Archive for November, 2011

Glass Tea, Good Smell, Spoon

November 18, 2011

Glass Tea

Once, when I was around 20, I had lunch at  the 2nd Ave Deli. This would have been the 1970s, when the deli was still at its original location at 2nd and 10th, under its original ownership. The portions were bigger than your head and the waiters were all older men who didn’t take crap from anyone. I can’t remember what I ordered to eat. I’m thinking corned beef on rye with a half-sour pickle, but I could just as easily have gone for the knishes. What I do remember, with hideous clarity, is how proud I felt of myself as I pulled myself up and casually added to the waiter, “And could I have a glass tea?”

He didn’t miss a beat. He gave me a look that would have curdled milk and firmly put me in my place.  “You’ll have a cup of tea.”

Okay. No one likes a poseur. I got it then, and I get it still. His message was and remains cringingly clear. Because God forbid I should spend the next 30 years believing I had every right to order tea as if I were straight from the shtetl. On the other hand, would it have killed him to let it go? What would it have cost him to have shown a little kindness?

I can tell you one thing it would have cost him. Had he passed up the opportunity to put me in my place like that, he and the glass tea would be long gone from my memory, just as I’ve forgotten what I ordered that day for my meal. But I remember him all too clearly: the long, sour face, the skinny arms, the slight stoop in his posture. And I have told the story of my presumptuousness and his rudeness lots of times.

Good Smell

What sort of impression do we leave on the world? The question came up earlier this week in a class I’m taking at Temple Emanu-El about Midrash. A midrash is a story or commentary written by the ancient rabbis to draw lessons from biblical passages. The other day we were looking at midrashim explaining Genesis 12:1-3. “The Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your native land.”

One riff we read related the verse to one from the Song of Songs. “Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance. Your name is like the finest oil.” Rabbi Brachiah compares Abraham to a vial containing the juice of the balsam tree, which is fitted with a tight lid and left in a corner, where no one can smell it. But take the vial out and carry it around (with its lid loosened, presumably), and its sweet scent will disseminate. When God tells Abraham to leave his home, it’s in order that he disseminate his sweetness.

The rabbi teaching the class left us with the homiletic thought: What’s your perfume? And of course I thought, my writing. Which was frustrating, because I’ve been having a hard time with it, lately.


Yesterday’s work left me feeling especially discouraged. I knew I needed to climb back into the saddle and just get back to it – that my best cure for bad writing to more writing. Instead, I spent my writing time reading folk tales. Browsing through the 1988 YIVO collection Yiddish Folktales, I found and fell in love with this gem:

What Makes Tea Sweet: An Exercise in Logic

 A yeshiva student said to one of his fellows, “The sages ask: What makes the glass of tea sweet? If I reply that it is because of the sugar, then I must ask: What is the teaspoon’s purpose? The answer: To sweeten the tea, for which the proof is as follows: When you put sugar in to the tea, it does not turn sweet until you have stirred it with the teaspoon. In which case, why do we need the sugar at all?”

The second student replied, “Indeed, it is true that the tea is sweetened by the spoon. Now, why do we need the sugar? My reply is that sugar is necessary because it’s only when the sugar dissolves that we know it is time to stop stirring.”

Re: Naming

November 10, 2011

What’s with all these marrying women taking their husbands’ names? My November column.

The form was straightforward. Mother’s name. Father’s name. Baby’s name. Sitting in my bed in the maternity ward, I took pen in hand and solemnly performed my first official act as a parent. The hospital lady pointed to “Horowitz,” frowning.

“This is your name?”


“And this is your husband?” She touched the word “Christensen.”


Her finger hovered accusingly over the surname I’d filled in for our daughter.

“Aren’t you afraid people will think you’re not married?”

The possibility had occurred to us. It was one of several arguments we’d rejected when we so carefully considered our child’s name.

In Judaism, names are powerful stuff. When Avram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, they formalize their partnership in God’s covenant with two little letters. Throughout the Torah, people and places are constantly getting named – and thereby defined. Why can’t we know God’s name? Because we can’t know God.

A friend recently mentioned someone’s “magic” name. She meant “Hebrew.” There is something magical about Hebrew names. They call us to the Torah and tell God we need healing. They link us to loved ones we never knew, and send a signal to other Jews. In my public elementary school, calling Judy “Yehudit” was like sharing a secret handshake.

And like all magical things, Hebrew names can be dangerous. My parents gave their children Biblical first names and secular middle names; I’m Ruth Alice. In the 1950s, so soon after the Holocaust, those secular names were like amulets. If I ever needed to “pass,” I could go by Alice, and still feel like myself. Presumably, I would drop the “Horowitz.”

That’s not likely to happen. I could have shed the “Horowitz” when I married David Christensen. But I kept my name. And I would have done the same if his name were David Cohen.

As a feminist, I recoiled at the custom of a woman giving up her name and taking her husband’s, while he kept his. The tradition suggested she was ceasing to be herself and becoming his property, while he remained essentially unchanged. Keeping your name asserted that you were remaining your own person. It marked the marriage as a union of equals.

But wasn’t keeping your own name, well, un-romantic? And didn’t your “maiden” name (loaded term) suggest you belonged to your father? Maybe, but why perpetuate sexism?

In college, my friends and I threw around arguments late into the night, sprawled across the beds in somebody’s dorm room. We were convinced that by the time we were grandparents, names would no longer designate women as secondary. The only question was how best to retool the tradition.

