I was 28 before I first saw the Statue of Liberty in person. I’d been accepted to grad school in New York City, and my husband (then fiancé) and I flew out together to see the school—and, in my case, to see the city for the first time. It was a hasty trip, with a red-eye flight and a hodgepodge itinerary. We had friends of friends in Chelsea, and they graciously allowed us to crash at their place. It turned out they lived on one of the busiest corners in the city, and the incessant cab-honking kept us awake most of the night. It was a very New York welcome.
That first afternoon, still fuzzy with jet lag, we took a walk out to the Hudson Park greenway. At Chelsea Piers we stopped to watch the trapeze students swinging through the air above us, looking nervous in their leotards and safety harnesses. We walked out to the end of one of the piers, and that’s where I caught my first real-life glimpse of her.
Wow, I thought. Here I am. There she is.
At that distance she was just a slim gray silhouette, motionless on her pedestal. Tour boats churned at her feet; helicopters swooped past her like dragonflies. She seemed like the only still object in a moving world. Looking at her, I felt what I’d later come recognize as a particularly New York-style cognitive dissonance: the weird fact of this huge, iconic thing just sitting there, minding her own business, while the city went about its afternoon.
A few years after I stood on Chelsea Pier, I gave a character in The Golem and the Jinni the traditional immigrant arrival in America: a steamship cruising past the statue, the waving hands and the tears of joy. Except that my character is far from a traditional immigrant. She’s a golem, newly created and alone. She has no knowledge or understanding of the statue; she doesn’t even know what liberty is—though she’s newly liberated herself, her master having just died. But she recognizes that the people around her love the statue, and she takes comfort in the fact that it is clearly a constructed woman, like herself.
If you think about it, the Statue of Liberty is an oddity among monuments. We Americans like our statues to be of real people, of presidents and heroes and civic leaders. But the Statue of Liberty is a personification, a portrait of an idea, and a female one to boot. (Name one other woman whose face is so closely associated with the idea of America.) She’s become such an everyday image that it’s hard to remember that The Statue of Liberty isn’t just her name, but her function, the purpose for which she was built. A Statue, representing Liberty. And as it turns out, Bartholdi and his workers were merely her first set of creators. In the years that followed she was brought to life again and again, a multitude of animations, as each immigrant en route to Ellis Island filled her with a new set of hopes and fears, longings and disappointments. In that sense, she’s the ultimate American golem.
As this is my first post, please allow me to introduce myself: I am the author of Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself, which tells the story of a secular Jewish kid (me) who moves from New York to Mississippi, where he is forced by his mother to pretend he is a Christian. As an adult, I determine to understand what place, if any, there is in the religion of his birth for a kid who sang lead in an Episcopal school choir, studied the Bible, and took Communion. There’s more to it—everything from Jewish Catholic priests in New Mexico to my ten-minute bar mitzvah as a 38-year-old—but that’s a fair start to understanding where I’m coming from.
I sometimes struggle to explain what renewed my interested in Judaism. As I write in the book: “I visited a Holocaust Memorial site on vacation in the Czech Republic (it moved me to be sure, but not in this direction); I had children (I love them but that didn’t do it either); I lost members of my family (I miss my grandparents but I’m not [doing this] for them). The truth, banal as it might sound, is that I simply wanted to know. Or, more precisely, I needed to. Like my mother, I had my own myth to make real. Only mine, instead of entailing the abandonment of a specific and defined heritage, would require its embrace.”
So I lack a simple answer for what motivated the project and process of answering my question. I do, however, remember the specific thing that convinced me re-enter the world of Judaism, in my own way: the Manhattan eruv. Most readers of this blog, I assume, are familiar both with the concept of eruvin as well as the unique history of the one located in Manhattan (You may not, however, know, that a certain Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side holds a—admittedly ceremonial—99-year lease on the entire island, at the bargain price of just one dollar), but I didn’t, and when I happened one day some years ago to notice the wires of the Manhattan crisscrossing the avenue outside of my office, I was inspired enough to learn.
The presence of this massive, symbolic Jewish household suggested something a few, very important things to me: first, I was in a Jewish world already and I didn’t know; second, that world was complex and meaningful, even if I couldn’t really accept its spiritual underpinnings; and last, and most important, if I didn’t make the effort to see that house—that world—it would, for all practical purposes, not exist. Now, I wander the city doing something very un-New York: looking up, scanning the streetlights for evidence of eruvin.
