Sunday, January 15, 2017

Judaism is a Tool!

This week was a wake-up jolt. The Lieberman-Smith family returned to our regular non-holiday life: work, school, meetings, Nature Club, soccer, piano, a snow day, and Hebrew school. Aside from writing books and teaching almost full time, I also teach Hebrew school. That's right, not only do I write and teach five days a week, but Saturday mornings I get up and teach Hebrew school to my two kids and ten others at our Reform temple. This is both exhausting and incredibly rewarding. Each week I get to create a tiny Jewish oasis of community. For the years my kids and I go to Hebrew school, that's what Shabbat means to us. (In another lifetime I'm hoping Shabbos will also involve rest!)

I teach the program so I can create a meaningful Jewish experience for my children. I didn't want their Judaism to be, as one friend put it, only bagel and Holocaust. So what is important to me as a Jewish educator? I teach Hebrew reading, tfillah (prayer), holidays, bible stories, and about tzedakah(good deeds) and mitzvot. (There's also a healthy dose of snack, socializing and crafts.)

Every once in awhile I stand back and think about why I want my kids and students to be Jewish. I want them to use Judaism to celebrate family, create community, do Gimilut Hasidim (acts of loving kindness), and also as a way to approach the sacred and divine in life. I want them to know how to pray in Hebrew as a way to express the happiness and sadness they'll encounter in life. Is that a big goal to achieve in two-and-a-half hours once a week? You bet.

Recently I heard an interview on Unorthodox that put what I was feeling into words. If you haven't listened to Unorthodox yet, I suggest you momentarily stop reading and check it out. Unorthodox is a wildly entertaining, irreverent and frequently enlightening weekly Jewish podcast  from Tablet magazine. For someone like who me who lives far away from major Jewish centers, it's a fantastic way to be  engulfed in all things Jewy. For example, where else am I going to hear interviews with author and filmmaker David Bezmogis, musings on Drake's Jewishness, Holocaust puns, or interviews with divinity students who analyze Harry Potter as a sacred text? How else will I possibly know if there are or were Jewish pirates? If that doesn't move you, let it be said that Unorthodox takes Leonard Cohen very seriously. And that should be enough to move you.

As I said Unorthodox is also enlightening, and that brings me back teaching Hebrew school. A few episodes back the Unorthodox crew interviewed Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek, the spiritual leader of Beacon Hebrew Alliance of New York. He's a rabbi interested in bringing Judaism out of the shul and into the daily life of  his congregants. In the interview Spodek said that, "Part of the problem with American Judaism is that we think Judaism is the goal not the tool." If kids are bored in services or disconnected from Jewish traditions, why would they be invested in learning that tool? I agree with Spodek that Judaism needs to engage children and be relevant to them. Even more so, I agree with Spodek that kids should be Jewish so that they have tools to  have a sense of awe and wonder, and to express frustration or hope. Being Jewish because you mother said you should, or because Hitler tried to eradicate the Jews is to miss the whole point of what Judaism, and other religions too, can do for you.

Tibetan Prayer Wheels
When I was much younger I travelled in Northern India and Nepal for several months. I visited a lot of Buddhist temples with prayer wheels. Pilgrims circumnavigate the temples and spin these prayer wheels as they walk, and as the wheels turn, the prayers written on them float up to the gods. As I spun those wheels, I couldn't help singing parts of the Jewish liturgy. The words rose up into my mouth and I sang. It was how I expressed the beauty and wonder of what I saw as I walked. And I was thankful for the knowledge of how to pray.

Before Hebrew school broke for the holidays, we had a service with our once-a-month rabbi that happened to fall on the same day as Amnesty International's Write-for Rights Letter Writing Campaign. I'd planned to write letters with my kids that morning as part of our Tikkun Olam (healing the earth) and social action curriculum. This term I'm proud that my students (and their families) collected food and volunteered at the Kingston food bank, and donated money and items for Syrian Refugees coming to our city. When preparing for our Amnesty lesson, I did some research on Human Rights to share with my students. It occurred to me that these rights are almost identical to the list of things we are thankful for in the Baruch Hashchar, a prayer chanted at the beginning of the morning service. I quickly decided to re-write the prayer to reflect the human rights we enjoy in Canada. The whole congregation joined me in praying our Human Rights Baruch Hashachar, and at least for me, it was an incredible connection between being thankful, being present, and helping heal the world a little bit.  And these are also the Jewish tools I wish to impart to my children and students.

