Some Poems for Passover

April 15, 2014

IMG_6311The power of the Passover seder lies in the fact that it’s always the same. And always different.

 

In our family, certain foods are non-negotiable – Big Grandma’s matzo ball soup, Little Grandma’s chremsels, Manischewitz. Other parts of the menu vary. Lately I’ve been substituting Yeminite charoset for the Ashkanazik standard. I’ve eliminated tzimmes and added matzo crunch.

 

Likewise, each year, our family uses the same Haggadah we’ve been using for years. The set was handed down to me in the 1990s, when my parents updated to a newer edition. We wouldn’t abandon these old books for the world. The pages are stained with the wine and charoset of Passovers past, and four separate volumes are marked up with the names of the loved ones, many long gone, assigned each year’s parts – first in my father’s hand and then in mine. You couldn’t ask for more tangible connection to tradition.

And we would never dream of changing or omitting the core texts, like the blessings, the four questions and Chad Gadya, to name just a few. But lots of the translations and footnotes feel dated, or just like missed opportunities to explore something more.

So while we stick with the old, I sometimes add something new. This year it was poetry. Early Monday afternoon, between cooking the chicken and setting the table, I scoured my bookshelves, and picked out four poems to augment the traditional seder text. I marked the pages, and scattered the books around the table, alongside the Haggadahs, and at the appropriate time, asked someone to read.

Karpas

The first thing you eat at the seder is a green vegetable dipped in salt water. In our house, it’s parsley. Sometimes at this point we read the note in our Haggadah about springtime and renewal. Sometimes we read lines from the Song of Songs about winter being over. This year, we read this: 

 

The First Green of Spring

David Budbill

 

Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,

This sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting

To a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,

 

Harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching

on this message from the dawn which says we and the world

are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday. And

 

even though we know we are growing old, we are dying, we

will never be young again, we also know we’re still right here

now, today, and, my oh my! don’t these greens taste good.

 

Plagues

There are lots of ways to bring to life the ten plagues the Egyptians suffered before the Israelites fled. I read on Facebook that my rabbi was using ping pong balls to simulate the seventh plague, which is hail. I chose this:

 

Hailstorm

Kay Ryan

 

Like a storm

of hornets, the

little white planets

layer and relayer

in their high orbits,

getting more and

more dense before

they crash against

our crust. A maelstrom

of ferocious little

fists and punches,

so hard to believe

once it’s past.

 

 

Pharaoh: Arch-Tyrant

After we recite the plagues, I like to read a section from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s New Haggadah, in which he expands on the concept of the Pharoah. Kaplan writes, “….Pesach means more than that first emancipation the Israelites won from Pharoah when they left Egypt…It means emancipation wrested from the yoke of conquerors, freedom from the bonds of slavery, and the right of peoples to self-determination.”

 

This year I augmented that reading with this poem:

 

Democracy

Langston Hughes

 

Democracy will not come

Today, this year

Nor ever

Through compromise and fear.

 

I have as much right

As the other fellow has

To stand

On my two feet

And own the Land.

 

I tire so of hearing people say,

Let things take their course.

Tomorrow is another day.

I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.

I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

 

Freedom

Is a strong seed

Planted

In a great need.

I live here, too.

I want freedom

Just as you.

 

 

Hallel

Shortly before the meal, we recite a series of Psalms praising God. I included my fourth and last poem here.

 

Welcome Morning

Anne Sexton

 

There is joy

in all:

in the hair I brush each morning,

in the Cannon towel, newly washed,

that I rub my body with each morning,

in the chapel of eggs I cook

each morning,

in the outcry from the kettle

that heats my coffee

each morning,

un the spoon and the chair

that cry “hello there, Anne”

each morning,

in the godhead of the table

that I set my silver, plate, cup upon

each morning.

 

All this is God,

right here in my pea-green house

each morning

and I mean,

though often I forget,

to give thanks,

to faint down by the kitchen table

in a prayer of rejoicing

as the holy birds at the kitchen window

peck into their marriage of seeds.

 

So while I think of it,

let me paint a thank-you on my palm

for this God, this laughter of the morning,

lest it go unspoken.

 

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,

dies young.

 

I’m hanging onto these poems for next year. We’ll probably read at least some of them again, just like some of the recipes we’ve added over the years, and have become a part of our tradition.

 

 

Oakland Cemetery

March 31, 2014

 

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Walking home from Roger Williams Park a few weekends back, David and I decided to explore a cemetery we’d passed by lots of times, but had never bothered to check out.

We like cemeteries – the artistry of the stones, the interesting old names, the epitaphs, the morbid semiology of angels, hands, and weeping willows. As an amateur photographer, I love the monochrome stones in their symmetrical rows, the play of light on the inscriptions, the marks that time and weather and human mischief leave on monuments that were meant to be immutable. And as someone who craves narrative, I like to read stories into the stones.

Oakland Cemetery doesn’t look like much from the road. Entering from the park, the first interesting thing you notice is how many headstones vandals have knocked down, and how much trash has blown in or been dropped and not picked up. No wonder Mark C writes on Yelp (who knew that Yelp carries cemetery reviews?), “This dump is an embarrassment…I wouldn’t bury my dog here.”

