And here’s the long (…well, a few days) -awaited review of the second book I finished this past week. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the recent past, and I think a lot of people will find something about it they’d like, so here’s a review for Hush, by Eishes Chayil (pseudonym).

Hush takes place between 2000 and 2008/2010 in Boro Park, the most Jewish section of New York. Gittel Klein, a 9-year-old girl in one of the most religiously observant of sects, witnesses some unspeakably horrible occurrences revolving around her best friend Devory Goldblatt, and 8-10 years later, as a young newlywed, her life changes forever when old feelings from the past bubble up to the surface, threatening to explode her marriage, her family, and her community.

(Wow, that’s like, the most concise plot synopsis I’ve ever written. Good job, laconic me.)

It was hard to put this book down. On Friday night, I willed myself to stay awake until the words on the page became mush, and I spent Saturday afternoon, when I should have been studying, engrossed in Gittel’s world for several hours outside on my new chaise on the sixth floor terrace. Eishes Chayil (real name: Judy Brown) weaves a compelling tale that effortlessly jumps from past to present and back again. The only real criticism I have is that Gittel’s sister is alternatively referred to as “Surie” and “Surela” so it took me until about halfway through the book to realize that they were the same person. The emotions that I felt while reading this book ranged from shock to horror to embarrassment to shame. It was as if Gittel was navigating her own way in this world populated by crazy people, from her marriage-obsessed parents to her painfully awkward husband to her teachers, who said some of the worst things.

Although I have not experienced any of the kinds of domestic/sexual abuses seen in Hush (for which I am thankful), I can only imagine that this book provides a hint of the soul-crushing experience it can be, not just on the victim but on those who love her, and those who don’t understand what is going on to their friend. What makes it worse is that Gittel had nowhere to turn to, and no one who would (or could) tell her the truths which she deserved to know. It makes it seem understandable, then, why she acts the way she does as a 19-year-old who has the wherewithal to go to the police; the code of silence under which she has been pulled has pervaded her worldview to the point that she has no frame of reference, and that if she has been lied to her whole life by her family, why wouldn’t those outside her family lie to her as well. What’s even sadder than what happens to Gittel and Devory is again, how those who are older and presumably wiser (just about everyone else in the story) is so blinded by status and marriage prospects that the welfare of their own little girls suffers. And with how the abuser’s story goes – well, let’s just say that it makes Brock Turner’s punishment look harsh by comparison.

Of course, there was predictable backlash from within the Jewish community, especially Orthodox, and Chabad Lubavitcher circles. However, having read some of those reviews, like this one from JewishMom.com, there might be a case of tunnel vision going on; it’s not about that at all. For what I think is a more accurate review, from a Jewish standpoint at least, is this one from Hella Winston of The Jewish Week.

I can’t speak for the Chabad or Hassidic communities, but as an Orthodox Jewish person and a human, I thought that this book was absolutely necessary, and regardless of the Jewish facts and descriptions, it’s the story of a community, their behavior, and the consequences that result from willful ignorance of evil and wrongdoing. Even if the author exaggerated some aspects of Boro Park Jewish life – so what? It’s fiction and she had a point to make. She didn’t go out to write some kind of abuse expose – she could if she would have wanted to, and that would be a completely different book – it’s a story she has lived with for quite a while, and fictionalized in an artful way without pointing fingers at any one group of people, with all the fake names and pseudonyms she uses, all the way up to her own name, for the first year of the book’s publication.

Go pick yourself up a copy of Hush. Come on, don’t be too shy-shy.

This book review was brought to you by bad 80s pun, some delicious strawberry sangria, and The Bachelorette.

Here’s some music.


Turbulence: You May Experience Jerks

The title pretty much says it all.

But to give you some context, it started this morning, when I was supposed to be getting ready for class but reading Facebook on my phone as usual, and I came across an article from a newspaper in New Zealand about this. By the time I had thought of a response, I had long lost the link, so I found an almost identical article here, in the Washington Post.

The article I linked above adds some scenarios that I didn’t encounter in the New Zealand article, so I’m just going to focus on the first one. It happened on an El Al airplane leaving New York (Kennedy, presumably) for Tel Aviv. Several dozen Orthodox Jewish men, some of them rabbis, refused to take seats near women, as Jewish law forbids close contact with non-related women, see one of my negia posts for more on that. After getting all the men seated, the plane finally took off, only for the men to stand back up during the flight and congregate in the aisles, rather than sitting next to women. This made life difficult for everyone else on that eleven hour trans-Atlantic flight, especially when the men offered passengers money to switch seats before takeoff.

I have to say, well done rabbis. You sure showed that plane full of people your true colors. Well, your true monochrome, that is. Now, you’ve not only gotten yourselves a reputation for being jerks, but this stunt will absolutely do wonders for the image of Jews, specifically the Orthodox, around the world. The world is not tailor-made for Jewish people; I’ve learned that the hard way, going to school on Jewish holidays and not being able to eat much from menus in places like Applebee’s, Wendy’s or the entire state of Louisiana. You’re right in the fact that it’s just not fair sometimes. But you have to pick your battles, and when you’re faced with being stuck in a giant metal tube for eleven hours with one hundred or so other people who are trying to live their lives, just sit your ass down and make your your seat belt is securely fastened. This whole not-sitting-next-to-women crap has gone way too far. The Talmud says that men and women may touch in unavoidable situations or during goal-oriented tasks, such as passing plates around a table, doing the laundry, or moving furniture. Why can’t travel fall under the same category? After all, nobody goes on a plane just to sit there and do stuff for the rest of their lives; it’s a temporary situation, so open your book, crank some Miami Boys Choir up to full volume and suck it up. The fact that it’s almost Rosh Hashanah makes it even worse. It’s like, you want to get written in the Book of Life? Try acknowledging other human beings.

I actually have two personal stories about this. The first happened in Israel. I was flying back from Cyprus, and my then-girlfriend surprised me at the airport to accompany me back to Jerusalem in a sherut (shared taxi). The principle of the sherut, especially at Ben Gurion Airport, is that you hand the driver your suitcase and pile in, sitting wherever there is a seat. Not a hard concept. It was late at night, and in our sherut there happened to be, other than us and the driver, five others: an elderly couple, a secular Jewish guy, another guy, and a younger Haredi woman traveling alone, which is a rarity. There were plenty of seats in the van, so we clambered into the back row. The couple sat in two of the front seats, and the Haredi lady sat alone next to a window. The secular Jewish guy enters the van and sits right next to Haredi lady, who asks him to give her some space, because she’d rather not sit next to him. He moves, but as soon as we’re all packed in and the motor starts, he lets Haredi lady have it, laying into her for being a Haredi, always wanting her own way, not living in this century, having so many extra privileges for being religious, and so on. Keep in mind that it’s creeping close to midnight, and we’re all tired. Haredi lady says something back to him, and he keeps going. I can barely see her face in the moonlight, but she looks like she’s on the verge of tears, so the other guy and the elderly couple come to her rescue, while we watch bemusedly from the backseat. It basically lasts the whole ride back to J’lem, not letting up until he gets out. Thankfully, he’s the first stop. After he is off, she breathes a sigh of relief.

