having to make finer decisions about taboo language?

I don’t mean to be disrespectful to two publications who have been kind to offer to publish my writing (and for whom I’m written before). Not at all. But one of the conversations I’m interested in starting with my book is precisely about what is fit to print now, today, and how Jews feel about that.

I’m not exactly a free-speech absolutist, thought I often feel that it’s pretty silly when The New York Timesbends itself out of shape to avoid printing four-letter words, or when This American Life makes an announcement every time one of its radio stories with even “mention the existence of sex.” But I now have a three-and-a-half-year-old at home who is linguistically precocious, and I understand better than I did when I started writing my book why some people might feel uncomfortable when taboo language spews forth from a newspaper that shows up at the front door, or a radio program that goes out to millions of homes on weekend afternoons. I understand that every publication has to make decisions—not just once, but continually—about what is appropriate to publish, and what isn’t.

That’s why I think it might be interesting to see how the taboo language above is reproduced.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on December 18, 2013

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

How Did You Come to Write That Book, Anyway?

unclean-lipsIt’s a completely reasonable question, though generally people have been asking it a little shyly: “Why did you want to write a book about Jews and obscenity?” The implicit question, I think, is “I know you’re Jewish—are you also some kind of perv?”

I don’t quite accept the terms of that second, implied question—I’m sex-positive, and don’t cotton to the stigmatizing of responsible, thoughtful people who are into, say, polyamory or BDSM—and I’m also quite sure that the last thing I’d do if I did have some outlandish and/or shameful sexual tastes would be to announce them in the Q&A after an book event at a JCC or synagogue. Or here.

But the real explanation as to why I wrote Unclean Lips is simpler: I discovered the works of Philip Roth as a teenager, loved them, eventually read all of them, imitated them, and then went to get a PhD in English with the intention of writing about them. When I got to grad school, my advisor, hearing that I’m Canadian, recommended that I read Adele Wiseman’s 1974 novel Crackpot, which turned out to be the brutally frank story of an obese Jewish prostitute in Winnipeg.

As I kept reading, I found myself asking, “Why are so many of these great writers so obsessed with both Jewishness and sex?” And, wondering about that, I decided to read up on the history of the representation of sex in American literature in general. In books like Edward De Grazia’s magisterial Girls Lean Back Everywhere and Walter Kendrick’s brilliant The Secret Museum, I quickly came across cases including Rosen v. US (1896), Roth v. US (1957), Ginsberg v. NY (1968), and Cohen v. California (1971). And, naturally, I wondered about all those names, which were more or less identical with the names of the kids who had gone to Jewish Day School with me.

Who were these people, and why did they keep ending up on the wrong side of the law of obscenity? Were there any connections between these legal defendants named Roth, Ginsberg, and Cohen, and the literary writers named Roth, Ginsberg, and Cohen whose works I had been reading? It was hard to tell. The historians, literary scholars, and lawyers who wrote about obscenity in American culture, like De Grazia and Kendrick, didn’t say much about who the namesakes of those cases were.

I wanted to know more. That’s what got me started on the reading and research that led me to write Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity, and American Culture.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on December 16, 2013

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

Is Revenge Justice?

sacred housekeepingA sixteen-year-old boy, driving drunk, killed four people. His attorneys cited “affluenza” as the cause of his recklessness and recommended treatment, not confinement. Affluenza is the term used to describe youngsters who are out of control as a result of wealthy indulgent parents who set no limits or consequences.

The judge sentenced him to ten years’ probation and treatment for his alcoholism. Her decision has attracted a lot of attention. The victim’s families are outraged, demanding justice. Would a poor or minority teen have escaped incarceration? Was justice bought? Is punishment justice? Is justice subjecting everyone equally to the harshest punishment?

My experience with youngsters afflicted with affluenza shapes my opinion that this is an enlightened judge and a reasonable sentence. Good treatment and community service can teach this young man responsibility and remorse, allowing him to redeem himself through a life of service to others. Incarceration, revenge and punishment would merely reinforce his sense of entitlement and victimization, the cause of his irresponsible actions.

Enlightened consequences to criminal and irresponsible actions should be equally applied, regardless of wealth or the best defense attorneys. This to me, is more just than subjecting everyone to a system of punitive confinement that is equally ineffective. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on December 13, 2013

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

Happy Merry Christmas, Ma’am! On Being Jewish in a Strange Land

Jenny FeldonUntil I moved to India, I’d never viewed being Jewish as something unusual. I grew up in an upper middle class Boston suburb, where Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were public school holidays for the entire district. The cafeterias in middle school and high school served matzoh all week long every Passover. We grew up thinking that Hanukkah was just as big of a deal as Christmas.

