And so the other night, when the rabbi came by to give a class in memory of my husband’s father, I panicked as he stared at my packed bookcase...Read More
Shabbat is a really big deal at my house, as it is for most Syrian Jewish families living in Brooklyn today. At my house, Shabbat is partly about spirituality, partly about family but mostly about food...Read More
Last year in Israel, I shot an M16. Doing that was a big deal not only because shooting an assault rifle is a big deal, but because I was the kind of mom who wouldn’t buy my children a toy gun.
I was the kid who wore peace sign T-shirts and scribbled the word peace all over my notebooks.
I won’t kill an insect.
But I grew up during a time of relative peace, a time when hippies spewed love and John Lennon sang Imagine.
I didn’t understand until recently that conditions in the world could change, that the harmony I’d experienced my entire life, could vanish.
I believed there would never be another war.
How could there be? Weren’t people smarter? Hadn’t we seen enough destruction in World War II and in Vietnam?
My mother used to tell me stories about the air raid drills she had to participate in during the 50's when she was a young schoolgirl, and how she was instructed to hide under her desk when an alarm rang in order to shield herself from flying glass. She always emphasized the fear, the uncertainty, she felt. I thought those stories to be antiquated, a thing of the past.
I never had to do anything like that.
But my daughter does. At her school, they practice. Students are prepared for a terrorist attack.
It seems that every day now, in the newspaper and on the news, there is a new story involving guns and death.
For so long, I believed we had to get rid of guns.
But then one day recently, I think it was after the shooting in California, I woke up and decided I wanted to learn to shoot. I was done with my Pollyanna attitude. For the first time in my life, the world seemed like a dangerous place.
It’s not that I want to hurt anyone; but I do feel a pull, a calling, to protect my family and myself.
The day after I left Tel-Aviv, four days after I'd shot an M16, there was a shooting just a ten-minute walk from the hotel we stayed at. A gunman killed two innocent people and injured eight outside a bar in the middle of the day.
He got away.
I don’t know if I could ever really own a gun. But the fact that I, a self-proclaimed flower child, could even think about it is significant.
Times are changing.
People change too.
The bad news was that the test could be right.
I thought I was the kind of person who’d need to find out if my baby was healthy. I figured I'd have an amniocentesis done and within two weeks, I'd know.
My husband and I went for genetic counseling, a requirement before amniocentesis was preformed at the time, and we learned that our chances for having a sick child were exactly equal to the chance of me having a miscarriage due to the procedure.
Five months in, my stomach the size of a soccer ball, I was already attached to my unborn baby. Wanting it, I decided at the last minute that I could live with whatever my higher power had in store for me but that I couldn’t live with a miscarriage that was my own doing.
The rabbi encouraged me to pray with all my heart as if anything could happen but believe, simultaneously, that everything was going to be okay.
I spent the next twenty weeks of my pregnancy not knowing.
Thankfully, the baby was healthy.
Looking back, I don't how I did that.
Anti- fur activists are some of the most aggressive people on the planet and so strolling, unknowingly, through a PETA protest was one of the most shocking, and shameful, experiences of my life. It was Thanksgiving. My husband and I had taken our three youngest children to Manhattan for some holiday weekend fun. It was freezing outside that day and I wore a shearling coat, one I bought 20 years prior. I don’t have a second shearling coat. Just that one. And I bought it at a time when I did not have awareness about animal cruelty.
As I developed an understanding of a corrupt fur trade, I considered not wearing the coat I already owned. But that seemed ridiculous, a waste: not a fashion waste, a real waste. Plus, it gets really cold in New York, and nothing keeps you warm as fur.
I appeased my conscience by not buying a new one, and justified wearing the one I had by telling myself what’s done is done.
But the angry anti-fur mob before me didn’t know my story nor would they care. They saw my coat and had one mission. Faced with their hostility on 5th Avenue, I was left, at first, frightened and appalled but then furious. With outstretched arms, I tried to shield my children by creating a barricade around them as the protesters waved horrific, graphic signs– images of skinned animals, still alive.
