Archive for May, 2011

Happy Birthday To Me!

May 31, 2011

Here’s how I celebrated my sixth birthday, back in 1963. I like how my sister Mike is pursing her lips empathetically, “helping” me blow out my candles the way you “help” a baby you’re feeding by opening your mouth as you offer the spoon. That Edgemont School T-shirt of Ben’s became mine when he outgrew it. Rachel and I are wearing matching dresses with a cherry pattern. The cake is pineapple-upside-down, probably with one pineapple ring to hold each candle. I couldn’t begin to guess what I’m wishing.

I’m guessing this is my seventh eighth* birthday, because we’re in Paris and to my right is Rachel Bonner — my best friend that year. My birthday must have fallen on week day, because the two Rachels and I are all wearing the white blouses and blue sweaters of our school uniforms. (Not pictured: our pleated grey skirts. Also, Mike. Where is she?) I have no idea what Ben is thinking about, but he sure looks pensive.  The cake is definitely not pineapple-upside-down. It looks like some sort of fruit tart, probably from A La Flute Enchantee, the fancy bakery on Avenue Mozart, a short block from our apartment.

*Thanks to Ben for this correction.  Maybe that’s what he’s thinking about in this picture? Must remember what year it is, because if I don’t, who will? 

I celebrated another birthday this past weekend. David prepared incredible huevos rancheros for breakfast. They tasted just as good as they looked.

Sophie and Henry took the train down from Boston, and we spent the day exploring Bristol. Here’s a detail from the very ornate, very rusted fence in front of Linden Place. If we’d gone inside, we could have heard the history of the family that built this house. Like so many of the wealthiest citizens of this area in those days, they made their fortune in the slave trade. Rhode Island is where molasses from the West Indies got turned into rum,  which was exported to West Africa, where the ships were converted into prison boats and the rum traded for slaves.

This year’s cold, rainy May made it an exceptional season for rhododendrons. They were at their peak this weekend. Bristol is lush with them.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Colt State Park, walking beside the water, checking out the many families at their Memorial Day Weekend picnics, and trying not to get sunburned. Not pictured: the mango with sticky rice into which David stuck a single candle at dinner. He and Sophie and Henry all sang the birthday song, and I blew the candle out. But I forgot to make a wish.

What would you have wished for?


May 25, 2011

This month I studied a little Talmud. And I do mean a little. Once a week for three weeks, the senior rabbi at my synagogue led a handful of us through several sentences of discussion around the Biblical injunction, “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”

“This class will not teach you how to keep kosher,” the rabbi warned when we began. It didn’t. But it did give us a look at the structure and style of the 1500-year-old compendium of law and lore that’s the framework of the Judaism practiced today. It introduced us to some of the rhetorical rules the rabbis followed when they argued. It offered a tiny taste of Aramaic, the vernacular spoken by Jews at the time of the Second Temple, (including Jesus). It offered up fascinating factoids about how folks in Babylonia in the 1st millennium C.E. understood the world. Blood isn’t part of the body. It’s the life force that passes through it. The relationship of the placenta to the body is similar to that of excrement. Milk is meat while it’s still inside the udder. It only becomes dairy when it’s expressed.

The most important thing I learned is that although I’m intrigued by Talmud’s odd logic and charmed by its arcana, I’m not intrigued and charmed enough to devote the effort required to study it for real.

The truth is, what attracts me isn’t the book itself, but the idea of it. Or maybe what I really mean is the layout. A page of Talmud is like an archeological site, where successive layers of the life that happened in that single spot over time are all laid bare at once. Only in Talmud, the relics revealed aren’t pottery and bone, but arguments and ideas. A page of Talmud lays bare a train of thought passed from one mind to another over the course of 700 years.

I first encountered the Talmud about 10 years ago, when I was teaching Torah at my synagogue in Vermont. Around this same time, I had also just started writing Little Grandma’s Mirror. At that early stage, I had a lot to say and a great urgency to get it down, but no idea of what approach to take. Rather than stop and consider structure, I just wrote in whatever format attracted me on any given day. Sometimes it was journal, sometimes a personal essay to be published in Seven Days. For a while, I compiled an annotated list of all the objects I remembered from my parents’ house. The most fun was a fanciful tale set in a 19th-century shtetl.

When in came time to get serious and pull the pieces together, I thought about the pages of Talmud I’d been poring over. What if I tried creating something similar – not picking and choosing between my texts, but presenting them all at once and letting them reflect on each other? I spent hours cutting and pasting and fiddling with format, and printed out three sample pages. It looked cool. But how was anyone supposed to read the stuff? How could I control the different narratives so the appropriate pieces were juxtaposed? Which of my texts should I present as the original, and which as commentary? Just thinking about it all made my head hurt.

In the end, I set aside all the texts except the shtetl tale, which I wove into a contemporary family story. The result is much more reader-friendly, but multifaceted enough to satisfy my taste for layered narrative. The book I’m working on now is even more straightforward, and I’m pleased with the way it’s going.