The second story happened at Kennedy Airport on New Year’s Eve. I was on my way to Vienna, Austria, to meet DAT for the Slovakia Winter Retreat and I was boarding the plane for the first leg of the trip: New York to Zurich, Switzerland on Swiss Air. Not a lot of people fly on NYE, which is fantastic, because there is plenty of leg room. It seemed like I was among the only American on the flight. Everyone else was either going back to Switzerland, a religious Jew connecting to Israel, or a brightly-clothed African who, as I later learned, were all connecting to Douala, Cameroon. I get to my seat, and there is a super-religious Israeli girl about my age sitting in the window seat of the row. In my pajama pants, Edward Gorey t-shirt, and bright green DAT headband, I look anything but Jewish. She very visibly rolls her eyes and starts chattering in Hebrew to her friend who is standing right there. I did not catch all of what she was saying, but she was mostly bitching about having to sit next to a boy the whole time and how much this flight was going to suck. All while I’m sitting right there, pretending to stare off into space but actually listening and understanding most of their conversation.

People are starting to settle into their seats, and a lovely flight attendant comes over to me and asks me for my meal preference. She then asks if the religious girl is also sitting in this row; by this point, she has gotten out of the seat and is standing in the aisle pouting. She then addresses her directly, that she needs to sit down so she can get her meal preference, and the girl either ignores her or does not understand her English. I whisper to the flight attendant that I can speak Hebrew, and I proceed to get Miss Orthodox Jewish Bitchface’s attention by locking eyes with her and saying in rapid and pretty-well-accented (if I say so myself) Hebrew something along the lines of:

“Listen, honey. This nice lady wants to know if you’re sitting here, so you can get the food you want.”

The religious girl doesn’t look so much surprised as she does disgusted that I’m even talking to her (in her own language!) and says something like:

“Maybe I’ll sit here, maybe I’ll sit over there with my friend, I don’t know, whatever.”

I translate this to the flight attendant, who tells me she needs the girl to sit down in a seat because we are preparing for takeoff and she needs to know what the hell this girl wants to eat. Just doing her job. I translate this into Hebrew and convey it to the religious girl, who walks off in a huff with her nose in the air. Turns out I will not be seeing her for the remainder of the flight.

I turn to the flight attendant:

“Yeah, so from the bitchy display we just saw, I take it she’s not going to be eating on this flight. And if she gets hungry, well, tough luck.”

I earn some brownie points with the flight attendant, whose life is made easier by drawing a line through the religious girl’s name on her list. I feel powerful, and a little bad that she won’t get any food, but frankly, with the way she talked about me in front of my face and how she brushed off both me and the flight attendant, she didn’t deserve the delicious hot rolls and free champagne. If you don’t want to cooperate with me, someone who is trying to help you potentially get the food that you want/need, fine. But don’t take it out on a lady who’s just doing her job.

People. Entitled people.

Anyway, gentlemen…you can always swim across.


Works Cited

Sullivan, Gail. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews delay El Al flight, refusing to sit near women.” Morning Mix. The Washington Post. 26 September 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/09/26/ultra-orthodox-jews-delay-el-al-flight-refusing-to-sit-near-women/&gt;


Born and Raised in the Ortho-docks

Today, while enjoying a tuna melt at Cool Beans Cafe, I finished reading The Men’s Section by Elana Maryles Sztokman. I’ve already cited her book in a few past posts as I was reading it, so this won’t be merely a review; rather, the third in a series surrounding the topic.

Just go with it.

The Men’s Section is an examination of Orthodox egalitarianism in the twenty-first century. Sztokman starts with her “Orthodox Man” box, and then goes into ethnographic interviews with her subjects and explanations of the mechanisms behind Shira Hadasha, her Israeli egalitarian minyan. At the end, she offers some conclusions; some far-reaching, others not.

Let me start off by saying that on the whole, I enjoyed the book. I felt like it applied more to Israelis than Americans, but having lived in Israel I could see both sides. There are huge differences between Israeli Orthodoxy and American Orthodoxy, and Sztokman covers it well. In American Orthodoxy, we tend to err on the right side – not right as in “correct” but right as in “conservative.” When a question arises, generally the stricter opinion wins out and becomes fact, which is why American Orthodoxy is moving in that direction.

As for Sztokman’s descriptions and arguments for the egalitarian minyan, I agree with some and disagree with others.

On women carrying the Torah: I agree with her that women can and should hold and carry the Torah. The reasons why they cannot are antiquated and need to be changed; there’s absolutely no reason why the Torah should be taken away from the hands of an Orthodox Jew. Women like my grandmother carried families over from Europe, and they carry families into the future, so being denied the privilege of carrying the Torah seems rather gauche and silly in those terms.

On women reading the Torah: Initially, I was taken aback by this, and when Sztokman shared the vignette about Lisa, the congregant who volunteered to read Torah but dropped out at the last minute because she had other things to attend to, I felt like maybe Sztokman was wrong. But then again, that only contributes to the pressure-cooker nature of leining, and sometimes men have similar excuses. On the other hand, I have heard some pretty impressive women leading services and some pretty unimpressive men. This is one I’ll have to experience before deciding upon.

On American vs. Israeli Orthodox levels: Sztokman brings up that being labeled as “Conservative” or “Reform” could be considered emasculating for some Israeli men, even more so than “secular” connotates, and how identification with American Orthodoxy can add to that sentiment. Americans, whether Jewish or not, have a tendency to be thought of as spoiled, since unlike the soldiers and kibbutzniks of Israel, Americans are Starbucks and iPhone wielding luxury car drivers who’ve never had to put their life on the line for their country, spending all day sitting in air-conditioned offices and sleeping comfortably without a care for the rest of the world. At least a secular Israeli Orthodox Jew has most likely done army service, had a bar mitzvah, and paid his dues religiously, physically, and financially for the state, and is taking a hiatus (whether temporary or permanent) from the derech. With “secular,” there remains that idea of “I can jump back in anytime I want,” whereas “Conservative” and “Reform” require changes in doctrine sometimes seen as “excuses” by the Orthodox. Because secular Judaism isn’t as much of a thing here as it is in Israel, I’d say that American Orthodox men have a much rougher time deviating at all from the mainstream.

But enough about Sztokman. This post is called “Born and Raised in the Ortho-Docks,” so let me transition from repeating some of the same information as in the two previous entries on this book and go a little further into the “docks.”

