Archive for December, 2011

My End-of-Year Meta-blog

December 28, 2011

That last post I published? Eight Secrets of Perfect Latkes? It was a test.

My December 8 piece about Jews and Christmas trees and quitting my column attracted more readers than any previous post. I wanted to see how much higher I could boost my stats. And with how little effort.

So I came up with a formula: Numbered list + recipe + holiday tie-in + huckster headline + snappy copy = surge in blog traffic. It worked! My latke secrets didn’t break any records. But the stats are right up there among my most visited posts, topics I take even more seriously than shredded tubers and hot oil, and spent way more time agonizing over. But was it really my formula that did it, or were people just, well, hungry for advice about frying?

I’m sure it helped that I posted the link on Facebook just before noon, when lots of my friends were beginning their lunchtime social-networking breaks. The link got a lot of comments right away, and that kept it in people’s news feeds, where it picked up more comments, etc.

I didn’t make that happen, but I have successfully engineered something like it for other pieces. I’ve been known to email a link to friends I think will be interested. And I have strategically posted comments on blogs and news stories on a topic I’ve just discussed. It’s satisfying when that works. Makes me feel savvy. But what’s really gratifying is when readers do it for me, on their own. Nothing makes me happier than hearing, “I sent your post about your daughter’s wedding to my grandson.”

Which brings me to my real point. Which is: what’s the point? Why am I so obsessed with building up the columns on that site-statistics bar graph? Why do I pore over the daily lists of referrers and search-engine terms (“Broken barbie” and “giant pig” I can understand. But “colonnade arches law school”?) Why do I get so happy when someone leaves a comment on my blog or signs up as a subscriber? Why do I put so much energy into writing these things in the first place?

I started this blog because my agent asked if I had a website he could link to on his. I had visions of book editors checking me out. Has that happened? No idea. I do get referrals through my agent’s site, but I suspect those are mostly other querying authors checking out my agent.

I also imagined someone at a magazine or a newspaper reading my blog and being so impressed she’d ask me to write for her publication. That has happened, sort of. When the editor at the Voice & Herald approached me about writing a column, she said she’d like to see the sorts of things I write on my blog.

And of course, when my novel gets published, it will be good to have a website where my legions of fans can form a community, like on my friend Alison’s blog.

But those aren’t the real reasons I write these posts. I write them because writing is what I like to do. Writing blog posts is relatively easy, and offers a modicum of instant gratification. As for that obsessing over statistics, that’s basically a game. And like a lot of  computer games, it’s a compelling form of procrastination. Also, it’s even easier than actually blogging.

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8 Secrets of Perfect Latkes!

December 20, 2011

And now for something completely different. No self-righteous rants. No artful alliterations (I lied). No touching memories or thoughtful reflections. Instead, because Hanukkah starts tonight, I’m just going to tell you a secret about how to make perfect latkes. Actually, eight.

Because everybody likes secrets, don’t they? And recipes rule. Right? And lists? I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for 20 months without posting a single list. Is the even legal? Oh, and why eight? If you have to ask, you’re probably that person who includes matzo in the Hanukkah display at the supermarket.

EIGHT SECRETS OF PERFECT LATKES

1. White Potatoes

You want to make zucchini/sweet potato/apple/whatever fritters? Knock yourself out. But don’t call them latkes. Latkes mean white potatoes. End of story.

2. 4-2-2-2

This is the 9-9-9 of the Festival of Lights. Except instead radically repressive redistribution of wealth, you get the perfect distribution of ingredients:

4 potatoes

2 onions

2 eggs

2 TB flour (really, just enough to hold them together)

One potato per person. Serving some other number of folks? Do the math. (And add salt and pepper to taste.)

3. Grate

By hand or using the grating blade of a food processor. Whatever you do, don’t blend. And don’t use those mixes. You want lacy. You’re making latkes, not fried mashed potatoes.

4. Alternate

Adding the onion between the potatoes keeps the spuds from discoloring. Adding the potatoes between the onions cuts down on the crying.

5. Planter’s Peanut Oil

Just saying.

6. Squeeze

The potato-onion mixture gets too watery. Adding more flour gives you heavy latkes. Keep the mixture in a colander, and squeeze it out as you go.

