why have kids?

First: I don’t know whether I want children. I’ve never felt a strong desire for children. I have felt pressure from my mom and from (what I perceive is, more on that below) Jewish tradition. I’m mostly undecided, and I think I could be okay not having kids. I do wonder though, if it were socially acceptable, whether I would just decide not to. Which is strange to me, since I am not usually ruled by others’ expectations. I think part of it is the fact that relatively few people choose not to have kids, so I wonder if I’m missing something. I also wonder how to know that I won’t regret that decision. Deciding to become a rabbi has only intensified my anxiety about this issue: I don’t know any rabbis without children.

Over the holidays I read (on my Kindle app on my iPhone) Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness. It’s a short and quick read, and it in no way answers its own question. I was left with the overwhelming feeling that there is no rational reason to have kids. People do it because they want to, because they are expected to, because they were faced with an unintended pregnancy — all valid reasons. But it’s not necessarily going to make you a happier or more fulfilled person (at least not for a long while).

The book is divided into two parts: LIES and TRUTH. The first category includes “Children Make You Happy,” “Breast is Best,” “‘The Hardest Job in the World'”; the former, of “‘Bad’ Mothers Go to Jail,” “Smart Women Don’t Have Children,” and “Women Should Work.” Obviously, some of these are provocative, but Valenti does manage in some way to take on some of the sacred cows of motherhood. Much of the book draws from first-mother accounts, and the stories, quite frankly, are horrifying — and played into my worst fears. The standout in the book is her (unfortunately ill-formed) argument for the need in our country to move from individual to community parenting — thus requiring us to advocate for “government and workplace policies that honor parenting for everyone.” That’s a world into which I would want to bring children. Valenti just doesn’t really offer a way to get there.

Interestingly, related issues were raised last Shabbat in a Jewish context; at Temple Beth Zion, a congregant, the aunt of one of my classmates, gave a d’var Torah about the Biblical imperative to procreate, from the weekly parshah, Bereshit. In the first account of the creation of humans — the only humans at the time — in Genesis 1:28, G-d tells them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The talk was intensely personal, and it deeply resonated with me.

At my request, she sent me a copy of her d’var. Speaking from her perspective as “a Jewish woman who chose not to give birth or be the primary raiser of children,” she talked about her struggle with that decision and her exploration for its validation in Jewish tradition. She grew up in a different time, when women were told that being a mother was part of having a full life. (I’m actually not sure that things have changed that much, though perhaps the messages are less explicit.) She began to speak with women older than she and discovered that this might not be the case. After much agonizing, she related, “I felt at the end of the day that primary parenting is a huge responsibility and a lot of work that, while potentially quite wonderful, was not one of the major life works that I wanted to take on.”

She explained that she made that decision with the belief that it was in opposition to Jewish law and practice. At the time, she identified as a secular Jew, so whether there was support for her choice in Jewish tradition was not of import. When she became more religious mid-life (when having children was no longer an option), she began to explore what Jewish texts actually have to say on the issue. There are in the Tanakh examples of women who do not have children — most notably Dvora — which is to say nothing of the men and women who cannot have children. She also cited the story of Jacob’s reaction to Rachel in her despair over not having children; a 15th century rabbi interprets it as anger at her forgetting her basic worth as a human being.

Wrapping up, she asked, “What does it mean to be a mensch (human) in regards to procreation and the domination of the planet by human beings in the 21st century? What is our holy work and what is our holy work today as we explore our connection back to the very first mitzvah — of procreation?” Citing the writing of Rav Kook (the first chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine) on the issue — his view is that procreation is not mere instinct but pursuit of divine goodness, to be found everywhere — she concluded,

From my point of view this means that procreation originally set the precedent for human holy activity that now includes all activity that nurtures the human race.

Oh my God! I forgot to have children!Thus, her work as a mentor and advocate for Jewish women is her holy work — born of the Biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.”

This decision weighs on me, and it’s something I’ll continue to wrestle with as my window for having children continues to close because of my age. The d’var giver joked that she didn’t want to have the realization of a woman in a t-shirt she saw: “Oh my God! I can’t believe I forgot to have to have children!” Like her, I want “to make an active, intelligent decision about whether or not I [am] going to give birth and raise children.”

survivor

holocaust victims; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Two weeks ago on Yom Kippur I returned to the assisted living facility at which I led first and second day Rosh Hashanah services. Before the service, a resident came up to me and handed me a piece of paper (right) with names. She asked me to read them during the service. “I’m the only one who survived,” she said. The list included her parents, both sets of grandparents, two sisters, and a brother-in-law. It ended with “aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.”