In one of the earlier entries, I mentioned a rabbi/teacher of mine who was incredulous at a Chabadnik’s proffering of tefillin on the streets of Washington, DC. One year, I had that rabbi for a tanach (bible) class, and we were studying the part of Genesis focusing on Noah’s Ark. We embarked on a class discussion about the story and the midrash (commentary) behind the flood. I mentioned a book that I had – actually, the delightfully illustrated and aptly-titled Stories of the Flood by Uma Krishnaswami – which told stories of flood mythology around from China to Liberia, and that we should look at other cultures’ flood stories and see how they compared. Several people in class were interested in the idea and eventually borrowed the book from me, but our teacher disapproved of this conversation. I asked him about it after class, and he said that it wouldn’t be worth our time. Curriculum notwithstanding, the fact that he wasn’t even interested in enriching the discussion with inclusions of other cultures – not to change our views, but to compare and contrast, and maybe even learn more about Noah and his ark – told me that he wasn’t interested in anything else but one way of seeing things. Another time, a rabbi said that feng shui is “avoda zara” which is a fancy way of saying sinful. When the yearbook interviewed a new rabbi at the school, when asked his favorite book, of course he answered “the Bible,” which almost makes me wish I hadn’t just used that Jennifer Aniston “what a load of crap” gif last week. Such a textbook, cop-out rabbi answer. I mean, would it kill your reputation to admit that you had other interests, by picking, oh, I don’t know…Eat, Pray, Love, Fahrenheit 451, Winnie the Pooh or any of the other bazillions of books out there that you AREN’T paid to teach, and that you haven’t obviously spent the majority of your adult life studying? And would it kill you to wear colors, or ANYTHING other than the interchangeable black-jacket-white-shirt-black-pants combination that makes you look like you only own one outfit?

This was my world. At least, my public world, my high school, my community. Stick to the formula and you’ll be fine. Even though I did feel the pressure, especially when I didn’t fit in with the “in-group” at my synagogue or my school, I knew that others were not as lucky as I was. At least I had television, secular music, secular books, and the freedom to choose my own interests outside of school. I had the freedom of going to college where I wanted and studying what I wanted. Had I not had access to those things, who knows where I’d be today and what I’d be doing. Though my parents grew up in different parts of Baltimore, both of them had life experience that mixed Judaism with secular life in a healthy way. They had no interest of imposing a TA/TI/Bais Yaakov environment on me and my sister; it wasn’t the way that they grew up. Both of my parents had been to religious schools, secular schools, private colleges, and big universities. Both have had jobs that have taken them deeper inside and further outside the Jewish community, and there were things that they liked and disliked about both oeuvres. Even my dad, whose upbringing was more observant than mine, attended mixers and socials that don’t exist Orthodox Jewish Baltimore today. He also got to dance on The Buddy Deane Show. To their credit, my parents allowed me and my sister to have non-Jewish friends, and took us to shows at the Mechanic and at CenterStage.

When my parents were out of the picture, however, Judaism could get stone-cold. Emotionless. Sometimes I felt less-than because in my family, we did use the telephone and television on Shabbat; the former, due to elderly grandparents, and the latter, because my dad resented not being able to watch Saturday baseball games growing up, and never the one to emit a double-standard, let the TV babysit us on Shabbat when we were not occupied by friends. Sometimes I felt less-than because my mom wore pants and did not cover her hair, like some of my female teachers and other friends’ mothers. Sometimes, I felt restricted because I couldn’t go to the theatre or play on the computer on Shabbat, like the rest of the world could, especially at times like when Cartoon Network held a Friday-night cartoon screening at Towson University or that Friday night when the seventh Harry Potter hit the shelves on a Friday night and bookstores went bonkers. Not being able to go to a fast food restaurant or have expensive, gelatin-laden candy was a bummer, although future me is grateful that I didn’t have those things.

Growing up American and Orthodox, there definitely is a “prove yourself” factor that Israelis have less of. In America, Jews are a minority, and Orthodox Jews, a minority within a minority; in Israel, it’s the opposite. Plus, the American spirit of competition urges us – yes, men and women – to compete with one another and the outside world to “prove” our Jewishness. This is where the masculinity element comes in as well. Even though it’s refreshing to hear that jerks who call out when the Torah reader messes up occurs in Israel, in America, it’s always been a huge turn-off for me. For some reason, I’m reminded of that line from the Salute Your Shorts theme song, “get it right or pay the price.” Only in this case, the price is temporary public humiliation in the name of correctness of tone and phrasing. I do understand that it is important; but how important is it? And why must the reaction be so visceral for the congregation? Well, there’s the masculinity element for you. Going over to another area, as I mentioned before, the shidduch market is all about status, and “proving yourself” to be the Jewiest of the Jews so that a girl/boy will want to marry you. People change, you know, in both directions.

On the flip side, there are things about Orthodox Judaism in America that whether by conditioning or personal preference, that I like. I do like the unity that it offers, and some of the strictness does have an effect in building the community. Speaking the same language and praying in the same way help affirm who we are both as individuals and in a group. Part of it is about being able to express yourself both publicly and privately, and part of it is the feeling of being welcomed in a circle. Rituals are a key factor in the survival of any group, and life-affirming rituals such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and a bar mitzvah are all ways that Jews can stand stronger together than apart.

I defend Orthodoxy because it’s the way I grew up, and I don’t want to be made to feel like the first 17 years of my life were a lie, regardless of how much society or anyone says otherwise. I stand by Orthodoxy because my grandparents didn’t come to this country at the risk of their lives for me not to embrace the freedom that they were denied. I can hate on Orthodoxy all I want in my mind and call for change and reconsideration of traditions, but it will always be a part of me that nobody can take away. I’d like to think that the Bible is undeniably a holy text written by divine hand but I’d like to think that it’s a skeleton, written to inspire humanity to breathe the same life into the words that God breathed into us, to provide us with the tissue, marrow, and muscle  needed to help us comprehend our existence, learn from the past, and model our lives not on indoctrination but on intelligence and inspiration. To me, Orthodoxy isn’t about the length of your sleeves or your skirt, how loudly you sing in synagogue or how many rules you follow; it’s a state of mind that Judaism is more than a culture, but as a way of life that connects past, present, and future. Judaism isn’t something that comes one-size-fits-all, and it’s definitely not something you can order from a catalog and get rid of when you’re bored with it. It’s not just bagels, matzo ball soup, and gefilte fish; it’s the challah that is braided every Friday before Shabbat to remind us of the elements that make up who we are as people. In my life so far, Orthodoxy has been the best avenue to capture those essential feelings of belonging, with room for individuality and striving for more.