7. Temperature

Heat the oil (I fill the pan to about half an inch) until a drop of water flicked from your fingers skitters when it hits the oil. If things start to smoke, it’s too hot.

8. No Sweater

Take that thing off and hide it on the other side of the house. Preferably inside a drawer. Otherwise, it’ll be smelling like latkes forever. Although, now that I think about it, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You could see it as a way of extending the latke experience, couldn’t you? You know, like the miracle of the 24-hour supply of oil that lasted as many days as this list has secrets?

Happy Hanukkah!

The Angel Angle

December 16, 2011

’Tis the season for angels. Songs about them singing fill the air waves, and their graceful wings and golden horns deck malls and front lawns. And it’s not just Christmas that’s bringing them out. Angels have also been occupying synagogues, where the annual cycle of Torah readings just brought us to Jacob, with his night visions of angels climbing ladders and wrestling on the river bank.

If all that weren’t enough, an angel has appeared in a story I’m writing. It’s a kids’ story, based on a Yiddish folktale. At one point in the tale, a man in a graveyard sees a woman passing with a basket of bread. The man’s hungry, so he leaps out at her. The woman assumes he’s a dead man rising from the grave. Terrified, she drops her bread and runs, leaving our hero a nice lunch.

In the original version, the man knows that he’s not dead, and the incident in the graveyard is just, well, incidental. In my rewrite, I wanted the man to believe he’s dead. And I wanted the dropped-bread event to drive the story towards its conclusion. But I couldn’t figure out how to make it work.

My husband David suggested that I have the man mistake the woman for an angel. If the man believes he’s dead, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for him to also believe he’s seen a messenger from God. And, David added, if the woman is young and beautiful, the man’s reaction will make even more sense.

I liked the angel idea, but balked at young and beautiful. What image would that conjure for the reader? Disney princess? Anorexic super model? Why must beautiful always be paired with young? And what did any of this have to do with my story?

If a man is hungry and someone brings him food, he’ll be grateful whether or not she’s a babe. Her angelic essence isn’t based on appearance, but action: she shows up at exactly the right time, provides just the right thing, and exits.

I made her an old woman. Angels are ageless, I told David. (And also, by the way, not women. The Torah refers to the angels who visit Jacob in the night as “men.”)

Still, I wondered. Whose angel idea was more off the wall, David’s or mine? I took my question to Facebook. When you hear the word “angel,” I asked, what do you picture?

I got a lot of answers. People talked about children, dogs and good friends. Wings came up more than once. Two musical friends mentioned music. Others referenced the angels on the Neapolitan Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum. Some cited Genesis 22 (where an angel stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac – an action I actually would love to imagine performed by a beautiful young woman).

Two academics, a chemist and an historian, went back and forth about biblical depictions of angels. In Genesis, they’re simply described as mysterious men or strangers, the chemist pointed out, echoing my thoughts. The historian quoted Ezekiel, who sees angels variously as interlocking wheels, flying chariots, and creatures with multiple faces. For both these guys, the bottom line was that the image of “lithe, vaguely concerned white women with wings” (as a third friend put it) isn’t backed up by Scripture. 

“Angels are NEVER described in the Bible as looking like the ridiculous winged beings portrayed in European art,” my historian friend asserted. “The whole cherub thing came from Roman art and John Milton was the first one to give them a harp.”

His vehemence raises the question: Can there be an authority on angels? If the buck stops at the Bible, that suggests the book is an irrefutable historical document. I don’t see it that way, but rather as a collection of myths and legends and traditions woven into a brilliant and also often-inconsistent narrative. What’s more, the concept of angels didn’t originate with the Bible’s authors — or end with them. The idea has mutated and evolved through times and cultures, from the mysterious messengers in Genesis through the hallucinations of Ezekiel and the babelicious beings of Botticelli to It’s a Wonderful Life and made-in-China tchotchkes kitsch. What has remained consistent, more or less, isn’t what angels look like, but what they do: show up at exactly the right time, provide just the right thing, and exit.

I’m keeping the old woman in my story. Will it surprise some readers to think of her as an angel? Maybe. And maybe that will make them question the assumption that correlates traditional standards of beauty with moral goodness. In other words, maybe the old woman’s impact won’t just be on the man in the graveyard, but also on the reader. She’ll show up, have a good impact on the reader, and disappear. In short, act like an angel.