 

Most of the monuments are between 40 and 100 years old. Walk on, though, and you find a row of stones dating back much earlier.

 

Mr. James Brown Merchant who died Oct 4th 1775 aged 73 Years. He was born in England: a pattern of Industry and an honest Man.

Stephen Rawson died March 14th 1773 in the 50th Year of his Age. He was of a noted Family of great Repute. His Life was Amiable and Strict Integrity with universal Benevolence justly marked his Character.

Alexander Black of the City of Coleraine in the Kingdom of Ireland. Merchant. He came to America in the Year 1748 and died in Providence Rhode Island on the 12th of Sept. 1767 aged 40 Years.

Mrs. Freelove Bosworth 2nd wife of Mr. Lewis Bosworth

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These much older graves seem out of place, and they are. Brown and Rawson and Black and Bosworth and half a dozen of their contemporaries were originally buried in West Burial Ground, in Providence. They were exhumed and reburied in Cranston in 1870, when West Burial Ground was dismantled to create Hayward Park, which was demolished in the 1960s to make room the I-95/I-195 interchange, which was torn down and rebuilt further south in 2013.

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But Oakland Cemetery isn’t only a place of neglect and displacement. Look a little farther and you see an unexpected jumble of colors cutting through the dead grass. These are graves from the last 15 years, lined up head-to-toe, like a traffic jam of the dead. Beneath the plastic flowers and the home-made crosses, the stuffed animals and miniature Christmas trees, the rosary beads and Red Sox caps, the votive candles and Hennessy bottles and last year’s dead leaves, you notice that the surnames are almost all Hispanic, and a shockingly high percentage of the dead are men between the ages of 18 and 30. Google the names, and another pattern emerges.

John Gabriel Espinal, a 20-year-old dental hygiene student, died in August, 2013 – shot dead by the new boyfriend of Espinal’s former girlfriend, the mother of his 2-year-old child.

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Luis Dominguez, 18, died in July, 2010 – shot dead by a friend who was messing around with a sawed-off shotgun.

 

 

 

IMG_7517Jacob Delgado, a 19-year-old artist, died in December, 2001 – shot dead during an argument that erupted after he jumped the line at a Broad Street chimi truck.

 

 

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Nairobi Acosta, 20, died in November, 2007 – shot dead as he was leaving an after-hours party.

Luis Abreu, 21, died in October, 2007 – shot dead shortly after midnight, as he was sitting in his black BMW outside his apartment.

Omar Polanco, a 19-year-old Walmart worker, died in September, 2008 – shot dead at 3:30 a.m. from a passing car, a few blocks from his family home. The day we visited Oakland, Polanco would have turned 21. Mylar birthday balloons bobbed over his grave.

IMG_7438Among these newer graves is a tall, granite monument carved with the figure wearing an ornate robe. He holds an orb with a cross in one hand, and raises the other hand in blessing. The portrait set into the corner of the stone shows a handsome man with a shaved head, bright eyes and a benevolent smile. Below is an inscription.

Beloved father, son, brother and friend

David J.Catagena

Apr. 13, 1971 – May 31, 2009

Being a streetworker – it’s like being a peacemaker. It’s the thing you want to be.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9.

Cartagena died at 38, in a three-car accident on I-95. A former member of the Almighty Latin King Nation youth gang, Cartagena had a history of hurting people and 15 arrests on his record. In 2005 he joined the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, a Providence-based nonprofit dedicated to combating gang violence and youth crime. The Providence Journal described Catagena as one of the organization’s “most effective leaders.”

I’m sure there are more stories like these at Oakland Cemetery. But David and I only stayed so long. It was awfully cold out, and we felt self-conscious, walking around and taking pictures, especially when other people came with fresh decorations for their loved ones’ graves. When does honest interest become disrespect? What’s a public park and what’s a private shrine? What am I to make of that little leap of excitement I felt when I discovered Oakland Cemetery’s story?

I was just starting to consider these questions when the impersonal became intensely personal. David’s dad died. We dropped everything and flew to Colorado – an event still too raw to write about here. Back home two weeks later, I picked up what I’d been working on.

When I went back to check Yelp, I found that a new review had been posted while we were away. “My father was buried a year ago this past march 25th,” writes Juan V, “I went and visit the grave and set some flowers (Plastic from dollar store) and today, Saturday March 29, the flowers are gone, don’t guess me wrong but that only happens in the Dominican Republic, and I know who did it, the person is from that country, what a disgrace, I don’t even want to be part of that community anymore. I feel sorry that my father is buried there.”

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Picture This

February 11, 2014

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When I tell people that I write picture books, the conversation often goes something like this.

– Do you do the pictures, too?

– Nope. Just the words.

– Huh. Well, do you get to decide who does them?

– No. That’s up to the editor.

– Really! But doesn’t it bother you to give up control like that? What if they’re not like what you had in mind?

– With any luck, they’ll be better.

Okay. I never have actually said that last line. But now that I’ve thought of it, maybe I will.

Because here’s the thing. I like looking at art, and when I write a picture book, I absolutely see pictures in my head. I see color and mood and composition. Does it fill just one page, or spill across a whole spread? Is what’s happening sufficiently different from what happened on the last page, and what will happen on the page that comes next?