Overall, I think that Elana Maryles Sztokman is on to something with her ideas, but her interview subjects are not that impressive. She could do a better job proving her points by casting a wider net, one that encompasses more Americans, the men for whom Orthodoxy has changed the most in their lifetimes. This article I found on H-Net by Yoel Finkelman confirms what I felt: the men in the study were all subscribers of the same egalitarian mindset, or had at least tried an egalitarian minyan. Then again, I can totally imagine mainstream American Orthodox men being unwilling to talk to Sztokman, so to her credit, she probably worked with what she had.

Also, welcome to Kuwait, who popped up for its first visit, as well as being my first six-continent day (If I can count Brunei/Malaysia as Oceania? Yes? No? Maybe?)

Works Cited

Finkelman, Yoel. Review. “Men of the Minyan.” H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews (April 2012) http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=34942

Sztokman, Elana Maryles. The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World. Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2011.


Prayaz Club

Another way in which Orthodox Jewish men compete with one another is in prayer.

This might surprise you, but it’s true, and not just because Elana Maryles Sztokman talks about it in her book. It’s something that I’ve experienced firsthand.

Gents to the left, ladies to the right.

I’d say that prayer is probably the number-one thing that divides up the Jewish people. Everything about prayer says something about the person who’s in the group, and the person who chooses to not join the group. In the Orthodox tradition, men and women pray in separate rooms or in the same room, but divided by a partition called a mechiza. They never sit together. Orthodox women do not lead services, or read or carry the Torah (at least in a mixed group, womens’ minyans are growing in popularity), but in other forms of Judaism, they do those things. Orthodox services are generally conducted entirely in Hebrew; other services may or may not include any Hebrew. Some Orthodox services have singing, but none (at least those on Shabbat and holidays) include live instruments or recorded music. And it gets even more specific than that. At the synagogue I grew up attending, the mechiza is relatively small; upon standing, you can see the women from the waist up, which some Orthodox Jews would find distasteful. In other congregations, they have a trellis dividing the men and the women, and I’ve heard that for the women it’s not so much fun having to watch a group of men stand, sit, and bend through wooden slats. I can imagine that would be headache inducing. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, there is currently no space where men and women can pray together; it is divided in “half” by a trellis. I put “half” in quotation marks, because every year, the trellis seems to magically move a few inches closer toward the womens’ section, making it easy for men to go up to the wall but a virtual scramble for women to get anywhere close.

The 21st century has seen prayer undergo many changes, especially in the Orthodox world. Congregations such as the one I grew up with are doing away with cantors, otherwise known as the prayer leaders that pick the tunes and control the services (I actually can’t say anything too bad about cantors since my grandfather was one, and an awesome one, and I still remember when he called me up to the Torah on my Bar Mitzvah, one of my all-time favorite memories, and probably one of his, too, since I was the only grandson he got to do that for) and instead, just having members of the congregation assume those roles. Technology is also a factor. In the 1990s, when my synagogue’s crowds swelled for the High Holidays, we had a rabbi-approved sound system installed by members of the congregation. Generally, sound systems are not kosher in Orthodox synagogues but one of our illustrious and industrious congregants, an engineer, designed and installed it under the supervision of the rabbi, and placed the microphone close enough to the lectern to capture the voice of whoever was leading, but far away enough that it would not physically interfere with anyone and would not need to be adjusted. Needless to say, it caused controversy in the community, with some members (and non-members) branding us as “not Jewish enough” or “not as Jewish.” Some people left, but most of those who disapproved wouldn’t have come anyway, due to our mechiza, or the fact that some women came with uncovered heads or in long pants, or anything that they could find to criticize us.

The point I’m trying to make here is that prayer and competition go hand-in-hand in the Orthodox Jewish world; there is always someone or some group that is “not as Jewish” or “too frum” for someone. Everyone is a judge.

And of course, there’s “who’s praying the hardest?” a competition of masculinity usually seen amongst hoys in Jewish high schools, who have to pray every morning and afternoon. The mornings are usually when the most competitive sides of guys come out, mostly because they’ve just had breakfast and are amped for the day. It usually starts with who has the shinier tefillin, and who can tie them quicker and faster? Who can say the Amidah the fastest? Who can shuckle the deepest? Who can read the Torah the fastest? And who has the strength to  lift the Torah for Hagboh (answer: I never even tried), and how many columns can you open it to? Seven? Six? Only three? Psshhh…

The worst were the student prayer leaders, who would organize who’s doing what with the meticulousness of the United Nations and the drive of a swarm of gnats. They thought that they were running the show, but actually were super annoying and probably turned a lot of people off from coming to prayer or staying the whole time. Most of the time, I would avoid them, and after awhile they would stop trying to recruit me to do stuff in the service. One guy, though, found one of them to be so aggravating that he posted a fake Craigslist ad with a picture of a hot girl and what he thought was the prayer leader’s cell phone number, but was actually his home number, which caused his parents’ phone to ring all night with horny guys wanting to speak to Candy or whatever name he’d chosen, and that’s how you get kicked out of a Jewish high school. This is not to say that the annoying prayer leader didn’t have it coming, but it’s not saying that he didn’t.

Oh, Frank McCourt, how your angsty Irish prose got me through many a morning prayer service.

I chose not to partake in these games. In fact, most mornings of my junior year found me sitting in the second row, praying quietly along with the group, and waiting for our rabbi to give his morning sermon so I could break out the copy of Angela’s Ashes I’d been hiding under my tallis for a few pages of reading and attempting to not cry.

Speaking of judgment, try reading the Torah in an room full of Orthodox men. So far, I’ve only done it once in my life – at my own bar mitzvah – and there are probably people reading this who are judging me right now, but I don’t really care. But yes, I did read a whole Torah portion from an actual torah scroll, in Hebrew, and a Haftarah which was thankfully relatively short. Though I studied for an entire year, I was still terrified the day of, because whenever the reader makes a mistake, there are always at least three voices from the crowd pronouncing the word correctly and loudly. Could you imagine, giving a speech in front of 100 people, and saying something like, “pajamas,” rhyming the word with “llamas,” only to have five, eight, ten voices from the crowd spitting back at you “paJAAAAMas,” rhyming it with “Alabamas,” until you backtracked and said “paJAAAAMas?” Talk about pressure, especially for a 13-year-old.

I’m with you, sister.

As far as I’m concerned, I feel most comfortable praying in Hebrew and since I’ve been doing it my whole life, in a men’s space. Whether or not there is a physical mechiza doesn’t really matter; even men sitting on the left and women on the right would be fine, as long as it’s separate. The first time I sat with my mom in shul, it felt incredibly awkward. I’m also not a fan of choirs or musical instruments. Gospel music is lovely, but when there’s a choir standing there in robes, it makes me feel more like I’m in Sister Act than in a synagogue. And one time, I went to a service where they handed out tambourines and played guitar, and that made me feel a little bit silly, as if we were in a Montessori school, or around a campfire, or something.

