Thursday, December 04, 2014

Don't Cry for Me, Mandy Patinkin



On the final Friday afternoon in November, Concord's Monument Square was congenially crowded with ruddy-cheeked, good-natured pedestrians arrayed in colorful outerwear, toting oversized holiday shopping bags, gracefully skirting the coconutty mounds of unsullied snow banking the sidewalks of the street leading up to the Colonial Inn, our destination, established in 1713.

We had arrived in the heart of this historic Massachusetts town with only a couple of hours until Shabbat, eager to track down food and local cultural offerings...not necessarily in that order. Stumbling into the hotels's reception area with my too-numerous bags and Manhattan black-on-black attire, I set about the task of finding out what was showing, playing or otherwise open that we would need to purchase tickets for before the 4:12 sundown.

One of the hallmarks of people like me who straddle the worlds of traditional Jewish observance and the cultural cornucopia of secular society is an insistence upon celebrating Shabbat while also availing ourselves of shows, concerts and other local offerings. In other words, we want to be part of the wonderful world at large even as we honor the restrictions that are part of a religious life.

What this typically means is a mad dash to purchase tickets before the advent of the Day of Rest and being able to walk to the venue and back to one's hotel from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. It means figuring out what to do for Friday night dinner; it means museum admissions secured ahead of time so that a Saturday visit can take place. It also often means a tote bag or knapsack filled with snacks so the day of adventure can unfold without compromising any of the Sabbath day restrictions on making purchases.

Depending on one's denomination, all kinds of creative solutions may be found and the season greatly impacts this experience as the long days of summer provide the opportunity for Friday evening travel before it gets dark and the short days of winter mean that secular Saturday night endeavors can begin as early as 5 p.m.

Whether one carries a credit card that is used only until sunset on Friday or just after sunset on Saturday has to do with the willingness to interpret the law in a flexible way. Still, the pursuit of this ideal binds all Jews who seek that precarious balance between the spiritual and the secular.

Grabbing a local fall going-out guide from the rack of tourist brochures in the lobby of the Colonial Inn this past Friday, I impatiently perused a plethora of uninteresting holiday offerings until the very item I had been seeking came sharply into focus.

"There's an 8 p.m. performance of Evita at The Umbrella tonight," I happily informed HOBB, breathing a sigh of relief. The Umbrella is a new arts collective and performance space that occupied a local elementary school, just a five minute walk from the Colonial Inn. After settling into our room, we could buy our tickets online, light Shabbat candles in the bathroom, read, go down for dinner in one of the hotel's restaurants and leisurely make our way to The Umbrella...a most perfect way to start our weekend vacation.

We had driven to Concord as a spontaneous, last-minute weekend vacation after a fall of unusual work-related stress.  In the days following Middle Babe's wedding at Greentree Country Club in New Rochelle on August 28th, I longed for a period of calm that never quite arrived; in fact, it seemed that the end of the wedding ushered in a season of new challenges, extending an unfortunate trend of dealing with difficult and unreasonable personalities.

After a charming overnight stay in Philadelphia the week before, we spontaneously opted for another great American city for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. With memories of many marvelous restorative winter vacations in the area, of hikes around Walden Pond and visits to the local cemetery where many of the great transcendentalists are buried, I instantly went online and booked the last available room at the Colonial Inn.

Our room was as quirky, old-fashioned, overheated and quaint as I had hoped...complete with beamed ceilings and slanted floors with broad wooden planks. We happily unpacked, set our Scrabble set on the bed as we readied to go downstairs for dinner, uncorked the excellent Borgo Reale Pinot Grigio we had brought from Manhattan and began our long awaited Day of Rest.

After a short traipse through the magical snowy streets of Concord a couple of hours later, mellowed by the wine and the Louisa May Alcott landscape, I sat in the auditorium of the new community arts center, utterly enchanted by the surprisingly professional and inventive production of the show I had last seen 35 years earlier when it opened on Broadway, starring Patti Lupone.

There are the shows we are conscious of loving, the shows whose scores we sing in our heads, the shows whose themes seem intertwined with our lives. West Side Story; Phantom of the Opera; Little Shop of Horrors; The Lion King; The Rocky Horror Show: Hair: Jesus Christ Superstar; The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof top my personal list.

Over the course of my life as a parent, part of the joy of loving -- and sharing my love of -- certain musicals has been my penchant for speaking in lyrics or dialogue to my kids and certain trusted friends. The snide, "What do you mean by that?" from "Pontius Pilate's Song"in Jesus Christ Superstar has been one of my popular refrains. "She asks me why I'm such a hairy guy," from Hair has peppered conversations about the need for waxing. "Very smart Maria, very smart!" snarled by Anita in West Side Story has been employed as a way of defusing criticism.

Sitting in The Umbrella abuzz with excitement -- singing every lyric along with the actors in my head -- I recalled how much I had loved Evita and wondered why it slipped from my consciousness, especially since the sarcastic "Oh but it's sad when a love affair dies," has escaped my lips a few times and "I kept my promise. Don't keep your distance," has also been known to be on my spoken lyrics list.

I remembered how I had excitedly bought the cast recording on cassette after the show and how I sang along with it together with my sister, a musical actress. I recalled how insulted and stung I was when a critic from The New Yorker (or maybe it was the super-nasty John Simon of New York Magazine?) made fun of the lyrics, which I thought were great.

I also remembered that I had seen Evita just before I left for Hebrew University for my junior year semester abroad; my parents presented tickets to the show to me as a gift before I left home. For a city college kid, leaving the country for a year abroad was a big deal, especially for my parents who had insisted we live at home and commute to school. For the oldest daughter of a rabbi who changed careers just two years earlier -- becoming a clinical psychologist, borrowing money to buy a house for the first time, working around around the clock to earn enough to pay his friends back and keep his three children in school -- it was a big expenditure as well.

All this I thought of on Friday night in Concord, Massachusetts, in the auditorium of The Umbrella, 35 years after the fact. "This is very good," HOBB whispered to me as each actor debuted, their sweet and strong voices carrying the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I nodded vigorously, staring at the stage in a state of rapture.

Somewhere in the middle of the show-stopping number "A New Argentina," I nearly cried out with an emotion that blended revelation, joy and shock as I realized that the young bearded actor I had seen 35 years ago playing the narrator Che Guevara revolutionary on the Broadway stage was none other than he who played the avuncular, grey-haired Saul Berenson of "Homeland," a show HOBB and I follow with a passion that borders on religious devotion.

"Ari!" I whispered in a hoarse voice. "I just remembered that I saw Mandy Patinkin for the first time in Evita! How crazy is that?"

"What?" he whispered back, unable to hear me above the swelling, soaring music.

"I'll tell you later!!!" I whispered, sitting alone with my mind-bending realization, wrapping myself in that most universal human experience -- the stunning experience of past and present blending, the sensation of standing still while being hurtled backward through the tunnel of time.

As often happens when I return to a cultural touchpoint of the seventies -- the movies Carrie, Annie Hall and Taxi Driver, the music of David Bowie and Donna Summer, Laserium, shag hairdos -- I recall  the pre-cyber era. I remember a world before we were points along a worldwide GPS grid, a focused world before the habit of distraction, a wide-open world before it was possible to find just about anything within seconds by staring at a screen, a sincere world where "virtual" and "text" had far different meanings, a world strictly of the here and now.

I remembered the seventies buzz about Mandy Patinkin, his super-Jewy bonafides -- the Yiddish, Hebrew and cantorial songs he had performed, the Old Testament appearance, the name -- and the communal pride that "one of us" had again made it to Hollywood, the Broadway stage and great stardom. 

In truth, I didn't think about him much over these intervening decades until I became obsessed with Homeland.  I knew he had other starring roles but he was off my personal radar screen until Homeland, playing the former head of the CIA and looking quite a lot like our friend, the best-selling author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, at least according to Middle Babe, who introduced us to the show

But being reminded of the 1979 production of Evita and of the spirited and youthful version of the actor now beloved to me as Homeland's wise yet weary Saul Berenson, I fell down a temporal rabbit hole as the 1979 Patinkin met up with the 2014 Patinkin...at least in my mind.