I know that someone else will produce the art that accompanies my words. But if I didn’t imagine pictures to go with them, I couldn’t write a successful picture book.

Without some idea of the images’ color and mood, I couldn’t calibrate the tone of my language – is it funny? Quiet? Suspenseful? Factual?  Fantastic?

If I didn’t imagine some sort of composition, I couldn’t keep track of point of view – who’s telling the story? What does the narrator know? What does the reader know (through the picture) that the narrator doesn’t know, or doesn’t tell? Which details do I need to include, and which will the pictures convey?

Knowing whether a picture will fit on one page or spill across two is crucial for pacing. Should the story slow down here, or speed up? Should the page-by-page tempo be steady, or varied?

Finally, if I don’t have some idea of what each picture will show, I risk writing a story that doesn’t leave room for enough visual variety to hold the reader’s interest.

Back in when I was starting out, I used to make dummies of the picture books I was writing. I would take eight sheets of typing paper, fold them in half, and nest one inside the other to make a miniature book. I would write the title on the “cover,” paste the words onto their proper pages, and draw the pictures I imagined accompanying them.

It was a fun project. But it didn’t take me long to realize that for my purposes, a flat, comic-style storyboard worked as well as a 3D model of the book, and that the pictures I managed to produce were a far cry from the ones I imagined.

It’s not just a question of technical execution – although that’s huge. It’s also a matter of insight. Sure I see pictures when I write. But in the end, they’re secondary to the words I hear. Bringing a visual artist into a project means putting my words in the hands of someone whose whole job is to make the imagined visible, and to visualize images I couldn’t have imagined.

Do I envy those talented souls who can do both? You bet.

Do I worry as I wait to find out what the pictures will look like? Of course.  But writing picture books is an act of faith – and an exercise in ceding control. Once an illustrator takes on a project, it becomes as much hers as mine. Her vision carries as much weight as mine. And while her pictures wouldn’t exist without my words, my words could never fly without her pictures.

That’s what I’m thinking about as I await word on who will illustrate my next picture book. It’s exciting and excruciating. And I’ll let you know who it is as soon I know.

Both Sides Now

December 4, 2013

both waysSometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t.

Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.

Sometimes I’m a children’s book author; sometimes I write for adults. I never set out to be one thing or the other, or to be both things at once. It just happened that way. And it works for me.

Writing picture books satisfies the part of my brain that loves listening to language, enjoys the elegance of concision, and gets off on the marriage of words with images (although I don’t do my own artwork). Writing for grown-ups lets me spend longer on and delve more deeply into a topic, write about issues that kids couldn’t care less about, and use a wider vocabulary (with bigger words as well as ones with four letters.) And switching back and forth between picture books and adult fiction helps me stay energized and interested.

Back when I was writing my second cockroach reader, I was also spinning cynical, sexy stories for Seven Days, and composing the occasional sermon to deliver at my synagogue. I would sit down at my desk and have to ask myself, “Which of my voices am I supposed to be using today?”

My writing life is saner these days. I’ll spend a month or more in one genre before switching to the other. But thanks to social media, my writing persona is much more public than it was in the old century. And with a new picture book under contract – for the first time in more than ten years – I find myself taking stock of how I show myself to the world.

On this blog, I have felt free to talk about everything, from therapeutic bloodletting to prayers without God to my collection of disembodied doll parts and the recipe for perfect latkes. Those themes are fitting for Ruth Horowitz, the former Seven Days writer, who has written a novel for adults that deals with sex and religion and grief. But are they the right topics for a children’s book author? What are the rules here? Are there rules?

And what about the business side of being a writer? I’ve always seen this blog as a place to have a conversation with the world — not as a showcase for my books. But with a new children’s book on the way (and with luck more to come) self-promotion has become part of my job.

What to do?

One thing I’ve done is set up a new website: Ruth Horowitz, Children’s Author. It showcases my kid’s books in a kid-friendly, easy-to-navigate environment. My plan is to continue posting here as I have been, including updates on my life as a children’s book author. But if you just want to kids’ stuff, you can find it at ruthhorowitz.com. And while you’re over there, why not pick up one of my books?

New Picture Book Coming!

November 20, 2013

IMG_20131118_0001_NEWHey! Look what just got announced in Publisher’s Marketplace!

Ruth Horowitz’s BEES IN THE TREES, about an apple grower and a beekeeper, and a misunderstanding that escalates into a feud, to Tracy Mack at Scholastic, by Linda Epstein at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency (World).

I am thrilled that my story has found a home at Scholastic, grateful as all get-out for my wonderful agent and friend Linda Epstein for making it happen, and eager to start working with my editor Tracy Mack, as we polish my words to fit with the pictures. But first Tracy and her team have to find the perfect artist to create those pictures.

Making a picture book takes time. How much time?

I wrote the first version of BEES in 1991. We were living in Vermont. My kids were little, and we’d gone apple picking. I noticed that the orchard also sold honey, and started thinking about how bees need apple trees and apple trees need bees. It seemed like the perfect set-up for a picture book. So I began playing around with the idea, and pretty soon it was about more than just bees and trees. It was also about friendship and fences, fuzzy slippers and funny insults. When it felt just right, I started sending the book out in search of a publisher.

