In 1986, I was 41 years old, and life was pretty good. I had it all: professionally satisfied, rabbi of a very large congregation, a terrific wife, four young children, two girls, two boys, expecting our fifth in three months. In my business, “the rabbi business” some 13 years post-ordination, I was convinced I had seen it all: the continuum, life, death and everything in between. And as a “Good Rabbi” I was instructed in what to say and even how to say it, dispensing traditional wisdom, comfort, and perspective. For whatever reason, I was insulated and protected from life’s bad stuff, again life was better than good.
But then – and I guess in the story of life there is always a “but then.” Our older son, four-year-old Eyal, is in serious respiratory distress. The medical opinion is a deep-seated lesion on his brainstem, a death sentence, at most several weeks. The specifics of the narrative are not necessary, suffice to say, after surgery Eyal suffers an incapacitating brain stem stroke leaving him a total quadriplegic. All his necessary human functions are artificially maintained. But Eyal persists and perseveres, defying his doctors and their harsh prognosis and everyone else who has reminded him of what he cannot do. Now 32, Eyal lives with my wife and me. He had a Bar Mitzvah, he graduated high school and college.
Being a parent of a child so physically broken, so dependent on others, changed me. It was as if a new life started for me the day of Eyal’s stroke. I wish I could have learned these important life lessons taking a class, studying a book, hearing others’ stories. But I learned the painful and at times inspiring lessons firsthand.
It has taken me years to get it right. To distinguish between the essential and the irrelevant. I may not always act on my belief system. Like a lot of folks, there remains a divide between creed and deed. But I find myself much more accepting, tolerant, and inclusive, preferring to err on the side of forgiveness than righteous indignation. I’ve learned about context and perspective. I’ve learned a new definition of community. There are certain things like poverty, illness, and vulnerability that do not distinguish between class, gender, race, national origin, or faith. And I’ve learned about random acts of generosity and kindness in the most unexpected places from the most unexpected people.
Looking at Eyal, so physically broken, I sometimes wonder if I knew then, March 1986, what I know now, that I would have to redefine my goals and ambitions, both personal and professional, the quality of my relationships, the definition of friendship and authenticity. I am not so sure I would have had the wisdom, faith, confidence, temperament, and persistence to handle what some suggest as impossible challenges. But I did do it, discovering strength and even a faith reaffirmed that I never thought possible. I used to think the punctuation of life begins and ends with an exclamation point. But what I’ve learned is that the punctuation of life is more like the ellipsis … you see the story never ends.
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At birth I was blessed with not one, not two, but four Jewish names. Tamar Avital is the name my parents gave me, and then they also bequeathed upon me a Hebrew name because apparently Tamar Avital isn’t Hebrew enough. To honor my great-great aunts I was also named P’nina Yafa. And with the last name Caspi I didn’t have a fighting chance to be anything but Jewish. People would know I was a Jew before they would meet me and for most of my life that was fine as I always identified as Jewish, an identity which was only further ingrained via the Jewish Community Center for preschool, private Jewish elementary school, Jewish sleepaway camp, temple youth group, Hillel in college and so on. My first kiss took place during my birthday party when I turned twelve, during a game of spin the bottle with the nice Jewish boy from the neighborhood who previously was my “husband” in Kindergarten at the San Diego Jewish Academy. My first real make-out session happened beneath the redwood trees of Saratoga, California at Camp Swig—with a nice Jewish boy from Northern California.
I never thought twice about having a Jewish family until midway through high school when I subconsciously and unintentionally decided that I didn’t need a Jewish husband to make that happen. None of my high school boyfriends were Jewish, nor were my college boyfriends or any of the guys I dated through my early twenties. I was planning an interfaith family in my head. I knew there were rabbis who would agree to officiate at an interfaith marriage, and I even once had a discussion with my college boyfriend about allowing future children to celebrate Christmas at his parent’s house just not in our house. Eventually, as I matured and gathered more life experience, I came to the realization that I did indeed need and want and desire a Jewish husband. As my Jewish girlfriends were getting married and starting families, I realized that having a Jewish husband who was raised similarly made these milestones all the more meaningful and that awareness changed my mindset completely. Suddenly all I saw were Yids. In fact, I would ask if a guy was Jewish before even wondering if he was single. Non-Jews were persona non-grata and I had zero attraction to those who were not members of the tribe. Not only did I want a Jewish home with a Jewish family, but I wanted a Jewish husband too—bonus points for having multiple Jewish names.