I’m pretty easy-going in general but when people mess with my kids—watch out! Fierceness takes over, a mama bear’s reaction to protecting her cubs.
But in this case, there was little I could do. The damage was done. Even as I covered my children’s eyes, and tried to barrel through the crowd, my children had seen.
Apparently, the protesters were keen on protecting animals but not children.
Once I had a chance to calm down, I wondered about how to proceed. To continue to wear the coat or not, was the question.
I actually have a few fur coats in my attic. They’ve been collecting dust there for years as I refused to wear them. They were gifts from my grandmother who wore chinchilla, sable, fox, beaver, mink, leopard, rabbit and lynx during a time when nobody questioned if wearing fur was wrong.
But she lived in an era when nobody questioned cigarette smoking either.
We have more awareness today. We know that wearing fur is linked to the killing of animals and not always in the most humane ways.
I eat meat and wear leather so I’m left feeling hypocritical when I take a stance like how I am absolutely opposed to buying a coat with a fur-trimmed hood.
Pamela Paquin, is the founder of Petite Mort, a fur company that produces ethical fur. Pamela uses road kill. She calls her product accidental fur. The death of the animal might be unfortunate but it is natural. Animals are not caged or treated badly, and in honor of her Native American roots, Pamela gives a prayer of thanks adding spirituality, consciousness and respect to the process.
The lines are blurry for sure but whether your fur is from your great grandmother or a road kill victim, I don’t recommend wearing it to Angelica Kitchen, a vegan restaurant, in New York City. Take it from me. I’ve tried it. And while I’ve attempted to hold my head high, confident that the coat I was wearing was legitimate, meaning decades old, I still felt judged. I’m tempted to wear a sign: THIS IS A VINTAGE COAT! Which is another way of saying: THIS IS NOT MY FAULT!
But there is a Jewish principle. It goes something like this. A man should not wear a kippah in an unkosher establishment even if he has no intention of eating there because someone might see him and conclude that he is eating there. His behavior could influence another Jew.
There is that thinking with the fur debate as well. By wearing it, I make it seem acceptable.
The thing is that while I don’t always care what people think about what I do, I do care what they think about me in this regard. I don’t want to be seen as someone who could hurt an animal. I don’t want to be blamed for that death.
I’m dreading this upcoming New York winter. The last two have been severe and I’m reconsidering wearing the vintage fur coats I already own: the ones my grandmother purchased in the 50’s and a stunning electric blue one my husband bought me in the 80’s.
It feels like such a waste that they hang in the attic closet year after year. I’m still not certain how I feel about this but one thing is for sure–if I should choose to wear them, I will say a little prayer. I’d like to say that I’ll recite the prayer out of respect for the deceased animal but really it’s to beg that I don’t bump into any anti-fur protesters. They always assume the worst.
And their behavior is deadly.
We travel Italy on a boat. Close quarters.
From the moment we step onboard, until the moment we get off eight days later, we are together—morning, noon and night.
We take turns, three years in a row, getting the Master Bedroom. This year was my turn.
For a week straight, we don’t wear shoes. Boat rules.
We dance on deck to Marvin Gaye. We laugh at shrewd one-liners.
Everything we eat is delicious: arugula, pasta pomodoro, figs. All different than in the United States.
One bright morning, Italian men in row boats paddle us inside the Blue Grotto singing, “Volare oh ohhhh, Cantaree, oh oh ohhh.” The light through the cave, glorious. We swim– the sea electric blue.
We know each other: The Control Freak, The Picky Eater, The Electronic Genius, The Bloody Mary Lover.
We share everything. We negotiate and compromise. For this week, we are married to each other.
Late one night, we journey from Ponza to Sardinia, a 16 hour, overnight, expedition.
We sit at the bow and stare at the stars looking for: Orion’s Belt, The Milky Way, The Big Dipper.
I am uneasy because we are alone in the middle of the sea, no land in sight. I think about Columbus, the bravery. No electricity, no radar, no knowledge of what lay ahead.
The night wind blows, the sea waves break against the boat.
Around us, darkness—the only light from the stars above— and the Shabbat candles, four sets, burning bright in the main cabin.