Francesca Segal’s novel The Innocents is now available.
I would never have set out to recast a classic, Pulitzer-winning American novel– it seemed the height of chutzpah. But once the idea took up residence in my mind it proved impossible to dislodge. I was living in New York when I read it – far away from the Jewish community in north-west London in which I have lived for most of my life. And, reading a novel set in 1870’s haute New York society, I felt such an unexpected, urgent, vivid sense of recognition that I could no longer imagine writing another word until I had written this. The trappings were different but the social concerns, the pressures, the closeness and longevity of friendships, the judgement, the parochialism, and the paramount importance of What Everybody Thinks – it was just the same. Golden Age New York to Golders Green. The central dilemmas remain essential and unresolved.
Wharton’s novel provided a vehicle; a means to explore certain questions that intrigued me. What is it that makes a good marriage? Is it friendship and common interest, or is it passion? Is romantic love the cornerstone of a happy life? Are there other loves – parental, familial, communal – that can be equally fulfilling, or do they remain hollow without a driving passion for one soul beside you? I have heard both cases put with eloquence and conviction, and I wanted to examine these, amongst other ideas. I would never presume to tell a reader how to interpret my novel – I adore the conflicting emails I’ve had from readers – equally impassioned messages of either joy or outrage on discovering the choice that Adam ultimately makes between Rachel and Ellie; between safety and freedom; between family and passion.
You can join Francesca Segal and Jewish Book Council on July 16th for a Twitter Book Club conversation.
“Hava Nagila“ (Hebrew: הבה נגילה) (lit. “Let us rejoice”) is a Hebrew folk song that has become a staple of band performers at Jewish weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. The melody was taken from a Ukrainian folk song from Bukovina. The commonly used text was probably composed by Abraham Zevi (Zvi) Idelsohn in 1918 to celebrate the British victory in Palestine during World War I as well as the Balfour Delcaration. (From Wikipedia)
Yesterday was some day- I almost cannot remember the clock moving; it began early in the day at Shul and ended late at night. It was a day of constant motion and if I would fill you in on the details of the day… well, suffice to say we could sell such stories to ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not’!
At about 5 pm, I find myself at my next challenge of an already hectic day: attempting to find parking on the island of Manhattan. Finally, I spot a garage and quickly turn my vehicle into the lot with about 10 minutes to spare for my 5:13 pm appointment in mid-town New York.
As I open my door and begin to exit, the dark-skinned attendant and his side quick greet me with a smile. They could be African-American, Latino, Indian, Bangladeshi, Arab or perhaps Sephardic Jews (however, that last choice is very unlikely).
As I am step totally out of the car and place my hat on my head, suddenly my parking pals burst out in a spontaneous rendition of Hava Nageela.
At first I am totally shocked by this unexpected occurrence of being ‘bageled’ – by these perfect parking strangers. After all, here I am in the middle of Manhattan as these two men of unknown lineage are serenading me to the tune of Hava Nageela.
As I am in a rush (which seems more and more to be the norm of my life and not the exception) – I am somewhat turned off by this unneeded and bothersome waste of time.
However, as I looked at their smiling faces and their genuine attempt to connect with me on my terms I realized that this impromptu medley came from a good and pure place of the human experience; namely their want and their desire to connect to another human being in friendship.
With this epiphany in hand, not only was I no longer agitated by this spontaneous song, I was elated.
Indeed, this was exactly the G-d send I needed to cheer me up on this stress ridden and difficult day. In less time than you can say “Uru aḥim! Uru aḥim b’lev sameaḥ” I joined their duet and we immediately created the ‘Nageela Trio’ in the middle of a cold night in Manhattan.
On and on we went, “Hava Nageela, Hava Nageela….” as the three of us sang the night away – well, that’s somewhat of an exaggeration as in truth our opening rendition lasted about thirty seconds; however, the joy and fun we had was real and meaningful- not to mention great fodder for today’s blog.
Why ignore those moments which are so precious and so meaningful when you connect with another person in joy and simcha? Why ignore someone when they reach out to you on your terms? If nothing else, at least acknowledge and smile back – it will change your day.
To whoever is reading–
I’ve had some complaints regarding my recent appearance on Conan, promoting my new book, 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. Some Jews (I’m assuming here) were a little offended by my poking fun at my experiences with childhood Haredi life. I said they looked like fat Amish penguins and that they were weird. But seriously, I mean is any of that in dispute?