I wish I had had the opportunity to talk with her more then, and I missed her after the service with so many people to greet. I don’t know what to do when faced with the enormity of such an revelation. I only heard a Holocaust survivor speak for the first time a few years ago. That history is not my family’s, and both sides of my husband’s family had long since departed Europe by the war.

A few days after I read these names, the Times published an article and photo essay about young Israelis who have voluntarily gotten the same number tattoos that were forced on their grandparents. Predictably, the trend has been met with mixed reactions, from reverence and pathos to shock and anger. As the articles notes, “[I]nstitutions and individuals are grappling with how best to remember the Holocaust — so integral to Israel’s founding and identity — after those who lived it are gone.” I’m not sure what to think about this way of remembering, except that it is, like the woman’s request, an attempt to make the transition from lived to historical memory. Will her descendants keep this list?

return

empty road sign; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I opened the front passenger-side door and sat down, glancing at the three other people waiting for me in the car as I shut the door. He smiled at me: “You miss home. Not just your family. You must if you’re taking pictures of a sign by the side of an empty road.”

I felt the tears begin to form. “I do miss home. Sometimes so much I can’t allow myself to think about it.”

I’ve never been to this particular place before, but I instinctively feel it as familiar.

I’m at a rest stop in Ellinger, Texas, on Highway 71 between Austin and Houston. I stand at the edge of the small parking lot, on a curb that gives way to a shallow ditch that runs alongside that empty road that passes by green fields and that seems to end at the horizon a couple hundred feet away. Even in mid-September, the heat rises from the road in shimmery waves, the exhaust from cars on the highway and in the parking lot adding to the 90-degree air temperature.

The empty road dead ends into the highway, and across the intersection the arrows of two black-and-white signs, both with “71” inside an outline of the shape of Texas, point in opposite directions: north and south. A few abandoned tin-walled structures sit behind the wooden fence that separates highway from field.

Back on my side of the highway, three signs give the distances to the local Baptist, Lutheran, and Catholic churches, down the empty road that must become fuller past the horizon. Another sign advertises pecans for sale beyond the furthest church.

Peh-CANHS, I think. That’s how we say it here. Not PEE-cans, as they do elsewhere.

Walking across the empty road to take my photograph, I see an enormous white canvas that the church signs have obscured. “Romney-Ryan 2012” is backwards, since the logo faces the highway. I wonder whether it sits on public land at the same time that I know that few will care. This stretch of highway and this empty road is red.

Small white clouds only intermittently dot the expansive blue sky, which I always think seems bigger in Texas. Or was I just taught to think it so? Would I really recognize this landscape as Texas if the outline of the state were removed from the road sign?

I am a Texan, but I haven’t lived in Texas in 12 years. And there’s a chance that I might not again. When my nephew was born, the hospital gave his parents a discharge sheet congratulating them on “the birth of your new little Texan.” Will my children be so-called? What does it mean that he is a “Texan”? What does it mean that I am?

I love my family and Tex-Mex and Shiner Bock and Longhorn football and Astros baseball and bluebonnets and mesquite trees and the hill country and the car ride from Houston to Austin on a hot day.

I don’t love the death penalty and retrograde politics and homegrown presidential candidates and heat and humidity and traffic and suburban sprawl. I’ve become an East Coast urban Jew, like my husband, and so much of my former home has become an anathema to me. And perhaps I have become an anathema to it.

Molly Ivins said, “I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.” She knows the mixed feelings that come with loyalty to a state that is often easy to deride as buffoonish. How can I be homesick and horrified at the same time?

In his memoir of his life under the ayatollah’s fatwa, Salman Rushdie writes about his and others’ dilemma as Indian writers but expats in the United Kingdom:

Who were they, and to what and whom did they belong? Or was the idea of belonging itself a trap, a cage from which they had been lucky enough to escape? He had concluded that the questions needed to be rephrased. The questions he knew how to answer were not about place or roots, but about love. Who do you love? What can you leave behind, and what do you need to hold on to? Where does your heart feel full?

He is surprised when a writer still living in India explains that his writing, that of a native son, is “highly problematic” in the country.

I claim Texas, but would Texas claim me?

As I fly back to Boston, it doesn’t feel like home. I like it, and I may one day grow to love it, as I did D.C. I think that home is Texas, and I always leave a part of me there. It’s a part that wouldn’t know what to do in Boston.

Rushdie calls this migrant consciousness. I moved because I couldn’t do what I want to do there. So I’m here now, and I am grateful and blessed. But the move required the construct of a new identity. You can’t ever go home again.

My parents have lived in Texas for more than 40 years. My grandparents were born and went to school in Texas – and moved back in retirement; my aunt and uncle did the same. My cousin moved to Madison after college for graduate school and then work and moved back several years later. My brother never left.