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When a former ultra-Orthodox Jew publicly reveals her story, she often faces ferocious attacks from her community of origin who will claim that she is “crazy” and a liar. As a former ultra-Orthodox writer and activist, I’ve experienced some of this backlash on blogs and online chatrooms, but I received my most public dose of it when I appeared on Katie Couric’s talk show last spring to share a bit about my life and promote the work of Footsteps, an organization that empowers former ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The Katie producer called me the day before the taping, frantic. She had contacted my father for a counter-statement to my recounting of my parents’ abandonment and the difficult years I went through after that. “It is clear to us” my father’s statement said, “that she (Leah) does not (or perhaps is not always able to) separate her imaginings from the facts. The allegations contained in your email are simply false, every single one … Come what may, we will continue to love her always.” (His love, of course, moving him to issue this statement, but not to contacting me after the birth of my child two years ago, or since.)
The producer was afraid that perhaps, despite my extensive prep with her, I was, in fact, a delusional liar. I directed her to my brother, who confirmed my account and shared the story of his own, similar, experiences.
Many of my friends who leave ultra-Orthodoxy have faced this type of personal attack from family, former friends, former rabbis, and internet trolls. With the publication of my memoir, I expect a fresh and heated batch of claims that I am crazy and that I am a liar. There is a grain of truth in these accusations. If “crazy” means experiences with psychologists and psychiatrists, I have, as my memoir recounts, spent time on a psych ward. I don’t lie, in my memoir, but I do, as I note in the book, work within the conventions of the genre. My book is not a multi-volume investigative journalism essay on my entire existence; it explores one narrative thread from a vibrant life. As I state in the opening pages, “[s]ome events have been compressed or rearranged in time to more concisely convey my experience” and “[n]ames and identifying details have been altered.”
I’m weary of the insults that will come, but more than that, I am bitterly disappointed by this de facto reaction. It’s a letdown to see that the community that I cherished for so long seems too often to have no more substantial engagement with the concerns of those of us who chose to leave beyond ad hominem attacks.
The community I knew was a community that prided itself both on deep immersion in complex philosophical studies and generous investment in charity and support. The community that I grew up in was a community that strived to follow a Godly path, that constantly issued exhortations to personal improvement, that engaged in intense recruitment of outsiders to what they claimed was a more elevated life. I would expect more depth, more compassion, more pensiveness, in their engagement with these issues. The cognitive dissonance is unsettling.
My hope for my memoir, and others that will surely be coming in the next few years, is that the ultra-Orthodox community will reject the tired script of “you’re crazy, you’re a liar” and instead enter the conversation with valuable ideas about how to make the ultra-Orthodox community more tolerant of those who choose a self-determined life and more embracing of personal expression. Both for my peers and for those I left behind.
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My parents are getting ready to move, to abandon the house I’ve lived in since I was born, and we traveled down to Philadelphia to help them. (No, that’s a lie: We traveled down because I had a reading for my new picture book, My First Kafka, and school is out, and we were getting ready to dump the kids with them for a week.) Everything is in boxes. If there’s one thing my kids are good at (there’s a million things), it’s causing chaos. They promptly set to work unpacking the remains of my parents’ life.
My five-year-old daughter promptly uncovered Treasure Island. Yes, the book. It was an illustrated—though uncut—edition. “Read it,” she demanded.
Hey, what kind of father would I be to deny classic literature to my next of kin? I read.
We reached the first death—a gristly scene where Billy Bones, an old seaman, gorges himself on rum, stabs an old fellow pirate, then collapses dead on the floor. “Are you sure you want me to keep going?” I asked her.
“Read,” she urged me.
Similarly, the second death (Old Pew, trampled by horse-hoofs cutting into his ribs) and the third (the night of Long John Silver’s violent mutiny aboard the Hispanola—no, actually, there was no death here, but a whole lot of swordfighting). We took a breath, not because she demanded it, but because my lungs were getting tired. “Are you really sure you want to read this?” I asked her. “Do you know what’s going on?”
She looked up at me with earnest, pleading eyes.
“The pirates are getting ready to kick off the good people from the ship,” she said. “Now they want to decide if they should kill them or hurt them or leave them on the island all alone.”