Now, normally, I try and pay anonymous complaints no heed as I have long since come to terms with the fact that when you make jokes, especially sharp prickly ones, you will invariably bruise the tender sensibilities of someone and that the anonymous and instantly accessible nature of the internet gives those bruised peaches an instant platform to lodge their grievances. But I’ve been thinking about it and I thought, since I’m being asked to blog for MyJewishLearning and Jewish Book Council, that I might try and clarify myself and my jokes and my Jewishness.
I grew up in a bifurcated existence, floating between the supernatural realms of Chassidus and the concrete pragmatism of secularization. I’m an anomaly. A rare breed that is both “frum from birth” and “off the derech” in sharp strong veins that ran, right next to one another, interweaving themselves into a confusing rope almost long enough to hang myself with.
My father moved to Seagate, and married into a Satmar family when it became clear that my mother – who took us on a “vacation” to Oakland early in my life — was not going to return. He was a unique man, a brilliant dynamo who painted and performed in the Lower East Side and according to family legend was asked by Marcel Marceau, seeing his pantomime genius, to join him as a “mime in training.” All the messy blurs of the art world were turned into sharp edges when he found Chassidus and returned to the shtark world of frumkeit.
My mother, who stole us away in the night, kept that mess and turned it into kindling for a bright jumbled fire that illuminated our home and kept us warm. Her relationship with Judaism was casual and ambivalent, no doubt poisoned a bit by her rocky marriage to my father.
I was born in the middle ground. To my left was modernism, to my right was minhag. The runoff of both experiences was churning white water that I had to learn how to paddle down, desperate to keep my head above water. Eventually, I learned how to make jokes about all of it and those jokes became flotation devices. They buoyed me and kept me breathing.
And though, if you read the book you will see how deeply and severely I sank later on, I used those jokes to keep me as afloat as I could be, even as I got smacked around on the rocks. Kasher In The Rye is a book where I expose my soft underbelly to the world and tell the tale of my teenage descent into drug addiction, violence, insanity and crime. But it’s a comedy. How can such dark fodder be funny?
My God, how can it not?
If I hadn’t learned to laugh at it, all of it, it would have swallowed me whole and I’d probably not be your blogger this week. I’d likely be dead. So you’ll forgive me if I laugh at you. I’m really just laughing at myself. It never occurred to me that my childhood wasn’t my own to joke about. But I see now that, when bringing that childhood into the public for everyone to enjoy, and hopefully to relate to, that I’m joking about your childhood too. If I offend anyone with my gallows humor, please know that I was born on a gallows and and I’m telling jokes to stave off execution. If you’d like to take my place up here you are welcome.
This isn’t an apology. God forbid. I’m not sorry at all for turning my experiences into jokes, it’s what I do. This is a clarification. I love Jews and Jewishness. I love Chassidus and tradition. I love it sincerely and I love to make fun of it too. Honestly if you don’t think there is anything hilarious about living in 21st-century America but pretending fashion wise that its 1820′s Hungary, then you take yourself too damn seriously. I think the Baal Shem Tov would probably agree with me but who the f*ck am I to speak for him? I’m just a clown. But I think we need clowns as much as we need rebbes.
Suffice to say that the sense of connection did not last forever, at least not in that unalloyed state. As time wore on, and I spent increasingly more time in the neighborhood, the epiphanic moments–I think of them now as moments of sheer electricity–became less common. Sometimes, they were replaced sometimes by more ordinary joys: Tours through rambling Crown Heights homes, evenings in the storefront shuls and grand temples, sprawling meals with gracious hosts, small gifts of kindness from strangers who have since become friends.
Sometimes, that initial electricity was replaced by fatigue, anger, and frustration. (Hasidim have never been particularly fond of the mainstream press, and I had more doors slammed in my face than I care to count.) And sometimes it was replaced by a deep and abiding sense of alienation.
By 2009, when I signed the contract to write Among Righteous Men, the scope of the project had expanded––I was no longer interested only in the Shmira, but also in the Shomrim, a rival group of Hasidic vigilantes competing for control of the same Crown Heights turf. The Shomrim and Shmira had once been united under a single shield, but in the late ‘90s, infighting consumed the organization, and the two groups had since set up shop on opposite ends of Crown Heights. In 2009, with the apparent help of one of the Shmira members, six Shomrim volunteers were charged with felony gang assault, in a case dating back to 2007.