On that Friday night in Concord, Massachusetts, watching a local performance of Evita with tickets bought before sundown, I wondered about the Jewish life of the man who brought Che Guevara to life on the Broadway stage. I wondered about his Shabbat observance. I wondered about the journey he had taken as an artist and a Jew. I wondered about his personal life, his web of connections. I wondered what he thought of his accomplishments. I wondered what he was really like.

But mostly I wondered: how could it be that -- in the very same number of years that Mandy Patinkin went from newcomer to legend -- I feel exactly as I did at the age of 19, unformed, unaccomplished, focused, wide-open, sincere, eager to leave home for the first time and begin my own true journey?

Monday, September 29, 2014

In the Velvet Darkness of the Blackest Night* or The View from 2:45 a.m.

The Urban Bungalow is quiet at this hour, Alfie and Nala the Pomeranians respectfully camped out next to me on the mattress in Little Babe's room that is, in fact, his bed, arranged teenage-style.

Minutes earlier, my Israeli nephew quietly came through the front door, returning back home after a farewell night with friends before he leaves for his post-army American road trip.

Midday, the two of us spent more than three hours at the Medieval Festival at Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan. Wandering amid throngs of people, we were dazed and dazzled by the sunshine, the spectacle, the booths, the music, the dance, the cups of mead, the oversized turkey drumsticks, dripping with grease, the duels, the human chess game played on a field beneath the Cloisters, the meditative glass blower, the purveyor of ancient dentistry and other forms of merry entertainment.

Endlessly fascinating was the profusion of era-fetishists --  the civilians who came attired in their version of the Dark Ages Best Dressed List -- looking like goths, members of a punk band or residents of Williamsburg, Berlin or Middle Earth. In velvet, leather, chain-mail, animal skins, corsets, spilling cleavage, heavy boots, helmets, tattoos, bared midriffs, wreaths, veils, capes, caps and other archaic finery, they touched me with their wish to wear the wardrobe of another time and place. I wondered what they were drawn to or what they sought to escape. They were multi-ethnic pre-modernist postmodern performance artists, wandering the paved pathways of Upper Manhattan, transforming the landscape with their costumes and their poignant quest, which seemed prayerful, reverential, deeply and sincerely religious.

At the festival, I longed for the presence of my three grown children, recollected our long-ago visits to the legendary New York State Renaissance Faire, held in Sterling Forest in Tuxedo, New York.  I recalled the swords and shields we had bought our sons -- eleven years apart; the jousting matches we had cheered on; the wreaths and fairy wings our daughter wore. I remembered awkwardly shooting arrows at the archery range and wandering worriedly through the labyrinth and falling off a shaky contraption called Jacob's Ladder. How my kids would have loved the quirky fun of the Fort Tryon festival; how its very proximity to our Manhattan home would have delighted them, even as adults. Especially as adults.

Several hours later, sunburnt and slightly dehydrated, heading for the A train with possibly three thousand strangers, I heard about the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group through which enthusiasts of pre-17th Century Europe connect and find out about opportunities to dress up and celebrate their favorite historical epoch. For perhaps the billionth time, I praised the Internet for the mitzvah of bringing people together.

Regarding anachronisms, the summer-like weather of the past few days was both a worrisome sign and a delight. Having heard reports that the upcoming winter is shaping to be even worse than last year's relentless reign, I welcomed the heat that insisted upon loitering into late September and yet, with the urgent message of the People's Climate March still ringing in my ears, I knew that this gift comes with a steep price tag.

But it is not my aim to write about the weather at this hour, nor even the marvelous fair overlooking the Hudson River.

Instead, it is my intention to document this moment of wakefulness, this sliver of soul disturbance following a flawless fall day. It is my duty to examine the act of staring into the velvet darkness of a liminal moment -- poised between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, between midnight and morning, unmoored, one week after Big Babe, my oldest son, returned to Berlin after a month's stay, five weeks after the return of Little Babe, my youngest son, to his Pennsylvania college, one month after the wedding of my daughter, Middle Babe and three weeks after HOBB and I marked our 31st wedding anniversary.

As someone forever in search of connection, I experience transitions and separations as invariably tinged with pain. The many morphings of a family take emotional adjustment. Milestones occasion great introspection and evaluation. Marriages go through grand upheavals when children are grown and the respective dreams of the liberated spouses collide like comets.

Though I ponder these matters during daylight hours, the deepest processing happens in the middle of the night.

As someone who loves deeply and possessively, as I believe one is entitled to, I ponder that which I have and seek. I take my cue from God, depicted in Scripture as a jealous God, forever outraged that His chosen people are consorting with other gods. I love that unabashed pronouncement about God; it is so honest. I, too, believe in relationships where such jealous claims can be made, where one is empowered to stake one's claim against other gods, human and otherwise.

I deeply believe that some things are so sacred and basic that they are worth fighting for... or grieving over, if lost. I believe in being called to account for my own inability to satisfy the jealous God emotional needs of those nearest and dearest to me.

Sacred, too, within this dark room are one's dashed dreams. The pain, outrage and sorrow experienced at the moment of this honest encounter can be either cataclysmic or a catalyst for change.

This clarity comes in the space between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is a clarity that induces a form of madness, or perhaps is borne of madness. The quest for Teshuva is not just about atonement for our sins but for the restoration of all that has been shattered and lost.

In the darkened room where I am alone with God and my private self, I can name feelings without blame or reproach. I can say Ashamnu, Bagadnu, beating my breast...or not. Alone, apart from the congregation, I can confront my sins and failures as well.

Perhaps I can even befriend them.

I can confess my hurt and my shortcomings and feel comforted by the maternal night.

Adopted nearly 54 years ago, I can examine the wounds that will likely always be mine.

And because it is night, I can dream of the time when they will be healed.

In this quiet room, dreams start to take shape. At this moment, I strive for strength, steadfastness and fortitude.

Deprived of external images, introspection yields understanding. I return to the task of Teshuva. I pray for honesty. I see my own misdeeds. I see pathways to restoration. I struggle, like Jacob, with dark angels. I twist and turn like I did on the aptly-named ladder at the Renaissance Fair so long ago. I fall, I land in dirt, I get up, I attempt to steady myself on the shaky rungs. I take aim at the archery range, missing the target repeatedly, trying again, gaining a bulls-eye eventually. I wander in the labyrinth, lost, found, running on instinct, fear and exhilaration.

In this space, I can focus on faith, something I am deficient in, like Vitamin D. I can believe that the new day will bring insight. I can believe I will be given a gift or a key or that I will have a personal encounter that will change my life.

And then, I will feel whole. Perhaps.

Mostly, at this hour, I can write freely, thereby dignifying the fact of my solitude, a necessary pre-condition for insight.

And like the Medieval enthusiasts who find one another through a website, I can reach out through this 21st Century portal and connect with all those who sit in the darkness of liminal moments, longing for connection, salvation, revelation, redemption.

_____________________________________________________
*Lyrics unabashedly stolen from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "There's a Light."

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Broken. Together. Alone.

I promised this blog post in the morning but was so hypoglycemic from fasting that putting sentences together in any coherent form was beyond me...let alone thinking about how I felt after last night's extraordinary event -- Broken: The Night of the Ninth of Av -- at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, co-sponsored by Lab/Shul and Romemu.

Now, as the arc of the afternoon passes and my blood sugar has long since stabilized, I gratefully grant myself time to reflect and write.

Half a year before Yom Kippur approaches, I find myself dreading its approach as it feels unnecessary since I spend most of my life in deep introspection, searching my soul. I know this is arrogant in a nearly adolescent way, so I fight with myself, embrace the utility of Yom Kippur and enter into the day with high hopes, even if I drag my feet along the way.