Kids: one point. Me: zero points. Robert Louis Stevenson: having a freakin’ veritable party in his coffin somewhere, I’m sure.
In the past few weeks, I’ve talked a lot about why kids like dark stories. What I told the New Yorker was, it’s because they’re still trying to understand the world, things like death and disease and renewal. They’re still getting used to existence, and they’re exploring this existential state as well as its corollary, what it would mean to NOT exist. That’s why they become fascinated with simple, pretty things like flowers and animals, as well as why they’ll stare in fascination as a just-stepped-upon ant crinkles slowly in its dying throes.
But I also think that the boundary between dark, depressing stuff and normal, happy stuff doesn’t exist for them, not the way it does for us. We as adults have a remarkable capacity to compartmentalize—work and home life, cartoons vs. reality. Kids not only don’t need to do that, they don’t want to. They’re more fascinated with the paradoxes of the universe than the idea that these things could be paradoxes. They don’t sit around all day talking about what it could mean that a person could be transformed into a giant bug and what it represents symbolically because, to them, it doesn’t represent anything symbolically—it’s an actual story.
I’ve been avoiding reading my book to my kids lately. It feels too self-indulgent, too performative; I’m much more comfortable with Maurice Sendak or Arnold Lobel. But at my Philadelphia reading last Sunday, I read one of the stories from the book, “Josefine the Singer, or, the Mouse-People.” The ending is really sad, and I almost cried onstage. My kids, sitting about halfway back, had these huge toothy smiles. After everyone had gone, I asked what they thought of that, weren’t they sad? “It was sad when you were reading it,” said my younger one, “but it’s a story. It’s supposed to be sad.”
“I sound like a cheap, mean kyke,” my father raged. “I sound like an idiot, a complete non-entity,” my mother was furious too. I had been nervous about them reading my first memoir, Fame Shark, but none of my jitters had prepared me for this ballistic reaction. We were sitting down to breakfast at Castillo, a Dominican restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side where I had grown up eating delicious homefries colored orange from Sofrito. Now they stuck in my throat.
For me, the book was a monument to the obvious: I was in love with both my parents. But raised by two Jews who were brilliant psychoanalysts, my love had a darkness, a depth, an introspection I’d learned from them. Wasn’t that a good thing? Wasn’t that flattering?
“So, it’s basically fiction,” Mom said,”a lot of this stuff never happened.” It was true that I had purposefully pandered to a modern American culture that had the attention span of meth addicts. I’d cut all the “boring” bits out of my life in this telling. But fiction? No way. It had been hard, terrifying and humbling to write truths about myself: I had been bullied to the point of molestation as a kid, I had later exchanged sex for money and movie roles, cultivated friendships with drug dealers, sunk to supreme unhappiness at the altar of celebrity worship. I had begun writing Fame Shark still half in the throes of an idiotic, unoriginal fantasy that the book itself would lift me into celebrity. Only the therapeutic writing of it had helped take me out of my own narcissism/self-hatred (a diagnosis my parents had once agreed with, in our darkest conflicts). Continue reading
I turned 50. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I do yoga. I moisturize. I still fit into the same jeans I’ve had for the last 15 years, though they do sit differently, but you can’t escape it, no matter how Vitamin D you’re taking (even though some studies say it doesn’t do anything of significance). As an actress, I always played roles sometimes even a decade younger than myself. This was before IMDB made it impossible to lie about your age. I’d told so many people so many different ages over the years I’d even convinced myself that my driver’s license might not even be accurate. There is precedence for this in my family. My father’s mother, Rebecca, shaved a few years off when she arrived in Alabama as a teenager around 1919 from Russia—I can only assume to make her self more attractive marriage material—but then she tried to have it corrected to collect her Social Security earlier many years later. We’re Southern, so a bit of Blanche Dubois tends to seep in from time to time.