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Few Books, A Little Soup

Hello Everyone, 

This holiday season other than spending time with my family and friends, I've been most excited about spending some time at home on my couch with a good book. The couch I'm sitting on now is an old one from my parent's house. It used to be crushed blue velvet, but it was reupholstered in white back in the 90's. It's more of a creamy colour now, with doggy highlights on the back.  The springs are shot, and it's not great for my back, but it's the best place to curl up in my house, away from the downstairs frenzy of Lego and Ipad. 

Over the holidays I'll be reading Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing (for pleasure) and re-reading William Dalrymple's City of Djinns (for research and pleasure). I may also tackle Dominique Fortier's Au Peril e La Mer, in French. Reading in my second language is a HUGE challenge for me, so we'll see how that goes. So far I've only read books about Chess, Pokemon and Tintin to my kids in French.  This holiday I'll also be gorging on this amazing Mushroom Kale soup I discovered at Farm Boy (see recipe at blog end).

I read some really amazing books in 2016.  I've written about some of them already, so I won't mention them again, but here are some other books I absolutely loved this year.

Martine Leavitt's Calvin

Calvin won the Canadian Governor General's Award for Young Adult literature this year, and it is most definitely deserving of the honour. The novel tells the story of a teenage boy named Calvin who suffers a schizophrenic episode and becomes convinced Hobbs of the Calvin and Hobbs comic strip is talking to him. He believes he'll only be cured of his mental illness if cartoonist Bill Watterson will write another Calvin and Hobbs cartoon. The real Calvin sets out across Lake Erie mid-winter to walk to Bill Watterson's home town.

I have to admit when I read the description of the novel, I wasn't that interested. I vaguely remember Calvin and Hobbs cartoons, but my friend and author YS Lee was so passionate about this book, I had to read it. This isn't just a novel about mental health, or delusion. It's about friendship and philosophy and human kindness and the things real friends do to help others. And it's also about the power books have over readers to influence their lives. As an author who isn't always sure where my books end up, this was tremendously interesting to me. 

Jane Gardam's Old Filth

This was actually another YS Lee suggestion. (Thanks Ying!) Old Filth is the nickname of a British lawyer who retires to the British countryside, after a prestigious career as a lawyer in Hong Kong. The novel is not just a portrait of one man's career, but of a century of British empire. Filth was born in the heyday of the British in Malaysia, schooled in pre-war England, an then comes back to England as Hong Kong returns to China. The best part of the book is Jane Gardam's no-nonsense prose and sharp clarity.  I also enjoyed that Gardam wrote two other books, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Friends, as part of the Old Filth series.

Farm Boy's Mushroom Kale Soup
2 Tablespoons oil
3/4 cup Spanish onion, chopped
3/4 cup carrots, peeled and chopped
3/4 cup celery, chopped
one Yukon potato, chopped
1 tbsp garlic, minced
1 pound mushrooms (454 grams), chopped
3 cups water
one can  coconut milk
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
one head of curly kale, chopped and stems removed

Saute onions, carrots and celery in oil for five minutes. Add potato, garlic and mushrooms and saute five minutes more. Add water and coconut  milk, and bring to a boil. Simmer until vegetables tender. Add kale and cook five minutes or until kale wilts. Blend with immersion blender or transfer to a blender.  Enjoy with the remnants of 2016, or the new days of 2017.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

You Want It Darker

The sad news that Leonard Cohen died arrived tonight, during an already difficult week most of us are still coming to terms with.

I've been listening constantly to Leonard Cohen since his new album, You Want It Darker, came out a few weeks ago. I heard the title song on the radio just after Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement. I'm certain the release date was intentional. Cohen sings,

If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I'm ready, my lord

Cohen, known to be suffering from back pain, speaks of our human failures, and also God's. After this week's election, we kill the flame, seems especially poignant to me. However, it's the Hineini part that made me stop in my kitchen and stare at my ancient radio. Hineini means, Here I am,  in Hebrew. It's what Abraham says to God just before he is about to sacrifice his only son Issac. At the last moment God asks Abraham where he is, Abraham says Hineini, and his hand is stayed. 

The Akedah, or binding of Issac is difficult to resolve. I'd thought it was a test of Abraham's devotion to God, but according to my rabbi, no one really knows what to make of it, or why we read
it during Rosh Hashana services. And yet, I love that Cohen uses this line, Hineini, here I am, to address God. It seems as perfect as his use of other parts of the high holiday liturgy, like Who By Fire. I also love that the choir that sings on the track is from the Shaar Hashomayim shul in Montreal, where Cohen's family were members for generations. (It's also happens to be the shul my Bubbie worked at for a time.)