In a similar spirit, I dreaded Tisha B'Av's approach this summer as the devastation it commemorates is too frighteningly tangible; as the descriptions of a newly-destroyed Jerusalem seem to resemble what we have been seeing out of Israel and Gaza.

And I was sad that I felt this way because I have always loved the melancholy of Tisha B'Av, the drama of the lit candles and the dirges and the poetry of gloom.

Now I see very clearly that the romance of Tisha B'Av was only possible from my 20th Century American Jewish perch. Now I see that Tisha B'Av is not a feel-good tear-jerker, that depressing movie we love to cry our eyes out at, again and again.

Tisha B'Av is life, not art, a vital reminder to all Jews of what happened once and again and again and again.

Still, despite my dread, I sought the comfort of community and went -- with a large measure of anticipation -- to Broken.

(I went alone, as HOBB went to Ramath Orah, the warm and dependable Orthodox synagogue that is his spiritual home. Ramath Orah is HOBB's community and he needed its embrace as surely as I sought my own sense of comfort. Still, when he failed to even offer to accompany me, I felt betrayed by his lack of adventure and spiritual partnership.

I also felt abandoned by his lack of acknowledgement that this Tisha B'Av was indeed different and warranted different rules, including the rule of togetherness. Then, as I neared Plaza, I realized that this day was a journey I needed to take alone. Indeed, I am writing this post from our bungalow, upstate, where I retreated to be alone.)

Led by Rabbi David Ingber and spiritual leader/student rabbi Amichai Lau Lavie, Broken promised to deliver no consolation...and did not disappoint.

There was the stunned and silent audience, unusual for a Jewish crowd anywhere.

There were the intermittent songs of sorrow, traditional, timeless, transcendent in their beauty, saturated in a sadness that was unabated even by the audience's clapping or swaying.

There was the reading of The Book of Lamentations, nearly unbearable this year, ripe with the pornography of destruction, bearing the stench of the nausea that arises from watching concentration camp footage shot by proud SS officers.

There were the broken voices and faces of our rabbis, our leaders who were too broken to lead us, who offered us their brokenness instead. I gazed at them and saw frightened boys. I felt maternal compassion pour forth for these young Jewish men, brothers of our fallen soldiers.

They promised discomfort. They delivered it and in their authentic pain, they took us to a place beyond the borders of where I wished to be.

Stranded there, I did not experience the solace of community.

Instead, I felt alienated, abandoned again, perhaps a multitude of times.

Over the course of nearly an entire day I have thought about what took place last night on Amsterdam Avenue, reluctantly re-entered that place of cosmic aloneness.

And after 24 hours -- from the safe perch of the departure gate of Tisha B'Av, I finally have insight. It comes from a place of deep honesty, of the fine-honed habit of introspection.

Last night, my overwhelming need was to sit in the sadness of the unique sorrow of Jewish Peoplehood.

Last night, I wanted to grieve for my own, my loss, our loss, that thing we had just one month ago -- peace, peace of mind, heedlessness.

Entering into this day of mourning, this community funeral chapel, I wanted to hear the names only of my own dead. Or perhaps, I wanted to hear them first and loudly so that I might then honor the dead of the Other after I had buried my own.

But instead, last night I found myself led out of the communal shiva house and into an unrecognizable  room whose walls bore charts with the allegations of our own sins and wrongdoings.

There was despair in that journey and in that cramped space. And something that felt to me like dishonesty.

Or perhaps truth but not the truth of Tisha B'Av.

Instead, there was a quality of Yom Kippur -- public confession: Al Chet!! -- in that place.

And that felt foreign or at least premature.

Soon enough, Yom Kippur will be upon us and we can confess to all of our sins.

But for 25 hours, I only want to dwell in the destruction of our dream.

On this day, I don't want to be forced into universal consciousness for I dwell in that domain during much of my life.

On Tisha B'Av, I need to experience the brokenness of the Jewish People.

And I only want to weep for the Jerusalem I once knew.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Gimme Shelter

As recently as two weeks ago, I was trying to design a national Flash Mob that would bring to the public's attention what is was like for Israeli civilians to go about their normal lives, only to be forced to dash into shelters at the sound of a siren warning of an approaching rocket from Hamas.

Entitled Gimme Shelter, the purpose of this endeavor was consciousness-raising. As Israel was being rebuked publicly for its military actions in Gaza -- where the attacks originated -- I wanted to convey the threat it was facing in a creative and attention-getting manner. The anti-Israel counterpart to this idea was the Die-Ins that were being staged to simulate the Gaza civilians who killed by Israel's retaliatory fire, the tragic consequence of combatting an enemy who hides its arsenal in civilian locations.

For Gimme Shelter, I envisioned organizing groups of participants in major U.S. cities to gather casually in pre-selected public locations, milling about in faux leisure, only to be made to stand at stark attention at the planned public sounding of a shofar blast -- a tekiah gedolah -- in simulation of a siren's wail.

After the first shocked seconds, the participants would scurry to a safe location. Seconds afterwards, flyers would be distributed to onlookers and a statement would be read, identifying the exercise as a public action designed to alert Americans what Israelis face several times a day at the hands of Hamas.

Dramatic and disruptive, the purpose of Gimme Shelter was to simulate terror locally; to permit Americans to experience, for even a millisecond, the threat of attack in their very cities, the shock of needing to protect oneself in the course of daily life.

In New York, I envisioned such an event unfolding at Lincoln Center, with Flash Mobbers dashing into the 66th Street subway station's various entrances. Because of the wideness of the plaza, I planned on at least two shofar blowers. Stunning tourists and locals alike, captured by media which would have been alerted ahead of time, Gimme Shelter would be hasbara in action, building empathy and understanding for Israel's campaign against Hamas.

This idea appealed to me as recently as fourteen days ago, when we/I thought that the falling rockets were the chief threat against Israel.

But Gimme Shelter was a concept with an exceedingly brief shelf life. 

My idea was based on a delusion that the threat was coming from above. Now we have learned about the tunnels, a network of carefully executed passageways from Gaza into Israel, designed with one purpose, to visit death upon Israelis.  Now we have learned of a nearly science-fiction-like scenario -- a subterranean threat -- and the very concept of shelter has changed.

Hamas is the deadly threat we could see as well as the deadly threat that was invisible...until very, very recently.

There is a horror in the revelation of the terror tunnels, not only a horror at what was planned, but a horror that the building of this network was, quite literally, beneath the radar screen of Israeli intelligence and the world at large.

According to reports, a large scale threat against Israelis was in the planning, scheduled for Rosh Hashana.

This was a valuable, critical finding, an inadvertent discovery.

But this revelation has been very expensive, costing Israel dozens of lives and the Palestinians hundreds more because of their leadership's cynical disregard for their safety.

Compounding the shock of the existence of terror tunnels -- built with funds that were intended to provide a new infrastructure for Palestinian life -- is the fact that the discovery of these underground portals of destruction have had little impact on a public whose favorite pastimes is condemning Israel, and Jews everywhere.

There is a sickening metaphorical appropriateness in the construction of these tunnels.

Jews are not supposed to believe in the concept of Hell...and yet Hell has come to Israel in the form of the terror tunnels.

Gimme Shelter was a great idea for about two weeks. Now it is irrelevant -- quaint and naive.

Now, an appropriate public action might feature armed terrorists emerging from subway stations to shoot at civilians. The role of onlookers would be to skip over the bodies of the slain, sidestepping the horror, ignoring the threat to themselves, voicing support for the shooters.

Naturally it is insane to stage such a happening. Insane and irresponsible and yet irresistible.

I sit in my Manhattan apartment, trying to conceive of a public action that illuminates the new, horrifying reality in Israel and around the world... and come up empty.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Anti-Semitism Diet





While I’ve lately gotten compliments on my svelte shape, I would like to credit Hamas and anti-Semites around the world for helping me to lose those stubborn ten pounds I have been carrying around since the onset of menopause. Due to my near-constant state of sadness, shock and fear, I have lost my appetite and find myself capable of consuming only the following items, not necessarily in this order: sharp cheddar cheese, salted almonds, Mary’s Gone Crackers, Chobani yogurt, coffee, Pinot Grigio and tequila.