There was an emergency in my apartment building the other day and the water was shut off. Some New Yorkers mind the rodents, some— the noise. I mind when my water is shut off. (Not that I’m fond of rodents or noise. See: On Writing and Distractions.)
But having water taken away gives me anxiety. I think about all I can’t do: cook, laundry, shower.
But mostly, it forces me to think about people in other countries who can’t turn a faucet to get water and have to walk for miles.
It makes me pay attention to how much we depend on it and expect it to just flow freely, clean and clear, through the tap.
It was disconcerting when, hours later, the water was turned back on in my building and chunks of mud came out of the showerhead. When I attempted to brush my teeth, the water ran brown, then blue.
What does that even mean?
This got me conjuring up wild scenarios in my head, a world without water, a science fiction thriller.
The next morning, I read an article in the New York Times, California’s Drought Changes Habits in the Kitchen. The article addressed how the drought is causing food shortages, higher prices and smaller crops. Lawmakers and citizens alike are making changes in order to conserve water.
A new state rule prohibits waiters from serving water without a customer asking for it first. There is a $500.00 fine for breaking this regulation.
Cooks are using the water they used to boil pasta to water their plants. They are baking and steaming vegetables instead of boiling them.
The article resonated.
It simply never occurred to me that I could, or should, reuse the water I boiled pasta in.
But now that I’ve heard this idea, why wouldn’t I?
I’ve written about our relationship to the earth before in Gratitude+Giving=Grace and Earth Day 2015. And again, it's possible that no single small initiative by any individual is going to save the world or be overly important.
But what seems essential is consciousness and a sense of responsibility.
Think about it: We take water for granted. Like it’s always going to be there.
But what if it’s not?
This past weekend, I walked on the Asbury Park Boardwalk. As I left the boardwalk, I walked along a path around a lake where people jog and bike and walk to the main street.
On the path, there was a five-gallon water bottle and cooler. Beside the cooler, on a chair, there were stacks of plastic cups and a garbage can where people could dispose of their used cups.
Clearly this was not an environmentally sound setup but this is where we are now. The Age of the Water Bottle and it stood out like a mirage in the desert.
Perched on top of the water bottle, was a sign, and on it was a Jewish prayer known as Shehakol. It is a blessing said before drinking water.
So there I was tired, hot and thirsty and there was this offering, this water for me and everyone else who passed by. All the homeowner wanted in return was for those who drank the water to stop for a moment and express gratitude.
There was something in the generosity, the thoughtfulness, coupled with my thirst that made that moment have deep meaning and as I recited the prayer, I felt sincere appreciation.
Simultaneously, I felt a bit of anxiety as I stopped to reflect on how when I was a child, water was complimentary. I could drink from the tap without thought and play for hours, carefree, with a garden hose; and how presently we pay for water that we drink out of plastic bottles, how we pollute our drinking water and how environmental issues like droughts are making water scarce in our own country.
The five-gallon water bottle is a symbol of where we are now.
The question is: Where are we going?
"It’s better to pray as a group,” my nephew said. He is twenty-two, newly married, and he studies in a kolel (an institute for full-time advanced study of the Talmud). Everyday, that’s what he does. No job, he just studies. So you’d think he might know. But when someone says something so definitively about something as personal as prayer, I take the other side.
“You do realize,” I say, “that’s not a fact. We don’t really know.”
There is dead silence.
Let me set the stage. It is the first night of Rosh Hashanah. We’re at my husband’s sister’s house. My sister-in-law is gregarious and kooky. She is an artist. But mostly she is big-hearted and open-minded, which is why it’s not unthinkable that her daughters wear wigs and skirts to their knees, and her sons wear black suits and yarmulkes.
The table is set for twenty. The roses are the color of the apples and the pomegranate seeds, which adorn the table in monochromatic fashion. Tonight the dining room table is her canvas.
To illustrate the contrast, I will tell you that one of my daughters showed up to the holiday dinner wearing pants (as opposed to a skirt) and my other daughter realized upon arrival that her shirt was more see-thru than she’d known. My son looked like he was headed for band practice.