After college, in New York City, my husband and I synagogue-hopped with friends during the High Holy Days and ate kosher Chinese with his Orthodox cousins in Queens. We were as easily, transparently Jewish as we were young and ambitious and naive about the world. We took our religion, and the community that came with it, for granted. We didn’t know any better. We had never been “other.” I couldn’t even imagine what that felt like…until “other” became the very essence of my relationship with the world around me.

In India, we were seen as different the minute we stepped off the airplane. Hyderabad hadn’t yet experienced the influx of Westerners so many other Indian cities had. Seventy percent Muslim, the city had wanted to secede and become part of Pakistan (look on a map and you’ll see why such a wish was impossible). We were not only white; we were Jewish in a predominantly Muslim city. I saw women in burkas and felt even more like an outsider than I had just being an American in India.

But no one we met knew what “Jewish” was. As white people, we were automatically categorized as Christian. My driver, Venkat, with limited education and English skills but endless enthusiasm for learning about Western culture, simply could not wrap his head around the fact that Jay and I went to temple to observe our faith. The only temples he knew were Hindu; the only white people he knew went to church.

During the holidays, strangers would stop us on the street and shout “Happy Merry Christmas, Sir and Ma’am!” We received dozens of Christmas cards and gifts from friends and colleagues. It was clear our new community wanted to celebrate with us, but most attempts we made to explain “Jewish” and “Hanukkah” were met with confusion. We were Western, therefore we must celebrate Christmas. End of story. In the end, we stopped trying to swim upstream and graciously accepted our Merry Christmas wishes and bouquets of daisies dyed red and green.

Indian Shul

It wasn’t until we traveled to Kerala and visited the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi that I realized how deep and intrinsic Judaism was to my identity—and how much I’d missed feeling connected to my faith. Located in “Jew Town,” the orthodox Paradesi synagogue is one of only a handful of functioning synagogues in all of India and one of the only ones with a minyan. No rabbi is present, but their services are led by community elders.

Setting foot in that synagogue, in the middle of India, I felt home in a way I still can’t quite describe. Even though we were still so firmly and obviously in India, a sense of home washed over me like warm, calming rain. I looked at the Hebrew letters with eyes that had grown accustomed to Sanskrit and Hindi and felt connected again to a part of me I’d been ignoring since we left the United States. Being Jewish wasn’t just about what I believed, but an intrinsic part of who I was.

It was truly amazing how this religion I’d often neglected, had taken for granted or passed over in favor of working and playing and being young in New York, had suddenly grounded me in faith and familiarity right in the middle of a country I’d been struggling for months to find my place in. India, so foreign and beautiful and confusing, was also—at least for that moment, in that tiny, ancient white synagogue in Kerala’s Jew Town—a place that felt like home.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on December 13, 2013

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

You Don’t Have to Be an Addict to Be in Recovery

Sacred HousekeepingThirty years ago I was drawn to a classified ad in the LA Times looking for a Social Worker with an MSW to visit Jewish convicts in county jails, state and federal penitentiaries – the perfect position for a nice Jewish girl addicted to bad boys.

I “fell in love” with the process of transformation and became addicted to redemption. It has become a parallel process – becoming whole within myself as I experienced the extreme dichotomies as the “bad boys and girls” in jail.

I found a teaching in Judaism that defined my mission:

A great Rabbi’s disciples asked him how he could so readily understand the problems of gamblers and thieves and other troubled men and women who came from the darker places of life. The rabbi explained:

“When they come I listen hard to them. I look deep into their eyes and I discover that their weaknesses are reflections of my own. It is not that I have done what they have done but I sense within me their lusts, desires, weaknesses, temptation. I find in them, myself… Once there was a man who came to me with confessions of his transgressions and though I listened attentively I could find nothing whatsoever that I had in common with him. There was nothing of his sins that were in me. Then I knew the truth: I must be hiding something within myself of which I was not fully conscious.”

I, too, alternated between extremes. I victimized myself, imprisoned in a repetitive cycle of saving the world or destroying myself. I started and abandoned projects, ideas, Gurus and relationships. I was fat or thin, grandiose or self-pitying, in love or in bed.