Just yesterday, I bought a pair of Gap Sexy Boyfriend jeans TWO sizes smaller from what I normally wear. In fact, the Sexy Boyfriend jean shorts I bought at the beginning of the summer – long before we knew that there were terror tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel and that anti-Zionism really was the same as anti-Semitism and Israel was going to be condemned for the fact that Hamas was using innocent Palestinians as human shields and the media would decide to cover the story in a manner that defies the basic journalistic ethic of being fair and even-handed – were practically falling off my hips when I attended the New York Stands With Israel rally at Dag Hammerskjold Plaza in the middle of the day.

(The solidarity I experienced at yesterday’s rally calmed me enough to be able to eat a salad from Amish Market afterwards. Surrounded by ten thousand supporters of Israel’s right to exist, including politicians, I felt hopeful for the first time in several weeks.)

Let’s be honest -- the weight loss is welcome as in one month from yesterday, my beautiful, smart, industrious, kind, funny and otherwise fabulous daughter, Emma, will be getting married. Losing weight prior to a wedding is a goal of brides and mothers of the bride alike. In its service, personal trainers are procured, gym memberships hastily bought, masochistic regimes are adapted, extreme diets adhered to.

Yes, Emma and I have gasped our way through several sadistic spin classes – the upscale type with low lights, pounding music and fellow cyclists who have more in common with Lance Armstrong than us – and I continue to go to the gym regularly and hike for miles.

Still, it has been my inability to eat in the face of extreme stress that has done the trick for me. Realizing the potential of this revelation, in the manner of entrepreneurs everywhere, I have begun to write the book that I am sure will become a blockbuster.

I call it The Anti-Semitism Diet.

Like many weight loss programs that are bad for you, The Anti-Semitism Diet offers a successful way to knock off pounds, virtually overnight.  Instead of planning carb-rich meals, The Anti-Semitism Diet recommends that readers plan safe places where they might escape to if violence against Jews comes to their hometown. Instead of reading pages of recipes, The Anti-Semitism Diet advocates reading the news. Headlines announcing North Korea’s offer to fund Hamas, the rising numbers of Israeli soldiers killed, the German synagogue that was firebombed, the Jews in Paris who were hunted down through Facebook and beaten, and signs at rallies throughout the world featuring swastikas and such slogans as “Death to the Jews” are all proven methods of successfully suppressing one’s appetite.

If one is a Jew or person of conscience.

The fine print in the book’s introduction does indicate that, as a complete loss of peace of mind is necessary for this diet to work, the dieter should be aware that the weight loss will also likely be accompanied by crying, inability to sleep, continual shock, a sense of betrayal, panic, horror, foreboding, exhaustion and general jitteriness.

Which is why The Anti-Semitism Diet wisely includes wine and tequila and permits the ingestion of other calming substances, which have little or no calories.

The Anti-Semitism Diet does have a special section on the importance of exercise and core strengthening as it recognizes that being able to escape missiles (if one is in Israel) or hate-fueled attackers (if one is anywhere else) is dependant, in part, upon physical fitness. You will have a far better chance of making it into a bomb shelter or outrunning the angry mob that thinks that Hitler had the right idea if you are in top cardio-vascular shape.

A disclaimer in the book states that regrettably, The Anti-Semitism Diet cannot help with feelings of grief if you happen to be a family or friend of a fallen Israeli soldier. But it helpfully states that the Palestinians in Gaza, who are also victims of Hamas’s apocalyptic anti-Semitism, might wish to adapt The Anti-Semitism Diet for themselves if they have a special event looming, or just always wanted to lose some weight.

Or if any of them survive being used as human shields by Hamas.

The reason I am so confident that The Anti-Semitism Diet will be a bestseller is based on three reasons:

A – It has a built-in global audience
B – It is extremely topical, written for this very moment
C – It is really short

Indeed, to appropriate a well-known Jewish joke (what is a Jewish telegram?), The Anti-Semitism Diet can be summed up as follows:

Stop eating. Start worrying. Details to follow.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cataclysm from Left Field

I have heard it said that when cataclysmic change comes, it arrives from left field.

Despite the pronouncements of pundits and predictors, the events that change the course of history are often unheralded, flagged mostly by madmen and prophets.

Something is shifting in our universe. I felt it at the mid-point of this past winter. The earth has slipped from her axis and a hateful spirit has taken hold.

The cold of this past winter felt spiteful.

Spring felt far too slim, skimpy, evasive.

And this summer -- so long-awaited -- is not the summer of years past. It is filled with angst and what is increasingly referred to as "extreme weather" -- rain that is aggressive, heat that feels nuclear, a malicious void where cosmic benevolence used to be.

I am up, sleepless, unable to rest, keeping vigil, reading news, headlines, posts on Facebook, statements that arrive via email, analyses, Op-Eds, blogs, Breaking News alerts, Red Alert warnings of Hamas missiles launched and a steady stream of images coming out of the place that is at the epicenter of my soul: Israel.

And its heart of hearts: Jerusalem.

There is a malevolence afoot now -- not only in the murderous intent of Hamas -- but in the complicity of countries filled with Jew-haters who are all-too-eager to use this so-called "conflict" to give voice to their evil passions, which have evidently been simmering beneath the surface of their civility all along.

We knew/I knew, that the golden age of our security had to end. We knew/I knew that the ability for a Jew to be a heedless, careless, fancy-free citizen of the world had an expiration date stamped on it.

I don't mean that I am imperiled in New York City today, right here, right now but I do know that a tide has turned.

The genie of European anti-Semitism has been released and there is no stuffing it back into the bottle; no way to pretend we hadn't seen it. Of course, Europe is not the only new/old Ground Zero of hatred and hostility to Jews, but -- soaked with Jewish blood -- it does it deserves special mention.

The violent rallies with bloodthirsty proclamations -- Death to the Jews! and similar slogans -- stun us in their profusion, in their magnitude, in their suddenness.

It is as if we have been drugged for decades, sleeping through the dress rehearsal for this world-wide scene shift.

It is late and I am tired. I am terrified. I am heartbroken. I cannot bear the photographs of the slain Israeli soldiers, in numbers too high to accept. They are my loss, members of my family and I cannot pretend that the grief I feel for them is equivalent to the sorrow I feel for the innocent Palestinian victims of the hellbent Hamas fighters.

I bemoan -- as do all people of conscience -- the senseless loss of life, their suffering and the mess of the situation...so awful, so old, so eternal. I understand their cruel fate; how their leaders chose to make them sacrifices out of spite.

But personal loss is always different. It has to be. That is the way the human animal is built. Why should we pretend otherwise?

I scream into the abyss of the conscience of the world:

What do you not understand? How can you fail to see the evil unfolding before you?

At this time, the force of my fears, my love and the entirety of my vigilance is focused on my family, my people, my tribe -- the historic Children of Israel who have somehow made it into the second millennium. At this time, the dangerous winds of the new/old extreme weather threaten us and we run for shelter. How, O Lord, do we stay safe in this new time and space? What have we learned through persecution and pogrom, through death camps and deportations, through hateful rhetoric and harmful legislation? What gifts has modernity given us in our existential battle? What is our special status as American Jews? Or is that an illusion that is about to be shattered?

It is late.  It is late in New York but a new day is dawning in Israel. I split my attention between computer screens, reading frightening new reports, alarming predictions, protestations over yesterday's disturbing ban on air travel to and from Israel.

Guardian of Israel, do not sleep. Stay awake. Keep vigil. Protect us.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Thinking/Writing Cure

At 1:30 a.m. I was wrested from my dreams by an insistently barking Pomeranian who just turned 14, which makes him quite an elderly canine.