Another kind of Christmas tree controversy

December 7, 2011

So I quit my job last week.

Well, I guess you couldn’t really call it a job, since I wasn’t getting paid a cent to do it. From last March until last week, I wrote a monthly column for the Jewish Voice & Herald, a biweekly paper that’s distributed for free to 7500 households in the Ocean State and southern Massachusetts. I wrote about my life as an empty-nest, politically progressive feminist who takes my Judaism seriously and also happens to be married to a non-Jew.

Writing the column let me take a break from fiction, and gave me a regular deadline, and a chance to be read. On a more personal level, the column let me explore issues I care about: how to live a good life, political implications of personal choices, reconstructing religious rituals to meet modern sensibilities, gracefully dealing with the myriad issues that arise and evolve in the course of an intermarriage. I also saw the column in terms of community. As the paper’s only intermarried columnist, I wrote from a perspective that is shared by one third of local Jewish households. But our concerns are rarely discussed in Jewish media, unless we’re being advised about how to make sure our children keep observing Jewish rituals.

So why did I quit? For the December 9 issue, I submitted a column adapted from an essay I published a while back in Seven Days, and reprinted on this blog last year. It was about having a Christmas tree in our home. My husband is not Christian, but he grew up celebrating Christmas in a secular way, and when we could no longer spend the holiday with his parents, he wanted to have a tree in our home.  I discussed my ambivalence towards the tree, and explored the reasons behind my ambivalence. I talked about how my growing involvement in Judaism and self-confidence as a Jew has helped me feel better about the tree. I concluded that learning to love a tradition that is so important to my husband epitomizes the Jewish value of shalom bayit – a phrase that’s traditionally translated as peace in the home, but also suggests wholeness in the home. Deep down, I believe, Judaism teaches that I should accept the tree.

Deciding to submit that column wasn’t easy. As far as I’ve come in my acceptance of our tree, I still haven’t summoned the nerve to invite Jewish friends over while it’s up. And although I had written about other aspects of being intermarried, ‘fessing up about the tree was a scary next step of self-exposure. I was outing myself, and I believed that once I had done that, I would eliminate my last source of embarrassment about my marriage.

But it wasn’t to be. A few days before my deadline, I got a call from my editor. She loved the column, she said, but it worried her. So she showed it to her boss, the president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, which holds the paper’s purse strings. And he said no. You can’t run the column. It might offend some of our Orthodox and non-Jewish readers.

My editor didn’t specify exactly what might offend them, and I was too angry to think of asking. She didn’t ask me to revise or reconsider any portion of the column. She just said she couldn’t run it.

So, what was offensive? The message I hear is that it’s okay to admit that intermarriages exist, and great to talk about how to make them work – as long as, in the end,  it’s the non-Jew who does the adapting. When the non-Jewish spouse learns to love the Chanukah lights, it’s cause for celebration. When the Jewish spouse learns to love her partner’s tradition, not so much.

I don’t know the man who pulled the plug on my column. But his picture is on the front page of the paper sitting on my living room table. He’s comparing the organization he heads to its counterparts around the country, and asking why so few people attend the Alliance’s programs. “As Jews throughout greater Rhode Island,” he writes, “we must help and support one another – no one else will do so. As such, I ask all of you, all of us, to begin to think more broadly with our community hats firmly in place.”

Good idea. And as part of that exercise in thinking more broadly, I would suggest reading the recently compiled demographic study of the Rhode Island Jewish community. You can find it right on the Jewish Alliance’s website. Under “Religious Involvement,” you’ll find the fact that one quarter of Jewish households have a Christmas tree. One half of all homes with Jewish children have one.  If our community hats are firmly in place, it seems to me that we should be embracing those people—not pushing them away, scolding them, or, worst of all, pretending they don’t exist.

My editor wondered if I might have another column they could run instead. I told her I would think about it. And I did. I thought about all the hours I devoted to my column each month. Why was I doing it? Because I wanted to show that there are different ways of being Jewish. That you can find value in the religion, and add value to it, even if you don’t follow the standard playbook. That families like mine are a large, important, and legitimate part of the community.