Back then, submitting a picture book manuscript meant mailing a physical object. Even if you had no intention of illustrating the book, yourself, you created a dummy to show how the book might look. That meant literally cutting (with scissors) and pasting (with rubber cement), and going to Kinko’s (because in those days, who had a copier at home?). (The pictures on this post are from that dummy — I got a little carried away.)

My buddy Robert Resnik walked over to Kinko’s with me. On the way, I recited my story to him.

“What will you do if it doesn’t sell?” he asked.

“Oh, it’ll sell.” I said. How could it not? It was so good! And I wasn’t just anyone. I had already published two picture books, Bat Time and Mommy’s Lap.

The next morning I sent BEES out to the first editor. In those days, most children’s book editors would still consider unsolicited manuscripts from writers who didn’t have literary agents. And even if they returned your manuscript, they sometimes included a personal letter telling you why. Over the next 10 years, I sent the story out to and got it back from 26 editors, and accumulated a fat stack of encouraging no-thank-you letters in the process.

At that point, I set the project aside. By now, Crab Moon and Breakout at the Bug Lab had come out, and Big Surprise in the Bug Tank was in the works. But I was starting to get interested in other kinds of writing, for readers who weren’t children. My own kids were nearly grown. I was working for Seven Days newspaper, and had just started on a big, ambitious novel for adults.

Fast-forward another decade, to the summer of 2012. My kids have graduated from college, and my husband David and I have moved from Vermont to Rhode Island.  I have finished my big, ambitious novel and signed with an agent, who is shopping it around. I’m a full-time writer now — no day job — but I’m feeling stuck, creatively. I have all the time and energy I could possibly want to devote to my writing, but I can’t seem to settle into my next project.

Linda and I are chatting one day when she asks, “Why aren’t you writing children’s books anymore?”

“I have filing cabinets full of children’s book manuscripts,” I tell her. (That’s a slight exaggeration – it’s more like folders full. But there are a lot of folders.)

She’s like, “So why don’t you pick out the best ones and show them to me?”IMG_20131118_0002_NEW

And I’m like, “Because they’re picture books, and you don’t represent picture books?”

And she’s all like, “I represent you.”

Thank you, Linda. I go home and start combing through my children’s book manuscripts. I have paper folders full of stories printed out on paper from the days before computers, and digital stories in electronic folders from the days since computers. Some of them are garbage, and some of them are promising, and a few of them are pretty damned good — like the one about bees and trees and friendship and fences and fuzzy slippers and funny insults.

That one is really good. But looking at it now, after leaving it alone for those years and honing my writing skills with all those other projects, I can see how it could be better. By a lot.

So I fuss with it and fix it, and when it feels just right, I send it to Linda – no scissors-and- cement dummy, just my text in a Word document attached to an email. And she does the rest.

If my bee story has a moral, it might be, “It’s dumb to pick fights with your friends.” But if the story of my bee story has a moral, it might be, “Never say never.” Or, “Patience makes perfect.” Or — in the case of me and the world of children’s books — “There’s no place like home.”

Fun Home the musical

November 7, 2013

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David and I took a quick trip to New York last weekend to see Fun Home, the incredible musical based on our friend Alison Bechdel’s incredible 2006 graphic memoir about her closeted gay father’s suicide not long after she came out as a lesbian.

Alison was writing Fun Home at the same time that I began to write my novel. We swapped drafts. She commiserated with me when I faltered (I’m still fussing with my book), and our whole family celebrated with her as she finished her project—to much acclaim.

The “best of” lists, the interviews, the awards – all that success made sense to me. But when Alison told me someone had optioned the rights to turn Fun Home into a musical, I wasn’t convinced. That is, I thought it was the most ridiculous idea I’d ever heard. The book is so intricately crafted, and makes such rich use of the graphic novel format, the rhymes and ironies and reiterations between words and pictures so perfectly expressing the narrative’s conflicted point of view – how could that possibly translate to the stage?

I was skeptical. But also intrigued. So naturally, when I had a chance to attend an early “lab” performance of the play in progress, I bought tickets, and David and I Mega-bussed it down to New York to see the show.

That was a strange experience. But not for the reasons I had anticipated. The set featured a meticulous replica of Alison’s studio, a room I had been in lots of times, but not since David and I moved out of state, a few years earlier. I couldn’t stop staring at it. Actor Beth Malone’s portrayal of the adult Alison was so spot-on, with so many gestures and postures and inflections that were just right, I couldn’t stop noticing the few she got wrong. And I was so curious about which parts of the book the play would leave in, I couldn’t stop thinking of the parts it left out.

Even with all those personal distractions, lots of parts of the play blew me away – the performances, the songs, some achingly poignant scenes. But as a whole, it felt disjointed, uneven, off-balance.

Fun Home is a coming-out story, a coming-of-age story, a family story, a story about growing up in a funeral home, and a story about coming to terms with the past. It’s also a story about the necessary and dangerous business of turning our lives into stories—necessary because storytelling helps us makes sense of events; dangerous because how can we know if the stories we tell ourselves accurately convey the facts, or are just the version we want to be true?