Alfie, a master communicator, had something to tell me relating to business that was not completed during his failed late night walk with HOBB.

There had been a torrential downpour and Alfie is a bit of a prima donna, so he stubbornly sat in the lobby of the Urban Bungalow, not wishing to sully his perfect blond coat.

In the middle of the night he realized the error of his ways and improvised in the bathroom. A neat freak, he needed me to know.

That is how I found myself wide away shortly after midnight, though I spent a futile hour trying to will myself back to sleep. I should not have even bothered. With a resolute tossing back of the blankets, I bounded out of bed and began my workday around 3 a.m.

Through I did grouse and call Alfie some choice names, though I even felt sorry for myself initially, the minute I sat down in front of my computer, I was reminded of the advantages of working in the middle of the night, when the distractions of the world fall away.

And of something else: the easy flow of ideas when sleep has allowed my mind to loosen its familiar bonds.

So I've been up and working for hours. Seeing me online, Big Babe in Berlin sent me a Skype invitation and we had a lovely chat. A few clients were up as well and emails were exchanged. I took care of wedding details and of last-minute arrangements for Middle Babe's Bridal Shower this weekend. I got a jumpstart on the news from Israel, the latest chapter in an ongoing existential saga, as old as the Bible.

And I've been thinking of this time before the marriage of my middle child, of what such a union means, of the idea of a lifelong love relationship, of her beautiful bond with her Gentleman Caller -- soon to be my son-in-law.

I've been thinking of what it means to have raised a child who now believes in marriage, against statistical evidence that we are in a post-marital era, or at least a marriage-optional era.

I've been thinking of what it means to be a modern mother of the bride, of my role in supporting my daughter as she plans her wedding in an admirable hands-on way, of the hard work that happened -- during the day as well as the middle of the night -- to enable this wedding.

There is pride in being able to provide for one's child.

And I know that Middle Babe feels proud of the hard work she has done, just as I gaze at her efforts with admiration and wonder. My daughter is no one's diva, no Disney Princess for a day. She has approached her wedding with the same determined focus with which she regards her challenging work at a non-profit organization.

She has inspired me throughout this year of planning, which had its difficult moments. With six weeks to go, we have drawn closer, united in purpose.

Wedding guests are correct to be touched by the fresh, hopeful love and dreams of a bride and groom.

Beyond the details of the day -- flowers, food, the choice of music, the venue, the colors of the bridal party -- there is the fact of an important new venture being launched, two people pledging their love and loyalty for life, forming a fortress for one another in an often-inhospitable world.

As the sun rises over Morningside Heights, it strikes me that the most enduring monument one can build in this world is a home which is a sanctuary with gates that open to the great outdoors and a private footpath for the master and mistress of the manor which leads to their inner sanctum, their holy of holies.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Recovery of Writings Past


While searching online today for something I had written a couple of years ago, I inadvertently found an essay/book review of Simone Zelitch's work, Louisa that I had entirely forgotten about. I read it with shameless glee, sobered only by two terrible details: the rabbi I refer to as metaphysical has since been revealed to be a sexual predator, and the host of the sumptuous breakfast at the King David Hotel was revealed to have been a crook, his generosity funded by white collar crime. Still, finding this essay now is a gift. In the midst of an unusually stressful time in my personal life as well as that of the Jewish people, reading about my magical midnight foray in Jerusalem on a summer night in 1998 provided a much-welcome window into a simpler time. The timing also seems unusually apt as I just published my novella, The Jerusalem Lover, yesterday morning. This essay brings me back to that era before 9/11, which provides one of the frames for The Jerusalem Lover. We were careless. We were clueless. I linger in the memory of that moment and share it with you, here:


At four in the morning, a solemn breeze wafted through the ancient Hurva synagogue, raising the tarpaulin-like roof, ruffling the hair and garments of the hundreds who were gathered inside, sitting cross-legged on the cold, stone floor. It was Shavuot night, 1998, the setting was Jerusalem, and I was on the third leg of my night-long tikkun, the traditional learning marathon held on the first night of the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.

The evening had begun at a friend's house in Baka and moved on to Yakar, the spirited, soulful synagogue located in the Old Katamon neighborhood. Now I had come to the Hurva, located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, to hear the metaphysical rabbi, Mordechai Gafni.

As Gafni spoke, the sun rose over the ancient city of Jerusalem As the sky lightened at five, I rose and left the Hurva, making my way through winding streets until I met the members of my davening group, N'shei Ha-Kotel, the Women of the Wall. Gathering together, we commenced our recitation of shacharit, the morning prayers.

While we davened, streams of Jews poured onto the Kotel plaza, black-hat and bohemian alike. This parade of people had come from every corner of Jerusalem–and beyond–in commemoration of the pilgrimages made in the time of the ancient Temple.
As the hour approached seven, I made my way out of the Old City and towards the King David Hotel. It was on the hotel's capacious lawn that I concluded mytikkun leil Shavuot–tired yet exhilarated–at a reception thrown by family friends, feasting on traditional holiday fare: cheesecake, blintzes, rice pudding with raisins, pie, custard and all manner of dairy treats.

There is an otherworldly magic to staying up all night, studying Jewish texts. There is a surprising sense of revelation to studying–once again, the Ten Commandments, and finding new insights and commentaries. And there is the profound beauty of the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of the righteous Moabite woman Ruth, one of history's best known Jews-by-choice, great-grandmother of King David and ancestor of the Messiah.
Widowed as a young woman, Ruth "cleaves" to Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law, pledging complete loyalty to her tradition and people. Though Naomi urges her to return to her Moabite kinsmen, Ruth refuses, stating her now-immortal vow:

Entreat me not to leave you, and do not tell me to return from following after you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.

These oft-quoted words have inspired humankind over the course of centuries. Evidently, they took up residence within the literary imagination of Simone Zelitch. The result is her remarkable novel, Louisa , which offers a modern retelling of the story of Ruth, set in post-World War II Palestine, with ample flashbacks to Szeged and Budapest, Hungary.

Louisa offers us the story of the relationship between Nora and Louisa, a latter-day Naomi and Ruth. Louisa is a young German Christian woman who falls in love with Gabor Gratz, an inscrutable and restless young Jewish composer. Finding herself pregnant by him, they marry, at the insistence of Gabor's mother, Nora. The pregnancy does not survive; neither does Gabor. As the Jews are hunted throughout Budapest, Nora seeks refuge in the cellar of Louisa's home and there waits out the end of the war before being transported to Palestine.

The problem is, Louisa refuses to leave her bitter and grief-stricken mother-in-law and gains passage with Nora to Palestine. Landing at a kibbutz, she endures hatred and suspicion (some refugees swear they saw her working as a Nazi guard at a concentration camp), works in the fruit orchard, studies Hebrew and begins studying for conversion with the kibbutz rabbi.

She also does some covert work, tracking down Nora's beloved cousin Bela (now known as Jonah), with whom Nora grew up in Hungary. Bela immigrated to Palestine prior to the war and had tried to convince Nora to do likewise. His mother and sister were killed in the course of the war. Arabs murdered Leah, his young French-Israeli wife, outside of their kibbutz.

Bela/Jonah represents the Boaz character in the Ruth story, the older kinsman of Naomi whom Ruth marries to carry on the family legacy. Claiming to work in the orchards well beyond the harvesting season, Louisa finds Bela/Jonah, works for him and eventually falls in love with him. They marry, bear a child named Tamar who carries on Bela's bloodline and Louisa keeps her pledge to Nora to redeem Gabor's death by having children, bringing new life into the Jewish people.

Zelitch's Nora is hardly an endearing character. She is bitter, similar to the biblical Naomi who asked that her name be changed to Mara, bitter one. She is frequently unkind to Louisa. She misses out on love and its fulfillment. She makes Louisa all the more heroic.

Yet Zelitch allows us to see Louisa's devotion to her mother-in-law in a different vein. Louisa somehow intuits that becoming a Jew and going to Palestine are her destiny. She means the words "Your people are my people" quite literally. Her motivating force is not altruism, but a realist grasp of her fate.

