Rejections: It’s All About Perspective

I recently received a rejection letter from the established Down East, The Magazine of Maine. I wasn’t too shocked; I know they have a pretty particular eye for what fits their image. It might be possible that an essay with too much Jewish content made them a tad uncomfortable, at least on behalf of their imagined readership. The essay ­–  Fifteen Religious Jews Jumping in a Lake – tells a story of my chance encounter off the beaten path in Maine with these happy campers.

I’m a big Maine fan and I also I have a strong Jewish identity that is reflected in much of my writing. Although there aren’t many Jews in Maine, relatively speaking, my idea was to give folks in general a little peek at how everybody can have a grand old time frolicking in Maine.

No matter how well we may understand rejections we are faced with, initially it is a pretty sucky feeling. With some luck, slowly and over time, a blessed concept called perspective seeps in to our consciousness. For me, this is akin to survival. That’s when things starts to feel all right again, despite how down I may have been initially. With some perspective gained, it becomes imaginable to see new possibilities and sometimes even more rewarding trajectories take shape, from different angles.

Let me explain how perspective matters:

Down East, you say? But I say Up North, every time I migrate to my second home in Mid-Cost Maine. “Up, up and away!” from the bustle of my life here, Down South in Connecticut, which is really Up Country to our cousins who live in Hell, um, I mean New York City. Which of course is pure Heaven when you have money, time and a suite booked at the Plaza.

Then there’s this: Did you know another name for North Africa is Maghreb, Arabic for “where the sun sets” also known as the West. What we in the “West” or North (Europe) call North Africa, Africans or people who live to the East of Africa, call “the Land where the sun sets; The West.”

Is it a wonder we sometimes don’t have the full perspective, or have to work a little at acquiring it?

Meanwhile, rejections become more manageable when they are occasionally interspersed with acceptances. Whether it was the uber-Jewish content of my short essay on the religious Jews jumping in the Maine lake that made the editors tell me that it wasn’t a good fit (“fun read, but not right for us at this time”) I can only guess, but the other day I got a letter from a publisher who wants to publish my book Out of North Africa, on Jewish women writers. These guys are all about Jewish writing and especially Jewish women’s writing that is not from the familiar West.

So right about now I’m feeling pretty excited about my particular perspective having found a home from which to be launched – Up, Up and Away!

***

Oh, and so here it is:

Forthcoming from Gaon Books, Spring 2106: Out of North Africa: Sephardic Women’s Voices 

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The Fiddler on My Roof, or My Crush on Tevye

This day being Father’s Day and all, it got me thinking about some of the father figures I’ve had in my life aside from the beloved biological one. Aside from him, most of them have been Jewish, and it started with Tevye the Dairyman from the 1971 movie adaptation of Shalom Aleichem’s story, first published in 1894. Not only did I have a crush on Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who played Tevye in the original movie, but I was deeply, completely and fatefully swept away by the desire to belong to that. I wanted to live under the same roof as his Jewish family, feel the Jewish identity the way he did, and dream the Jewish dreams that he did. I wanted Goldie, Tevye’s spirited wife, to light shabbos candles with me.

Sure, I could do without the bloody Russian pogroms, the poverty, the muddy country roads and lack of sanitation. But how about that strong, unwavering feeling of identity, wrapped up in a warm, passionate fatherly type who despite his simple and often difficult life, stuck to it; that’s what I wanted! That’s what spoke to my guts. Watching the movie again and again from the VHS tape on my second-hand TV-set, oblivious to my neighbors while cranking up the volume as Tevye belted out “Tradition!” I sang, danced and wept in the same rhythms as my crush; Judaism as impersonated by Tevye.

Tevye

To me, it was obvious he wasn’t just addressing the camera in all those close-up scenes where he inquires philosophically about life, purpose, and the various dilemmas the Jews faced in a rapidly changing world. He spoke to me. He was telling me a story that he said could also be mine. Come in, he seemed to say, I can’t promise it will be easy but I can promise there will be love, commitment, continuity and TRADITION!  

