Maria by Callas: a review

I have been thinking about Maria Callas lately, after viewing Maria by Callas, a recent documentary about the opera singer’s life. I wouldn’t wish for her talent—obviously you can’t fabricate that sort of star—whatever it gave the world, it was a terrible burden to bear.

While some critics called her voice ugly, like gravel, lacking in smoothness and grace, Callas emerged as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century—in any medium. She was pushed into singing by her mother, and trained her voice endlessly, working harder and longer than her counterparts, from a very young age.

When Callas started out, she was overweight and she lost 80 pounds in the span of a year—emerging into another physical being, transforming her body in the service of her star. Was her voice the same? I don’t know. Some say it was better, some say it was worse.

The film did not devote much energy or attention to this, to her drive or vision or what made her exceptional. What we know: her voice was not enough, her talent and vision and work ethic were not enough. So she forced her body to become an object for the male gaze. It worked.

Callas became beautiful, in what might be called the conventional sense—although that’s misleading—to the extent that beauty is ever conventional (it isn’t), hers was not. She was like a statue or a ghost. Her gifts were otherworldly, her form almost too beautiful to be real. It did not get her what she wanted.

There is Maria, she said, but there is La Callas that I have to live up to. Callas—the singer—was adored the world over for her voice, and reviled for her difficulty—a diva. “I will always be as difficult as necessary to achieve the best,” she said. And she did. But Maria—the woman—was unfulfilled.

Her talent and beauty exceeded conventions, but her desires were bound by them.  “Only when I was singing did I feel loved,” she said. She also said: “I would have preferred to have a happy family, to have children. I would have given up this career with pleasure. But destiny is destiny, and there is no way out.”

Callas’ destiny—as she put it—was her singing—the fulfillment of her voice. So she oriented herself to her work, and then, to Aristotle Onassis—a trash bag of a man. By outward appearances, Onassis and Callas may have been a sort of match—but Aristo gave Maria none of what she wanted.

Maria stopped singing. “I thought that when I met the man I loved, I didn’t need to sing,” Callas told Barbara Walters in a 1974 interview, “Because the most important thing in a woman is to have a man of her own, to make him happy.”

It’s enough to make one’s skin crawl, more than four decades after the fact. Less for the fact of the sentiment (itself nauseating) but for how deeply that choice cost her. Onassis married someone else (Jackie Kennedy) and didn’t bother to tell Callas about it—leaving her to find out in the newspapers.

The artist had normative desires; these went unfulfilled.  She was a larger than life figure – neither a hero nor a villain but a woman who had drive and talent and guts and she threw them all into a fire. She’s not an anti-hero, exactly, but she is a cautionary tale, in some ways.

The New York Times review of the film said that Maria By Callas demystified the artist, but I think it did the opposite. It was the first documentary to profile Callas only in her own words, and this was a mistake: we see snippets of a carefully curated persona. We are left to intuit the rest.

We know almost nothing of Callas’ childhood, her motivations, how she felt in those years without Onassis, when she ceased to perform. I wanted to understand bel canto, what made her great. What made her sing. I don’t understand her any more than before—her inner life remains a mystery. Maybe she wanted it that way.

People draw in things they say they don’t want, constantly. Is this what happens when a woman goes unfulfilled? Did she orient herself to her own destruction, or was she subverted by destiny? I don’t know. She wanted to be loved not for what people felt when she sang, but for who she was—as Maria, not Callas.

Maria never was. She worked harder than anyone else – she was committed to her art. She did not have the most naturally beautiful voice but she tamed her flaws—real and imagined—into submission until no one could quarrel with her. She remained mortal and mortally flawed but the result was extraordinary.

Callas was not a feminist icon but I don’t think she was its antithesis, either—although her statements about women’s role were antiquated and revolting. She was diva et divina. She was singular and—even without the burden of being at the top of her world—that is a nearly impossible thing for a woman to be.

