About Valerie Block

Novelist and observer of the news, ancient and not

Tribal Recognition

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This essay appeared in JEW-ISH: True Stories of Love, Latkes and L’Chaim, from READ 650.

One Saturday some years ago, while visiting Toronto with my husband and mother-in-law, I saw a group of Orthodox Jews, two bearded men and roughly 12 boys of various ages, about a block away. They were dressed identically in white shirts and black pants, yarmulkes and payes, but no hats. As they approached, the patriarch looked from my Cuban husband to my Cuban mother-in-law, and then said to me, “Good Shabbes.”

 

I nodded cordially. People outside the tribe often ask me if I’m Italian, Lebanese, Greek, Indian, but Jews always know otherwise. 

 

“Shabbat Shalom,” the patriarch insisted, and I nodded again. It took me a block and a half to realize that he’d been waiting for me to say “Shabbat Shalom” back to him, and that I had been rude. I should say that what passes for a Sabbath statement among my lapsed Jewish relatives is more akin to, “Would you like some more Mu Shu Pork?” My parents, grandchildren of Jewish immigrants from all over Eastern Europe, have always kept in touch with Jewish culture, ideas, history and politics. They avoid Jewish observance almost… religiously. I do the same. 

 

My mother-in-law was impressed that Jews could identify each other at such a distance. But I’ve seen her son play “Spot the Cuban” in the swirling chaos of Penn Station at rush hour, and he can pinpoint which decade the Cuban came to the US. He’s always right; we know this because he goes right up to the Cuban to verify his intuition. Kind of like saying “Shabbat Shalom,” but everyone is so gregarious, it’s astonishing that anyone makes their trains on time. 

 

Does some kind of vestigial recognition of cave affiliation survive in contemporary humans? We’d just seen a thoughtful exhibit on Darwin at the Royal Ontario Museum, and I wondered: in this time of ideological separatism and tribal carnage, are human beings a single species anymore? And what about the Jews? Jews may be few and far between, numerically, but we are hardly together in our minority. Was the patriarch saying, “Go ahead, marry a shvartze. You should still celebrate the Sabbath.” 

 

My fellow Jews were clearly not going to the Darwin exhibit. A pity: the patriarch might have noted that in evolutionary terms, he had won. He’d been fruitful and multiplied, in the way of good Jews and successful species. At that time, in my secular corner, with zero offspring, we were looking at extinction. 

 

My husband and I have since become parents to one energetic, charming child that we’re raising Juban. Once, my then 6-year-old froze in his tracks as we crossed paths with two Hassidic men at Newark Airport. “Are they magicians?!” he asked with excitement. I realized that I’ve neglected his Jewish education. I want to give him the strong dose of secular Judaism that I had growing up in a Reformed Jewish home in New York City, a very Jewish metropolis. Can this be done in a suburb of intermarriages, without setting foot in a synagogue, I wonder?

 

The train of thought that started in Toronto is still on my mind all these years later. Are the Jews a single species with wide variations —Judaeus pius antiquus and Judaea femina libera, for example —or are we now two different species, Judaeus exactus canadiensis and PostJudaea scriptora obstinata? If we’re to survive, our species must adapt. But if there are any Jews around in a few centuries, it won’t be because of adaptors like me. I now realize that being recognizably Jewish to everyone —not just to other Jews— can be a dangerous thing, and a lonely one. Perhaps the patriarch’s gesture was one of inclusion and adaptation, not ownership and disapproval. I probably should have taken a page from my extroverted Cuban husband, and stopped to chat for a while.

 

 

Late October Word of Mouth

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Liberation, Elevation, Education: Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land—Leah Penniman

Essays: The Book of Delights — Ross Gay

Fiction: The Farm — Tom Rob Smith

Middle-grade novel: Merci Suárez Changes Gears — Meg Medina

Podcast: Cautionary Tales — Tim Harford, “The Rogue Dressed as a Captain.”