Re-entry into my “real life” has been very hard this time around. Enrollment in rabbinical school has amplified the differences between who I was and who I am. Will I ever feel whole in either place?

riddle, wrapped in a mystery

Trigger warning: One of the books reviewed here contains a brief episode of sexual assault, which I allude to in my review.

I had originally planned to pair the first book in this post, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, with another book that I read at about the same time, before I left D.C. in May. However, I just finished Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: My Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, and I think it’s a better fit with the former.

Both are memoirs (my favorite genre) written by women who struggle in becoming who they are, Hamilton’s journey less purposeful than Feldman’s. Both women suffered by my curious googling after finishing their stories.

At the end of April, while in New York for a conference, I met my friend Megan (and another friend of hers) for dinner. They had chosen Prune, Hamilton’s small East Village eatery. Both had read her memoir. After the fantastic (although not so vegetarian- or kosher-friendly) food, I decided to check it out. I don’t eat most of the food that Hamilton loves or prepares or writes about, and my mouth still watered. She has a simple aesthetic as a cook: To use simple, real ingredients to make delicious food. Even a non-foodie like me knows how rare that is. I remember and still think about some of the dishes she describes, and I wonder if they are really as good as she says — and if I’ve wasted years being a vegetarian and then observing kashrut.

Two quick asides about the cover: First of all, I had no clue that the art was an upside-down chicken head. Seeing the digital image in this post now makes that mistake seem ridiculous (it took my husband to disabuse me of the notion that it was an odd kind of shellfish mentioned in one of her recipes), but I think it was hard to get the distance necessary to discern the image correctly at a book’s usual distance from one’s face. The second thing is the endorsement by Anthony Bourdain. He proclaims, “Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.” This never failed to make me giggle each time I resumed the book: How many chef memoirs are out there? (Yes, yes: probably more than I know.) But more to the point, Anthony Bourdain wrote his own memoir about his professional life as a chef. I am not running to check it out from the library, because it is clearly at most the second best memoir by a chef.

Hamilton came by her style — and her success — the hard way. The book takes the reader from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania, where her cooking education began in her mother’s kitchen, to her teenage years in New York as a coked-out waitress, to college and graduate school, and back to New York, where she worked terrible catering jobs until she started Prune. The story finally ends in Italy, the mecca of good food, where her husband’s family lives (more about that later).

Hamilton is a great writer. Her graduate work was in creative writing, and she tells wonderful stories. She also has the distance from most of the events of the book to be able to make them coherent and shape them into a larger narrative (perspective which Feldman lacks, but more on that below). What was missing from Hamilton was explanation and motivation, particularly for some of her more unorthodox (see what I did there?) choices. After a lot of turmoil in her childhood (her parents’ divorce, financial troubles), Hamilton struggles to make it to and to stay in college. And then she dispatches her four years there in mere sentences — and is then suddenly off to graduate school, with nary an explanation for her choice of post-undergraduate education. She is also by then in a relationship with a woman, who follows her to Michigan and returns with her to New York.

Her foray into restaurant ownership is just as, if not more, mysterious. As Hamilton tells it, a neighbor happens to drop by to ask if she wants to see some real estate he owns. Her catering jobs leading to no foreseeable career, Hamilton essentially decides to buy the space, once home to a failed restaurant, on the spot – but with no indication that she has ever before considered this step. Just as suddenly, the restaurant is not only up and running – again, without explanation of how she started the business, which by her own admission she knows nothing about – but hugely successful, with lines, stretching down the street, of customers waiting for Saturday and Sunday brunch.

And! Hamilton is by this time pregnant with her second child. The father of both is an Italian doctor whom she started seeing while still living with her girlfriend, each without knowledge of the other. The reader is again offered almost nothing to understand this choice. Please note: I generally believe that folks do not owe others explanations of their sexuality, but as this is a memoir, and the choice, unusual, a fuller exploration seems warranted, especially in light of her clear ambiguity about the relationship with her children’s father.

Hamilton never lives with him, though they co-parent. This decision, however, seems less by design and more by inertia – like the pregnancies. She falls for the doctor after he cooks her a delicious, authentic Italian meal from scratch; indeed, the attractions of his extended Italian family in Rome, his mother’s cooking, and their rural villa in Puglia seem more compelling than he himself.

Later in their relationship, he attempts to cook the wooing meal for her again but forgets a key step in the process, rendering the homemade pasta disappointingly edible. Hamilton feels similarly about his family as their charms began to wane, the Roman apartment becoming cramped and hot, the food becoming predictable and uninventive, and the villa becoming provincial and isolating. The book ends with the impending dissolution of her relationship.