She struggled to perfect her artistic gift and her human form. Maybe she accepted struggle as natural, a precondition of desire, of fulfillment, of her very being. She studied opera and understood the laws of tragedy. Maybe she thought love would save her. That’s a compelling thing, even at the price of betrayal.

The diva was described as a monster and a miracle; maybe she was both, but I think she was neither. I think we do a disservice to women when we try to smooth them out in the service of palatability. It’s our shortcoming, not theirs. Perhaps we recoil because it hits too close to home.

Maria Callas was undeterred by pride, vanquishing herself in the service of a myth and a man who did not deserve her. She prostrated herself before this lesser man. Maybe she knew that in the end, they were all lesser men.

Greatness was her destiny but in the end she lacked the thing she wanted most. She was unfulfilled and unmoored. Her entire value was externalized: a talent, a body, a man. “First. I lost my voice,” Callas said, “Then I lost my figure, then I lost Onassis.”

This trinity of loss did not destroy her legacy—but it did dominate her last years. Onassis came back to her, in the very end—or let’s give the woman a shred of agency—she took him back. I don’t begrudge her that, as I don’t fault the film’s shortfalls. I just think for all Callas did and all Maria was, she deserved more.


So You Think You Can’t Dance

Just pretend that I’m not here, watching your every move, Spongebob Squarepants drones from a computer in the library’s children’s room, where Shmuley is in is element, working on some quasi-educational program. Spongebob–that rude, uncouth, sponge–is verboten in our household (the kid is only four, we have no television, I’d say it’s a good parenting decision, for now), but in a weak moment I let him play the Spongebob spelling game, under the pretense of its educational value. Really I just wanted a minute and a half to myself.

I’m not a stay-at-home parent, by training or inclination, and I’m reminded, in these long and frankly painful weeks between the end of the school year and the (blessed) beginning of day camp, that I am not cut out for such a life. I should be grateful for a healthy child and for the flexibility of a work schedule that affords me this time, but at the moment, “having it all”–working and having this child attached within ten feet of my person at all times seems an arrangement better left for the birds. I’m ready to lean in, just, you know, over a cliff.

So I am motivated to exercise, with something resembling compulsion, on the days that I am home with my child. I am fortunate to be a member of a Y with unlimited, inclusive onsite childcare (amein) and this means I am able to tap into hours of blessed, fitness-related freedom.

I’m training for a marathon (more on that later), so before I leave the gym, I’ll run, but first I take a dance class, which brings brings me great, almost irrational pleasure.

The beauty of adult amateur dance class is that everyone takes it seriously yet no one gives an F. This is not the Joffrey Ballet; you are not being evaluated on technique or talent, skill or training. The point is not to be the best. All you need to bring is joy.

For a long time I believed I couldn’t dance–this, despite years of practice, informal and formal; intense training under the watchful eye of seasoned teachers, and even the admonitions of professional dancers. You’re actually great! my friend K, my favorite dancer, repeatedly implored. I could not believe.

The culture of dance–exacting judgments, intense body scrutiny, the calls to lose ten or twenty pounds immediatement–was not for me. I had taken up dance too late; I was not a serious enough student; I had the wrong attitude and the wrong shape and the wrong look. Teachers suggested I had perfect feet but a terrible body for ballet (true); told me even at your thinnest, no one will be able to lift you, I should take up modern instead, and I hated the scrutiny, and the demands, so the exclusionary judgments came as a terrible relief and I quit before I could realize my potential.

I was wedded to this narrative of limitation, stood beneath the chuppah of my own making, and married myself to constraint. I stopped dancing. I couldn’t dance; I wouldn’t dance. It never felt true exactly, but like many of the lies we tell ourselves, it felt safe.

Later, I amended my narrative to something slightly less pathetic. I was still a terrible dancer, you see, but something shifted and I no longer cared as much–I liked to dance, so I’d dance anyway.

Today, in that class, I faced myself and my aging body in the mirror.