The skillful weaving of the Ruth and Naomi theme into Louisa is a testament to Zelitch's keen understanding of the text. The work is a literary tour de force, jumping continents, cultures and chronological boundaries. It raises the interesting question of the Messiah's ancestry and the process ofteshuva, repentance. It asks us to accept the German-Christian Louisa's conversion and active role in perpetuating a Jewish bloodline, as an act of tikkun(restoration) for the sins of her kinsmen during the Shoah.

Louisa and Shavuot share many themes: the power of forgiveness and good deeds, and their potential for repairing the world. The Book of Ruth, however, has an additional twist, for it hints at an instruction manual for repairing the world. The instruction manual of course, is Jewish Law, which is the axis upon which the Ruth narrative turns. One of the many fascinating aspects of the Book of Ruth is we get to see the Torah's laws in action. 

One example of this is when Boaz observes the laws of Tzedekah and instructs his workers to let ample grain fall through their hands so that the poor (in this case Ruth) may glean in the fields. In these instances and others it becomes apparent that what appears to be coincidence is really God's handiwork in the form of Jewish law. Which makes Louisa and the Book of Ruth perfect reading on Shavuot; a holiday which celebrates the giving of the Torah and looks forward to a world redeemed. 

Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Dog Therapy

Last night, at the launch event for Ari's new book at the Corner Bookstore in NYC, the conversation turned to dogs because someone had shown up for the event with her surprisingly well-groomed and behaved pooch.

The discussants included friends of mine who were newly single in mid-life. We spoke about the spirituality of dogs and their function as social networkers.

"If you want to meet new people, just get a dog," I advised, recounting the numerous instances of new (and mostly fascinating) people I have met while walking Alfie and Nala the Pomeranians in Manhattan.

Single people meeting through dog-walking is a charming subplot for many a film but as a much-married woman, the surprise benefit for me has been in the number of deep and resonant conversations I have had with other women while we stroll with our pups along Morningside Drive.

And by other women, I am not talking about friends.

I am speaking here of people I have never met before in my life.

It starts with a friendly introduction by our respective dogs -- butt sniffing, jumping, playful interaction -- and half an hour later I am on my way home, marveling at the spontaneous human bond that was just formed.

I am trying to understand how it happens. My dogs stop to play with another dog, invariably that of a woman. The owner and I exchange casual pleasantries and inquire about each other's pooches. I ask a leading question or two. I get a feeling.

Then I throw out a question and we are off and running.

Today is a perfect case in point. The power of the sunshine lured me outdoors even before my dogs thought to beg for a walk. I nearly skipped down W116th Street to Morningside Drive, half-blinded by the radiance. Moments after arriving there, a young German Shepherd appeared, accompanied by a woman with a colorful paisley frock.

While our dogs cavorted, we had an instantly intimate conversation about our work and our motherhood. We spoke about the choices and compromises we made and how we feel about them. We spoke about our husbands' careers and where our ambition fits in. We spoke about the raising of sons. We spoke about ourselves.

Even after our dogs settled down with one another, we chatted.

It was like being served a delicious entree without the boring appetizer.

We Facebook friended each other before parting. I felt lucky to have been thus connected to a fascinating stranger who is not so strange to me after all.

As I walked home I thought further about our conversation and concluded that I owed part of our connection to the power of sisterhood, that eternal bond that women have with one another; the compulsion to connect and compare life stories and grow from one another.

It is a gift when it happens and I own the fact that I am a proactive pursuer of connections, seeking to share, believing in the commonality of human experience and my own intuition.

But credit must be given to the secret agents of social networking so I thank my furry little friends for enabling this instance of solidarity on a sunny Friday morning on Manhattan's Morningside Heights.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Call me Crazy, But...

For every wonderful, responsible, caring, completely sane woman who has been called "crazy" stupid" "bitch," or all the above by the guy in her life simply because she is really, really upset about something for more than, say, three minutes, some strong, sisterly advice:

Crazy means shut up, I don't want to hear your pain.

Stupid means shut up, you are asking me to be accountable.

Bitch means shut up, you are ruining my fun. 

And some more advice: if things are at the point where someone is calling you these -- or other -- names, it is time to access your inner bitch and really go crazy...for your own good.

Turn into a maniac of self-actualization. Be a lunatic of reinvention. Be a batty advocate for your own happiness.

Girlfriend, a name-calling partner is no partner.

Recognize. And make some decisions.

Here's my professional diagnosis: you haven't been crazy enough.

So go mental.

To do anything less is stupid.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Day after Mother's Day

Last week, in the midst of a phone convo with a super-successful, beautiful and high-spirited friend of mine, I confessed to having fallen into a funk.

My candor acted as a key into an inner chamber where truth resided; in an instant, my friend dropped her upbeat demeanor and shared that she, too, had been depressed as of late.

The thing is, our lives are hardly mirror images, though we are both writers. In fact, we represent two distinct groups: I am a mother of three while my friend is single and childless.

And yet...and yet...we both found ourselves in this age and stage of life feeling sad, out of balance, wondering if it was yet possible to grab hold of our dreams.

Our conversation continued while I took the dogs out for a walk, texted two of my three kids, shopped at a local food market and cooked dinner. She chatted from her couch, where she ate salad. The distinctively different backgrounds of our conversation brought our dissimilar situations into starker relief.

She was responsible to no one and could focus on our call while I was a multi-tasking maniac. I had the family and all that comes with it; she was alone but free to pursue her personal and professional goals in an uncompromised way.

As the lack of family looms large for her and she originally viewed my life as belonging to someone who had the very thing she craved -- i.e. -- as someone who "had it all" -- she was astonished to hear the depths of my sadness.

She hadn't imagined that the very thing I lacked could cause me such pain.

We spoke for nearly two hours, examining how it was both personal choice and factors outside our control that shaped our lives' path. We shared a bracing moment of female rage against the unfair advantage that men had, their ability to grab what they want, whether it was a young wife when they reached middle aged, or an unimpeded path to their own professional success.

Women often are forced to make choices that men do not have to make.

My beautiful loving friend expressed sorrow for the mate and children she did not (yet) have. I mourned work that hadn't yet been published.

Sharing our separate sadness, we realized that we were hardly separated by our external differences.

What we shared was a sense of incompletion. Gazing at it together, it felt less like an abyss and more like an opportunity.

Organically, we began encouraging the other, offering insight and suggestions, analyzing the other's position. We helped each other contextualize the lives we had; we did not deny that the sadness was legitimate but sought a proactive response. We became each other's cheerleaders and project managers. We lifted each other up.

So it is with the best of female friendships.

In this realm, I am truly blessed and hope I have given as well as I have received.

On the day after Mother's Day, I salute the sisterhood that is the source of sustenance for those who hold the world aloft. On this day forward, I toast the power of candor and the bravery it takes to confess our failures to one another so that we might recover the key to our successful transcendence.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Power of the Yenta (Mother's Day Edition)

I have a big mouth, by which I mean that I am prone to sharing, perhaps even over-sharing personal thoughts and experiences with friends and strangers alike.

And over the 50-plus years of my life, I have found that this penchant is valuable...as it opens the door for others to share and share alike.

As a writer, I have been compelled to share my truth. Sometimes loudly.

The reward is that it empowers others to share theirs back.

You see, my hunch is that often, the upsetting thought or experience I am going through is not uniquely my own. The insight I have just gained, or even, the hunch that I have, might just be universal.

So, I put it out there...and reap the results.

This year has been a significant year in the Urban Bungalow. Little Babe left for college, which means that HOBB and I are now officially Empty Nesters.

Aside from one maudlin weekend before we drove him to Muhlenberg College and I could not stop crying thinking that my youngest was now ready for college, I have celebrated this transition as I have loved the immersive, holistic and sometimes overwhelming fact of my motherhood and felt prepared for the next phase.

