It’s clear from the names of my two pop culture humor books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, that my Jewish background is a primary force in my writing. What these titles don’t reveal is how much my work is informed by my father’s experiences during the Holocaust.
They say every child of a Holocaust survivor is born with a tear in her eye. This is far from an obvious starting point for cultivating humor. But like many other creatives, my “weighty inheritance” significantly contributes to the overall tenor of my writing about contemporary Jewish life—in both revealed and unrevealed ways.
My first book, Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe (cooljewbook.com), was a 2008 National Jewish Book Awards Finalist and the first humor book honored in the awards’ 50-year-history. My new book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe (hotmamalah.com), debuted this month. Both books are filled with humorous depictions of Jewish life and practice. They promote learning about your identity and celebrating it with a reverent irreverence…an irreverence based on a real love of being Jewish.
My father, who will b’ezrat Hashem, soon turn 90, is a survivor of Buchenwald. As a child, my father told me his parents died “in the war.” It was only when I turned the age of bat mitzvah that I learned their precise fate. On Yom Kippur 1942, the Nazis deported them and their daughter Rosa to Treblinka. They were never heard from again. That same year, the Nazis murdered my uncle Lipman in the Czestohowa ghetto. Somehow, despite years as a slave laborer in war-time Poland, my father survived. He was near death when General Patton’s Third Army finally liberated Buchenwald. He was furious to miss the oranges and chocolate U.S. liberators fed his fellow captives. As many of them died from complications, my father realized this was one more blessing that saved his life.
One of my father’s mottos is never give up. One day in April 1945 he was a slave. And the next day, suddenly, the skies parted. And he was a free.
Another of my father’s favorite maxims is never, ever be ashamed to be a Jew. My books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, turn this injunction into a positive: to know who you are and own it. Little did I know that my own embracing of this teaching would lead me to new revelations about my heritage, including the Sefardi history of my mother’s family. Check back soon for more about them in an upcoming post in this series.
I have very distinct memories about growing up as part of what was then a very small Jewish community in Buffalo Grove, IL. Today my hometown has a big Jewish population, as does the rest of the North Shore. But at the time, there was only one other Jewish family on the block, and I don’t recall them being particularly invested in their Judaism. It was on the Attenbergs to represent.
Just what every child wants. To represent their religious differences.
I did get in a few fights in school. Kids threw around anti-Semitic slurs, not knowing necessarily what they meant. It was probably just something they picked up somewhere, as kids do. In third grade a girl called me a kike in gym class, and I challenged her to a fight after school. We met in the soccer field, surrounded by other children. I was chubbier than her, so I just sat on her and sort of slapped her around the head. I was eventually declared the winner. A few years ago she friended me on Facebook, and I declined.
The holiday season was the toughest, I think, because there so many differences between how we celebrated our holidays and everyone else celebrated theirs. I remember being banned from other houses as a younger child during the winter holiday season; I was the only one who didn’t believe in Santa Claus, and I was ruining everyone’s Christmas.
Still, in all of this, I developed a sense of pride in being a Jew. If we were different, weren’t we at least a little bit special?
When my parents first moved to Buffalo Grove, the population was small in general, and while there were plenty of Jews in say, my father’s hometown of Highland Park, about a half hour east of us, they just hadn’t found their way out to us yet.
I called my dad recently and asked him about it.
“There was one other Jewish family on the block, maybe?” I said.
“You have to remember that there were only six to eight thousand people in Buffalo Grove,” he said.
“It was very small,” I agreed.
“When you consider what percentage of the population is Jewish anyhow, you didn’t have a lot. And we were one of the first forty families in our synagogue – we joined in the second year of the synagogue. Everybody who was in the synagogue at that time was well aware of that particular problem in Buffalo Grove.”
I pictured a bunch of Jews in the 1970s gossiping about The Buffalo Grove Problem.
“By the way, Patton Drive has not changed,” he said. “There’s still only two or three Jewish families.”
I don’t know why I find that comforting, but I do.