Curious about so many unanswered questions, I googled Hamilton for more information. The (perhaps unsubstantiated) gossip indicates that her divorce was less about her growing disaffection for the Italian side of her chosen family than the fact that she was having an affair with her sister’s husband. A potential second affair – and I use that word carefully, since there is no evidence that the parties involved either time had open relationships – combined with the bafflement about her life’s trajectory – ultimately made the story end for me on a sour note. I don’t know know what to believe about her experience, and that seems odd in a memoir.

Since I started by judging Hamilton’s book by its cover, I begin by judging Feldman’s by its name. As my husband pointed out as soon as he saw me reading it: “I’m sure it’s a great read, but that title is terrible. Did the editors have a contest to see who could come up with the most clichéd name in the shortest amount of time?”

Unorthodox was featured in Lilith magazine along with several other books about women’s experiences with Orthodox Judaism. Feldman grew up a Satmar Hasid in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn speaking only Yiddish; was given the minimal high school education – complete with the daily hour of “English” that allowed the religious school to maintain state accreditation – as befits a girl in that community; was married to a man chosen by her family at age 17; and became a mother at age 19. She left her husband a few years after her son was born.

Feldman’s telling makes it clear from the outset that she simply doesn’t belong in the world of her family of origin. She wants to read books in English – and sneaks into the public library to get them, hiding them in her room – and instinctively feels that the Hasidic approach to mental illness (from which bother her uncle and her father suffer) and to sexual assault (of which she is a victim), of not seeking professional help from the outside world, is troubling. She is fated to leave the community, as her mother did years before. She feels it instinctively and deeply, and from her position on the other side, that feeling certainly seems to have been validated.

The book begins with Feldman sitting down to a meal with her estranged mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years. Writing a book about her experience requires brutal honestly, she figures, and she wants to start with answers from her mother. But this beginning seems only to serve to burnish her credentials as a writer – she’s telling us she set out to be honest, so what follows must therefore be so! – because we’re aren’t actually privy to what her mother says. It’s only later in the story that we discover, along with Feldman when she watches the documentary Trembling Before G-d, about queer folks in Orthodox Jewish communities, that her mother is gay.

The memoir is a quick read, and I zoomed through it, especially when I realized that tales of her married sexual life were forthcoming. (Yes, I am that prurient.) That part of the story did not disappoint: Her marriage begins with a year of physically and emotionally painful attempts to actually have sex, a problem made worse by the fact that everyone in the small community knows about and weighs in on the saga as it occurs. Whatever the root cause of the difficulty, it is also exacerbated by the profound lack of sexual education in the community: Feldman recounts the story of her neighbor, whose husband’s haste, force, and ignorance on their wedding night caused her colon to rupture when they inadvertently had anal instead of vaginal intercourse. Feldman and her husband are similarly clueless. It’s lurid details like this, along with many others, about religious doctrine and anti-Israel rallies, about arranged marriages and purity laws, and that make this a fascinating glimpse into a notoriously insular community.

As the narrative winds down with her decision to leave her husband and Hasidism, she describes the difficulties that this will entail, particularly in gaining at least joint custody of her son. But, in a bizarre omission, nothing of her preparations or the legal battle are recounted. The book ends with her and her son in a new apartment, but we have no idea how they got there.

And so I googled Feldman. Unsurprisingly, the book has come under vitriolic attack by the Satmar Hasidim she describes. And unfortunately, at least some of their objections seem to be warranted: One of the more gruesome accounts in the book (which I do not need to recount here; it will be immediately obvious) was revealed after the book’s publication to be dubious as best. She also omitted the existence of a little sister, and the timeline of her mother’s abandonment has been called into question. Custody of her son was won only after she hid with him at various friends’ houses for several months and survived protracted legal action by her husband’s family.

Unlike Hamilton, Feldman ultimately comes across as young a naïve – she’s writing mere months after her departure, and she is scathing in her indictment of almost everyone in her family. As I finished the book, I wondered whether time would allow her to take a more charitable – or at least more balanced – view of their actions, and if she might end up regretting some of her words.

bat mitzvah

after the ceremony, with the sefer torah; photo by gay lee pearce

My bat mitzvah ceremony was almost two months ago, and with all that has happened since then, it seems even further in the past. But yesterday in Hebrew class our book included a text about the ritual of Orthodox boys’ first haircuts — traditionally at the age of three, on Lag B’Omer, at the tomb of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in the Galilean town of Meron, in case you’re interested — and one of the book’s exercises asked us to reflect on one of our own meaningful Jewish rituals. Since I have to do it in Hebrew, I may as well attempt it in English first . . .