Not-so-ancient wisdom:

The routines of journalists are based on assumptions of how candidates will behave and Trump violates all those assumptions. And so the routines break, and the practices break, and they don’t want to reinvent their routines, so they sort of keep on with the tools that they have, and they don’t apply to Donald Trump. And one of the best examples of that is the whole notion of a gaffe — a candidate lets something really damaging slip from his or her tongue, and it becomes a controversy and distracts from what the candidate is trying to accomplish. The entire presidency of Donald Trump is a gaffe. It’s a twenty times a day gaffe, and so to even use that term with Biden —which the campaign press did earlier in the year, talking about his gaffes— is kind of crazy there’s something lunatic about it. But it’s an example of clinging to your practices after the premises underneath them have fallen through.

Jay Rosen, from the podcast, On the Media, “Emergency Mode”

Seneca on Saturday… on Sunday!

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Statue of Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger,
Statue of Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger in Cordoba, Spain, by Amadeo Ruiz Olmos

On Peace of Mind, X:

Knowing to what sorrows we were born, there is nothing for which Nature more deserves our thanks than for having invented habit as an alleviation of misfortune, which soon accustoms us to the severest evils. No one could hold out against misfortune if it permanently exercised the same force as at its first onset. 

From: The Ninth Book of the Dialogues of L. Annaeus Seneca, Addressed to Serenus. Minor Dialogs Together with the Dialog “On Clemency”; Translated by Aubrey Stewart. Bohn’s Classical Library Edition; London, George Bell and Sons, 1900; Scanned and digitized by Google from a copy maintained by the University of Virginia.

Seneca on Saturday — Relative Poverty and Other Imagined Dangers

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Statue of Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger,

Statue of Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger in Cordoba, Spain, by Amadeo Ruiz Olmos

CIV. ON CARE OF HEALTH AND PEACE OF MIND

Suppose that you hold wealth to be a good: poverty will then distress you, and,  —which is most pitiable,— it will be an imaginary poverty. For you may be rich, and nevertheless, because your neighbour is richer, you suppose yourself to be poor exactly by the same amount in which you fall short of your neighbour. You may deem official position a good; you will be vexed at another’s appointment or re-appointment to the consulship; you will be jealous whenever you see a name several times in the state records. Your ambition will be so frenzied that you will regard yourself last in the race if there is anyone in front of you. Or you may rate death as the worst of evils, although there is really no evil therein except that which precedes death’s coming —fear. You will be frightened out of your wits, not only by real, but by fancied dangers, and will be tossed for ever on the sea of illusion…

For peace itself will furnish further apprehension. Even in the midst of safety you will have no confidence if your mind has once been given a shock; once it has acquired the habit of blind panic, it is incapable of providing even for its own safety. For it does not avoid danger, but runs away. Yet we are more exposed to danger when we turn our backs.

Seneca Epistles 93-124, Translation by Richard Gummere. Loeb Classical Library.

Photo credit: Gunnar Bach Pedersen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Seneca on Saturday: fair-weather friends

Statue of Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger,

Statue of Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger in Cordoba, Spain, by Amadeo Ruiz Olmos

IX: On Philosophy and Friendship

These are the so-called “fair-weather” friendships; one who is chosen for the sake of utility will be satisfactory only so long as he is useful. Hence prosperous men are blockaded by troops of friends; but those who have failed stand amid vast loneliness, their friends fleeing from the very crisis which is to test their worth. Hence, also, we notice those many shameful cases of persons who, through fear, desert or betray. The beginning and the end cannot but harmonize. He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.

Seneca Epistles 1-65, by Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger. Translation by Richard Gummere. Loeb Classical Library.

 

 

Late September Word of Mouth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Song: Turntables [Emotion Picture] — Janelle Monáe

Documentary: All in: The Fight for Democracy — Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes

Memoir: My Time Among the Whites — Jennine Capót Crucet

Mystery: Who Is Vera Kelly? — Rosalie Knecht

TV Series: Taste the Nation — Padma Lakshmi