I have no regrets. I cannot separate the experience of raising my three kids -- now nearly 30, 26 and 19 -- from the person I am today. Becoming a mom at 23, my entire adult life was intertwined with my mommyhood. It was bumpy and it was messy and we did not prepare for this financially, but what an adventure, watching three remarkable people unfold, become themselves, because of me and despite of me, because of us and despite us.

There has been also the promise of the Empty Nest, an opportunity to reclaim that which I have put on hold. There are my deferred dreams, twinkling tantalizingly on the horizon. There has been the delicious prospect of dating HOBB, reclaiming or even discovering anew the power of our partnership. There has been the promise of creative collaboration.

I have had a lot invested in this moment.

So, when I was overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and rage lately, I was surprised.

The year began with such promise. I was soaring. Why did I crash?

So, I put on my Yenta lenses. I began sharing. I began hearing.

I started realizing I was onto something.

I realized I was hardly alone.

Here is my Huffington Post column for Mother's Day, written for every working mother married to a wonderful man who finds herself crashing just about now, at the end of the first "semester" of the Empty Nest.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shira-dicker/a-mothers-day-gift-idea-f_b_5289277.html

I think I nailed a nugget of truth for women such as myself.

So, return the Yenta favor. Write and share your feelings.

And if you disagree with what I wrote, let me know as well.

Happy Mother's Day!


Sunday, April 27, 2014

In the Aftermath of the Crash

Back in the interminable land of February in this harshest of winters, I had a momentary, startling awareness that the oppressive cold and relentless grey were temporary afflictions and in the blink of an eye, summer would be upon us.

This winter caused a crimp in our creature comforts here in New York. Going outside was perilous...or at least unpleasant. Adults relived that cumbersome bundled-up feeling from childhood. Mere coats did not suffice; layers were needed to withstand the weather.

But this past winter was not just about inconvenience. For all but those who inexplicably deny global warming, there was the sad and scary acknowledgement that nature was striking back at humankind.

This winter felt, more than anything, like a warning of worse things to come.

On Wednesday mornings I teach a class in ethical communications to student clergy at a Westchester seminary. This is the second time I am teaching this class; it is one I created right after graduating from Columbia Journalism School three years ago.

One of my students is consumed with pre-apocalyptic thoughts; he sees imminent worldwide economic and ecological collapse. He speaks of the need to grieve for the planet. He feels Judaism has an approach for dealing with what is happening now, what is about to happen, the struggle to come.

My student observes me as well. Twice, he suggested that I need to slow down. My life was too busy, he said. Moving so quickly, ideas could not take root, he said.

Astonished by his insight, wondering if I ought to act huffy and offended and old school teacher-like, I have instead paused to give serious weight to his words.

He is right. I am way too busy. I need to slow down, let my ideas take root.

But need alone does not govern my life.  There are the responsibilities of adult life, the compromises that must inevitably be made. My student is wise but young, closest in age to my youngest child.

When life is overfull, with dramatic events, to boot, there is a paradoxical sense of time standing still. At 2 in the morning I am strangely awake, despite a fantastically busy day, trying to remember what took place this winter and coming up blank.

I sit in the place of blankness for while. The winter months seem like one grey, undifferentiated mass. Did anything actually happen? Looking backwards gives me a bleak and lonely feeling. I don't like returning to the very recent past.

I want to move forward into the warm light.

And then I recall my exuberant drum lessons with Mike at Funkadelic studios, the Beatles, Genesis, Chicago, Rolling Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bad Company songs we played, the new licks and fills I learned, the hilarious Saturday night rock-out jam session that HOBB* attended, cello in tow. There was dancing at the Iguana Club, the Culture Club and the JCC's Swing Remix Parties, shows for $4 through Play-by-Play. There was music at The Sidewalk Cafe, City Winery, Cleopatra's Needle. I remember transcendent acupuncture sessions with the intuitive Dr. Liu,where my thoughts had a chance to broaden, deepen and bloom; exquisitely painful massages by Don the therapist. I remember the Wednesday morning classes I taught, the projects I have worked on. There was the joy of Purim and the hard work of Passover, the books I read, magazines devoured, movies I saw, shows and museum exhibitions and events I attended. There was one wacky and inspired Sunday road trip with a dear friend to Philadelphia to museum hop, another memorable train ride back from DC with a rabbi friend involving a bottle of wine and lots of gossip. There were weekly Scrabble matches with HOBB. There were dinners with friends (though fewer than usual), open Mic performances, haircuts and karaoke nights. There were weekly therapy sessions where I delved into deep examination of my life. There were writing project proposals drafted. There were columns written and published.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The Je Ne Sais Quoi of Karaoke!



Hi Bungaleers!

My column on why I love karaoke... Enjoy!

And that is me singing in a Tokyo karaoke bar in May.

Hope you will come sing with me!

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Return to the Kingdom by the Sea

On Friday evenings, I typically read the Weekend section of the New York Times in a state of supreme FOMO.*

So many wonderful things going on...and all at the same time!!!!! How can I even begin to make a dent in the richness of Manhattan's cultural offerings??? How can I even hope to be a cultivated person when I am so constrained by the limitations of time and the fact of being only one person with an extremely busy professional (and social!!) life???

I am an anxious wreck as I scour the articles, the ads and the listings, creating a week's worth of destinations in my head because it is, after all, Shabbat, and I cannot write anything down and besides, I'm in the middle of my weekly Scrabble game with HOBB.**

I sigh loudly. I rustle the paper. I announce the opening of films and shows, limited engagements, cabaret acts of note, exhibitions, lectures, walking tours and other offerings guaranteed to improve my life and my husband's life as well as the lives of everyone on the planet.

Trapped within the labyrinth of the Weekend section this past Friday night, I let out a shout that startled HOBB in the midst of his Scrabble move.  The Little Prince exhibition was opening at the Morgan Library and Museum while the Edgar Allan Poe exhibit was closing.

I had one golden day to see both.

And damn it, nothing was going to stop me.

Not the blood-freezing cold, not the gunmetal skies, not the appointments that dotted my day like push-pins on a bulletin board, starting with my personal training session at 9 am and ending with a client call at 7 at night.

Not the gala @ the JCC the previous night that had me downing tequila and dancing like one possessed.

Not the morning-after hangover.

Not the unexpected shut-down of the East Side trains (the 4, 5 and 6 subway lines all ground to a halt).

Not the syllabus I was supposed to deliver last week for a graduate school course I am teaching this spring.

Not the fact that I was on my own as HOBB was spending this Sunday afternoon playing with an amateur orchestra and I hadn't invited anyone to come with me.

And certainly not the severe sickness that turned my nose into a raw, red faucet, clogged my ears and made my limbs feel as if someone had given me noogies for the past week.

I arrived at the Morgan, shivering and clutching a soggy handkerchief. Having walked from Grand Central Station along a strangely unpopulated Madison Avenue, I was awash in a familiar, yet long-ago feeling.

It was akin to a premonition, creepy but in a fantastic way.

I call it the Poe effect.

Even before I reached the regal entrance of the Morgan, I was returned to that realm of imprisoning introspection, feverish speculation, unchecked murderous impulses, suspicion, dreadful secrets, dying love, entombed loved ones.

As I stepped over sodden snowbanks and clutched my collar against the cold, I felt the deliciously icy hand of terror grip my heart.

My dearest childhood literary companion awaited me, proud to point out how many people came to see his show on its very last day.

He wanted me to know that the show was a hot ticket in the Manhattan where he had lived many and many a year ago.

Bathed in welcome warmth, I tip-toed through the exhibit gallery, peering into showcases and reading captions of manuscripts and letters and newspaper clippings and book pages. From every wall, the tragic eyes of Edgar Allan Poe gazed, accusatory and anxious. The room was filled with palpable Poe-love. Parents pointed out famous poems to young children, hipsters clustered over drawings with showy interest, solitary visitors such as myself moved dreamily. Discovering the extent to which Poe had influenced some of my other favorite authors -- Nabokov, Wilde, Whitman, among them -- I trembled with excitement, reading their words of praise, feeling proud to be in their number.

