My first job out of college was at a large insurance company in Baltimore. I was a computer programmer there, and in addition to my entry-level salary, I was entitled for five days of vacation, ten sick days, a handful of standard federal holidays and on top of that, two floating ones. Those floating holidays – they were just freebies, really. They could be picked at random, used for anything. At least that’s what I thought.
“You’re taking the floating holidays?” asked my co-worker Ami. It was more of a statement than a question. Maybe even an order. Ami grew up in Israel, married an American, and now, in her fifties, had three daughters close to my age. At the office she was famous for speaking her mind. Even the upper management feared her sharp tongue.
But she was kind to me. I was a fellow Jew, a fellow immigrant. Maybe she saw a bit of herself in me. Maybe she saw one of her daughters. My family and I came from Russia three years before. They were in Pittsburgh now, while I was here in Baltimore, living on my own for the first time in my life. Ami must have felt sorry for me, a young girl, all alone. We were supposed to have things in common, she and I. A worldview, a set of values, a sense of shared history. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to disappoint her in a dozen different ways.
I shook my head and told her no. I wouldn’t be using my floating holidays. Why should I? I thought. What would I do with myself – all alone in my small apartment? I’d never observed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur before, and I wasn’t planning to start now.
Ami stared at me for a moment. “You poor girl,” she said. “You don’t even know who you are.”
I should have felt chastened, I guess; but instead I was furious. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I had no religion and didn’t feel a need for one. But that didn’t make me any less of a Jew. Back in Russia, it was my ethnicity, my nationality, a line in my Soviet passport, a way of life. It was in my last name (decidedly un-Russian) and in my facial features. “Just so you know,” a college classmate once told me, unprompted, “I have no problem with Jewish people.” This was a variation on the “some of my best friends are Jews” line and a dead giveaway that something was afoot. “He’s such a Jew,” another college classmate said in passing, referring to a particularly unappealing professor.
So yes, I knew exactly who I was and where I stood, even if the only time I stepped into a synagogue in Russia was to purchase a year’s supply of matza. (You couldn’t get it anywhere else.) I had good friends, also Jewish, and we’d long ago learned what to expect: colleges we couldn’t apply to, professions we couldn’t pursue. We shared a certain sense of humor, a certain kind of sadness. We’d learned to recognize others like ourselves. “Our people,” we called them.
Here in America being Jewish meant something else entirely. I didn’t quite know what it meant. Bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs? Hebrew schools? High holidays? Days after arriving in Pittsburgh my family and I were taken to a synagogue for Yom Kippur. I remember feeling jet-lagged, disoriented, bereft of my old life, and desperate for something to believe in, somewhere to belong. But the synagogue was huge, and inside there were rows upon rows of well-dressed people, who all seemed to know one another and who had no time for us. I sat up on the balcony listening to the Hebrew words I didn’t understand and I wanted the whole thing to be meaningful. But nothing felt familiar. There were no miracles that day, no sudden sense of coming home.
In the years to come, I would keep searching. Not for a new identity, but for that elusive feeling of belonging. Who were “my people” now? I’d find them in all sorts of likely and unlikely places. At software companies where I worked. In writing classes I took at night and later in grad school. Some of these people would be Jewish, but not all.
I still don’t attend a synagogue or observe holidays, though. Does it make me a bad Jew? Perhaps. But it doesn’t mean I don’t know who I am.
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Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, is now available.
For a long time I wanted to be a fiction writer, but then for a long time I also wanted to be a basketball player, and at a certain point you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough. That’s how I felt about fiction writing. It seemed to me a delusion, a dream. So despite dipping my toes in fiction writing, I studied mostly political theory in college and planned after I graduated to get a Ph.D. in political theory. But first I decided to take a year off, and I moved out to Berkeley and got a job at a magazine, where one of my tasks was to be the first reader of fiction manuscripts. And I was struck by how terrible most of them were. I didn’t necessarily think I could do any better, but I was impressed by the number of people who were willing to try and risk failure. I found it oddly inspiring. I thought I should be willing to try and risk failure, too. So I started to take some workshops, ended up moving to Ann Arbor get my MFA, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But the fact of trying and risking failure hasn’t changed. Richard Ford came to Ann Arbor when I was there. This was around the time that he won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, and so he’d had a lot of success, but what he told the graduate students, and I really think this is true, is that when he sits down to write the page is just as blank as it is for anyone. Just because you’ve done it once doesn’t mean you can do it again. And it’s that fact—and the terror that accompanies it—that makes fiction writing both a challenge and a pleasure. Writing fiction is about creating something out of nothing, which is another of its pleasures. And I’m a gossip, which I believe most fiction writers are. We’re interested in people, and what better way to feed your interest in people than to make them up? My mother tells a story that when I was a toddler and she would walk with me down Broadway, she couldn’t get anywhere because I insisted on being picked up so that I could look into every store window. I wanted to see everything and everyone. To me, that’s what a fiction writer is—someone who wants to look into every store window, who’s always hoping to discover something.