My spiritual awakening was my conscious decision to hear the call to mission as Divinely ordained. My challenge was to sustain the ordained. I have done that for 30 years, one day at a time. In 1985 I wrote to the Federal Emergency Management Act (under the auspices of Gateways Hospital) for a one-time grant to buy an old house in downtown Los Angeles for men and women coming out of prison who were otherwise homeless. I called it Beit T’Shuvah – the House of Return and Redemption. Today it is a thriving faith-based recovery community for people addicted to substances, dangerous behavior and all the rest of us recovering from the human condition of brokenness. From my point of view – you are either in recovery or denial.

My professional training and experience taught me to diagnose and pathologize the necessary existential angst of the search for wholeness and meaning. We medicate essential suffering with pills or the distractions of quick fixes.

My search for wholeness, answering the question, which is the real me and how do I get rid of the other one? was answered by the Jewish wisdom tradition. Judaism teaches that humans are created with opposing inclinations – yetzer tov and yetzer hara. The “AHA!” moment was the belief that both are from God. The Good Inclination is Good, and the Evil Inclination is VERY Good. The key to wholeness is action. Action is the ignition switch – one sacred action at a time, no matter what you feel.

My first sacred action was making my bed as an antidote to existential despair – what’s the point? why bother? Sacred living is choosing life, one action at a time – choosing to bless and not to curse life. What I have learned in the last 30 years is that everything that matters requires maintenance – your health, your appearance, your environment, your relationships, and your thoughts and feelings.

I wrote a book and called it Sacred Housekeeping. It is a spiritual memoir, my search for wholeness. It carries the message that we are all BROKEN by Divine design and need to recover our wholeness. Peak moments and epiphanies evaporate quickly. Holiness is found in tackling the mess, clutter, and imperfections of life. That is Sacred Housekeeping.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on December 11, 2013

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

How I Became an Accidental Housewife—and Ignored the Labels

karma-gone-badI was sitting on the couch in my tiny apartment, trying to decide between takeout Thai and takeout sushi for dinner, when my husband walked in with a strange, glazed look in his eyes and announced we were moving to India.

India, the country.

We were newlyweds. I was finishing my graduate degree and dreamily planning a future that involved a writing career, a couple of kids, and a brownstone in Brooklyn, not necessarily in that order. My life was defined by the categories I fit into: a writer, a newlywed, a city girl. Being a housewife in a foreign country ten thousand miles from home was not supposed to be one of them.

Still, I’d promised to love and trust and follow my husband to the ends of the earth. I got my diploma, quit my job, and stepped onto an airplane with my eyes wide shut, naive and ill-prepared for the journey I was about to take.

Everything I did in my new role as an expat housewife was wrong. My attempts to fit into my new culture were awkward and half-hearted. I spent too much money on groceries ($20 dollars for an expired jar of Ragu pasta sauce), let the laundry pile up, stared sullenly into space at my husband’s work dinners instead of being the charming, sunny corporate wife I thought I’d be. Without my job and my city to define me, I became nobody, a parasitic hanger-on in a very foreign world. The new categories I’d imagined for myself—housewife, jet-setter—turned out to not fit so well. And without those labels to define me, I lost myself.

Except “lost” isn’t the right word. India taught me a lesson about identity that was equal parts painful, profound, and life-changing: I hadn’t really known myself at all. I was so busy painting a picture of who I thought I was supposed to be, a set of perfect labels to live up to, that I never learned to look in the mirror and see who that person actually was.

When I set myself free from all those labels—even the ones I loved, like writer and daughter and wife—I began to understand the bigger picture. I learned to blur the lines between those black-and-white boxes I’d spent much of my life believing I needed to fit into.

With so much debate about “leaning in,” and the insurmountable tasks of finding balance and having it all that have become part of today’s conversation, I look back on the lessons I learned in India, and I am grateful. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to choose one of the different worlds you actually float between.

Fitting snugly into the “housewife” box or the “expat” box didn’t happen for me. And, later on, the “mother” box and the “writer” box didn’t turn out to be perfect fits either, though I’d spent my whole life dreaming they would be. Those roles are largely defined by what we make of them, not what the fine print reads on the official descriptions. Sense of self comes from the choices we make and the things we do. When I stopped fighting against all the things I wasn’t, and the things India wasn’t, and learned to celebrate the things we were, I became whole again.

As it turned out, I didn’t need to choose between being a writer and a housewife, or to give up loving New York City in order to love Hyderabad, too. A little bit mango, a little Big Apple, a little bit “write”” and a little bit “maker of awesome turkey lasagna”: the real me was a collection of the pieces I’d chosen to be.