In Fun Home the book, Alison the grown-up lesbian cartoonist comes back to the same memories again and again, searching for clues and trying out different interpretations. The approach lets the reader peer deep inside the narrator’s mind, but keeps people and events at a distance. The story is moving and absorbing. But it never lets you forget that you’re reading.

Fun Home the musical is also narrated by grown-up Alison, and also proceeds non-chronologically, circling back over the same events to pick out new details and dig deeper under the surface. The three actors who play Alison at different ages – child, college student and adult – often appear on the stage together. A problem with that early version was that Alison the adult wasn’t nearly as compelling as her former selves.

Which would you rather watch, a little girl going gaga over her first butch dyke, a college student bringing her first girlfriend home to meet her parents, or a cartoonist trying to figure out which caption to write? The introspection and self-correction that makes the book so thought-provoking and multilayered just got in way of the play.

When I heard the play was opening for real, of course I bought tickets, and David and I headed back to New York. But I was nervous. Turns out, I didn’t need to be.

Fun Home the musical never stops moving. Events don’t proceed chronologically. Time keeps circling back – literally, on a turntable stage that lets us see two associated events simultaneously. Songs circle back, too, the same lyrics taking on new meanings between the first chorus and the last. Set pieces also rhyme. The same door is in one scene Alison’s father’s closet, and in another the entrance to the Gay Union at Alison’s college.

Alison the tortured cartoonist still narrates. But for most of the play she’s a quiet witness, letting her memories speak for themselves. They do that eloquently. And because she has held back so much over the course of the play, when adult Alison finally does fully express herself at the show’s climax, the impact is all the more powerful.

As for those personal associations I found so distracting the first time, seeing the play again, I wasn’t bothered at all. In part, that was because I’d already seen it once. But it was also because the play didn’t put as much emphasis on mirroring reality. Alison’s replica studio was reduced to a single desk. The actor playing adult Alison was more natural and less of a mimic. The script strayed further from the book. And that’s the real point, I think.

If the genius of Fun Home the book is in how perfectly it deploys the tools of the graphic novel, the genius of Fun Home the musical is in how well it uses the medium of the stage. Composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright Lisa Kron haven’t just created a stage version of Alison’s book. They have cut through the book’s baroque layers and brought out its essence. And they’ve done that by making the story their own.

Only Connnect

October 23, 2013

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We didn’t plan to attend Mass at the Cathedral of Barcelona. But there we were on Sunday afternoon, needing to sit down after a long walk around the old city, when they started closing the doors for 5:00 mass. So we stayed, and watched the ancient building we had come to visit as a museum turn into a living spiritual home.

The spoken parts of the service were in Catalan, the singing in Latin. I don’t know either language. But by picking out a word here and there –sacrificat, kyrie – and remembering my years as a Catholic school librarian, I could more or less follow. It was satisfying to suss out the meaning of what I was seeing. And it helped me feel less foreign.

Feeling less foreign is my underlying goal whenever I travel. It’s not that I want to take home with me – strolling around Barcelona, the last thing I wanted to see was another Starbucks, Subway, or the franchise known in Spain as Dunkin’ Coffee. It’s more that I crave a sense of belonging – of feeling connected to my surroundings.

This isn’t a conscious goal, but trying to achieve it can be deliberate. Why else – if not to find my place in the city – did I spend so long, that Sunday afternoon, searching the twisting cobblestone passageways of the old city for traces of El Call – a once-flourishing Jewish quarter that was purged of Jews, demolished and rebuilt as a Christian neighborhood 600 years ago?

That night at dinner, something about our server seemed vaguely familiar. She spoke perfect English, but with a heavy Spanish accent. More than that, though, she got us – our little jokes, the fact that we intended to taste each other’s dishes, why I wanted to hold onto my empty plate until David had finished. While she refilled our water, she asked how we liked the city, and David asked if she was from here. No, she said. Buenos Aires.  That’s when it hit me.

“Buenos Aires,” I whispered to David after she’d left. “She’s Jewish.”

The more I watched her, the more certain I became. I kept waiting for her to return to our table so we could talk more, and trying to figure out a tactful way to test my theory. But a different server took over, so I’ll never know if I guessed right.

I was sorry I couldn’t verify our common background. But the most satisfying moments of connection are the ones that happen on their own. The trick is to recognize them when they do.

Take, for example, our dinner the next night, at a different restaurant. First, as we settled into our seats in the tree-lined sidewalk square, the server suggested I put my purse under the table, rather than on the chair beside me (Barcelona being known for its vibrant pick-pocket culture). Then, before we had even opened our menus, one of the birds in one of the aforementioned trees dropped two bright white spots of shit on our table (convincing us to move inside). Finally, just as we were tucking into our appetizers, a very sickly mouse staggered across the dining room floor (whereupon a man hurried out of the kitchen with a dustpan and broom and swept the creature up).

You might read this as a traveler’s nightmare. But it didn’t feel that way to me. I felt welcomed and at home, buoyed by the bond that was forged as the mouse was swept away. That’s when David commented to our hostess, “That’s not good for business.”