In my 20s, I was an erstwhile punk. I was ahead of my time. No need for a New York Times Magazine cover to convince me of how germs are good for you. On a sunny September morning in 1981, I picked up a tattered black leather motorcycle jacket for 25 dollars from a guy under the Cube on Astor Place, put in on and didn’t take it off again for the next 3-7 years; it was the 80’s, so who can remember the exact number. I furnished my entire apartment with items I found in dumpsters. Ok, the entire place was only about 200 square feet. But still. Now, time has caught up with me. It’s not like this happened overnight, but as the days approached leading up to my 50th birthday, I was waking up at night, well, at 4am, the witching hour for all hormonally challenged women, thinking there’s been a mistake. The math is wrong! I’m just not ready for that number yet. That number is so huge; but when you start experiencing your youth like it was yesterday, never mind that 30 years have come in between me and the time when a jacket could symbolize a life choice, well, that’s a sure sign that the math is right, a big birthday is afoot. That was also the last time in my life when I thought there were good people and bad people. Now I know there’s just people and I’ve done things that anyone could easily label bad, just ask my son; he’s got an entire list of my transgressions.
At the same time as I was speeding toward 50, my son was reaching a milestone age as well. 13. Again, this had to be a mistake. My son—who used to regularly spout adorable esoteric insights as children are want to do, like at age 7 when he announced, “When I was younger, Mom, I wasn’t sure life was going to be so great, but it’s so much better than I expected”—was now becoming my biggest critic. He’s Ben Brantley to my Alec Baldwin. For instance, I was on The Oprah Winfrey show giving millions of viewers a tour of a landfill, thinking I was serving a greater good, and hoping to make my son proud, but no, even this was not to his liking. “Mom, you picked up a volleyball in that pit and you called it a soccer ball! Who would ever listen to anything you say now? You suck.” My cooking, my clothing, my comments, everything was just horrible now to him.
That was just one of reasons why I decided he just had to have a Bar Mitzvah. It would be a way of bringing us together.
There was also a practical consideration. Both my husband and I are atheists and secular Jews. We came to the conclusion that if he’s inherited even a smidgeon of my opinionated personality, he should at least have a working knowledge of what he might later want to rebel against. I’m not proud of it, but it is a passion of mine to argue against things I know very little about. Movies, books, and people I haven’t met are some of my favorite targets, but I aspire for my son to be a more informed critic. All things considered, I told myself, it was a good thing I’d done some time in the Women’s Correctional Facility in Chino.
To be continued…
I recently attended my friend’s father’s memorial. It was held at the Faculty House of Columbia University in a perfectly lovely nondescript room with a bar. An elegant man with an appealingly mysterious accent led the service. I imagined he’d been a student of my friend’s father, who was a playwright and professor, or perhaps he worked for the University in some capacity. As the memorial unfolded, three things immediately came to mind: the deceased was roughly the age of the two protagonists in my new novel, A Dual Inheritance; like my protagonists, he’d gone to Harvard, and—though I knew my friend’s father was Jewish—there was no reference to it here. It was an entirely secular experience.
I thought of how my mother always says that there’s something cold and empty when an official service has no religious framework, and as so many friends and family paid loving and witty tribute to this obviously talented, stubborn, erudite, caring man, I carried on a mental argument with my mother, whose Judaism is expressed differently—more politically, more conservatively, less fraught—than mine is. I argued in my head for secularism. Here was a great example, I reasoned; here was a deep tribute without being defined by a religion into which my friend’s father happened to be born. He’d been orphaned fairly young, had a massive heart attack as a young man, had never thought he’d live past forty. He’d also been widowed young and had raised a daughter—my friend—who was now happily living in Berlin, raising a German-speaking son with a non-Jewish husband. You see, I told my mother in my silent protest,life can be so much bigger than religion.
At the end of the evening, after many remembrances, the man who’d led the service stood. He introduced himself as not only a friend of the deceased, but his rabbi. Though my friend’s father hadn’t led a religious life, he’d evidently been interested—especially toward the end—in questions of faith. The rabbi then introduced the deceased’s friend from Harvard, a man as not-Jewish as one can possibly be, an opera singer who stated it was his friend’s request that he sing this particular song, a song he imagined his dear friend enjoyed assigning because it was one that the opera singer didn’t know. I think he also knew how much I’d enjoy learning it, he said.
Then he sang.
It was the Mourner’s Kaddish.
And—despite all of those (deeply held!) mental arguments with my mother—that’s when I finally started to cry.
The word used by the notorious propaganda chief of the Nazi party is a mangled version of the Yiddish word for ‘family’ (mishpocheh), and it conveys the cruelty and contempt that the Nazis held for the Jewish people. To hear the mamaloshen fall from the lips of a man who seeks to murder every Jewish man, woman, child and baby within his reach carries a special kind of horror.