I completed the adult b’nai mitzvah class in June, after seven months of study. The group of 15 — all young adults in the D.C. area — met for two hours each week; the class was held at Sixth & I and was the first of its kind for the synagogue. Sixth & I hired an outside rabbi to teach the class, a woman I had first met — and loved! — when she taught one of the sessions of the Jeremiah Fellowship I completed a year ago. As I noted at the end of our ceremony dress rehearsal, I am likely one of the few who can say that her bat mitzvah prepared her for rabbinical school. I don’t know what this first step in my journey to the rabbinate would have been like without all that I gained from the class, the rabbi, and my classmates.

We read about prayer and the liturgy, talked about the holidays, learned how to put on a tallit and lay tefillin. We wrote d’vrei torah and practiced leining our parts of the parshah. Even after all these years of my adult Jewish education, it continues to thrill me that there is always more to learn.

The class was an interesting mix of Jewish backgrounds. A few people had had b’nai mitzvah as teenagers but had not found the experience particularly meaningful and hadn’t been involved in the Jewish community since then. Like me, others had never had one, despite having been raised as Jews, and some of us weren’t raised Jewish. I in particular was in a different place in my Jewish journey than everyone else, as I began visiting and applying to rabbinical schools shortly after the class started. But we all shared a desire to deepen our commitment to Judaism.

In addition to the opportunities for spiritual and intellectual development and liturgical proficiency, the class also gave me a glimpse into the future. A curious thing happens when you say that you are planning to become a rabbi, probably not unlike what happens when you say that you are studying to become a rabbi, or that you are a rabbi: in the class and elsewhere, people began jokingly referring to me as “rabbi,” asking me questions about Judaism, and deferring to my leadership. More than one person whom I do not know well at all wanted to talk about G-d in the course of otherwise fairly pedestrian conversations. In all of those moments I felt acutely inadequate.

I am going to rabbinical school because I don’t have answers, in more than one sense. I need and want to know more to be able to serve the Jewish community, and I am well suited for the rabbinate in part because I don’t require certainty.

The class was my first experience of being a part of a Jewish community with the “rabbi lens.” As rabbinical school became a reality, what I wanted to get out of the class changed. I watched the rabbi teach and observed how she handled the class and its questions. I listened to what others said about why the class was meaningful to them. I led one of the rehearsals when the rabbi couldn’t make it to class. I began to feel less a part of the class and more an aide to the class. Of course, this position came with risks. After a tense second-to-last service rehearsal, in which we were all nervous and on edge, I snapped at one of my classmates. She was understandably upset with me, and righting that wrong and repairing that relationship (which I am happy to report did happen) took on a different import. I felt a power imbalance and a new responsibility — and the crushing guilt that must always come with being a “bad representative” of a group’s leadership. I knew it behooved me to make amends, no matter the extenuating circumstances. I asked myself for the first, but presumably not the last, time, “Can I be a good rabbi if I . . .?”

part of the amazing card my friends gave me, with pictures from their own b’nai mitzvah

The service itself was wonderful. For some reason I’ve always been cavalier about milestones, ceremonies, and celebrations. I don’t remember attaching much import to high school or college graduations, and I was fairly blasé even about my wedding (noting again for my reader(s?) that this was not my attitude towards my marriage). And it took me a while to warm to the idea of this one: My cousin found out about it a few months prior and said to me, “Hello!? You have to tell us about these things!” But the excitement came. I practiced every day, I invited friends and family, I got my hair done, and I bought new clothes (a true sign of how meaningful I held the occasion, since I loathe shopping; the best present I’ve ever gotten was when my mom bought me a wedding dress and sent it to me).

At the Saturday morning service on June 4, 2012, I gave my d’var torah, I led the amidah and the second half of the Torah service, and I had two aliyot. Almost of this involved carrying a tune, and the truly hilarious part of the day was finding my family in the social hall downstairs after the ceremony and hearing each of them exclaim as they hugged me, “I didn’t know you could sing!” I didn’t either, and I am happy to now have the confidence that I can lead services and not embarrass myself.

I remember Sixth & I’s rabbi, acting as gabbai while we read Torah, giving me a hug after I finished my aliyah, and saying, “Nice job, rabbi.” I remember that so many of my friends came to support me. I remember my mom’s thrill at meeting the rabbis who helped us lead the service, women who were both holding at least one of their small children after the ceremony. It’s not clear to me what my mom’s conception of being a rabbi is, but she turned to me as we were leaving the synagogue and said, “See? You can be a rabbi *and* have kids!”