Earlier this week, Stefanie Pervos Bregman, the editor of Living Jewishly, wrote about engaging 20- and 30- somethings in the Jewish world, Rabbi Jason Miller wrote about exploring commonalities between religions and Rivka Nehorai shared the truth about motherhood. Today we hear from Living Jewishly contributor Rachel Wright.
As a Jewish lay leader who works in corporate America, my identity often shifts between my work world and the time I dedicate as a volunteer within the Jewish community. If you follow me on Twitter or are a friend of mine on Facebook, it truly looks like I only have one dimension.
My favorite remark I get is when acquaintances who may know me well enough to be friends on Facebook but not well enough to know what I do for a living, simply assume and certify as they ask: “You work for Federation, right?” Gathering this assumption—because I simply must—with each event and conference I promote and Jewish holiday I’ll be well-wishing to my network.
What a compliment, I always think. That just means to me that I am doing a good job in my role as a volunteer determined to get as much outreach and engagement as possible.
Truth is, my professional job which allows me to be so involved with community has little to do with my strong Jewish identity at all. Which means my work network couldn’t be any less affiliated.
My Jewish friends across the globe who pride themselves on involvement may relate. How many times have you had to explain that our “missions” to Israel, Ethiopia, Russia, Cuba, Greece or Poland, for example, are not the “missionary” experience our non-Jewish associates want to understand?
Recently, I was in Indianapolis at a national conference for the insurance industry, the field I work in. As much as I give to the Jewish world, I also give to the company allowing me the ability to do so. Driven to grow professionally, I work with people from all walks of life. While entertaining at this conference, a question at dinner literally threw me aback.
As the check was delivered– and after a few glasses of wine– one of the members of my dinner party asked a closing question: “Not to be offensive, as I am sure this doesn’t apply, but does a Jew own your company?”
I sat a little unsettled. In my professional life, I don’t often discuss religion as it’s simply not appropriate. And, as a Detroit-based company, we are fairly diverse with people of many religious backgrounds working together in harmony. But, this question demanded a response.
As a professional in the corporate world who also happens to be Jewish, I knew the only thing I could do worse than be complacent was to laugh or agree with any remark that would potentially follow. This would be even worse than the most ignorant of comments. But, not wanting to be overly strong too early, I softly asked why.
“Because of the name of your company – EHIM. I was recently in Israel with my church, and learned of the Hebrew word Elohim. Is this a root from the origins of your company?”
I breathed easy. His only mistake was approach in the ask. If anything, I felt embarrassed I wasn’t ready to be proud to say not only do I work for a Jewish woman but I also am part of this people.
He simply needed an answer that would also teach him it wasn’t offensive to ask someone if they were of Jewish descent if asked in the appropriate way.
In Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, I was proud to have one of the blogs I wrote for Jewish Federations of North America Young Leadership Cabinet be included. This blog described the journey I went on with an ex-boyfriend, exploring his conversion to Judaism from a very Christian upbringing. Back then, I sat on the sidelines, taking the stance that conversion was to be his private journey as I didn’t want to define his sense and understanding of our very deep tradition and beliefs.
Nearly three years later and on the other side, I see things a bit differently. As someone who aspires to grow into the very important role as a Jewish leader, one of the lessons I must learn is that we are not simply leading the Jewish people to follow or help guide them to find their way. We are leading a worldwide community that may not share our religion or tradition – but can follow through understanding and a mutual respect we have for each other.
We don’t need to preach to those who don’t ask. But we need to always be true to who we are. That is the way we lead by example and the way we continue to evolve change throughout the world.
Earlier this week, Stefanie Pervos Bregman, the editor of Living Jewishly, wrote about engaging 20- and 30- somethings in the Jewish world and Rabbi Jason Miller wrote about exploring commonalities between religions. Today we hear from Living Jewishly contributor Rivka Nehorai.
And I thought that I should embrace my youth and hold onto it for dear life
until the wheel passed.
No one ever warned me
that becoming a mom is that much cooler,
in which your level of control and insight, wisdom and laughter
expands beyond yourself and your own dreams
into this greater complex organism.