In Sztokman’s book, she talks about egalitarian minyanim, where the quorum consists of ten men and ten women, instead of the traditional Orthodox tradition of ten men. This is one potential solution, but for every Jew that would buy into it, there would be two who would be against it. I think I’d need to try it to see if I liked it. Sztokman does say that there is a mechiza, which is good, and that both women and men do the leading and reading, which is something I’d really like to experience; there are some very talented female cantors out there with voices that fill you up with spirit and love for God. The whole theory why women shouldn’t touch a torah scroll is pretty ridiculous, and I won’t go into it here, but believe me when I say that as a society, we’re past that.

Most of all, prayer is supposed to be, at least for me, a time of spiritual introspection and personal communication with God, with a few rousing community-building songs thrown in. A good mix of solitude and togetherness is key, as a Jewish person and a member of a Jewish community that is larger than myself and those that are in the room with me. My dad always told me that he raised me and my sister so that we’d always have a sense of community, a family wherever we go in our lives because we can walk into any synagogue anywhere in the world, Orthodox or not, and know exactly what’s going on. Though people pray in different ways and for different reasons, I think that competition should be the last thing that comes to mind.

Well that was fun.

Now, please enjoy these dancing rabbis.

teach me how to rabbi, teach me teach me how to rabbi


Hava Negia

After a long period where my reading consisted of scripts and books on theory and not much else, I’m returning to the piles of books I currently have out from the library. One of my current reads is The Men’s Section by Elana Maryles Sztokman. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t write a proper review, but I do want to address one of the topics that Sztokman has only touched lightly so far.

I’m talking about negia.

Negia (alternately spelled negiah/negiyah) is the Jewish concept of touch. More specifically, negia laws refer to the halachic concepts of physical contact between the sexes. In Orthodox Judaism, men can be shomer negia and women can be shomeret negia, both of which basically mean “watch your touching.” Those who make this choice do not come in contact with members of the opposite sex unless they are related to them by blood or marriage, and usually will refrain from touching others in public. Observance levels run the gamut from merely no physical contact (handshakes/dancing/hugging/kissing) to avoiding any chances of contact such as sharing a bus seat (I have a story about that), an airplane row, or even standing close to the opposite sex in a crowded room or while posing for a photograph. Negia rules do not apply to babies and small children. Arbitrary contact is permitted, such as if fingers touch when passing something at the dinner table. And of course, accidents happen; one time, I was at a Chabad house, standing and talking with someone with one hand on a chair and one on my hip, and the rabbi’s wife walked right into my right arm (the one that was resting on my hip) by accident. I felt so guilty for standing with my elbow in her way, but she said not to worry, that it was her own fault for not watching where she was going.

Even though I grew up Orthodox, negia was never a huge factor in my life. At my synagogue, it was a non-issue; if someone was shomer negia, which some probably were, it never became an issue, and most people greeted each other with a handshake or a hug, regardless of gender. Even as a teenager and young adult, I would greet my mother’s and grandmother’s female friends with a hug.

In high school, the rules of negia became a little blurry. According to school rules, touching the opposite sex was not banned, but it wasn’t promoted either. I remember dancing with girls in school plays, but still, I got yelled at more than once for walking arm-in-arm with a female friend through the halls or for hugging a girl in the presence of a teacher. Some students chose to become more observant, negia included, and that was okay, but my school never made a statement outright about the matter one way or the other. Still, they sent me and others mixed messages over whether it was appropriate or not.

After high school, I definitely became more aware of negia. In college, I made more than a few faux-pas by reaching to hug a girl who was indeed shomeret, so I began to assume everyone was. One time, though, a girl who I thought was shomeret gave me a hug, and when I asked her, she said “Me? Shomer?” So I began the habit of asking girls if they were shomeret when I met them, and every single time I did so, I got a laugh or a confused look. Only once did I actually ask a girl that question and she answered in the affirmative. Talk about bad negia-dar.

This brings me to my first question…why don’t I become shomer negia?

It would make things a lot easier; I would be following halacha. I would chop my time saying hello and goodbye to people in half. I wouldn’t feel obligated to shake a woman’s hand or hug a woman I didn’t like. I wouldn’t have to worry about getting someone else’s germs on me. I wouldn’t have the awkward handshake, or too-long hug. I would still have the awkward eye contact thing, but I guess I don’t have a choice on that one. I’d be at less of a risk of getting makeup or food on me. It would also be something that might make people more interested in me, asking me why I made that life choice or thinking of me highly for having strong convictions. On the other hand, though, it would totally ruin my dating life. Plus, I would miss the physical contact. Studies have shown that people who lack physical contact in their lives are sadder and die sooner. And it sure would make ballroom dancing tough.

Although touch means different things to different people, I feel that as humans we have evolved to the point where contact between the sexes shouldn’t be so much of an issue. If a person feels that he/she wants to be left alone, then that’s perfectly fine, but for the rest of us, we can control ourselves in public situations.

That brings me to my second question…would I ever become shomer negia?

Answer: highly unlikely. I don’t really care what other Orthodox Jews think about me. I’ll continue to assume that people are shomer in public, Jewish situations, unless she makes the first move, but in the vast realm of my life, refraining from physical contact with the opposite sex would not be in my best interest. As an academic and a conference-goer, some women might be taken aback should I offer the man in the conversation a handshake and not them; or, if I turn down a handshake, it could lead to an awkward moment. Plus, I have too many wonderful female friends who I like to hug. And if it meant that I could never ballroom dance again (or, only with another man), I’d say no, thank you.

Maybe if I could get a loophole for professional activities and activities such as dance where contact is required for a purpose…

Yeah. No.


Children Are Always Cute When Saying the Four Questions

And that’s just about the only time.

Yeah, I’m being serious.

Small children at meals usually mean that I need earplugs and two Advil. There’s just something about their voices screeching in unison at unholy pitches that just goes straight through the brain. With babies it’s somewhat more tolerable, since they don’t know what they’re doing, bless ’em. It’s the walkers-and-talkers who are germ-spreading, attention-seeking little future-people.

But at the Passover seder, it’s different.

The first night, I dined with YJP (which was supposed to be at the Concourse, but ended up moving to Chabad, oddly enough) and there were no children, so that was cool.

The second night, I returned to Chabad for an undergrad seder. Basically, it was four long tables of loud, obnoxious undergrads over whom the rabbi had to shout the seder.