My new novel, The World Without You, takes place over a single July 4th holiday. Leo Frankel was a journalist killed in Iraq, and a year later his parents, his three sisters, his widow, and his young son descend on the family’s country house in the Berkshires for his memorial. People often ask me where the idea for the book came from, and while I don’t believe in “ideas” when it comes to fiction (I start with a character, or a situation; ideas are for politicians, or sociologist, or rabbis), the book grew out of the following memory. I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. Every year on Purim my father’s side of the family gets together to read the Megillah, and one Purim, nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.
Moshe Kasher is a stand-up comedian and the author of Kasher In The Rye: The True Tale Of A White Boy From Oakland Who Became A Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient…And Then Turned Sixteen This is a story of a Passover miracle. Or something. Readers should be advised of strong language and total immaturity…although it’s got a pretty great ending.
It is said that whoever finds the afikomen on Passover is granted a wish that cannot be refused by the master of the house. That wish, no matter how extravagant or unusual, must be fulfilled and until the lucky discoverer is satisfied that his wish has been granted, the seder cannot continue. This is the story of the night that went quite wrong.
It was the first night of Pesach and Shmulie slumped down at the head of his Seder table with a great relieved sigh. The week was finally over. He’d been running around all week, shopping for matzah and matzah meal and matzah-based beverages and other assorted constipation aids. Shmulie was exhausted.
“Why are you sitting down!?!” Pessy yelled from the kitchen, “Get the door!”
How his wife even knew he had just sat down was beyond Shmulie’s grasp. Pessy had a kind of second sight that tuned right into Shmulie’s attempts at rest. Anytime he took a deep breath she would yell, “Don’t breathe!” He didn’t know how to comply.
Pessy was the boss, always had been. Mostly, Shmulie accepted it, as she seemed able to know all of the things that he didn’t quite know how to do. She was his queen and it didn’t matter to him if she only rarely treated him like a prince. For her, he would be a pauper — he would be a page.
“GET THE DOOR!!!” Pessy shrieked from the kitchen.
“Pessy, no one is at the door!” Shmulie tried to sound reasonable.
Just then the door bell rang. How had she known!?!
Shmulie ended his one-breath-long vacation and got himself up and sauntered into the hall to welcome the Pesach guests. One step at a time the plastic runner in the hall buckled beneath his big feet. He made his way to the door.
One by one the guests trickled in. Shmulie didn’t know any of them, but he greeted each of them with a big fake smile and a warm “Chag Sameach!”
He’d done this before. This was the seventh year in a row they’d hosted a seder for the neighborhood. A sea of strangers washed into their dining room and ate as much as they could then leaked out into the streets. Shmulie hated it. He hated strangers and it was odd to him that some of the people Pessy invited were non-Jews. Why would they be invited to Passover? Sure the Hagaddah says “Let all who are hungry , come and eat!” but they couldn’t have meant let all who are hungry, right? Hungry goys too?
Oh well, Pessy knew best. Shmulie repeated this to himself for the ten thousandth time and got to the business of beginning the seder. At the far end of the table was a Laotian family who clearly didn’t even know what they were doing there. Confused looks were exchanged when Shmulie dipped the parsley into the salt water and splashed the water on his face to show them that they were tears.
“Tears get it? Like boo hoo?”
“Why are they tears?” Bok, the youngest Laotian boy, asked.
“ Because we remember the tears our people shed in the desert , toiling for the Egyptians in the hot sun,” Shmulie recited, as if from a script.
“ In Laos, we cried too… do you want to know why?” Bok asked.
“Not really, no.” Shmulie just wanted to get through this meal.
“Shmulie! Don’t be rude.” Pessy turned to the seder guests. “Sorry about him, he’s been emotionally off lately. We think its gluten. Thank goodness for Passover, the original lo-carb diet!” She shrieked disgustingly and turned to Bok and said, “ We’d love to know why you cried.” Pessy’s face scrunched up in compassion in that singular way that only white women sympathizing with brown people can manage.