She smiled, shaking her head. “No, it’s not good for business,” she agreed.

That good-natured acknowledgement made us – if only for as long as dinner lasted – family. And that made all the difference.

We had five breakfasts in Barcelona. We ate the first two at the “gastro-pub” across the street from our hotel – faux-distressed walls and leather club chairs, Odetta on the sound system, menus in four languages, tourists and local hipsters studying their smartphones while sipping their coffee.

On our third morning, we decided to try the Patisserie around the corner. There were no tourists or hipsters here, just housewives buying desserts from the glass cases out front, and in back a handful of Formica tables and plastic chairs where people on their way to work were eating breakfast rolls and ham sandwiches. The woman behind the counter smiled warmly, but called over her English-speaking co-worker – a young man with curly brown hair and half-inch plugs in his earlobes – to negotiate our order.

We returned to the patisserie two days later – our last morning in Barcelona. It was early, and the only employee in evidence was the woman with the warm smile who didn’t speak any English. But between our fractured Catalan and with much pointing and pantomiming and laughing good will all around, we managed to convey our order. Half an hour later, as we were settling our bill (with more gestures and pointing), the young man with the ear-plugs arrived. As we were leaving, he called after us what sounded like, “Ah-vey-o!”

We hadn’t heard the word before, but understood that he was saying, “Adieu,” and read into his greeting so much more – that he remembered us happily from the other day, that most of the people they served were regulars, and if we came back another time or two, we could become regulars, too.

“Ah-vey-o!” We called back, sorry that we wouldn’t have a chance to use our newly learned word with him again.

The cabbie who drove us to the airport was eager to practice his English. He was very good at it, and where he lacked the vocabulary, he compensated with eloquent sound effects and skits. Speeding along the highway, shifting lanes and dodging traffic, he kissed his steering wheel to help convey how glad he was to have a job in this economic climate, and thumbed through the screens on his phone to show us a photo of a newspaper story about the 100-kilo wild boars that recently come down out of the mountains to forage through the trash in a local suburb.

As we neared the airport, he discussed the travesty of building it on the river delta, a “water land” where countless species of birds once stopped as they migrated from Africa to northern Europe.

“Now a different kind of bird stops here,” I said. “Big ones!”

It took a moment, but then he got it. “Yes!” he said, laughing triumphantly. “There is a 747! I can tell by the shape of its bill!”

After he’d unloaded our luggage at the curb and we’d paid our fare, he shook our hands and said he was to have met us.

Inside the airport, the atmosphere wasn’t nearly so friendly. The security line was a mess, with minimal signage and no people to tell anyone what to do. We tried to figure out the local rules by watching the passengers ahead of us. But there wasn’t any pattern. A few people took their shoes off, but most didn’t. Some people removed their laptops from their bags, but others didn’t. We took off our shoes but left our laptops in our bags.

David passed through the metal detector and collected his bag from the conveyor belt without incident, but when I tried to collect my bags, the woman in the uniform called out to me in a scolding voice. “Lady! Computer!” and pointed to the back of the line. I took my computer out and walked back through security area, where I had to squeeze back in among the crush of passengers.

I ended up behind an elderly man. As he stood inside the metal detector, a second security agent, this one a burly man, planted himself in directly in front of him and made a series of faces at him. After what felt like a painfully long time, the agent asked, “Why are you waiting?” and the humiliated passenger hurried on his way.

Both agents were making themselves perfectly clear, in a universal language. They were saying, “We have all the power here, and take great pleasure in exercising it for its own sake. Our goal isn’t to keep the skies safe, but to keep you in your place.”

That was also a form of connection.

Turning a Page

October 7, 2013

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Towards the beginning of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Dissident Gardens, Miriam, a teenager in the 1960s, considers how reverentially her mother handles vinyl records – easing the disk from the sleeve, balancing the disk between thumb and index finger, making sure not to touch the grooves. Her attitude evokes Jewish ritual actions:

…the slipping of scrolls from a cabinet, her grandfather’s tender sheathing of the afikomen within its napkin at Passover, really anywhere Miriam had ever witnessed a Jew handling papers of importance or turning the pages of a book as if unworthy, grateful, ennobled… 

The passage jumped out at me because it brings together three motifs — old records, books, and the handling of Torah scrolls — that figure prominently in the novel I just finished revising. It also perfectly describes my own attitude.

I liked the passage so much that I did something I never do. I highlighted it.

Big deal, you might be thinking. But the thing is, I never write in books, for the same reason that I also never dog-ear pages, use books to prop open windows (although a character in my book does just that, and with a book that turns out to be very important), or leave books lying open on their stomachs, lest their spines break. If I want to remember a passage, I either copy it down somewhere or mark the page with a scrap of paper. Like Lethem’s generic Jew, I treat books with reverence.

And by books, I mean the physical thing made from dead trees, with paper pages stitched and glued between covers. The designed artifact, in which the style of the letters is called a typeface, rather than a font. The analog medium that lets you gauge your progress by watching your bookmark migrate through the strata of pages. That elegant object that looks so promising in wrapping paper, so welcoming on your bedtime table, so satisfying standing on your shelf with all the other books you have read. Or maybe started. Or at least meant to get to. And if not that, might one day consider reading.