My husband’s family has gone in different directions. Some wear black hats and won’t make a move without consulting a rabbi, while others wear electric blue sports jackets (with matching socks) and won’t make a move without consulting Vail snow conditions.
“Uh-oh,” my niece whispers to my daughter in regards to my comment, “she forgot where she was for a minute.” She imagines my comment won’t go over well in this setting.
But here’s the thing: it goes over fine. I mean, there was that awkward moment; but there were no hard feelings. In fact, there was even some laughter. “Why don’t you just ask if there’s a God, Mom?”
I didn’t say anything but I wondered when it became taboo to contemplate existential questions like: Is there a God or what happens to us when we die?
Literature shows me the world through other people’s eyes providing perspective beyond what I personally know or believe. This family dinner does the same.
Charles Baxter, an American author, questions his own beliefs in his essay, What Happens in Hell, published in The Best American Essays 2013.
Asking questions is at the heart of literature, every essay, poem and work of fiction. It is at the heart of every painting. It is at the heart of Judaism.
I wrote the essay below after visiting Israel in 2005. It was published in North American Review, January/February 2008.
I stared at black-and-white photographs at the Holocaust Museum in Israel the week Jewish settlers were forced to leave their homes in Gaza. I was overcome by sadness as I read how Jews felt connected to Germany, their motherland, and yet were required to leave during the Holocaust. I pictured myself in either one of these situations and felt frightened.
I thought back to a conversation I had with Mark just after we married. He was 24 at the time and asked, “So are you an American first or a Jew?” I was 18 years old and not yet prepared to answer this question of identity. Mark argued that we had to consider ourselves Jews before anything else because our future safety was precarious. I told him that he was ridiculous to think that anything like the Holocaust could ever happen again. But given my age and limited experience, I had little understanding of intolerance or my role in educating future generations.
I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and attended Sunday School at the reformed synagogue that my family belonged to. My earliest memory takes place in my kindergarten class where we discussed our concept of God. I internalized someone large, omnipresent, and male. In my heart, I believed God listened to my prayers and could answer them. My ideas about religion and my relationship with God stemmed from love, not fear.
In sixth grade, my Sunday School teacher taught us about the Holocaust. She told us that six million Jews had perished. In order to grasp just how much that was, she asked us to make tally marks on loose-leaf paper. Each mark represented a Jewish life. The class filled sheet after sheet with tally marks and she lined the classroom walls with these papers. I think we reached about 100,000 marks, and then we were asked to stretch our imaginations to ten times that amount, and then six times that number. As far as I was concerned, nothing this horrible could ever occur again. At 12, it is difficult to understand how something that took place 30 years before, in a country as foreign and far away as Germany, could ever happen at home, in America. So, at 18, only six years later, I believed Mark was wrong. Over the years, Mark and I have had many discussions (or, more honestly, battles) over religion.
Mark and I met when my family moved from New Orleans to New York. Both of my parents had been raised in the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, but after they married they moved to New Orleans for business reasons. When I was 16, they believed it was time to move back to New York because, in keeping with tradition, they wanted me to marry a Syrian Jew and be part of the Syrian community. Even though three out of four of my grandparents were from Aleppo, Syria, making them Sephardic Jews, my maternal grandmother was from Europe, making her an Ashkenazi Jew, and she had a profound influence on my life.
The transition from New Orleans to New York was difficult for me. Besides leaving behind the South, I left behind a reformed lifestyle sprinkled with Ashkenazi influence and moved into an orthodox community with Arabic roots. Passover went from being a large dinner party with a customary Sedar plate in the center of the table to a two-hour reading of the Haggadah.
Mark is a man of conviction, someone who sees the world in black and white. I, on the other hand, see shades of gray. From the beginning of our marriage, Mark and I struggled with our religious differences, trying to understand each other and create peace in our home. Mark insisted you couldn’t have a haphazard approach to being Jewish. He believed you had to act on it. You had to do things like keep Kosher and observe the Sabbath. I thought of Lynn, my best friend from New Orleans. Her family was Ashkenazi, and they were the nicest people I knew. Her mother was a caterer and an active participant in a reformed synagogue. She made a birthday party for her husband once and invited the rabbi. She served shrimp and crab. Lynn’s family believed that being a Jew had nothing to do with what you ate.