Several other writers have written far more eloquently about Leonard Cohen recently. I loved Liel Liebowitz's piece for Tablet Magazine, and also David Remnick's excellent piece in The New Yorker.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Three Great Fiction Titles

I've read some amazing fiction titles recently, books that are definitely going to be on my top ten list at the end of the year. The first is the Man Booker Prize nominee Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.  I chose to read this because I loved the title. (Although having read the book, I have no idea why it's called Hot Milk.) It's a bewildering book, but so beautifully written, I didn't want to put it down.

This is the story of a young British woman, Sofia,  who travels with her mother to a medical clinic in Spain. The mother suffers from paralysis and a host of other medical conditions. Her illness holds Sofia's life in limbo, creating another kind of paralysis. In Spain, Sofia meets a various characters, my favourite being a German woman named Ingrid. At one point Ingrid embroiders Sofia a silk halter with the words beloved in blue thread. Later Sofia realizes the embroidery says something entirely different, changing her experience of their relationship. This book feels brief but its lasting images will be with me a long time.

One can never have too much Pride and Prejudice, right? Especially when it is re-written by the excellent Curtis Sittenfield into a novel called Eligible. This is a modern update of Pride and Prejudice, full of cross fit gyms, texting and reality TV.

The Bennett family has five unmarried daughters, a horrible mother and a droll father, but in this version they live in Cincinatti. Elizabeth Bennett is a New York journalist not interested in Mr. Darcy, here imagined as a pompous surgeon. 

Mrs. Bennett is especially odious in Sittenfield's update. Not only is she a racist snob, but she suffers from a shopping addiction and poor parenting skills. She also loves reality TV shows, including a show called Eligible, which stars Chip Bingley. When Chip comes to Cincinatti, well, you know how the story will unfold.

I've read several books by Sittenfeld, and she is unrelenting in her skewering of people across social millieus. I loved her collection of stories Prep, and even more so her fictionalized version of Laura Bush, American Wife.  Eligible would be a great gift for the holiday season.

Edna O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs is a very different and somber book. It's the one that I'm going to re-read, to buy for other reading friends and to recommend to my book club.

The Little Red Chairs is the story of an Irish woman's life that is changed forever when a healer moves to her small town.  The woman, Fidelma,  falls in love with the healer only to later learn that he is a Bosnian war criminal. The Guardian describes this book as "a chilling masterpiece," to which I agree. I love O'Brien's prose, her attention to detail, and her masterful control of the story's twists and turns as Fidelma travels from Ireland to London, and then into the countryside and final to the Hague. The story is both painfully personal and also global, delving into moral questions about evil.

I recently listened to Eleanor Wachtel's May 2016 interview with O'Brien. O'Brien says she wonders if people such as the Bosnian war criminal, who is based on Radovan Karadzic, were always evil. "We ask that questions through time," she says, "but you never get an answer... Those who do these things have one thing in common, they deny. They believe they are the wronged one." O'Brien says, that "It's mad or it's a cunning so awful, that either way it's unpardonable." In the novel, Fidelma says to the accused, " I wish you were mad." It would make it easier for Fidelma to understand the atrocities committed if he were crazy. Ultimately, the novel offers no easy answers.

I also read and enjoyed O'Brien's memoir, Country Girl, her story of growing up in Ireland, and her experience of London in the 1960's. O'Brien's work was banned, burned and denounced when it was published because it often depicted young women who wished to flee their small towns and families, and because of their frank sexual longings. O'Brien herself was condemned for pursuing the kind of adventures her male contemporaries sought out. O'Brien writes brilliantly and the quality of her work has withstood these early barriers. Country Girl is an interesting testament to both the childhood she wishes to escape and the fascinating life she later lived.

In the stack of books I'm hoping to get into next is:
Helen Humphrey's The River
Kate Taylor's Serial Monogamies
Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing 


Thursday, October 6, 2016

Leanne The Spy

On a trip to Vancouver last spring, I found my childhood diary in my parents' crawlspace. As a writer, I have many, many diaries but this one is special because unlike my school journals which were read by my teachers, this was my first private diary, complete with a lock. It also had Garfield on the cover, which made it extra cool. I wrote in this notebook when I was ten, spanning grade four and five.

 Re-reading this diary was outrageously funny. I had some very strong feelings at that age. I despised my siblings, thought my parents horribly unfair, passionately loved a boy, and was disgusted with some of my classmates. I proclaimed all of this with lots of exclamation marks and a solid command of the profanities I'd learned at summer camp. For weeks I entertained (and shocked) my husband and boys with such gems as: "Marcy is a fuck-face" and "I wish Jeffrey was never born." (Apologies to my siblings; I certainly don't feel that way now.) My husband told me that reading your teenage or childhood diary in public is now a thing, a cult live show called Mortified: Share the Shame. It's like Dear Teen Me, but without the earnestness. It's unbelievably funny.