At the normal point, the rabbi asked everyone to quiet down for the Four Questions, which the youngest children traditionally sing. The baby is still a baby, but fortunately most of the wild undergraduate elephants quieted their roar for the shy, overshadowed middle child to say the four questions with the help of his father. The talking got a little louder when the older, outspoken one started to do it double-time, English interspersed with Yiddish, but strangely, I found myself siding with the kid rather than the crowd. Maybe I like the underdog, or maybe I just intensely dislike the JAPs who go to Chabad because a) their parents told them to and b) they’re getting free food. And they’re probably going to hit up Wendy’s or Chipotle at the soonest opportunity. Or maybe because it’s actually a legit part of the seder.

The cool part of the seder was, after dinner, the rabbi directed anyone wishing to sing more songs over to our table. Because that’s how we Chabad regulars roll.

Not a lot of new visitors over the past few days, but welcome to The Bahamas. Bring friends. And now that I have people who actually read/comment…I’m taking suggestions.


I Write The Songs That Make the Whole World Sing…Except the Ladies

After looking back on some recent posts where due to time constraints, post-length constraints, tiredness, or otherwise, I did not have a chance to express all of my thoughts on a particular subject. So tonight, I’d like to come back to tzniut, a topic I discussed in “A Modest Proposal”, only move away from skirts to sopranos in an exploration of another element of tzniut: kol isha, or “the voice of a woman” as it is said that the voice of a woman can inspire men to do bad and think impure thoughts.

First, let me preface by saying that even among the Orthodox, there remains no hard-and-fast rule. Some institutions, like my high school, allowed it, but gave the men the option of leaving the room (quietly) or not attending at all. Others, such as at another Jewish school, allowed girls to sing in a choir, with the function being that no individual voice could be discerned from the others, or allowing “mixed singing” of a choir of boys and girls singing together, with the intention that the boys’ singing could “cancel out” the harmful effects brought about by a woman’s singing. (Some religious schools who wanted to take it even further would schedule performance events featuring girls/women singing for only other girls/women, which didn’t really help their case other than the necessity of establishing a woman’s space). Other groups only permit the singing of women in prayer, or singing z’mirot around the Shabbos table. And in the most ultra-Orthodox homes, sometimes women are scarcely heard at all. And then there’s the issue of recorded voices; since voice-recording devices are rather recent in the scope of human history, there’s the issue of separating the image of the woman from the voice. If I can’t see who’s singing, how do I know who it is? How can I even picture her? How do I know that the girl moving to the beat is actually singing, or if it is indeed an African-American gospel singer providing the vocals, C + C Music Factory?

Let’s look back at the Talmudic roots here. The main two Talmudic passages dealing with this issue are in Berachos 24a and Kiddushin 70a. The former talks about the sin of uncovering a woman’s nakedness, and as the rabbis conjecture their thoughts on what this might mean, Rav Shmuel references Song of Songs 2:14, “…for your voice is sweet and countenance comely,” to back up his opinion. Um…okay, so women’s voices are sweet. In case you haven’t read it, Song of Songs says a lot of things about women, and a lot of it is allegory, referring to the relationship between God and the Jewish people. So there’s that. In the latter, the former is explained in more detail and is boiled down to the recitation of the sh’ma prayer, which is arguably the holiest in Jewish worship. Here, it is discussed that the holiness of the sh’ma prayer cannot be recited while a woman sings, for that could interrupt the man’s focus while in prayer, because he might imagine her naked. Okay, I’ll give you that one. But if all a man can think about is a woman naked while he prays, I think he might have voices in his head that are more dominant than the voice of a woman. But then, Rav Hai Gaon remarks that if a man can focus on his prayer to the point of blocking out the woman’s voice from distracting him, then the fact that the woman is singing makes no difference.

So there’s not too much to go on here, except that a woman’s voice may expose her and may distract a man. I don’t see enough for a case to be made here, especially not in modern times. Yes, there are female singers that are intentionally sexy, but it’s seldom that the sound of their voice turns a man on, especially if he’s never seen a picture of her; if you’ve never seen a picture of Marilyn Monroe, “Happy Birthday Mr. President” might not have any sexual meaning to you, after all it’s just another version of a song popularly sung at birthday parties. The birth of the music video and MTV has increased the level of sexuality for some female singers (Britney’s “…Baby One More Time”, Christina’s “Genie in a Bottle”, Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, J.Lo.’s “If You Had My Love”, to name a few), but not everyone has seen those videos, and not everyone immediately thinks of a music video whenever they hear a song (well, except Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” You’d have to be living under a rock to let that one miss you) They think of the first place they were when they heard the song, a commercial for footwear or candy or soda that it was the tune to, or how Jamie killed it last week at the karaoke bar. Finally, not all female singers transmit the message of sex through their music. Finally, for every singer whose image and vocals, when combined, are primarily about sex, there are five female singers whose music doesn’t particularly emit the same emotion, whether it’s by the purpose of the singer or their presentation style. In fact, in the preceding paragraph, I named six singers whose vocals/imagery have been known to inspire sexual thoughts in men (and women), so now I’m going to name 30 current female singers (young and old) whose lyrics and image are not always sexual in nature, yet are successful and feminine, nonetheless.

Adele. Alicia Keys. Anne Murray. Aretha Franklin. Avril Lavigne. Barbra Streisand. Bonnie Raitt. Candice Glover. Carly Simon. Carole King. Corinne Bailey Rae. Cyndi Lauper. Esperanza Spalding. Florence Welch. Imogen Heap. Janelle Monae. Jennifer Hudson. Kelly Clarkson. Lily Allen. Loretta Lynn. Martina McBride. Mary J. Blige. Miranda Lambert. Norah Jones. Reba McIntire. Sara Bareilles. Susan Boyle. Taylor Swift. Tori Amos. Wanda Jackson….I think that’s 30.

On the flip side, there are also some male singers whose voices are traditionally thought of as backing vocals to hookup sessions. What about Lionel Richie? Marvin Gaye? Justin Timberlake? And then there’s the epitome of sexually impure thoughts, “Careless Whisper,” by George Michael. Don’t believe me? Ask Jenna Marbles.

Probably the worst case I’ve ever heard for kol isha was after my high school’s production of Hello, Dolly!. The next day, people were talking about in class, and one of my classmates (who I’ll call Yitzy) said the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard:

“When I saw Dolly at the top of the staircase, and she turned around to sing the first words of “Hello, Dolly” over her shoulder at the audience, I knew the meaning of kol isha.”

What a cop-out, if I ever heard one. So the pretty girl in the body-covering red dress sang on key and in character, and you got turned on. That’s your problem (or a problem in your pants), not hers. Stop blaming the ladies, men, and look at yourselves. But not in public.

In conclusion (and I do have one), I think that kol isha is severely outdated and quite misogynistic. I’d like to think that we’ve come further in time, to a place where men can control their baser instincts, and where a woman’s voice does not automatically summon the devils of lust. And not every man finds every female singer, no matter how sexy her image or music, attractive. It really serves no purpose other than to suppress someone’s voice just in case it might arouse someone else, which, again, doesn’t solve the problem of the perpetually horny man. Blaming it on all women is not fair to either sex.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, listen to Barry Manilow, and think dirty thoughts.