Not being able to dance is not a crime against humanity, I reasoned, I had nothing to prove, it didn’t matter, I was dancing for the pleasure and not for the performance.

And that was true, and it was okay.

But as I contemplated my reflection, I realized I was actually good. Not Bolshoi good, naturally, but YMCA good, for certain. I could move and I had come to play. The idea that I was terrible had been another lie. I wasn’t Baryshnikov or Beyoncé, obviously, but I had moves and I put them on the floor. I didn’t require anyone’s permission, endorsement, or validation. I could dance. All along, I could dance. This brought another truth: at some point, I alone decided that I couldn’t. Dancing was a decision, I realized, a revelation and maybe for an hour in that studio, life itself. It exhilarated me, although I was still a little afraid. I paused for a minute to take in the tempo; the dance had shifted when the music changed. Pay attention, mija! my instructor called to me, smiling, maybe you can learn something. Like Spongebob in the library, she was watching my every move. I turned my attention away from my body in the mirror and back to my teacher. I picked my moves up and dusted the fear that lingered away.



“Don’t Be Careful With My Body”: Some Thoughts on Flying

I should be reading, or sleeping, showering, brushing my very teeth or meditating, but I’m not. My child should be sleeping, but (or rather and) he’s not. It’s 12:24 EST and nothing is progressing as it ought. My child has abandoned his sleeping post, under the guise of I hafta to go to the bathroom, Mama, and is now telling me from what will be a nonproductive visit to the loo about how fantastic Heidi, his father’s girlfriend is, owing to the fact that she believes in ice cream for bruckfast, Mama! 

How Auntie Mame of her, I offer.

I do not know what that means, Mama.

Go to sleep, loveyloo, I call after him.

Can I have ice cream for bruckfast when I wake up? he asks.

No, sweetie, I say.

I don’t want oatmeal, he says, I don’t want oatmeal, but I do want to put the cinnamon in it.

Sort of a metaphor, isn’t it.

I don’t think you know what you want, I said, but you don’t have to decide now. Now, it’s time to sleep. 

Okay, mama, he concede, and I kissed him good night, and listened from the next room as I read for pleasure and thought about a day, a few years back, when a team I worked with climbed some ropes.


It is now morning, and the boy did in fact, eat his oatmeal (all it takes to lift an embargo is a little cinnamon and, okay, fine, a small handful of blueberries). At some point, kid’s going to discover that there are sweeteners other than fruit, honey or maple syrup or what have you, that may be added to oatmeal, if one desires a sweeter porridge, and at that point, life as I know it will never be the same. For now, it’s all I can do to keep the kid on plain yogurt, as he’s learned that yogurt comes fruited and flavored and sweetened.

But today, he ate his oatmeal, while I labored, cleaning up various messes he or we or I had made—the oatmeal pot, the cinnamon spill, the package of dental floss that had come untethered in the bathroom, owing to my child’s curiosity about what would happen should he unspool it. And I meditated on this high ropes course, from all those years ago.


Don’t be careful with my body, K said as I reached my arms across her torso, just grab me and it made me think. I was supposed to catch her, as she was having trouble landing on the “raft”, crossing to safety. And I did. Having swung across the “ravine” myself just moments before, without trouble, I realized: I had no challenge on any of the physical components of the day, no difficulty balancing on rope, climbing high walls, wedging between wires, no real anxiety about being suspended 50 feet in the air—but I was in a harness—a contraption dubbed the human slingshot.

Now, I am not one for these sorts of adventures, you understand. I have no desire to fly, strongly prefer my feet firm, on hard earth, to swinging around amid the trees, and by tethers. As you’d expect, I have very little inclination toward these types of activities. And yet, I knew: if we were going to do this, I really had to do it. I had to go big, with vigor and enthusiasm and humor and uncharacteristic grace. Not for myself, you understand, but for the team.

Remember, our instructor yelled, you only have to go up as high as you want.