Bok spoke, “In Laos we cried because we didn’t have a floor. Our hut was lined with dirt…”
“Well that’s horrible, sorry about that Bok, back to Passover…” Shmulie couldn’t stand stuff like this.
“I’M NOT FINISHED! We ate worms and grubs. We had one well, but it was filthy and we had to drink it anyway. My father died of dysentery.”
“Is that everything?” Shmulie was losing his patience here. He hadn’t signed on for an address at the United Nations. He just wanted to eat that f–king afikomen and be done with this thing.
“No. It is not everything.” Bok then began a 45 minute speech about that hardships of life in Laos that was so painful to listen to that Shmulie imagined he now knew exactly how it felt to be a slave in Egypt, or in fact, a boy in Laos.
Eventually Pessy gave up on the ritual aspects of the meal altogether and just started serving the food in between Bok’s exaggerated sobs, never once betraying any annoyance or a lack of interest in hearing Bok’s tale of woe which was superseding what was supposed to have been the tale of the woe of the Jewish people. Goddamn it, this Laotian kid was stealing Passover with his sad little life. Shmulie had had about enough of this.
“Ok, that’s it. We are doing Afikomen now.” Shmulie’s voice was terse and annoyed.
“Shmulie! We have to finish hearing Bok’s story!” Pessy snapped back.
“I’m almost done.” Bok smiled.
“No! No, I’m putting my foot down. I’m sorry Bok, I am. Laos sounds sh-tty. I’m sorry your father is dead and I’m sorry you had dirt floors and I’m sorry there is a sauce in Laos made of cow shit. It really sounds bad but right now, it’s Passover. And it’s midnight and we are moving on to the afikomen and then I’m going to bed and then I am going to have sex with my wife!”
“No you aren’t,” Pessy sneered.
“Then I’ll have sex with myself!” Shmulie had never spoken to Pessy like this. It felt really, really good.
Bok frowned, sad. “Alright. I’m sorry. I apologize. I didn’t mean to ruin your holiday with my sad story. Lets move onto the Afi…what did you call it?”
“Komen. THE AFI-KOMEN. Let’s do.”
Shmulie cut the awkwardness in the air with an uninspired speech about the Afikomen and the rewards it wrought. Then he screamed “Go!” and began the hunt. Nobody moved.
Slowly, at the end of the table, Bok stood up and calmly walked directly over to the spot where Shmulie had hidden the Afikomen earlier, underneath a copy of Bob Marley’s album, “Exodus” which Shmulie had felt to be a great joke but , watching Bok flip it over and grab the Afikomen without emotion or recognition had taken all the joy out of it. Bok lifted the Afikomen up.
“Great Bok, you win. You got the Afikomen. What the hell do you want for it.”
Shmulie knew. He got it then. Anger surged into him. This was a set up. A con to peel a couple grand from him. Somehow Bok knew all about the Afikomen and had set this up to ruin his Passover. All the joy he’d felt when he’d stood up to Pessy was now gone. He looked over at her, frowning, her glare accusing him – HIM! – of ruining the seder. At that moment, Shmulie knew one more thing- he hated his wife.
“What do you want? Let me guess a grand? Five thousand bucks? Just say it and let’s end this fucking night.”
All the guests got silent and shifted uncomfortably. Everyone wanted to leave.
Bok looked up, smiled and said quietly, “I want your life.”
Shmulie looked back, confused.
“And,” Bok continued, “I want you to have mine.”
And that was how Shmulie and Pessy Bornstein moved to Laos. Since then, Shmulie has made his living repairing old sneakers at the market in town and Pessy caught tarantulas in traps she made and set in the woods. She would sun-dry them and sprinkle garlic, soy and MSG on them and sell them on sticks to travelers.
Their home was small, and the floors were dirt and when the rains came, they hoped that the leaks wouldn’t make too much mud. They’d tried to have kids but something in the drinking water seemed to have turned Pessy’s womb. But mostly, they were happy. Pessy had softened. Shmulie had found his voice. When the afternoon suns came and the pale streams of light stole through the lattice of the hut they lived in and shone on her brow, she glowed, radiant, pure and perfect. And, one afternoon as that Laotian sun danced on her face, Shmulie looked over and realized that he loved his wife. He loved her very much. Crowned with a crown of pure sun, once again, she was his queen.