In other news, shout-outs to my first hits from Benin (bienvenue, Lauren!) and Azerbaijan (xoş gəlmisiniz, Zahid!). I don’t know how much having two friends give you hits for just logging on from their home countries because you asked, but I also got my first visitors from Venezuela (bienvenidos!) and Senegal (bienvenue!), two countries where I know no one. I know that this post materialized in full on the morning of February 18, but my internet went out at 12:54 AM, after I had done a bunch of edits but hadn’t pressed the update button, but I’m hoping that I continue my uptick of hits just the same…



They say that naps are for babies and old people.

I beg to differ.

I am 26 years old and in graduate school, with too much work to know where to put it. I waste too much time when I’m awake to waste any more time sleeping, so that’s become an activity of necessity for function rather than activity for pleasure/comfort. Similar to eating, which I should probably do after finishing this blog post, sleep just isn’t an activity that gives me pleasure. It’s just a momentary break to my usually stressful and depressingly lonely life, where I can, you know, do nothing but recharge my internal batteries.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I grew up with (and still have, actually) this wonderful gift called Shabbat, otherwise known as “the day of rest.” To child me, this meant no TV, computer, or fun of any kind other than reading books or running around outside, but now I wish I could spend my Shabbat doing less and less, since these days things tend to distract me from resting.

One of the best things about having Shabbat is that you can just fall asleep in the middle of the day, and no one will judge you or call you lazy. Growing up, my dad’s weekend job was taking naps, and when my mom would fall asleep, I’d cover her with blankets and arrange my stuffed animals around her head. When I fell asleep in the middle of the day…well, usually nothing happened, since everyone else had probably beaten me to it. But even if I ended up waking up when it was time to go to bed again, I’d just eat dinner and then stay up until I could fall asleep again because it’d still be the weekend when I’d wake up.

Today I got in my bed, with some books, closed my eyes…and then it was 6:30, and the film festival was starting, so I headed over there, watched a little bit of the film, and then went to the gym and had a surprising amount of energy. Maybe I’m onto something.

Oh, and dobrodosli to my new visitor from Slovenia. Bring your friends…where did everybody go? Lonely blogger over here.


A Modest Proposal

With the way people are dressing these days, they could use a little tzniut.

No, tzniut (if you’re in a more Yiddishized circle, tznius)is not the latest Swiss fashion accessory, but the Jewish concept of modesty for men and women that dates back to the Talmudic era. It literally translates to “modesty” or “privacy” and refers mostly to clothing, but also the way people lead their lives.

Is it worth it? Let me work it.

Just about every Orthodox Jewish girl (and definitely every Hassidic Jewish girl) covers themselves up with long-sleeved shirts, long skirts, and closed toed shoes. When she gets married, she might cover her hair with a hat, a scarf, or a full-on wig. It doesn’t end there, though. Included in the umbrella is negiah, or rules of touching, which are followed by avoiding physical contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex, and kol isha, or female voice, which mandates that hearing a woman’s singing can distract a man and lead him to impure thoughts. This rule does not apply for prayer, singing z’mirot at a dinner table, or a choir of mixed voices. Some even say that even a recorded female singer violates these laws.

Men do not have as many restrictions; just refrain from touching women and wear clothes that cover your body.

Growing up in Orthodox-Jew-Land, I was well aware of all of this. At my school, girls and women had freedom of choice to wear long pants if they wanted to; some did, but most stayed within the guidelines above. Touching was not explicitly forbidden, but it was generally frowned upon, and I don’t really think we ever had any huge singing issues; if you didn’t want to hear a girl sing, you wouldn’t come to any school musicals, or if you did, you went elsewhere whenever a woman was singing alone. Kind of hard, given that we were a high school and did musicals with plenty of parts for girls, no 1776 here.

I started noticing it more as I went to college and started seeing the stark differences between how people dressed in such mixed environments. As a male, it’s pretty easy for 99% of what you wear to be acceptable every day, and if you make the choice to become more religious, you probably won’t have to go to much trouble to buy new clothes. Girls have it a bit rougher; making the tznius choice means goodbye to bare shoulders, t-shirts, short skirts, and any type of pants, so usually a significant wardrobe overhaul is necessary.

Today, I feel that modesty is something our society is definitely lacking, promoted by corporate trends and celebrity couture. Sometimes a strapless or mini version of an outfit is tasteful, and then you have Miley Cyrus (sorry Miley, but I needed an extreme comparison). This might sound a little pander-y, but I think that women should be able to choose what they wear, and while most women pull off this look effortlessly, maybe tznius should be reexamined in our times. For example, long sleeves and long skirts are probably quite uncomfortable, even thin/airy fabrics, in hot summers and for Jewish women in tropical countries or Houston. While yes, it’s argued in the Talmud, a lot is based off of what women wore in the shtetls of wintry Russia or Poland where the wind chill made these outfits practical. Furthermore, I don’t see a huge problem with pants, either. Not all pants are skinny jeans, and many tznius girls have a tight denim skirt or two. A pair of slacks or trousers can even make an outfit look sleeker and more elegant, and it would make riding a bike or climbing a ladder a lot easier. I don’t see tznius clothes as being restrictive in any way or out of fashion, but give girls a break. As long as they’re dressed appropriately for the weather, occasion, and activity, you’re good to go right there.

This leads me to talk about my own personal tzniut appearance and behavior. I made the decision awhile back to stop wearing shorts of any kind; not just because I don’t like my legs, but I just don’t see any reason why they need to be exposed – and also a bit of solidarity with my Orthodox Jewish sistas. With tank tops/wife beaters/muscle shirts, I didn’t grow up wearing them, and they certainly weren’t allowed in my school, so they never really joined my wardrobe. I love t-shirts, but since I live in Wisconsin now, I’ve been layering them over long sleeve shirts, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. The only time you’ll probably ever see me in shorts is when I am in going swimming, and even then, I’m underwater, so ha ha you can’t see me.

Probably the most surprising thing about my personal style is that this applies even at the gym. I’m always the guy in the long pants (the stretchy kind, not sweatpants, who does that?) and a shirt that covers most of the top half of me.

Orthodox Jewish girls know what’s up…and I stand with them (but not in a skirt) when I call on all my menfolk to display some tznius and look like a gentleman.

I mean, do you see what most guys wear to the gym these days?