Oh, I shouted toward the ground, if I’m going up, I’m going all the way. Take me to the top. 

Are there any children in proximity? I shouted to our instructor, as I looked at my colleagues pulling my rope back, below my feet. 

Not for acres, he called back, as they hoisted me up from the ground and toward the sky.

 I might swear! I said.

Swear all you want, he said.

Ready to fly, I said, as I was instructed.

Fly on! my team called up from the ground.

I released my clip and felt myself swing backward, immediately and with great force. I thought I’d scream, or swear, or otherwise lose it, at least a little, and that would set the tone for everyone who followed. But as I shot through the sky, I didn’t say anything at all.

Are you okay, Adina? the instructor yelled, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so quiet up there. Adina?

I nodded and waved down to him, smiled and flashed a set of upward-pointing thumbs.

Jesus, he said when I landed, eventually, on the hard dirt, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so quiet up there. I thought you might have had a heart attack.

I’m sorry, I said, I didn’t mean to worry you. 

And that was true. 

What was going on for you up there? he asked. You looked so serious!

I was just thinking, I said.

And that was true, too.


Everyone was challenged by the course, a little or a lot, and in various ways. R was not a fan of nature, so getting him out there to begin with was a coup. P had no balance, and accidentally grabbed my vagina, which I think was worse for him than it was for me, although it was certainly not an experience I had hoped for. L struggled with directions, giving and receiving. K had a bad ankle, and had to opt out of the low ropes entirely. B was jet lagged, having just returned from international travel the night before, and terrified of heights. M reported having the upper body strength of a “wet noodle”, and couldn’t lift herself, never mind anyone else.

For my own part, I did fine at each discrete task, which surprised me. I am reasonably strong and have decent balance and not so much in the way of fear about physical challenges, although, again, I prefer the ground to the rope or high wire, but I am also completely physically awkward and almost entirely devoid of hand-eye coordination, and therefore worried I’d break something owing to my own incompetence. But I managed to do complete my tasks easily and well and without fanfare.

The thing I struggled with was all of the contact. One of the things, I suppose, about these  exercises, the work of outdoor education, really, is that you have to trust your team members, emotionally, but you also have to be willing to depend on them physically, to safely enter their space, to grip hands across taut wire, to use your body as a bridge, to use the weight of your body to counterbalance theirs, to lean back and believe these strangers will catch your back, break your fall, help you land. It sounds strange, perhaps, but it led me to begin thinking about the physicality of trust, what it conjures and implies and demands. 

And I don’t like asking for help, this is something I know about myself, very seldom need help, almost never require it, and certainly, it was with an awareness of that fact that I approached these physical challenges. But (or rather and) I also do not like to touch non-intimates and at some point today I was in terrifying proximity to each of these six colleagues, I’d been stopped, frisked, crashed into, smashed against, hugged, handheld, spooned, inadvertently rubbed down, accidentally vaginally pressed, and otherwise landed upon, and it was just a tremendous amount of frankly unnecessary physical contact. I was first to go, most of the time, first person on the rope, first on the human slingshot, at the team’s request, President goes first, and maybe it doesn’t mean anything, maybe I dig for metaphor where none exists, but on each apparatus, I made it across easily, and by myself. Only when I got to where I was going, did I realize: there is someone behind me, and I’m supposed to be holding that someone’s arm or torso or hand, leveraging them across a border, anchoring or encouraging or guiding.

And then, invariably: I turn, to do the thing one is supposed to do in these exercises, which is help the folk who came up behind. Lifting as you climb, and that sort of thing. And that’s how I came to have all of these people, all over me, crashing and smashing and gripping and falling upon, and I don’t like it, I don’t like it, it is so much cleaner to maintain these boundaries, to keep clear lines, to assert the borders of one’s physical space without letting other people enter, without taking on the responsibility of others and their imbalances, imperfections, weak ankles and lack of upper body strength, fear of flying, need to hold on, inability to let go, lest they fall over. Which is hard, especially when these limitations are so incongruous with my own. I am a fan of containment, myself, which is so much easier, and in fact, more pleasant, than the alternative. 