Immediately after Mark and I married, his grandmother, a traditional woman who had her reservations about me being raised in New Orleans away from the Syrian community and distant from what she considered Jewish life, pulled me to the side and sneered, “Anyone can get married, not anyone can have a baby.” I was 20 when my first son, Jack, was born.
Three out of five of my children eventually attended secular schools, but when they first entered school, they attended Yeshivah (an orthodox school of Jewish learning). While Mark was elated because he didn’t go to Yeshivah and felt strongly that his children be afforded this privilege, this was difficult for me. My sons had to wear tzitzit and a yarmulka and my daughters had to wear a skirt. Again, I found myself in a strange world, and when my children came home with questions and ideas regarding organized religion, sometimes I couldn’t relate. And so Mark and I continued to debate how to live our lives and how to best raise our children. Mark said he wanted our family to be religious, and I claimed that we were. We found ourselves discussing what it meant to be religious. I argued that Mark was substituting the word religious for observant, and that they were not the same.
One Purim, I sat at the kitchen table with my children. Hamentash (cookies traditionally eaten on Purim) baked in the oven while we made paper-bag puppets of King Ahashvarosh and Queen Esther. We designed a pictured Megillah (a scroll telling the story of Purim) and wrapped the drawings around an empty paper towel roll. We decorated toilet paper rolls and filled them with beans to make groggers (noise makers used to drown out the sound of the evil Haman’s name when the Megillah is read.) As my children worked on their projects, I got up to check the hamentash. My son Richard was around eight at the time, and he looked across the room and asked, “Mommy, when did you turn Jewish?” I was stunned and felt judged in my own home, by my own child. I wondered how I’d let things get so far. I needed Richard and the rest of my children to know, I’d always been Jewish. I wanted them to understand what I believed it meant to be a good Jew, and ultimately that meant they needed to know what it meant to be a good person.
Almost a decade later, my father-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Over the nine months that followed that diagnosis, until the day he died, he was surrounded by family and friends. Community members visited and prayed. All six of his children and their spouses, his grandchildren, and his wife did what they could in the hope that he would survive this disease. His children made him fresh juices that he couldn’t even drink, helped him put on tefillin when he couldn’t do it himself, and administered medicine. His three sons, his three sons-in-law, and his older grandsons took turns giving him a coffee enema to relieve his discomfort. This was a terrific ordeal that took at least three men to carry him through the process. His bedroom became an amazing place, bustling with activity, ironically filled with life and energy, hope and prayer, and the exact opposite, his imminent death. The cohesiveness of family and community was astounding, and I felt proud to be part of it.
The last few days of his life were painful to watch. I asked my mother-in-law if she thought it was appropriate for my son Jack, who was then 18 and very much involved with what was happening, to participate in giving the enemas or to watch his grandfather deteriorate. My mother-in-law turned to me and said, “There are so few things that people can look back on in their life and feel true meaning. Let him have this.” And so I watched Jack unflinchingly link his arm through his grandfather’s as he helped carry him to the bathroom again.
As a parent, I find that sometimes there are these flashes of light, rays of sunshine. Those are the times I look around and think I’ve done something right. For years, Mark and I worried that our different approaches to life and Judaism would confuse our children. But in the end, I believe what we both honestly wanted was to raise good people; people with conscience and commitment; people with heart and soul. We wanted to give our children a safe place to learn and question, discover and share. Through the years of negotiating and compromising, with any luck at all, our children have learned to have respect and tolerance for people with different points of view, because ultimately if you can’t achieve peace in your living room, how can you expect peace on earth?
And so, after all these years, I still can’t answer Mark’s original question about identity. I don’t believe I am any one thing. I am a fair-skinned Jewish woman of Arabic descent who now eats mechshe instead of crayfish, and who now says inshullah as readily as I used to say y’all. And while I haven’t embraced every Judaic tradition, as an American I have choice, and there is nothing matter-of-fact about how I light my candles every Friday night and pray to a loving God for peace on earth and in my home.