Also – if anyone knows why my stats are skyrocketing, (1000 views today, thank you very much!), please tell me, because I’ve spent most of the past forty-eight hours bewilderingly watching people (mostly across America) click on my site, yet I only have about 120 followers, and 67 comments, most of which are my own. This blog is kinda lame most days, so either I’m doing something right or the Internet is going bonkers. So, if you’re reading, please leave a comment about what you think and how you got here (so I can get a sense of what’s going on, did someone put me on BuzzFeed or something? – I’m not that amazing of a writer), or a like, or an idea of something you want me to write about. Oh, and keep visiting, Americans. You too, other countries.


אין סוף (Without End)

I normally wouldn’t do something like this, but something recently made me want to reread a book I’ve already read. I originally read it for a project for which I didn’t even end up using it, but it stuck in my mind all the same. I haven’t thought about this book for awhile, but when I remembered it, I knew I had to get a copy and read it again. Astonishingly, the library didn’t have it so I had to order it through ILL, and since it’s due tomorrow, I should probably write something about it now. It’s one of those hidden gems of literature that says little (90 pages, exactly) but says a whole lot. It’s a novella entitled Bubbeh by Sabina Berman.

I continued eating grapes and talking, mocking the congregation and their Amens, while laughing with amusement at my own cleverness, all with the same mouth, a mouth that was very big indeed that day. And my grandmother, absorbed in her own thoughts, continued putting the pieces of the broken plate together.

Suddenly I felt sad. I stopped talking. The water continued running out of the tap into the sink.

Finally my grandmother said: “Close your eyes.” I squeezed my lids shut.

“What do you see?”


“And in that nothing, do you see a light?”

I concentrated. Beneath my eyelids in that darkness something like a yellow and white dust shimmered, a light.

“Yes,” I said. “But I always see that.”


I thought. That light didn’t seem extraordinary in any way.

“Yes,” I said, “always.”

“Always,” my grandmother repeated. “Well, that light is God, and it has many names.”

– Sabina Berman, Bubbeh, page 30

Bubbehor La bobe in Spanish, is a first-person account of the author’s relationship with her grandmother, “bubbeh” (which means “grandmother” in Yiddish). This true story takes place in Mexico City in the 1960s, but Berman’s grandmother comes from the “old world” of WWII-era Eastern Europe.

We are introduced to the grandmother as a woman who “lived tidily,” in Berman’s words. So tidy, in fact, that she has committed suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub, thereby eliminating the need for a traditional body-washing. Backtracking, we see the author as a little girl, moving into her grandparents’ house alongside her newly-divorced mother. Berman uses this opportunity to uncover the secrets of this mysterious, ladylike woman, with a faith in God that is foreign to her. The generation gap between mother and daughter is quite clear, with Berman’s mother’s aggressive and abrasive nature clashing with the grandmother’s more reserved and traditional ways. The more time that Berman (and the reader) spends with her grandmother, the more and more we see the beauty of the grandmother’s reticence and her unshakable faith in God despite having survived the horrors of war alongside her husband. The grandmother says very little herself, preferring to be dutiful to her husband yet maintaining a queenly presence as she introduces the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays to the author. After the author describes her grandmother’s funeral, she returns to the opening image of her grandmother’s death, which takes the reader by surprise even though it was revealed at the very beginning.

What really moves me about Bubbeh is Sabina Berman’s style of writing. The text is translated from Spanish to English but the words are so smooth, you’d never know. The way that Berman catches every detail, all the colors of the room, each crease in her grandmother’s wrinkled face, provides a rich context and a place where you can settle in and embrace the simplicity of faith and familial love. The undertone of her grandfather’s taste for secrets and Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed adds a nice through-line that brings the story together, especially for the grandmother; although grandmother does not read and study like her husband does, she has some secrets of her own.

This story reminds me of my own mother’s mother, my grandmother Mimi. She was also a woman who spoke very little, especially in her Alzheimer’s-ridden final decade, in contrast to her own mother, who died shortly before I was born, whose outspoken nature made her the very image of a family matriarch. In contrast, my grandmother ruled with a different sort of nature; it would be incorrect to say “ruled,” as her equanimity (and unfortunately, failing mental state towards the end) kept her a silent queen, always present but not needing to make her presence known.

To most people, a person who prefers to keep things to herself is perceived as anti-social, cold, afflicted by either a deep sorrow or a negative attitude. But my grandmother was none of those things; she let her love for her children, grandchildren, and religion speak for her. In her younger days, she was a red-headed firecracker from New York City who traveled across the country between the wars to seek her fortune as an accountant in California, who always knew what she wanted and went for it. Upon marrying my grandfather and having children, this chapter of her life was completely shuttered; a locked file cabinet, never to be spoken of again. Even though she never lost her gleam, her luster, her zest for life, she concentrated all of her efforts on being a dutiful wife and mother. Like Berman’s grandmother, my own grandmother had a vast trove of secrets, some of which came out to my mother, and some only to me. Although after her death we found many artifacts of this life, we were unable to piece together a narrative; there were so many missing pieces. Some of my grandmother’s secrets are lost forever. I guess, in a way, by doing this, she cemented her reign in our lives and in our minds. She wanted us to have pleasant memories of her, as sweet, caring, and kind without fault. Without raising her voice or speaking her mind, she got her way, even after death.

My favorite passage is this one, on page 33-34.

I’m in the big bed, as fluffy as a cloud. A long, white bed. My grandmother covers me up to my chin with the goose-down comforter, and she sits down on the edge of the bed. The bedroom is in shadows.

My grandmother leans over to peer into my eyes. It’s an ageless moment. I’m eight years old, perhaps six or even four. Once more my grandmother becomes that tall woman whose profile extends upward, covering the cathedral’s golden clock. Her black eyes penetrating my eyes. Her face, as white as the moon’s reflection in a pond. The pond, my face, illuminated by her own. She passes her hand from my forehead down to my cheeks, half-closing my eyelids.

Her measured voice, distant and close at the same time: “Do you see that light?”

With her index and ring fingers, she taps the comforter on my chest. I hardly feel the pressure.

Yes, that greenish-white light, inside me.

Ayn sof,” she says, scarcely breathing the words.

Everything is like a secret. What my grandmother is now entrusting to me is, in face, a secret.

Ayn sof,” I reply very quietly.

Years later I will learn that Ayn sof means without end in Hebrew. It will take me even longer to fully comprehend that this is one of the names of God. I will be astonished at the simplicity with which my grandmother has asked me if I see that light and at the ingenuousness with which I answer simply, yes.

I will forever be curious about the things she didn’t tell us, things she didn’t leave clues to, and things she didn’t want us to know. Maybe someday, something will surface, but for now, these things – people, places, events, and how she really felt about them – are hers alone, her travel companions in the next stage. Sabina Berman’s Bubbeh is a testament to those lost memories and is something that should be treasured and read by anyone who is need of a reason to believe.

La bobe

This book review has been brought to you by the library of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the scary heavy winds outside.