Needless to say, I wasn’t much interested when the first electronic reading gadgets came out.  It’s not bad enough that I have long abandoned spiral notebooks and a typewriter and do all my writing at the computer – I should also forego the tactile intimacy of my beloved books to stare at yet another screen? No way.

But then we gave our son-in-law a Kindle for Christmas, and I realized that I felt a little jealous.

And then I started spending a lot of time sitting around in doctors’ offices, and I got sick of always doing crossword puzzles while I waited, and started looking for books I could easily carry in my purse.

And then we took a couple of trips, and when I shopped for books to take along, I realized I would only have room in my carry-on for two paperbacks, each of which was no more than one inch thick.

And then I visited the main branch of my town library, and discovered that e-books are available for borrowing. And if you don’t have an e-reader, you can borrow that, too.

So I did. They come pre-loaded with titles. I thought I was borrowing one with Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings on it, but I was wrong. In fact, there wasn’t a single book on the machine that I had the slightest interest in reading. Even so, playing with the machine for a few weeks, I realized that reading a Kindle was just as easy on the eyes as reading a dead-tree book, and a lot easier on the wrists, because the thing is just so small and light.

I also realized that I really, really, really wanted one. Now. Because we’re about to take another trip, and I want bring along a whole library. Just in case the first and second and third books I choose turn out not to interest me.

My Kindle arrived three days ago. The first book I downloaded was Dissident Gardens. I was thinking of it as a book to read on the plane. But I also thought I’d better start it now, so I could iron out any kinks with the machine while I was still home. So I did, and discovered no kinks. Also, this book is awesome. So awesome that I can’t put it down. I would call it a page-turner, except there are no pages. Last time I looked, I was 28% into it.

I’ve been reading it in bed, and I don’t have to balance my smart phone under my chin and use the flashlight app to see the words. I had two doctor’s appointments today plus one stop at a pharmacy. All told, that meant about an hour of waiting. But I hardly cared, because it gave me more time to read.

And that passage I mentioned when I began this post? The one that speaks so eloquently to the reverence some of us have for the physical artifacts through which we experience stories and music? No paper was damaged when I highlighted those words. I did it electronically.

Second Thoughts

September 7, 2013

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A funny thing happened to me on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

This is not, typically, a day I relish. I have already done the first day. I’ve admired the Torah scrolls and the clergy in their white regalia. I have grooved on the special melodies and savored the once-a-year prayers. I’ve dipped my apple in honey and shared the festive meal with friends.

Enough already! Who has time to go through it all over again? I have work to do.

This year, I’ve got a new writing project that’s just starting to gel. At its core is a mother who has become estranged from her grown son. I don’t know what came between them, or what the separation means to him. I just know that her heartbreak drives her to do things she wouldn’t otherwise do. How can I figure out where this is going when these holidays keep interfering with my work schedule?

But I had agreed to help out at the second-day service. And even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have felt right staying home. And so back to synagogue I went, to repeat exactly the same experience I’d had the day before.

Except it wasn’t the exactly the same.

For one thing, on the first day I’d been upstairs in the beautiful main sanctuary, with the senior rabbi and the cantor, accompanied by a professional chorus. On the second day I was downstairs in the not-so-pretty social hall, with the junior rabbi and my friend Hinda, who is a cantor-in-training. Different room, different people. But even if they’d been the same, it would have been different.

Rituals are like rivers—you can’t step in the same one twice.

The Rosh Hashanah service lasts about four hours. The funny thing happened to me in the last hour, around the point where I’d started flipping forward in the prayer book to see how much more I had to endure. I was tired of standing and more than ready for lunch. We had reached the remembrance section of the shofar service – readings and songs leading up to the blasts of the ram’s horn.

On the first day, I’d been riveted in anticipation. Today the shofar was yesterday’s news. I was spacing out, letting the music wash over me, when a new melody snagged my attention. The tune was so sad and lovely. And Hinda sang it so dearly, tenderly embracing each word. My Hebrew is spotty at best, but I understood “Ephraim” – the name of someone’s child. I glanced down at the English.

Is not Ephraim my precious son, my beloved child? Even when I reproach him, I remember him with tenderness. My heart yearns for him. Surely I shall show him mercy, says the Lord.

The words took my breath away. That was my character speaking, the one whose story I’ve been trying to figure out. They’re not her exact words, but they express perfectly the core of her heartbreak.

They’re the words of a parent who can’t give up on a child, can’t stop hoping he’ll return, no matter how far he has strayed or how long he’s been gone or how unlikely it is that he’ll come back. On a more mundane scale, they’re the words of any parent who has ever longed to comfort her child even as she metes out the punishment he justly deserves. The poignancy moved me to tears.

Later, when I tried to explain the moment to my husband, I realized I wasn’t actually certain who Ephraim was, or what he had done that was so bad. So I did some research.

Turns out Ephraim is the second son of Joseph. In Genesis, Joseph brings him and his older brother Manasseh to their blind grandfather Jacob to be blessed. When Jacob puts his hand on the head of second-born Ephraim and begins reciting the blessing for the first-born, Joseph tries to move his father’s hand to Manasseh’s head. But Jacob insists he knows what he’s doing — while Manasseh will be great, Ephraim will be greater.