According to the Brooklyn DA, the Shomrim, responding to a call of distress from a Crown Heights yeshiva dormitory, had punched, strangled, and kicked their way through a crowd of rabbinical students. The Shomrim, for their part, claimed to have been ambushed by the students, or bochurim.
The gang assault trial, which began in the fall of 2009, was a particularly painful experience for the Shomrim, who believed they had been stabbed in the back by members of their own community. Making matters worse was the fact that accusers and accused fell on opposite sides of a religious schism which had roiled Jewish Crown Heights for years.
The rabbinical students, I came to understand, were messianists, who believed that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had been the messiah––the Jew who would usher in the second coming of man. That Schneerson was dead, and buried in Queens, did not diminish their fervor: He could still come back, they reasoned; holy men had before.
The members of the Shomrim, on the other hand, considered themselves to be moderates, who loved their Rebbe, but were embarrassed and uncertain at the fevered pronouncements of the messianists. (I want to stress that I am working here in very broad strokes. Messianist beliefs in Crown Heights, or lack thereof, fall on a wide spectrum, which encompass outspoken messianists, passive messianists, passive moderates, outspoken anti-messianists, and every stripe in between. The distinctions are sometimes described as existing on a “sliding scale.”)
In this light, the brawl at the dormitory took on a different light. It was a not just a fist-fight. It was a religious struggle––a struggle for the soul of Crown Heights itself. This was drama, I thought. This was Shakespearian––that adjective of choice of editors and jacket copy writers. It was a house divided. It was the Hatfields and McCoys, the Hasidic edition.
In the fall of the 2009, I spent several weeks in Brooklyn Supreme Court, observing the criminal trial against the Shomrim. (Want to know how the whole fiasco ended? Well, you’ll have to read Among Righteous Men.) I knew the trial would be the backbone of my book, but I felt there was much of Crown Heights that remained out of reach to me, and in the afternoons, after the court sessions had ended, I took the 2 train out to Crown Heights, to chat with acquaintances or hunt down additional sources.
I was frequently forced to perform strange feats in order to obtain an interview. Once, for instance, I spent an evening in an underground matzos factory, waiting for an potential source to finish firing the bread––a scene I describe in a 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine. I strapped on tefillin, drank a lot of vodka, recited prayers. I accompanied a Lubavitch friend and Shomrim member to the Hunts Point Market, deep in the Bronx, at half past three in the morning, in order to hear a story about a fist-fight which my friend assured me I would find very interesting indeed. (He was right.)
I was almost always treated with respect, although there were exceptions. Because my book would deal with the rift between messianists and moderates, I needed to spend time talking with both groups. And yet Crown Heights is an exceptionally small place, geographically and otherwise, and since I was always dressed in “civilian” clothes—jeans and a fleece—my progress across the neighborhood was easy to track. I regularly received phone calls from moderates, who wanted to know what the hell I was doing talking to messianists; later, a messianist would call, and ask me what the hell I was doing with a moderate. Usually, these calls were friendly, but sometimes not. I can recall vividly one instance where I returned home to my apartment, in Park Slope, where my girlfriend had prepared dinner; no sooner had I sat down than my phone began to ring.
I recognized the number—the caller was a man I had interviewed two days before. I figured he had forgotten to tell me something. But when I picked up, he unleashed a barrage of profanities, beginning withmotherf**ker and ending with motherf**king traitor. As it turned out, he had assumed I was sympathetic to the messianist cause, but his cousin—“a man I trust and love, a good man”—had seen me “palling around” with a bunch of “no-good mossers,” or “rats.” Moderates, in other words.
“You should be very careful,” the man told me.
“Thank you,” I said. “I will.”
“Because,” he added, “there’s always someone watching. Do you get what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” I said, and hung up. I must have blanched considerably, because my girlfriend eyed me worriedly, and reached across the table to take my hand. “Are you OK?” she said.
I was, but the whole incident helped take the sheen off the kinetic connection I had first felt to Crown Heights. Of course, as I should have known from the beginning, despite the religious and historical aura that surrounds the neighborhood, Crown Heights is really just a world like any other, full of terrible joys and also the usual bitterness and anger.