I almost started crying when I saw my father-in-law after the service. He has known more than his fair share of tragedy and thus is understandably staid, with a deadpan sense of humor. He drove 12 hours from his home in Louisville, Ky., to attend the service, a generous gesture from a fairly cynical atheist and generally non-practicing Jew. His face lit up when he saw me after the ceremony, and with a huge smile that I’ve never seen, he told me what a great job I did. In my mind I can still see his expression, and I think it would have been enough just to have that memory.

death of a mensch

On Monday I woke up thinking about him, a man I never knew — and didn’t even consider the existence of until last week.

On Sunday I attended the funeral of the father-in-law of the rabbi who taught the b’nai mitzvah class I completed in D.C. last month. Her in-laws are local, and since I consider the rabbi one of my mentors and one of the reasons I decided to go to rabbinical school, I — along with a classmate who also knew her in her past job — made the drive to a small town outside of Boston to be a part of the mitzvah of k’vod hameyt, honoring the dead.

His death on July 4 was a random accident, one so terrible that the rabbi, one of the most articulate and thoughtful people I know, just shook her head when I saw her: “There’s nothing to say.”

There certainly isn’t much to say about his death, although the rabbi who presided over the ceremony did a yeoman’s job. He took to task the chief of police who had declared the accident “an act of G-d.” “Oh, really?” he rejoined scathingly. “That is not G-d.” And then he cautioned the large crowd that allowed only standing room in the sanctuary by the time the service started, “Before you ask, ‘Why?’, I ask you to consider whether there is any answer to that question that you would find satisfactory.”

There was certainly, though, very much to say about his life. From his obituary: “Loved nature, music, writing short stories, studying Torah, discussing politics, dancing with [his wife], and the Red Sox. His goodness and love will be missed.”

The service started with the synagogue’s cantor, who had known him and his wife since she began her job at the congregation. (They were involved in selecting the rabbi as well.) Next was his sister, then his son (my rabbi’s husband), then his daughter. And then his wife.

His son talked about how his father had taught him how to be a father. The rabbi and her husband have two children, and he recalled how much joy his father had gotten out of being a grandfather. And he sounded like the best kind of father and grandfather. The son recalled, “Dad could do anything. Wrote down the wrong gate and missed your flight? Let dad know: he’ll fix it. Don’t understand how student loans work? Ask dad: he’ll explain them. Get lost on the way to an important meeting? Call dad: he”ll get you there.”

A heartbreakingly young woman, his daughter talked about all of her many childhood activities that her dad never missed: Practices, performances, meets, competitions. In school he stayed up late with her the night before a paper was due in case she needed help breaking through writer’s block. She ended up in technology, the same field as his, and she spoke fondly their attending a recent conference together. There he introduced her to a colleague as his daughter; later, the man found her again and said, “When your father introduced you, I didn’t realize that you are actually his daughter. I thought he was saying that you were like a daughter, that he was your mentor.” She recalled at the service, “The colleague wasn’t wrong. He was my father, but he was also my mentor.”

Last was his wife, who was unbelievable. And by that I mean that I almost couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying because she was so unexpectedly poised at a moment when everyone around her, including people who hadn’t even known him, were sobbing. She shared how they had met, in college: two atheist, anti-Jewish Jews. They bonded over activism and late night philosophical talks, but, although she wasn’t all that interested in marriage, she didn’t want to move in with him if they were unmarried. “I told him that I didn’t understand that. If two people wanted to commit to one another, they should just do it, go all the way.” And five months after they met, he asked her to marry him on bended knee and with a toy ring with a green stone (which she promptly dropped, losing the stone, as soon as he handed it to her). So at ages 18 and 19, they were married, in a Jewish ceremony to satisfy their parents — and one entirely in Hebrew “so that we couldn’t understand all the stuff about G-d.”

I wish there had been time to hear more about their journey together from kids to having grandkids, from rebels to pillars of the community, from G-d denying to G-d embracing. But what followed next was well worth that omission.

His wife explained that she had asked people from various points in his life to speak about him because what she had known about him was not all there was to know about him. We then heard from a childhood friend and one from his young adult years, then from a member of the synagogue’s men’s group that he founded, and from a colleague. We heard about his mischievousness, his reflections on Torah, and a vacation dinner in a nice restaurant that ended with his young son covered in spaghetti and chocolate ice cream. A woman from a job or two ago said that after several people had left the company, they committed to getting together for dinner every few months to stay in touch. She had been in charge of scheduling those dinners, and he was always the hardest one to nail down. But, she added, after hearing that day what others had to say about him and his commitment to his family, friends, and community, she understood why he was always so busy.

I loved his wife’s tribute, her acknowledgement that she doesn’t own the memories of him, that all of the community carries pieces of him — then and now. This is how remembrance stays alive, and I am blessed to now be a bearer of his life and death as well.