As Sabbath begins on Friday night, parents traditionally bless their children. The formula for sons is, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”

The verse from the shofar service comes from the prophet Jeremiah, generations after Genesis. “Ephraim” refers to Ephraim’s descendants, who separated themselves from the rest of Israel. In later years, “Ephraim” was understood as all Jews living in exile—a tragedy that was seen as divine punishment for the people’s sins. Reading the verse today, on Rosh Hashanah, casts “Ephraim” as  a metaphor for the individual embarking on the annual road to repentance.

Jeremiah’s message is meant to console and encourage. No matter how far you have strayed, the prophet says, God loves you like a good parent, and is rooting for you to come around. The message is so central to Rosh Hashanah that on the second day of the holiday it appears not only during the shofar service, but also at the end of a much longer excerpt from Jeremiah read during the first hour of services.

For years, I have been coming to services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Every year I have heard that verse not once, but twice. And yet, this year was the first time I really heard it. But not in the way Jeremiah or the rabbis who constructed the high holiday services intended.

Does that mean I got it wrong? I don’t think so.

The point of Rosh Hashanah is to encourage us to try to be better people. In the words of the prayer book, that’s called returning to God. For me, it means nurturing within myself those same good qualities traditional Judaism ascribes to God. Seen through that lens, the verse about Ephraim becomes a model for forgiveness. It’s a reminder that everyone – the jerk who cut me off on the highway, the voter who supported the wrong candidate, the editor who doesn’t appreciate my writing – was once someone’s beloved child.

What’s true in life also holds when it comes to writing. When I get back to working on my story, I’ll see what would happen if I made the son the protagonist. In life and in fiction, one of the best ways to understand a situation is to picture it from the other guy’s point of view.

Mapping Memories

August 18, 2013

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My dad was double jointed. He could lay his palm flat on the kitchen table and fold his hand until the back of it touched the backs of his fingers. He didn’t realize he could do it until one day when he was leaning with his hand on a wall. Someone saw how his hand was folded, and said he should be in the circus.

The tips of the middle and ring fingers of my father’s right hand were missing. A month short of his twentieth birthday, he’d gotten shot during the Battle of Arnhem*, in Holland. He was crossing a field to deliver the message that his infantry unit needed more ammunition. I don’t know why it was his job to deliver the message. Maybe his commanding officer thought he was the one most likely to find his way to where he needed to go. He was his unit’s map reader.

I remember him reading the Times from cover to cover, and mysteries on the beach, and phone books in your hotel rooms (“lots of Polish names in Columbus,” he might say). But I don’t particularly remember him reading maps.

On car trips, he drove while my mother navigated. When they wanted calculate their progress, she would read off the mileage between the towns along the route, and he would respond with the running subtotal. From the backseat, it sounded like this:

M: 10 and 14.

D: 24.

M: 37.

D: 61.

M: 12.

D. 73.

…and so on, call-and-response, neither one missing a beat, until they had added up how much more road lay ahead. Hearing him add all those numbers in his head, I was dazzled.

He could read a map and he could fold back his fingers, but he couldn’t fold a map to save his life. That was also my mother’s job –smoothing the wrinkles, figuring out which way the pleats went, and closing it into a tidy accordion with the pretty tourist picture on the front, like the cover of a book.

In the book I’ve been writing and sending around and rewriting and sending around again and rewriting again since the beginning of this century, a ghost becomes displaced in time and ends up eavesdropping on events that took place before she was born.  At one point, a woman’s perfume stirs memories from times that are in the ghost’s past, but years to come for the people she’s watching, so she’s simultaneously remembering and predicting the jasmine of her mother’s perfume, the woods outside her cabin at camp, the smell of steam rising from a particular pavement in the rain, the skunky must of her husband’s skin.

“Odor by odor, [her] memories unfolded. Fold by fold, they told the forgotten flipsides of stories she’d thought she remembered.”

The flipside of my father’s injury was that it took him out of combat. My mother used to say it may well have saved his life. Another way of putting it is that those two fingertips was the price he paid so that my siblings and I might be born.

It boggles the brain. As another character in my book puts it, “The gears that grind God’s universe are beyond my understanding.”

Tuesday is the anniversary of my father’s death. On the secular calendar, the date was August 20, 1994. That’s the date I remember each year as I try to grab one more beach day before summer winds down. On the Jewish calendar, the date was 14 Elul, 5754. That’s the date I remember each year when I stand up to say Kaddish for him for in synagogue.

Sometimes 14 Elul falls closer to the end of August, sometimes it comes in early September, and sometimes it comes within a day or two of August 20. As a Jew, I’m used to tracking time on two not-quite-aligned systems. The surprise is that this year, for the first time since my father died, the calendars converge. It will happen again in 2032.

I’ll be 75—older than either of my parents lived to be. I have no road map to predict what will unfold between now and then—just two syncopated calendars to help me count how far I’m come, and enough memories to keep me writing.

*Also known as Operation Market Garden, and dramatized in the film “A Bridge to Far.” Thanks to my brother Ben for clarifying this detail.


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