And I know: this is not our long-term reality. It is an exercise designed to bring us all out of our comfort zones, for the sake of this particular kind of growth, and these exercises are all behind us, now, and there will be no high ropes, in the office, at least not literally, and I’m not going to have to catch anyone, except metaphorically, am not going to be so close to any of these people I might be mistaken for their cinnamon peeler, or what have you. I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy. I’m sure it will be full of its own set of challenges.

And there will always be challenges, figuring out what to do, how to proceed, which course of action to follow, in the context of my current role, as a teacher, a writer, a parent, a friend, a parent, a job seeker, an oatmeal maker an sometimes a cinnamon peeler. What good is it to be the lime burner’s daughter? Where will I go next? When will I finish this syllabus? How will I respond to the latest onslaught of emails? Who will hear my stories? Why is life so amazing? What did I learn today? Unlike K, I want people to be careful with my body, and in most cases, I’d like this care to manifest itself by a policy of non-contact, the practice of containment. I am not a hugger, or a risk taker, or a high ropes artist. I don’t like flying, although my track record is good, which is to say: I inevitably land. The landings can be perilous, graceful, glorious, frightening. Sometimes hard, mostly figurative, occasionally fantastic. But always beautiful, even when they’re terrifying.

The Stories We Tell (And Some Thoughts on Why)

Joan Didion rather famously began her essay The White Album with the line We tell ourselves stories in order to live. 

Now, there are about a thousand ways to parse this sentence, and it could be said that this is the brilliance of Didion’s writing. Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves enable life, offer hope or the possibility of freedom, allow us to more fully understand our own motivations and the motivations of others. These, perhaps, are the stories Didion spoke of when she wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. These, perhaps, are the stories that engendering living. But sometimes the stories we tell destroy us or others, and there’s not always an easy way of knowing when, or how, or which.

When  I was thirteen I fell in love, or something like it.

The object of my affection was an employee of the summer camp I attended as a child, a man ten years my senior, ultimately charged with my care. Now, fast-forward two decades, and he could reasonably be my husband (age-wise); then, of course, owing to our age gap, any relationship might have sent the charming young British expatriate to prison.

But I loved him, you understand. And in my infinite wisdom, I sought to pursue him, to tell him, to put the moves on. But I recognized, with all the wit and reason of an average eighth grader, that no good could come of such gestures–not at that moment. If I wanted to put the moves on successfully, I knew: I had to wait. Of course, it’s also clear, in retrospect, that to the extent that I ever found moves, I certainly had none in junior high school. Breasts, yes. Moves, no. But I digress.

Back to love. I was certain of my affection, and blissful in the delusion that I would have to wait. I, too, believed that if I made my love clear in the present moment, I’d not  only compromise his reputation and my own modesty, I’d ruin our chances. In the narrative I constructed, my love object was a decent human being, honorable and valorous–not one to make off with presumably impressionable peri-adolescent girls.

So certain I was in my affection, so confident I was that our love would one day rise, that I constructed a narrative around the necessity of waiting.

I’m 13, he’s 22, I reasoned. Now, it’s impossible.

With fierce resignation, I accepted my temporary fate.

But  in just five years, I consoled myself, I’ll be 18, he’ll be 27, and then I’ll tell him.

18 came, and and 18 went, and I didn’t tell him. I’m sure I had some terrible boyfriend at the time, keeping me, at least temporarily, from my one true love. I maintained the narrative arc, in some back corner of my mind, but kept pushing back our ages, so committed I was to keeping hope alive. My first serious boyfriend, perhaps the only boyfriend who fully and foolishly loved and was in love with me, was another 22 year old British boy, who, in reflection, was a near clone of the original.