And then she began to talk about the night he died. They had attended a James Taylor concert, just one of the activities that had begun to form the shape of their (soon-to-be) retired life. They sat on the lawn and talked about their ballroom dancing lessons and their financial future. The last song of the concert, she informed us, was Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.” And the cantor joined her at the podium, and they invited everyone to sing. And when we weren’t spirited enough, his wife admonished us to sing louder and to clap harder. It was hard to do through my tears. But she just laughed and clapped and sang.

In the end, she concluded by thanking him for their 43 years together, declaring, “I regret nothing.”

“I regret nothing.” How many of us can say that about our relationships? About our lives? About anything? How many of us can say that, whether we actually don’t experience regret, or whether we have made peace with our mistakes?

I just want to stop. And thank you, baby.

How sweet it is to be loved by you.

labor seder

Sunday night was Jews United for Justice’s (JUFJ) annual Labor Seder; for the two months prior, I led the program committee that wrote the haggadah. I was also honored with a reading and with leading the Shehecheyanu, one of my favorite prayers. As the graphic to the right alludes, the event this year focused on the issue of immigration in the D.C region.

As my reading, “Why a seder about immigration?,” stated,

In Hebrew, the word for immigration (“hagirah”) comes from the same root as the word “ger,” a word that can mean “stranger,” “foreigner,” or “other.” The word is used frequently in the Torah, most often in mandates to treat strangers living in our midst with respect and decency since we ourselves were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. Indeed, throughout history, the Jewish people have so often been in the position of the stranger, and much of Jewish history can be characterized as a history of constant migration, forced and voluntary relocation, and resettlement.

In short, the fact that all Jews at some point immigrated to our country obligates us to be concerned about the plight of all immigrants in our country. During the seder, we talked about the demographics of the immigrants in the D.C, their contributions to the region’s economy, and the struggles that they face, including paths to citizenship (for those who came here both legally and illegally). We largely focused on issues related to jobs — of which citizenship is obviously a huge part. D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have all recently been grappling with laws relating to immigrants, in particular the DREAM Act and the local reaction to the federal “Secure Communities” program.

Immigration issues have become a passion of mine since I studied their local implications as part of the Jeremiah Fellowship, a program that JUFJ runs to train “the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers.” I learned a lot from the unit — and even more from writing the haggadah. I strongly believe in the kind of immigration reform advocated by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) — an ally of JUFJ and a co-sponsor of the seder — to wit, “. . . an effective immigration system guided by the rule of law, the national interest, fairness, and compassion.” There are specifics to this vision which I won’t get into here, for a variety of reasons. At this point I am so deeply enmeshed in this philosophy of immigration reform that it’s really hard for me to understand the ferocious opposition to any realistic — to say nothing of compassionate — action. It’s an issue that progressives don’t even agree on. However, if you seek vitriol, read the online comments on news articles that cover efforts other than the immediate deportation our country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants.

In addition to delving pretty deeply into immigration policy, I also began thinking about my own family’s immigration story. They aren’t Jewish, but they’re not Native Americans either — so they had to have arrived at some point. But it’s a story I hadn’t heard.

I decided to ask my dad. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have the kind of relationship with my father that facilitates these kinds of conversations. Or more precisely, I’m not sure he’d understand why I was asking in this context. Plus, my father is a lawyer, which for him means that he has to give precise answers at all times. It turned out that he had some genealogy, from my maternal grandfather, as well as his own family history. When I asked him about it at the beginning of February, he told me that he had loaned out his “big file” with all of that information to his brother and wouldn’t be able to get it back until mid-March. I told him that was fine, chuckling to myself that he didn’t give me any idea of that file’s contents; he never wants to misstate. A few days later, though, he got back to me with some details.

woody guthrie, apparently a relative

My maternal great-grandmother’s birth name was Guthrie, which family line can be traced back to John Guthrie in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to my grandfather’s notes, John Guthrie arrived in Jamestown in 1652. There was apparently a Guthrie Castle built in 1452, near Guthrie Hill, and that a Guthrie was dispatched to France in 1299 to get Sir William Wallace (“Braveheart”) to return to Scotland to oppose the English. It appears from my grandfather’s charts that the name was spelled “Guttery” until about 1854, when it became “Guthrie” again. My dad concludes this section: “Phil Kastelic [my uncle] may be able to tell you more about the recent Guthrie line: apparently Woody Guthrie is from the Guthrie family tree, and PMK is very proud of that connection.”