And I went in under his roof. In fact, I lept. I can still hear his deep, warm voice and want to bury myself in his arms when the going gets tough. Farm stench and all. Out of curiosity, I googled Topol the other day to see how the man had evolved from the 1970’s, and found that the now 80 year old still made my heart flutter with fond memories.

Topol

When I got married in 1988, as a brand spanking new-Jew, I had chosen, yes chosen, a violinist from the University of Hartford Music School to play “Sunrise, Sunset” as my oddly obliging yarmulke-wearing Norwegian father escorted me down the isle of the synagogue. Probably a bit overwhelmed by all the “ethnic” and religious details surrounding him, this otherwise agnostic and conservative man who had taught me all about relativity, clutched my arm tightly while whispering “you can always convert back if you don’t like it.”

Little did he know, once a Jew, always a Jew.

Of course, despite my early crush on Tevye, when it comes to men, it is my dad who played the greatest role in enabling me to imagine a future and a life as “other,” far away from him and my mom, singing different songs and celebrating different holidays. He is the one who gave me the wings to fly.

Although I have become accustomed to state my Jewish name Naomi bat Avraham ve-Sarah, Naomi, the daughter of Abraham and Sarah, there is no doubt about my parentage; for I’d say once a daughter, always a daughter. The fatherly figure of Tevye exuding commitment, warmth and love was likely just a Jewish representation of what I already knew: that first crush we girls experience with our dads, and which I got to experience again in some way once I embarked on a new journey as a Jewess.

A Prologue to Memoir

Working title: Tribal Matters: Diaries of The Viking Jewess

“So, are you going to stay Jewish?” the woman asks me as she had learned of my recent divorce. We stand in line at the local Starbucks and she says it just loudly enough for the man in front of us to hear. Holy crap, is it possible she thinks I divorced my identity? Holding a stainless steel coffee mug, with a Bluetooth blinking from his left ear as if he heard what I was thinking, the man turns and glances at me in a way that probably feels discreet to him, but the added attention makes me just feel more flustered. A wave of indignation mixed with frustration flush through me. I am in my late forties, and I have been Jewish since, at the age of twenty-three, I immersed in a mikvah[1] just a few weeks before I married my Jewish boyfriend in an Orthodox ceremony. Somehow, the timing and formulation of this woman’s question made a seemingly mundane instance in the Sunday morning line at the coffee shop feel like I was hurled into the epicenter of the sudden impact of all the moments –the good, the bad and the beautiful – of my Jewish life thus far, and that it was up to me to justify it all. And she wasn’t even my own conscience. Or God. She was an acquaintance whom I knew from various synagogue events and run-ins at the kosher market. Before I respond, with as much patience and compassion as I can muster, I take a deep breath. I swallow. Be kind. Don’t cry. “Sure,” I begin, “it’s not like that’s a switch you can just turn off.” I think I even manage an optimistic smile, but it was probably a smile that I couldn’t help lace with a slight air of surprise, hoping maybe my interlocutor would notice; my eyebrows raised just so. She smiled back at me the way you might see a person labor to beam sympathetically at a handicapped participant at the Special Olympics who bravely battles through an event only to win the consolation prize. As if she were thinking, “Poor soul, after everything she’s been through.”

But the truth is, the journey had been extraordinary so far, and was only just beginning.

Journey

[1] A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath or pool consisting of part rainwater and part tap water, used for immersion in conversions, for monthly use by women after menstruation, before the Sabbath and holidays by some orthodox men, and by some to immerse new household kitchen utensils, in order to render them “kosher” and fit for use in a Jewish home. The main idea is ritual and spiritual purification.

Oh, No Please, Please Don’t Go!