I still believe all those things. And I’m grateful to my editor and the paper’s board for inviting my voice to be heard. But I can’t write for a paper whose publisher decides which aspects of my experience are fit to print. I can’t write honest columns if I’m forever worrying that my words won’t be deemed kosher. And I can’t write for a paper whose policies embody disrespect for my own sincere and deeply-felt engagement with Judaism.

I told my editor I didn’t have a substitute column for this month and that I wouldn’t be writing for the Voice and Herald in the future. I hit send and felt better. Sort of.

That was Thursday night. On Saturday morning, I attended Shabbat services at Temple Emanu-El, as I do most weeks. I took my regular seat, and during the Torah service, I helped out at the front of the room, and chanted the portion from the prophets. At the congregational lunch afterwards, I told friends what had happened with my column. One of the other Saturday-morning regulars asked, “What was your column about?”

“Having a Christmas tree,” I told her.

She leaned closer and confessed, “I have a Christmas tree.”

p.s.

You can find the censored column here. If it offends you, please let me know.

Submission

December 2, 2011

There are rejections, and then there are rejections.

When I started sending my first manuscripts out in the late 1970s, everything was done on paper. In envelopes. With stamps. You included a SASE with your submission, and when you got rejected, you knew it the moment you saw your own handwriting on the manila envelope sticking out of your mailbox.

During my most prolific writing years, I was sending multiple manuscripts out on multiple submissions, and receiving multiple rejections – sometimes several in a single week.  My office was in the basement of our raised ranch, and through the high windows I could see our letter carrier, from the knees to the shoulders – including the disappointing envelope in his hand. I knew I’d been rejected without even going to the mailbox.

What I couldn’t tell without actually opening the envelope was how good a rejection I’d gotten. Most common were form letters, often just three-by-four-inch slips. Thank you for your submission. We are sorry that it does not meet our editorial needs at this time. One step up was a form to which a handwritten note had been added – what one writer friend of mine referred to as “ink.” Most common was Sorry, closely followed by something like Sorry for the delay.

The more ink the better, of course. Especially if the rejection included encouragement. I was thrilled to receive, from one literary journal, Ruth Horowitz (my actual name!) Sorry we can’t use “Barbed-Wire Chicken,” but I would like to see more of your work.

What I prized most was a series of detailed critiques typed and signed by an editor at The New Yorker. Sending back that same story, “Barbed-Wire Chicken,” the editor began, This is a good, psychologically astute story, but I’m afraid we felt more engaged with it as a documentary, as sociology or naturalism, than as dramatic fiction. After going into more specifics explaining his response, he concluded, On its own terms, the story is excellent, however, and I thank you for the chance to see it. 

I filed away all my rejections in folders, one for each manuscript. Each time I sent a story out, I assumed it would be rejected, and strategized about where to send it next. When a story did return, I tried to send it back out in the next day’s mail. I kept a record of submissions and responses on the inside of each story’s folder. Looking at those lists today, I’m amazed at my own perseverance and optimism.

I never did find a home for “Barbed-Wire Chicken.” After 35 rejections over the course of five years, I stopped sending it out. And despite half a dozen or so encouraging no’s, The New Yorker never said yes. After placing a couple of stories in literary journals, I found more success with children’s books, and then, as my kids got older, moved on to journalism.

For about 10 years, I sat out the submission/rejection process. Then I finished my novel and began looking for an agent. The whole universe had changed. Now everything was being done electronically. Personal responses were rarer than ever, and some agents never responded at all. Instead of waiting for the mail man, I watched my in-box. Once in a blue moon I received a message written by an actual human being, rather than a robots, and felt good about myself for the rest of the week.

Now that I have an agent, I don’t have to deal with the dirty work of submissions and rejections anymore. If an editor turns down my book and says something interesting, my agent will pass along the content. Otherwise, he’ll just let me know where we stand, and we’ll talk about where we’re going.

I don’t miss the grind and angst of submission and rejection. But I do miss the ink – those personal notes that let me know someone in the world of literature had read what I’d written, and written back. Even if it was just to say they were sorry.

p.s.

I was prompted to write about all this after reading a blog post by my friend Linda about writing personal rejection letters. Linda was the assistant who pulled my query from the slush pile of the agent who now represents me. Linda has since moved on to become an agent, herself. She’s still discovering what it means to be an agent, and her recent posts offer a perspective that’s simultaneously insider and fresh-eyed. Check her out!