On his side of the family, my grandfather recorded Thomas Wilkes as his earliest known ancestor; he was born around 1630, location unknown. His son, Joseph Wilkes, is shown as having been born in New Kent, Va. in 1660. There are separate notes based on correspondence between my grandfather’s father and a Wilkes relative in Maryland that indicate that Thomas Wilkes arrived from England on February 25, 1653, at age 23, as an indentured servant. These notes also indicate that the birthplace of Joseph Wilkes was “just up the York River from Jamestown.”

So, not only did my grandparents’ ancestors both arrive at or near Jamestown in the 17th century — but they arrived within a year of one another! I was proud to tell this story at the seder on Sunday night, during the table discussion of attendees’ own family immigration stories. And I’m looking forward to hearing about my dad’s side of the family.

blue nights

I was drawn into Joan Didion’s latest memoir, Blue Nights, immediately. She begins by writing about a season changing from spring into summer into fall:

To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes — the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.

I’ve only read one other Didion book, The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir that preceded Blue Nights. Tragically, the former is about the death of her husband in 2003; the latter, the death of her daughter two years later. It’s hard to escape the fact that few have unexpectedly suffered more than Didion.

In both books, the difficult subject matter is made easier by her beautiful writing. Her prose is positively poetic. I read The Year of Magical Thinking weeks after the death of my beloved grandfather, and it helped me immensely in dealing with his death. The book also touched on her daughter’s struggle, who was in a coma at the time of her father’s death (but managed to recover long enough to attend the funeral). When it was published, I was eager, as odd as it sounds, to read the second part of Didion’s saga. Her recent experience is heartbreaking, and accompanying her on her journey through grief is comforting.

But if Blue Nights drew me in right away, I had a hard time finishing it. In some ways, what Didion describes in both books is universal: With grief come questions. How did the illness actually cause death? Did the deceased anticipate the end? How did I fail my loved one? How could I have made the time we had left more meaningful? Why didn’t I . . .? And no one articulates these hard questions better than she.

In other ways, Didion mistakes her experience as universal. Toward the end of the book, she contemplates the suddenness of change: “One day we are absorbed by dressing well, following the news, keeping up, coping, what we might call staying alive; the next day we are not. One day we are turning the pages of whatever has arrived in the day’s mail with real enthusiasm — maybe it is Vogue, maybe it is Foreign Affairs, whatever it is we are intensely interested, pleased to have this handbook to keeping up, this key to staying alive — yet the next day we are walking uptown on Madison past Barney’s and Armani or on Park past the Council on Foreign Relations and we are not even glancing at their windows.” The general sentiment rings true, to be sure, but the details that are supposed to concretize her state of mind are alienating. Didion uses the word “we” — but her world isn’t one that I recognize.

Indeed, her two works that I’ve read are full of this kind of name and label dropping: Payard and Bouvier des Flandres, Bendel’s and The Bistro, Minton dinner plates and I. Magnin soap, Lilly Pulitzer shifts and Donald Brooks dresses, David Webb bracelets and Christian Louboutin shoes. I don’t even know what most of those words mean. And it goes on. Tasha (Natasha Richardson). Nick (Dominick Dunne). She spends two pages listing the (presumably very fancy) hotels that she and her daughter stayed in on her book tours. She even identifies something as banal as a kitchen implement: a “Craftsman knife.”

I probably would have dismissed these details had they gone unremarked. I’ve come to think of them as window-dressing, ornaments whose specificity probably connote something deeply meaningful for Didion (indeed, a photograph of Sophia Loren at a fashion show in 1968 prompts a lengthy ode to a past era in her life) but which for me are almost meaningless. I feel deeply for Didion’s losses, and these references, signifying wealth above all, give me hope. Whatever else she is — bereft, grieving, heartbroken, broken — she’s not poor. She has the resources to give herself the space to heal. It’s one of the benefits of privilege.

But Didion is angry about this label, and she breaks into a defensive address of the reader halfway through Blue Nights: “‘Privilege’ remains an area to which — when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later — I will not easily cop.”

But she’s wrong. Just wrong. Wrong, full stop. It’s hard to imagine a more privileged type of person in the U.S. than a wealthy white Hollywood family. Didion’s daughter undoubtedly suffered terribly at the end of her life — and, to hear Didion tell, struggled with debilitating mental issues when she was alive. And she did so in a life of privilege. With all due respect to Didion’s experience, health problems, even fatal ones, don’t negate privilege.

I found this refusal to acknowledge her daughter’s — and by extension her own — privilege so troubling that I had to put the book down for several months. I was recently able to finish it, and I’m glad I did. Ultimately, I do recommend the book — how can I not love a book whose author describes a scene of her daughter’s walking to school as “beautiful as anything I’d ever seen”? — but I also recommend skipping chapter 15. Didion should have skipped it, too.