Sneezing frequently, a handkerchief pressed to my nose, I stalked the exhibition, my sickness strengthening my sense of solidarity with Poe. My emotions careened wildly. I felt like the crazy person at the museum, the wacko other visitors swerve to avoid.

With a joy that inspired giddy laughter, I found out how Lolita had embedded Poe-prints throughout, beginning with Humbert's confessional storytelling style and the basic frame of the book: his obsessive love for a child.  I saw the original script for the film version, containing Poe allusions that ended up on the cutting floor, Kubrick's surgery, infuriating Nabokov.

I realized something glaringly obvious that I had never noticed, even after more than six readings: Humbert's first love is named...Annabel.

I congratulated myself on my good literary taste. Closing my eyes, I was able to recapture that rush that comes from discovering a greatness you never knew existed -- an aspect of the world you had not imagined, a treat that makes life delicious and is available whenever you want it.

Poe was my passion as a nine-year-old newly returned to the United States after a year in Israel. He was my closest companion, dwelling in the dark realm that was underneath the wallpaper in my bedroom, beneath the floorboard of my closet. He confirmed the mystery that I intuited; he knew that a house at night was swirling with spirits, he detailed obsession, longing, guilt, loneliness, spite.

The previous year had introduced me to Dickens and White, Twain and Carroll...in their entirety. Bookish by nature, living in a country without functional television, the daily adventure of exploring Israel was matched in intensity by my literary sojourns in the apartment of a great philosopher with a respectable English library.

Poe had been on the shelf of my Jerusalem apartment but I was afraid. The volume of his work felt sinister. The words on the page were ominous, portals to a place I was not yet ready to enter.

But that which frightened me also beckoned. Poe was the dank cellar I could not resist exploring.

When I returned back to America, I opened the creaky door and began my descent.

In an instant, I knew Poe. His work demanded that of the reader. He was an intimate -- my brother or alter-ego. His work was inseparable from himself and I felt inseparable from him. To read his sentences was to be in a conversation with him, or to eavesdrop on his inner monologue, to whisper sentence fragments back in a hot, sticky breath.

Or to become blood brothers of sorts, co-conspirators, con-artists of artistry.

To read Poe is to be Poe; marvelously morbid mind so familiar, so beloved.

The swirling madness, his sadness, I drank it in, organic, rich and life-giving, so much more real than the careful order of my childhood, the roster of rules, the belief in the ordinary, the schedules that had to be kept, the punishments for transgression.

The world of my peers was a flimsy reality I needed to visit during the school week, utterly insignificant, save for my new best friend, a moody girl named Eileen who also loved books and Poe. I see pictures of myself from that year, long bangs and dark hair, deep, serious eyes. I look like Poe's younger sister. Or child love.

I went to school, excelled in Judaic studies and English and dutifully took piano lessons from an old lady who smelled like erasers and had a love of the metronome. Outside of Shabbat, when I was shaken by my rabbi-father's sermons during the Saturday morning synagogue service, I despaired of the rational world and the mandate of preserving the status quo: safety and predictability.

What was life about if not pushing beyond the boundaries of the expected? What was life without adventure and danger?

Poe's chaos was feverish freedom. It was alluring and transgressive, like dancing naked at night.

For the outsider child that I was -- introspective, sensual, sensitive, adopted -- Poe was mother and father, the rebellious older brother I always dreamed of.

Thus it must be for all who love Poe; that sense of an intimate encounter, the flattering feeling of being friended by one who is defiant, fearless, brilliant and crazy, chosen to be part of an inner circle of hyper-vigilant consciousness.

In the middle of a harsh 21st Century New York winter, an adult is recalled to her childhood, to the moment of grand discovery of a transcendent reality, to beauty -- tragic and true -- to the kingdom she shared with a tormented, long dead writer by the shores of the deepest, darkest sea.

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* Fear of Missing Out
** Husband of Bungalow Babe

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Ripped from Television...Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

"Is the murder of Menachem Stark a tragedy?" HOBB* inquired of me earlier this morning.

My husband's query was not a trick question but his way of testing my compassion and sanity, I suppose.

You see, ever since the body of Menachem Stark was discovered, charred, in a Great Neck gas station dumpster, I have been consumed with the story for it strikes me as an example of a single, dramatic and yes, tragic event that also functions as a portal into another entire world, hidden from view, characterized by murky goings-on.

If ever there was a recent, local true-life crime that resembled an episode of "Law & Order" it is the kidnapping and murder of Menachem Stark.

As on "Law & Order," details about the victim emerged during the very first phase of the murder investigation that appear to indicate that the deceased was less-than-unanimously beloved.

The most recent revelation, courtesy of The NY Daily News is that Stark's business partner, Israel Perlmutter, might be a suspect in the murder. Had this been an episode of the crime series you can bet that  Perlmutter would have been introduced to viewers within the first few minutes after Stark's body was retrieved from the dumpster, grieving vocally, the last person one would suspect of committing such a heinous act.

Please understand, I am not making light of this case.

This is real life, a horrible and yes, tragic crime, that imitates art imitating life.

Over the past 48 hours, the blogosphere has exploded with musings, commentary and opinions on the murder of Menachem Stark, providing a beautiful case study for students of journalism, New York City and the Jewish community. The NY Post headline I wrote about yesterday has largely been criticized as insensitive and possibly anti-Semitic, sparking (in addition to other responses) a rally at Borough Hall yesterday.

Family and friends of Menachem Stark have rushed to his defense in print, claiming that he was a good and charitable man. They have vehemently countered claims that he was -- as portrayed elsewhere -- a slumlord and dishonest businessman with a paper trail of lawsuits behind him. They have, in fact, denied that he was anything less than the pillar of the community, a charitable, generous man.

Other writers, notably Jay Michaelson in the Forward and Shmarya Rosenberg in Failed Messiah, have countered that portrayal, noting the moral blindness of the Satmar community, outing the numerous allegations of Stark's unethical business practices, expressing bitter disappointment that there has been no acknowledgement that this murdered man might have been involved in activities that likely led to his death.

There have been allegations that this point of view is tantamount to a justification of Stark's murder.

There has been a call for respect for a man who cannot defend himself.

There has been outrage and disgust at the invocation of the Shoah and the suggestion that the crime was anti-Semitic in nature.

There have been impassioned conversations on Facebook and in the tangible, three-dimensional world about the meta-story... through a Jewish lens.

"A tragedy?" I repeated, incredulous that my husband even needed to ask. "Yes. A huge, gigantic, horrifying tragedy. A father is gone. A husband is gone. A brother and son and friend is gone. There is enough tragedy to go around for miles."

HOBB and I had an intense staring contest for about a minute. He, too, is consumed with the story, writing about it through a different lens. His reportage has been different from my own. And perhaps his point of entry is different as well.

As for me, I believe that compassion can coexist with the quest for justice.

Menachem Stark's murderers need to be found and brought to justice.

He did not deserve to be killed, burned and left in a dumpster. His family did not deserve this pain.

An investigation is underway. Yes, the NY Post headline was in extreme poor taste...but I am betting that there is more than a grain of truth to allegations that Menachem Stark had a long list of people with ample motive to want him dead.

This is real life, not a television show.

And though the Satmar community is far removed from my own, I still feel a collective, Klal Yisrael fellowship, a deep connection to this unfolding drama. It may appear that I stand on the sidelines but as a Jew -- even a liberal Upper West Side Jew -- I am at the epicenter of the story, as we all are.

And that is why the stakes are so high.

The first order of business is to find Menachem Stark's killers and the motive for this crime. And if this investigation also reveals a complex web of corruption or criminality within the Satmar community, let us hope that there is the tikkun of truth-telling and teshuva.

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*Husband of Bungalow Babe