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

Featured

 

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”

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

 

Word of Mouth, Quarantine Edition

Prior to the advent of Covid-19, I was about 70% through the first draft of a novel about a virus, an anger virus. Looking back on what I wrote, I am stunned by how mild and self-contained the virus I created was. I am currently too busy  panic cleaning, home schooling and hand washing to do much about the novel, but in the process of doing research into epidemiology and vaccines, I came across several books that helped me understand how viruses work, and thought now would be an excellent time to recommend them.

If you have it in you to learn more about how microscopic pathogens can upend the globe, here are four fascinating books that helped me understand. If you’ve had enough pathogens, skip ahead to the ESCAPE section. And wash your hands!

ENGAGE:

Memoir about a pandemic (small pox) with a happy ending: Sometimes Brilliant:The Impossible Adventure of a Spiritual Seeker and Visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History, by Larry Brilliant

Thematic treatment of how pathogens develop and mutate, and what is necessary for them to thrive: Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

A history of how vaccines were discovered, and how they work: Between Hope and Fear: A History of Vaccines and Human Immunity, by Michael Kinch

How cholera seized and changed London, seen through the efforts of a pioneering physician and a connected local priest: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World— Steven Johnson

ESCAPE:

TV: Agents of ShieldMaurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, Joss Whedon. Netflix

TV: Episodes — David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik. Amazon. 

TV: False Flag — Maria Feldman, Amit Cohen. Hulu.

TV: Imposters – Paul Adelstein and Adam Brooks. Netflix. 

MOVIE: Yesterday –Danny Boyle. HBO.

TV: MarpleAgatha Christie. Hulu.

FICTION: The Safety Net — Andrea Camilleri

Not-so-ancient wisdom:

“It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what is required.”

Winston Churchill

January Word of Mouth

Fiction: To Each His Own — Leonardo Sciascia, translated by Adrienne Foulke.

Memoir: Born a Crime — Trevor Noah.

Podcast episode: “An Historical Lens on Trump’s Authoritarianism.” Trumpcast. 

Non-Fiction: The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando — Paul Kix.

Documentary with Animation: Ask Dr. Ruth — Ryan White. Hulu. 

Stand-Up Comedy: “Ronny Chieng: Asian Comedian Destroys America!” Netflix.

Not-so-ancient wisdom: “There is little hope for us until we become tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft-mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”

         — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Strength To Love”

 

Late October Word of Mouth

 

Fiction: My Sister, the Serial Killer — Oyinkan Braithwaite

Podcast episode: Say Yes to Rebuilding Post- Trump — Trumpcast (Slate)

Podcast episode: The Family Business — Trump, Inc. (WNYC Studios/ ProPublica)

Non-Fiction: Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-starved World — Seth M. Siegel

 

Ancient Inspiration:

“In your actions, don’t procrastinate. In your conversations, don’t confuse. In your thoughts, don’t wander. In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive.” 

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8. 51

 

Not-so-Ancient Inspiration: 

“The work is the work, regardless of whether you decide to be ground down by it.”

Seth Godin