In reflection I can see that I loved my 13 year old love for the very qualities I inferred about–and conferred upon–him: he was kind, funny, intelligent, and possessed of appropriate boundaries. (Read: he was doing his job and had not the slightest shred of romantic interest in me, to my everlasting regret).

Nevertheless, I knew it would work all out, one day. For years I clung to this story. Years. Hilarious, in retrospect, and slightly sad (there’s still time!). And with retrospective clarity, I think that the future I imagined with this man was rooted in the desire for someone to listen to me and take me seriously, to pay attention and reflect back that I was there, to approach me with respect and affirmation and recognition of my value, experiences supremely lacking in my home life.

He did that, and he still does (sorry to bury the lede, we’re friends). The love was a fabrication, crafted in the belief that it might save me, but the possibilities it elicited were very real. I took what was given and spun it into something more. It was an illusion, but one that buoyed me, and carried me, eventually, to safer shores. But as it carried me, it limited me, tethered me to a figment, constricted my vision of what might have been. This was the story I told myself. Perhaps this is what Didion meant, so many years ago, when she wrote we tell ourselves stories in order to survive.

Anyway, even now, I consider the measured judgment of my 13 year old self and think you could have done worse, Adina. Edit: You’ve done far worse, but save that for another time. Those decisions, too, were rendered to live. Now, the line between what saves us and what destroys us is thinner than we imagine; sometimes, there is no line. But storytelling is a major part of what makes us human. Stories enable us to make sense of our social worlds, to heal wounds and take risks, to love and to grieve. The stories we tell ourselves provide understanding, but the stories we tell one another represent a profound source of connection. The intersection is where meaning resides. So as much as we need the stories we tell ourselves, we need other people’s stories. This, I think, is how we survive.

Revisiting Toni Morrison: On Writing, Recognition, and the Power of Community

I didn’t mean to be glib in yesterday’s post, wherein I compared us all to Toni Morrison.

As noted previously, there is no comparison. I should also note, while I’m on the topic, that I learned, care of an interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review, that Toni Morrison writes in the predawn morning, a habit forged early in her writing life, not because there was any inspiration to be found in that early darkness, but for the reality of life as a single mother of young children.

Writing before dawn began as a necessity—I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning

While I promise this isn’t going to turn into a Toni Morrison fan site (although I’ll be the first to admit, that would be a phenomenal thing, and I’d be well-served to reconsider), I wanted to share also that I’ve been thinking about Beloved. Specifically, since I wrote that even Toni Morrison experienced rejection, of some kind, at least in the National Book Foundation’s decision to pass her over for the 1987 National Book Award, conferring the honor instead on Larry Heinemann’s perfectly serviceable Paco’s Story.

In the glare of hindsight, one can characterize this gesture as foolish and shortsighted, at best. Nevertheless, I think it’s also important to consider the sociopolitical  in which Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece Beloved was overlooked, and the ways in which the book held a flame to dominant discourses of what it means to be a writer, whose knowledge we take as authoritative, and which stories we take seriously.

It is also imperative, when thinking about the tide turning for Toni Morrison, to stress the fact that the recognition and critical support of black authors and artists provided an undeniable push, but for which, who knows.

Now, I don’t think that Toni Morrison is the sort of person who sits around waiting for people to recognize her brilliance. And for anyone paying the slightest attention, her greatness is as undeniable as the rising and the setting of the sun. So National Book Award or no National Book Award, Morrison’s reception on the global stage was inevitable, and she would ultimately come to be recognized as the greatest American writer of the twentieth century. In 1993, of course, came the Nobel Prize for Literature. Three years after the fact, with no shortage of egg on its face for the Paco’s Story debacle, the National Book Foundation awarded Morrison the 1996 Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Better late than never, guys.

But before all that, in the aftermath of the Paco situation and on the heels of the death of James Baldwin, nearly 50 of the greatest black American writers said what was on their minds. In Black Writers In Praise of Toni Morrison, published in the January 24, 1988 edition of the Sunday New York Times, Maya Angelou and Toni Cade Bambara, Barbara Christian and Lucille Clifton,  Angela Davis and June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez and Alice Walker, and many, many more spoke truth to power and called the devil by its name.