But spending these three evenings this month studying the possible implications of “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk,” sent me back to those old attempts at Talmud-formatted composition. They don’t work at all, the way they are. But they do make me wonder, once again, about the possibilities.

While the World Wasn’t Ending

May 21, 2011

While the world wasn’t ending today, I took my camera for a walk around the garden. Walking with a camera in my hands makes me slow down and pay attention.

Here in Rhode Island, it’s rained almost every day since the beginning of May. While I’ve been staying dry inside, my garden has been growing more and more lush.

The maple tree has produced more helicopter seeds than I can ever remember. They’re everywhere. On the grass, in the garden, and on coral bell and hosta leaves.

Nothing is more satisfying than planting and caring for a perennial and seeing your efforts pay off the next year. We put in an old fashioned bleeding heart last year, and this year it came back bigger and stronger and dripping with flowers.

Our old neighbor was a master gardener. When she moved away and our new neighbors rebuilt their porch, we were the lucky recipients of a mature rhododendron growing where the new steps would go. The builder dug up the bush, wrapped its root ball in burlap, and brought it over to our house. We planted it without really remembering what sort of flowers it had. Turns out they’re pink with pretty black spots, like the sort of thing you might have seen on a hat at the royal wedding.

You can’t really appreciate an iris until you see it up close. So close it no longer looks like a flower. How can pollinators resist?

Every year I think about how much I hate the spirea beside the front steps. It’s messy and sprawling, and it’s taking up prime real estate — the sunny spot by the front door, the first plant visitors see when they come to our house. And then mid-May comes around, delicate white flowers cover the spirea, and I forget all my florocidal intentions.

The ferns are another problem. There are just so many of them. When they die off in the fall, they’re messy and ugly. And yet, how can I resist their primeval luxuriance?

I’m glad the rain finally ended. And I’m very glad the world didn’t.

The Eggy Palmer Effect

May 12, 2011

My May column for the Voice and Herald

When our son Sam was little, he played a game called ‘Eggy Palmer.” “Eggy Palmer” is an impish children’s book character who turns milk sour. My husband would pour himself a before-dinner drink, and Sam would sidle over and wave his hand over the glass, saying, “I’m Eggy Palmer!” David would sip his drink and twist his face in disgust. Hilarity would ensue – except for David, who discovered that when he made a sour face, his martini really did taste terrible.

Psychologists confirm a similar phenomenon. In one study, subjects who thought they were testing headphones’ durability were told to move their heads up-and-down or side-to-side while they listened to an opinion piece. When they were asked afterwards to evaluate the argument they’d heard, those who had nodded felt much more certain of their judgments than those who had shaken their heads. Action influences attitude.

The Eggy Palmer effect plays out in religion, too. Judaism distinguishes keva, ritual’s predetermined form, from kavanah, the mindset we bring to the ritual. Without mindful intention, we’re often reminded, religious ritual becomes a hollow exercise. The Talmud says we shouldn’t even stand up to pray unless we’re already in a “reverent frame of mind.” And when we do pray, unless our hearts are directed to Heaven, we’re not really getting the job done. If you’re thinking about your next Scrabble move while you light the Shabbat candles, you’re just playing with matches.

In fact, the keva-kavanah connection also operates in the other direction. Start going through the motions, and motivation often follows. That’s how it works for me, more often than not. The effect is usually too subtle to really notice. But it can also be dramatic. Shaking the lulav on Sukkot, for example, strikes me as silly, archaic, even alienating. I hesitate to participate. But when I force myself to engage, the ritual reveals its meaning. The point of the practice isn’t in the thinking, but the doing.

How does this work? Philosopher Howard Wettstein proposes one explanation in his 1997 paper, “Awe and the Religious Life.” Wettstein quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, in “God in Search of Man” writes, “There is no faith at first sight.” Faith doesn’t come “as an unearned surprise,” says Heschel. Rather, it is “preceded by awe, by acts of amazement at things that we apprehend but cannot comprehend.”
The birth of a child, a spectacular sunset and a great work of art all inspire awe. And the Jewish system of blessings gives these moments their due, insuring they’re not lost in the press of daily life, Wettstein suggests.

But great jazz solos and postcard skies only come around now and then. And that’s the other reason we need ritual, according to Wettstein. All those scheduled prayers and candle-lightings and so on create opportunities for what Rabbi Elliot Dorff describes as the dual experience of being “humbled but elevated” – of recognizing simultaneously a sense of one’s human limitation and of having been created in the divine image.
The experience doesn’t just feel good. As Wettstein suggests, it can also do good, by inspiring generosity of spirit, lack of pettiness, increased ability to forgive and to contain anger and disappointment. These are godly attributes – worthy aspirations no matter what your view of God.

Is the Eggy Palmer effect a form of self-deception? You could call it that. Or you could see it as a useful tool for attitude adjustment. It doesn’t succeed for everyone or in all situations, but it can be surprisingly effective.