As a part-time working mom, I struggle to justify my choices and balance my priorities, but the essential first step is to know and remain true to myself. I still consider myself a part-time housewife, even though I never did learn to roast a chicken or iron my husband’s shirts. I have a career—not identical to the one I’d have if I dedicated all my resources to working, but one that makes me feel successful and fulfilled. I am a mother—not the same one I’d be if I dedicated all my resources to parenting, but still a mother I’m proud to have become.

Getting on that plane to India and becoming an accidental housewife changed my life forever, and in more ways than one. I learned lessons about expectations, and sacrifice, and perspective. But losing myself in India, and then finding myself again, was the best part of my journey. My path toward self-discovery remains fluid and perpetual, but my choices aren’t black or white anymore. Now when I look in the mirror, I can see the small parts as they come together to make up my whole.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on December 11, 2013

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

Lithuania’s Past and Present

Kenneth Bonert

Kenneth Bonert

In my last blog post, I recounted the background of Yiddish linguist Dovid Katz, who has been reporting on troubling manifestations of neo-fascism in Lithuania today. In my talk with him via Skype from Vilnius, I began to better grasp that the key to the understanding of the Shoah in Lithuania lay in the year-long Soviet occupation that preceded it, in 1940-41.

Essentially the genocide of Lithuania’s Jews was powered by an explosion of nationalist anti-Semitism that fatally conflated all Jews with the hated communists. The killing began as soon as the Soviets withdrew, when hundreds of brutal pogroms broke out. Lithuanian militia units, wearing white armbands, also started to round up and massacre the Jews, to enact anti-Jewish edicts on behalf of the new Lithuanian authority that quickly took control. As Timonthy Snyder, history professor at Yale, put it, in a 2012 New York Review of Books article, “A provisional Lithuanian government, composed of the Lithuanian extreme right, introduced its own anti-Semitic legislation and carried out its own policies of murdering Jews, explaining to Lithuanians that Bolshevik rule had been the fault of local Jews, and that destroying them would restore Lithuanian authority.”

The Nazis were popularly welcomed as rescuers, often with flowers; within weeks they had dissolved the Lithuanian’s provisional government and taken full control. Under German authority, Lithuanian volunteers continued to carry out the genocide. The Germans were so impressed with the enthusiasm of their Lithuanian killers that they used some of them to murder Jews in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.

It must be said there were also hundreds of heroic individual Lithuanians who risked their lives to save Jews; but in general, Lithuania was about as bad a place as it could possibly get for a Jew in the latter half of 1941.

Since the accusation that “the Jews” sided with the Soviet occupiers in 1940 and somehow deserved their fate still surfaces when wading into the historical literature, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Lithuanian Jews were in fact not communists, and that they too suffered, even disproportionately so, under the Soviets. In any case, if Soviet crimes were the real issue, than those individual Lithuanian citizens who collaborated in them, Jewish or otherwise, could have been arrested for trial by the provisional government. But that was obviously not the intent ­– the dispossession and elimination of an entire ethnic minority, long viewed with suspicion, clearly was, with probably a quarter of the victims being children.

What Katz has drawn my attention to, is how post-communist Lithuanian governments have not only failed to seriously prosecute their own war criminals, but have in some cases heaped honours on the very men responsible for the slaughter. Their names grace streets and parks and monuments; these days the white armbanders are often lionized as fighters for Lithuanian independence. In mid-2012 the then-government even flew the remains of the provisional government’s leader – a rabid anti-Semite whose signature helped lay the groundwork for the genocide – back to Lithuania, to give him a state funeral, complete with honour guard and archbishop in tow.

The reason behind this, as Katz sees it, is the nation’s need for symbols of resistance, especially to the Russians. The fact these so-called heroes who fought for independence also have hands dripping with innocent Jewish blood is an inconvenience that needs to be glossed over.

On the website he edits, Katz has steadily documented this move to whitewash the ugly side of the country’s past. “I regard this work to be sacred,” he said. “I believe, maybe naively, not as a Don Quixote, but in a very serious way that . . . these guys should not get away with rewriting history without opposition.”

For me, the influence of history is often an uncomfortable one. It brings the burden of old hatreds, of an upwelling of profound sadness. But for Katz, history is a kind of life force for which he is the conduit. His father was a Yiddish poet. At fifty-six now, he has spent his life working to keep the Yiddish language alive. In a way this new task of what he calls defending history, is the same process: he is speaking up for those who have no mouths, for the heaped skulls buried in the silent forests. Don’t let them forget what happened to us. Doing what he can to make sure there is a place in the record for the ghosts of the murderers to have their say, no matter how tiny and breathless their faint cries may be now to our distant living ears.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on December 5, 2013

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