They wrote:

And so we have buried this native son, Jimmy Baldwin, with a grief that goes beyond our sorrow at his death. We also grieve for every black artist who survives him in this freedom land. We grieve because we cannot yet assure that such shame, such national neglect will not occur again, and then again.

From that actual and emblematic death we turn, determined, to the living: 18 years ago the living black writer, Toni Morrison, demanded our collective and our private confrontation with the power of her work.

Rightly and reasonably, with more restraint than the American reading public deserved, they went on:

Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. We, the undersigned black critics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmful whimsy.

The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied. We, therefore, urgently affirm our rightful and positive authority in the realm of American letters and, in this prideful context, we do raise this tribute to the author of ”The Bluest Eye,” ”Sula,” ”Song of Solomon,” ”Tar Baby” and ”Beloved”:

Alive, we write this testament of thanks to you, dear Toni: alive, beloved and persevering, magical.

While I’d like to think that Morrison would have received the recognition she so richly deserved in her national context without this intervention, what we know is that a year earlier, Beloved was passed over like the Israelites’ firstborn sons on Pesach, while Paco’s Story won an honor which, regretfully, was never Paco’s to begin with. The 1988 letter was a rallying cry and an expression of solidarity, a demand for justice and a call to reason.  It was a love manifestation, in many ways, a declaration of community and a statement of resistance.

Power concedes nothing without a fight. But with a community to stand for you, you can get there. Toni Morrison did it. And while we’ll never be Toni, there is art to create, there are gifts to be given. There are joys to be shared and surprises to be found in other places. People to stand for and those who will stand for us. If we haven’t already done so, I have every confidence we’ll find them.


Continuity: A Love Proposition

Note: I was inspired to write this essay after reading Nina Badzin’s thoughtful piece, I Am Jewish for Me, Not for My Kids, recently published on Kveller, one of my favorite blogs. While my approach diverges from Ms. Badzin’s, I appreciate her perspective and am grateful to have come across her essay.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when? — Hillel

I am not Jewish for myself. I am Jewish for my child. And for my grandmother, and her grandmother, who fled the pogroms of Poland and came to this country alone, in search of a new world while holding onto the traditions of the prior one. I am Jewish for everyone who died in the Shoah, for all the Jews airlifted out of Yemen in 1949 during Operation On Wings of Eagles. For those who support the State of Israel in her quest for peace, for those who support BDS, for those who believe in a two-state solution and those who believe that Zionism is a myth. I’m Jewish for those bubbelehs who did what they were told, the vilde chayes whose very breath is an act of resistance. I’m Jewish for Malka Zdrojewicz, the Polish resistance fighter who by some miracle of fate survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Majdanek death cam I’m Jewish for those Haredim who might not consider me a Jew at all. I’m Jewish for Golda Meir, with whom I most vehemently disagreed, and for Susan Sontag, with whom I agreed on virtually everything. I’m Jewish for those whose destiny was to live and those who did not make it out alive, for Hadassah grandmothers and Jews for Racial Justice, of which I am one. Because I am. Because others had to hide or fight, flee or resist, and while identity politics are problematic, they are real. I am because we are, and because they were.

In a manner of speaking, continuity is a myth. We rely on this fiction because it gives us order. The Judaism I practice, the Jewish life I lead, differs markedly from that of my grandmother. Hers departs radically from that of her grandmother, who migrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, in the hope of finding a newer world. The Judaism a Yemenite Israeli immigrant to the United States might practice in 2016 differs significantly from that of his grandmother in Israel in the 1970s, or his grandmother’s grandmother in Yemen, some 50 years before. Still, history, and the memory that emerges from that history, resonates. We existed then, and we exist now, through and in spite of ruptures, and in some sense this is the essence of what it means to be Jewish.