Years after he pretended to sour David’s martini, our son started college, and found himself assigned to the roommate from hell. It could have been the worst year of his life, but Sam was determined not to let it be. Since he couldn’t change his roommate, he decided to change himself. Rather than dwelling on the parts of his life that annoyed him, he concentrated on those that made him happy.

“I pretended to be more excited than I really was,” he later explained to us. “I figured if I acted excited, I would start to feel excited, and then I wouldn’t care as much about the other stuff.” The ploy worked.
Sam didn’t know it, but he was confirming the claim of the early 19th-century Hasidic rabbi, Nachman of Breslov. “If you don’t feel happy, pretend to be,” Rabbi Nachman advised. “Act happy. Genuine joy will follow.”

The Grand Mosque of Paris

May 5, 2011

Plaque in the Marais, Paris. It reads, "To the memory of the director, the staff and the students of this school, arrested in 1943 and 1944 by the Vichy police and the Gestapo, deported and exterminated at Auschwitz because they were born Jewish"

This year’s Yom HaShoah commemoration at Temple Emanu-El, Providence, focused on the Farhud – the three-day pogrom perpetrated against the Jews of Bagdhad in the spring of 1941. The program featured my friend Sam Shamoon recounting his parents’ and other relatives’ memories of that harrowing time. Sam’s voice broke as he described his family cowering together, listening to the violence outside. His grandmother instructed his uncle that if the rioters broke into the house, he was to shoot Sam’s 18-year-old aunt and his pregnant mother.

After Sam spoke, students from a Catholic college in Providence and a local Imam read from memoirs of the Farhud, including several moving stories of Muslims who helped save their Jewish neighbors.


As it happens, the novel I’m writing also touches on Muslim-Jewish relations during the Second World War. One of my characters is an elderly woman who wants someone to write her life story. During the German occupation of Paris, the woman says, her daughter brought her young son to the city’s Grand Mosque, where Jewish children were being given refuge.

I based this detail on an account I found on the web. According to the story, while the Nazis and the Vichy government deported and murdered 11,600 French Jewish children, many more survived the war, including some 1,700 who were sheltered, transported out of the country, or given Muslim aliases through the Grand Mosque. Versions of this inspiring tale appear on numerous websites. The story has also been made into a film and a picture book.

After I included the event in my manuscript, I was having lunch with a friend who is an historian, and I asked if he’d ever heard the story. He hadn’t, but he later found it in a more chilling context. The first commenter on the story at the Pakistan Defense Forum says, “Stupid mistake. I wonder how many of those Jews we saved ended up as Israeli citizens living on some poor Palestinian’s land?” Not everyone in the discussion that follows agrees, but the tone is set.

My friend also forwarded the link to an historian he knows, who specializes in the history of Jews in France. “Is this true?” he asked. Her reply: It’s complicated. There is no doubt the Mosque aided some Jews, she said, but the extent of those efforts has probably been exaggerated. And authorities at the Mosque also collaborated by helping to “out” Jews who were hiding as Muslims. “As with many stories during World War II,” my friend’s friend added, “nothing is black and white and the Mosque was mainly out to protect itself from Nazi interference.”

My friend’s friend also put me in touch with a friend of hers, who has written about this exact topic. He very generously shared some of his research with me. He examines the complicated relations between Jews and Muslims in France during the war, and paints a nuanced portrait of the Grand Mosque’s rector, teasing out the conflicting claims on his conscience, and detailing his sometimes contradictory responses. He sorts through evidence surrounding the mosque’s role in aiding Jews, and concludes that although the story is certainly based in fact, it has been greatly exaggerated and simplified – that is, turned into a myth.


The Yom HaShoah event at Temple Emanu-El concluded with a reading of the names of Holocaust victims remembered by survivors in Rhode Island – a full thirty pages of parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins with fragile, Old World names (Fiilop Cziegler, Tsirl Cytryn, Raizel Ickovics) and tender Yiddish diminutives (Rifkallah, Surallah, Chavallah) — friends of friends I have gotten to know since moving to Rhode Island, and loved ones lost by Rhode Islanders who have died, themselves, since the list was first compiled.

A dozen or so community members who lived in Europe during the war, but escaped the Nazis, were in attendance. Most of them were children in the 1940s. Their white-haired heads filled the synagogue’s front row.

I have been to Yom HaShoah programs before, and I have been hearing about the Holocaust all my life. But the magnitude of the event has never felt so visceral. Six million has never felt so enormous.

We retell the story so it won’t be forgotten. But with enough retellings, a story can lose its power. Details that should horrify calcify into cliché. Artful narrative can turn even the hardest facts into folklore. And facts can get twisted and stretched to meet our needs.

Where does this leave me, and my story within a story? Do I present it as true, the way I’d originally intended? Do I cast it as a myth my character has bought into? What is my responsibility?