A popular compromise was the hyphenated surname. But what would the next generation do? Pretty soon, names would become too unwieldy to fit on the hospital lady’s form. Plus, hyphenating couples usually put the woman’s name first. By the time children came along, the maternal surname became a middle name, and was dropped. The best solution, I was convinced, was for the couple to choose a new name. That way they could maintain their equality, identify their union, and celebrate their new, married identities through the time-honored ritual of name changing.

As it happened, David was no more interested in changing his name than he was in me changing mine. As for children, when we looked around at friends who had kept their names, we noticed that in 99 percent of cases, the kids got the father’s name. To counter the trend, David favored naming our hypothetical offspring “Horowitz”. That worked for me. Especially when I imagined how weird “Christensen” would look on the forms when I enrolled said issue in Hebrew School.

Have people wondered if David is our children’s father? Some. But so what? Sophie and Sam have had to answer more questions about their name than most kids. But those conversations have provided teachable moments. And that was pretty much the point.

I have only regretted our decision once, when my Vermont shul was debating policy around intermarried families, and the atmosphere grew contentious. I would have enjoyed pointing out that the young woman tutoring the b’nei mitzvah students and the young man sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah were Christensens. But that’s for a different column.

When Sophie got married last summer, she and her fiancé were as convinced as David and I that a wedded woman should keep her name. Surprisingly, though, few of their peers seem to share this view. Sure, lots women have good, specific reasons to want to take their husband’s names. But that doesn’t explain the trend.

What became of the post-sexist world we envisioned? Has it been swept aside by an anti-feminist backlash? Do people believe we’ve progressed to the point where feminism is moot? Are we seeing an upsurge of neo-traditionalist romanticizing? Maybe I’m missing something. I hope all these bright, independent young women don’t believe that names don’t matter.

This is also what democracy looks like

November 5, 2011

Last week I went to my second meeting with the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition, a group drawn from various religion-based communities to lobby the legislature on behalf of low-income people. Many of the members have been doing this work for years, either as volunteer activists, professionals working for non-profits, or clergy. The idea is to fill out their ranks with “ambassadors” from different congregations, to educate us about the issues, mentor us in the fine art of influencing our elected officials, and inspire us to recruit more of our co-congregants to the cause.

It’s work I believe in. I don’t need to tell you that the gap between the have-a-whole-lots and the have-hardly-anything is growing larger and larger. Or that government programs that serve people with the most desperate needs are seeing their budgets slashed. Or that while banks and business associations and developers and other special interests exert their influence with campaign contributions, media buys and professional lobbyists, those constituents who are hurting most have the least clout.

I don’t consider myself particularly religious. But I do believe that if organized religion does anything right, it’s encouraging people to look out for those who can’t look out for themselves. And if organized religion does anything wrong (I mean, besides occasionally promoting a hateful social attitude), it’s erecting barriers between people. What better way to help break those barriers down than by working with an interfaith group?

I was politically active when we lived in Vermont. I volunteered for candidates, ran for office and worked as a paid staffer. In such a small state, with it’s squeaky-clean(ish), Norman Rockwell democracy, it was easy to get involved. In the four-plus years we’ve lived inRhode Island, I’ve written the occasional email, shown up for a rally or two and, of course, cast my ballot. But I have shied away from in-your-face involvement.

The politics here are scary. The two times I’ve been up at the Statehouse, I was the only one there who wasn’t dressed like a banker. I couldn’t dress like a banker if my life depended on it.

A ridiculously large percentage of Rhode Islandpoliticos went to the same (Catholic) schools: LaSalle Academy and Providence College. I’ve lived here less than five years. And I’m not Catholic.

From what I’ve heard about how business gets done in that building, public hearings and floor debates are just window dressing; the real deals get made at secret arm-twisting and horse-trading sessions. And you can’t pick up the paper without seeing another story about governmental sleaze and corruption. I don’t have the stomach for that stuff.

At this latest Coalition meeting, a Freshman rep from Providence briefed us on the best ways to get legislators to listen. Her candid comments confirmed the nasty stuff I’d suspected about the state of statesmanship in the Ocean State. But she also suggested that for all the back-room deals that go down on Smith Hill, getting access to lawmakers there is actually pretty easy.

The organizers sent us home with reports from Kids Count and The Poverty Institute about the Rhode Island budget and its impact on people in need. Trying to read through the litanies of numbers and bureaucratic short-hand makes my head swim. What is Comprehensive Evaluation Diagnosis Assessment Referral and Re-Evaluation Services (CEDARRS)? What does “hardship cash assistance for GPA recipients” mean? And I hate to sound like Talking Barbie (“Math is so hard”), but my brain just shuts down at the sight of three or four millions-of-dollars figures strung out in a single sentence.

I don’t have the background for this stuff.

Part of me wants to just run away. I’m a fiction writer. I should be spending my days at my computer, trying to trick myself out of wasting my hours on social media and You Tube reruns of John Stewart writing.

But another part of me says, sending off an email or picking up the phone or, once the legislature is in session, showing up at the state house and button-holing my rep (who, by the way, has one of the most progressive voting records on Smith Hill), is a hell of a lot easier than trying to feed a family on food stamps, or find a job when you can’t afford transportation or child care, and getting treatment for a mental illness when you depend on government assistance.

For all the ways in which Rhode Island’s democracy is broken, it’s the democracy we have right now. Until it’s fixed, the good guys need to keep trying to work through it. That just seems more productive than pitching tents in the park.

I’ll be at the next Coalition meeting, and try to get some other people from my congregation to come along.