I am not liking the news I’m reading on Facebook and in the newspaper, and hoping it’s a bad dream. Please don’t tell me The Crown Market – our one and only old time family owned kosher grocery store – has decided to close the doors for good without reaching out to the community, without going with a fanfare; with the same gusto, love and attention to our community and the long relationships we have build over generations…

Please tell me that all that – all our history and the meaningfulness and importance of it – was not just an illusion? We all know it’s been difficult for the Crown these past few years, with the increasingly tough and heartless competition from corporate America creeping closer and closer for each year; I admit I personally loathe the chirpiness of those in our community who were excitedly running to the Wal-Mart “Neighborhood Market” (what a farce!) to buy “cheaper kosher cheese and meat” – yeah! to your blind support of corporate America at the cost of supporting our local treasures. Morons.

But dear Crown: don’t forget all the hundreds of families who have stubbornly stood by our favorite market, even if we knew it might mean we paid a few cents or dollars extra for this or for that. It was our pleasure. And we would continue to do it. Because you have been our hands down favorite grocer, and your professional, wonderful, caring, warm and endearing Market staff, from the bottom and all the way up the ladder, feels like an extended family, no wait a minute, part of MY REAL community. “How are the boys, Nina?” “How’s your dad, doing?” “When is your mom coming for a visit next?” My Norwegian parents loved to come along for a shop at the Crown, becasue this was what they knew the old time America was supposed to be like. Charming, friendly, service minded. Try taking them to Wal-Mart for that experience. Bevakasha – you’re welcome. Yuck.

It seems we all – the long time Crown employees, as well as all the Crown’s faithful customers – deserve to be able to say thank you and good bye to each other in a dignified and positive manner. Would it not be a great thing to be able to reminisce about a memorable and worthy closing event? Even though the recent heads up has felt shocking to most people who are not insiders at the Crown (unfortunately, I’ve heard that even for some employees, this is a surprise), if it’s not an outright surprise, it IS very, very sad. All day yesterday I felt as if I heard the news somebody I loved and cared for was dying. But for real. And what’s up with that? I drank wine again in the middle of week, even though I haven’t for a long time, in a concerted effort to lose weight and be healthier. But last night, I felt the unstoppable urge of a looming depression. Sadness and powerlessness over an impending cloud of inevitable loss.

The Crown leadership, and we, should seize AND create an opportunity for a community outpouring, and if there really is no way to SAVE THE CROWN (see Colin McEnroe’s clever idea here: How to Save the Crown) they all deserve a chance for kind farewells from all the people for whom the Crown has been a meeting point of our daily lives, shared stories, from the casual or hurried “how are yous,” to those sometimes unavoidable longer lingerings in the isles or over the meat counter, where one could hear, perhaps, the whispered secrets of a neighbor’s relationship advice, or reminders of the critical ingredient in that unforgettable chicken soup you had last month at the Feinbergs. And sometimes even of tears of joy or of sadness.

I try to imagine getting ready for Shabbat, this coming Shabbat, and the one after, and for the rest of my life in West Hartford, without a run to the Crown. It will be like re-training my muscle memory, much like it was so difficult to change my habits of thinking and planning and caring when my dogs died after 14 years of life together, or after I got divorced, after 22 years. I imagine empty nesters go through the same emotional re-training. New thinking patterns, new habits. It will take time to not have the Crown “right there” in the frontal lobe. I try to imagine not seeing the employees anymore that I enjoy running into and bantering with. I shiver at the idea of having to one day see the Crown store as an empty, cavernous space, as the inventory is plucked away and the eventual “refurbishing” begins…

In the meantime, I’m going to make every effort to do some squatting there in the days to come, so that I can say thank you for your service, for your smiles, for caring if my eggs are broken or if you have gotten the specific brand of sauce I requested. Thank you for being a store that reinforced my feeling of being Jewish, by being closed when all the other stores refuse to set boundaries between that which is sanctified and that which is not. 24-7, come on. Who needs it. I hope everyone will join me in the opportunity to gratefully and gracefully be part of, in a way, the closing of the Crown, so dignified as it is in its long and memorable existence in and service to our community. Here in MY Jewish American life.

Let’s create our own “sanctified space” in the next few precious days or weeks that the Crown’s doors remain open, to be thankful, show our appreciation in any way we can, and celebrate the future; because we must keep believing in good things and in a process of change, and in the eventual need of moving on when the time has come.

Crown