At that very moment of realization, the postman came, squeaking down the dirt road that led to their village on a bike so creaky and rusty – it defied the laws of logic to see it’s wheels turn. The postman, Chantos, handed Shmulie a letter. The letter , thick papered and tied down the middle with a single red ribbon, held in place with a red wax seal, sat , heavy in Shmulie’s hands. It seemed to vibrate there, singing with an invisible music. Shmulie realized his hand was trembling when he broke that seal and he called Pessy into the hut as he opened the letter. It read, in a simple script:
You can have your life back now.
Elijah The Prophet
The idea for Too Many Latkes! came from one of my fondest childhood memories. My mother was the office manager of our synagogue and in charge of organizing the annual “Latke Fundraiser.” She would always say, “This year we’re going to make a mountain of latkes!” Every year, all the latke cooks would gather at the temple on Hanukkah and fried huge amounts of latkes. They never quite made enough latkes for a mountain but the image stuck in my head.
When I had my own kids and we began a tradition of making elaborate holiday parties with ceremonies, music and song. I looked around for something entertaining that I could do. The first thing that came to mind was that latke mountain. Taking bits and pieces from the many stories I illustrated and animated for children?s programming in Israel and the US, I came up with the outline of Too Many Latkes! At the time I was a storyboard artist for Doug, the animated TV show and daily I would make little Post-It flip books to work out scripted action. It seemed natural to make Latkes into a big newsprint flip book that I could act out in front my guests, the way I would a storyboard pitch.
It became a big hit at Hanukkah and every year inevitably some body would ask when is it going to be a book. By the time I got around to seriously making it into book form, the nature of publishing and even drawing had changed. I no longer worked on paper. My drawings were done with a stylus in programs on computer screen. To keep the feeling of the large original black and white marker drawings on newsprint, I had to reduce, scan, color and touch up the drawings in PhotoShop. A lengthy process but well worth it since, the digital images loose little when published in paper or Ibook form.
Now I can do book readings using a computer slideshow, drawing tablet, speakers, projector and HD screen. However, there are places that are just too intimate for all those gadgets. So from the digital files, I’ve printed out again black and white images and made a new flipbook.
Some things never change.
The memory of my cousin handing me my first copy of MAD Magazine when I was 12 is still fresh in my mind. I can feel my hands tremble as I looked down at the cover painting of Alfred E. Neuman as a scarecrow. My cousin said this magazine was going to change my life and he was right. From that moment on I was hooked. I was a cartoonist. As I turned the pages I knew all I wanted to do was to make drawings that everybody would laugh at, just like that group of talented idiots.
This was also the time when I was obsessed with the Marx Brothers movies. There was no Netflix, Internet, VCRs, or 24/7 TV. There were just three channels on our black and white set and they usually went off the air before midnight. I’d scour the TV listings for weeks looking for one of their films. If one did appear it was usually scheduled beyond my bedtime. That night, when everyone was asleep, I’d sneak downstairs, turn on the TV with the volume just above a whisper and watch, my eyes as big as saucers, the incredible comic anarchy of the Marxes. The next morning, I’d trudge to school where I’d spend the better part of homeroom, Latin, and Geometry classes filling the margins of my notebooks with super heroes, goofy weirdoes and slimy monsters, inspired by my real mentors.
My first brush with notoriety came about from one of those doodles in Hebrew School. Sitting in the back of class, as the teacher pounded away at the blackboard on the pronunciation of Hebrew verbs, I drew a small little sketch of her dancing a hora, naked. Under it, I wrote “Mrs. K…. Blows!” I passed it to the kid next to me. He stifled a delighted guffaw. I thought he would pass it back but instead I saw it make its way around the class with the sound of suppressed giggles. The teacher, sensing something was up, grabbed the offending scrap. She went on a tirade, which consisted of what an offensive drawing it was and wanting to know what she had to “blow” about since she felt she was a very modest person. The poor lady didn’t get it.
My popularity went way up. From being just a face in the crowd, I was established as The Cartoonist for the rest of my school career. However, the teacher got her revenge when years later I lived and worked in Israel and sorely missed not having a better grasp of the pronunciation of those Hebrew verbs.
My obsession with cartoon drawing has enabled me to make a living from illustrations, editorial cartooning, storyboarding for commercials, TV animation and feature films. Now, with the publication of my own books, like Too Many Latkes!, I’ve returned to the seat at the back of the class. I still want to make people laugh when I draw.