So there is a connection, whether I like it or not–when I daven or cook for my family or observe the Shabbos– between the past and the present, between history and memory, between those who came before and those, I hope, who’ll come after. For me, continuity is a choice, freely undertaken, founded not in guilt or shame or fear, but in dignity and courage and love. It is an aspiration and a testimony and a gift, offered in respect for those who came before me and in prayer for those who may come after. Continuity is a love proposition, rooted in a recognition of our history as Jews, whether in Poland or in Yemen or the United States—in Ethiopia, Russia, or Israel.

Ours is a history of exile and return, of continuity and change, of survival in the face of unlikely odds. My life, I hope, is many things, but one of these is a living testament to the strength and resilience of our people. So for me, honoring this legacy, our shared history, carries value and meaning. It represents a fundamental aspect of who I am and what I hope to impart to my children. It serves as a reminder of why we practice Judaism and who we are, as a people.

Now, I am an American, which means many things, not the least of which that I have a strong sense of myself as a lone ranger, a solitary sou, first and foremost an individual. But in spite of that, or perhaps in recognition of it, to say that I am Jewish for myself alone would miss the point of what it means to be a Jew—really, of what it means to be human. It is impossible for me to think of Judaism as for myself, per se, because I am not, and have never been, alone. Judaism occurs in a social context, and Jewish identity is communal. We make a home, and grow a community, and this becomes our world. The present depends on the past, and the future depends on what we build. And so I embrace the traditions that have been handed down to me, and those that I have chosen. You can call it continuity; I call it a love proposition. To honor the forebears who made my life possible, out of devotion to those in my home and community in the here and now, with a heart full of hope for the future.

Even Toni Morrison: On Writing and Rejection

I’d like to begin by sharing with you the belief that everyone gets rejected, all of the time.

Well, not everyone, but who hasn’t, at one time or another, in one realm or another, felt spurned? An adored boyfriend unexpectedly dumps your tuchus, an agent or editor rejects your work, a prospective employer declines to embrace your candidacy. It happens and you do what you can to move on.

When I get rejected, which happens with great and generous frequency, I try my best to channel my inner Toni Morrison, to the extent that I have an inner Toni Morrison.

I used to read biographies and interviews of Toni Morrison and feel terribly about what it all meant. You really can’t compare yourself to Toni Morrison in the affirmative, and no one should try. I remember reading somewhere that Morrison, a powerhouse editor and publisher long before she shared her own writing with the world-–would write when her children were sleeping (before or after a long day at work, I can’t recall the particulars). But Toni, I thought to myself, I’m exhausted. Before my child was awake, I was sleeping, and after my child is asleep, I have all the energy of a wet noodle, and am lucky if I can do anything more involved than stare blankly at the wall. So you can’t compare yourself to Toni Morrison, she’s inimitable, she’s the best writer in the English language. Don’t argue with me, you know I’m right. And you’re awesome, but you’re you, and that’s another thing entirely.

Still, in weak moments, I remind myself even Toni Morrison has been rejected. Seldom, I’m sure, and with great retrospective embarrassment on the part of the rejector, no doubt, but I know for a fact that she’s been passed over.

So if you’re having a bad day, week, year, or whatever, and especially if you’ve endured some sort of crushing or foolish rejection, just remember that in 1987, the National Book Award went to Larry Heinemann for Paco’s Story, rather than Toni Morrison for Beloved. I think we can all agree that Toni Morrison is among the greatest writers, living or dead, and arguably the greatest American writer of this or any other century–future, past, present. No disrespect to Mr. Heinemann, but I have no idea who he is. Of course, in 1993, six years after this absurdly mystifying and egregious failure on the part of the National Book Foundation, Morrison won the Nobel. So whatever went wrong for you lately, don’t worry about it. You’re no Toni Morrison and I’m no Toni Morrison. Never mind. Your 1993 is coming.