No one ever whispered
that pregnancy was wild,
squirmy little baby within,
no need for air, thank you very much, just squirming around.
I made that, I laugh smugly to myself. Cool! (With help from the One Above, etc)
And I wonder- Why all the secrets? Why all the hushhush? Why pretend that college life is the best, or young and free is the ideal?
It’s not true, I tell you, it’s a lie, a lie that’s spreading across America.
I can assure you, I am much cooler now than I ever was then. With droplets of time for myself, a whole new mission, and a new direction and explosion in life.
Spread the word.
As a Jewish blogger and editor, I always say that the period leading up to Jewish Book Month is one of my favorite times of the year. So many books come across my desk for review—I only wish I had the time to read them all. Each author, each new book, is not just a potential article for my magazine or blog post. To me, every author—whether they write fiction or non-fiction— is a storyteller, adding their own piece to our collective Jewish story.
This year the tables have turned, and I’m the one hoping and wishing that Jewish editors and writers will choose my book from among the great pile for review—the thought makes me feel proud, humble and frightened all at once.
In putting together my new anthology, Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, I hoped to be a storyteller as well. In the Jewish world, engaging 20- and 30-somethings is a hot button issue—questions like ‘How do we get young Jews to feel connected to Israel? To affiliate with traditional Jewish institutions? To care about Jewish continuity, ritual and tradition?’ float around waiting to be answered.
As a member of this elusive generation myself, I live and breathe these questions in my personal life and as a Jewish professional. As I recently completed my master’s degree in Jewish professional studies, I became determined to tell the story of my generation.
To get started, I sent out a call for stories to my peers:
Are you a Jewish 20- or 30-something with a story to tell? Do you want to be part of a collection of voices that together tell the unique story of our generation?
Within hours, my email box was flooded. I received close to 50 submissions—all remarkable, rich and more diverse than I could have ever imagined.
In Living Jewishly, I put these essays together to create a window into our Jewish lives and identities. Each essay is beautiful, unique, brutally honest and revealing. In truth, it is my contributors who are the real storytellers—without them, the story, the picture, would not be complete.
I often think about what it means to really be a storyteller. To me, this is not a title to be taken lightly. With it comes certain responsibility, not just to inform, but to do so artfully, shedding light on topics that may otherwise have been left untold.
While I don’t think I’ve solved the mystery of my generation, I do have some insights into the types of stories we want to tell. However it is that we express ourselves Jewishly, I’m certain that every Jewish 20- or 30-something has an interesting story to tell—and maybe all we need is the opportunity to tell it.
The first title of a book that I remember with clarity is QB VII. It seemed so odd, with letters instead of words. My mother is an avid reader, and because there were no public libraries in our town, she saved every book. I grew up with bookcases lining the hallways, the shelves weighted down with novels. From the time I was very young, Mom would, on occasion, give me books she thought I needed to read. I was about 12 when she handed me QB VII, and then all the other novels by Leon Uris. Mom said that family members she had never met in Germany had died during the Holocaust, and because I did not know their names, every victim I read about in the novels became my family.
I never imagined, when I was reading Uris, that one day I would actually write – and publish – novels.
I like to joke that my first novel, A Good Indian Wife, is pure fiction…it is also purely Indian. The second novel, The Invitation, is more personal because my character Jonathan is Jewish, like my mother; is a doctor like my grandfather; and lives in Marin, which is across the bay from Berkeley, where my mother grew up. Jonathan also gave me an entrée into the Jewish Book Council. I almost did not send in my application for the JBC Network, because I feared that though I am Jewish, I had not been brought up celebrating Jewish holidays, which mirrors Jonathan’s experience, but left me feeling I wasn’t Jewish enough. I calmed down when I realized that many of my friends in the US had been raised the same way. They, too, had not been to a synagogue until their twenties.
Mom was very excited when I told her I was going to New York to make a 2 minute presentation. She didn’t ask me what I was going to say. She only said: “Be proud. I want you to stand there and be proud.”