I quote the journal entry in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright), and I use “mishpocheh’ as a kind of leitmotif in the story I tell. At the age of 15, Herschel was sent out of Nazi Germany by his doting mother and father, and the boy was passed along from uncle to uncle until he finally reached Paris, where he was given a place to live by his Uncle Abraham. They were all tragically wrong in assuming that France offered a safe refuge for the Grynszpans, but they acted loyally and courageously in an effort to save the life of the youngest member of the family.
While living in Paris, Herschel learned that his mother, father and older siblings back in Germany had been arrested by the Nazis and driven at gunpoint into the no-man’s-land on the Polish border along with some 12,000 other Polish Jews. Herschel was so distraught over the fate of his cherished family that he bought a revolver, contrived a ruse that allowed him to enter the German embassy in Paris, and assassinated a minor German diplomat as an act of protest and resistance. Ironically, Herschel and the uncle who sheltered him in Paris did not survive, but his father and brother were still alive to testify at Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961.
As it happens, I first heard the story of Herschel Grynszpan from one of my own mishpocheh — my late father, Robert Reuven Kirsch. He was a literary critic for the Los Angeles Times for nearly thirty years and the author of many books of his own, and he told me in the late 1970s about the novel he intended to write about Herschel’s life and exploits. Sadly, my father fell ill and passed away before he could undertake the project, but I never forgot the strange and even scandalous details of Herschel’s life story. I decided to honor the memory of my beloved father by writing the book that he did not live long enough to write.
That’s why the word mishpocheh appears for the first time in my biography of Herschel Grynszpan on the dedication page: “For my father, Robert . . . and the mishpocheh for whom [his] memory is a blessing.”
The Mothers is my third novel but it’s the first novel I’ve written that tracks so closely with my own life. I had to make a leap as a novelist to write in the first person, to examine a single woman’s inner life, as opposed to the bigger sweep of the multi-generational novels, Golden Country and Something Red, that were written with an eye toward history and the way it affects families.
This book is all about families really, or about a couple who wants to make one desperately. If my other books deal with what happens to families over time, this character—Jesse Weintraub—is most concerned about time stopping. About the story, as it were, ending with her.
I, like Jesse, struggled for a long time to make my family (even though I do believe that it’s not just children that make a family…). And like her, my spouse and I were involved in a terribly long and particularly harsh adoption process that has only ended a few weeks ago. My most private concerns, a sadness I could only tell myself, were the same concerns I am interested in as a writer. These were in part involving what gets passed down through the generations. The history of our families, the voices of my grandparents and what they went through. What if it all that stopped with me?
What if all the stories just stopped with me? All those voices? At the bottom of it, this is what Jesse feels deeply. She wants to see a new generation grow. She gets a little despairing, she acts a little wild, but at the bottom of it, she wants to pass on all of it, the good, the bad, the painful, the joyous, so the cycle will keep going, so everyone’s story, including hers, gets told.
It seems to me that it’s hard for a feeling, empathetic person to know where to place himself in the midst of conflict. Since most people possess some degree of feeling and empathy, in order to live with themselves they don’t necessarily divorce themselves from these senses as they make decisions as to how and where to direct them. These decisions are determined by a host of factors—different in each individual and situation.
The bravest among us, of whom there are few, courageously allow their empathetic sense to extend outward in a manner that generously encompasses a wide variety of people, perspectives and feelings that might be in violent, seemingly intractable opposition to one another— and even more courageously allow their practical behavior and decisions to be strongly influenced by that understanding. The least brave, who number many, allow their empathy to encompass their family, their friends, their tribe— however far they choose to extend the net— and then shut themselves off to everyone and everything else in order to justify behavior that is born of the most primitive fears, anger, and desires. The rest of us, well, we live somewhere in the middle, constantly extending and withdrawing our empathy and understanding like a snail poking its antennae out of its shell as we try to balance our desire for openness, brotherhood and freedom with our anxieties, anger and fears.
Jerusalem, a graphic novel I wrote, inspired by the multitude of myths, stories, diatribes and musings I have been exposed to throughout my life by family, friends, enemies, and teachers, is an attempt to explore this struggle in others and within myself.