Although the boys asked for me to read them more of my literary debut, I kept most of it to myself. I still know (at least in a Facebook sense) the boy I loved in grade four and I still have his picture in a box in my basement. Somehow these feelings still feel too fresh to me, even thirty years on.

I did share with my boys one page with the words I WANT TO BE A WRITER scrawled in giant bubble letters, but then kept to myself the smaller font message: "but I don't know how," on the next page. This also felt too personal, and something I'm still grappling with. I could have wrote this yesterday, this going back and forth between literary dreams and the literary reality of the blank page.

My children were also impressed by how mean I was about my some of my classmates. "You're like Harriet the Spy, but worse," my older son proclaimed. This made me laugh. We were reading Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet at the time, and my boys were both shocked that Harriet would write such mean things about her friends, and then mortified that her diary was found. I mean mortified to the point where they had their fingers in their ears and were begging me to stop reading. I had to skip several pages until, as my younger son described, "Harriet became nice again." Perhaps this was the first book I'd read them where the villain of the story wasn't someone unlikeable like Malfoy in Harry Potter, but a complex character like Harriet with all her strengths and faults.

My son was correct: I was a total Harriet The Spy kid. I wrote about other people and my relationship to them to try and understand my world. Luckily, no one ever read my diary (except maybe my siblings).  Harriet wasn't a favourite book of mine as a kid. I recognized myself in her so much, that I remember quickly putting the book aside, as if it were too close to me. I shared this experience with a friend recently, and she laughed, and said she was The Babysitters Club. (This sounds much more wholesome to me, and that's probably why she's a therapist, and I write fiction.) One friend, with a troubled childhood, told me she was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and another friend with religious yearnings identified with Chaim Potok's Davida's Harp.

And you, was there a childhood book that spoke to you?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

My Harlem

Hot off his success with his documentary The Amazing Nina Simone, my brother Jeff Lieberman is already into his next project, a feature-length film called My Harlem. He's got an Indigogo campaign on and it's a great project to contribute to.

My Harlem is a feature-length narrative film set in New York's beautiful and historic Harlem neighborhood, where gentrification has been a hotly-debated topic. The discussion has been further inflamed by a Harlem church whose billboard often contains racist and homophobic messages. The sign has suggested that “homos” be stoned, thrown off buildings, and believes the gay community are sexual deviants out to “steal” the neighborhood.  The church sign has also targeted Black people, women, President Obama, and many others.  

As a Harlem-based filmmaker, Jeff wanted to write a tribute to his neighborhood to showcase all the beautiful and historic aspects of this vibrant corner of New York City.  He also wanted to pay tribute to the people who fill its brownstones, restaurants, parks and jazz clubs, and he wanted to address the thorny issue of gentrification and the complications that arise as the neighborhood continues to shift. Jeff has lived in Harlem for the last five years, and he says he recognizes that his presences is part of the problem. He also hopes to be part of the solution.

In My Harlem the sign brings the two main characters of the film together. Nathan who is white and Langston who is black react to the sign's hateful message in different ways. Their relationship dives deep into issues of race, gentrification and sexuality, all set against the backdrop of the police brutality of the summer of 2016. Jeff hopes the film will incite change and inspire healing for all of those affected by police shootings, displaced from their homes, and for all those who have had to hear hateful and dangerous speech as a result of their sexuality or the color of their skin.  

Jeff and others in the gay community don't have their own sign to combat hate speech, but Jeff's taken this opportunity to create a film that speaks to this sign with love and with opportunities for community healing. You can read more about Jeff's film and his campaign at Indigogo.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A True Title

Sometimes a book title comes to you like a thunder bolt. My novel Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust was like that. I knew the title before I wrote a single word. The only downside to this title is that it’s really long. I have said this mouthful thousand of times, and it never really trips off my tongue.

Sometimes I have an entire book, and no title. This is usually my predicament. How to encapsulate all my ideas and lure in a reader in a few short words? The working title of my forthcoming book (Spring 2017) was Feast. I wanted a short title after Lauren Yanofsky, and Feast summed up both a plot element at the end of the book, and a concept the main character was moving toward. My editor, however, felt it was lacking, and since she always has good judgement, I went on a title search. Next I thought to call the book Crave, but there are many books with that title, mostly of the bodice-ripper variety. After some soul searching, re-writing and wordplay, I found the book’s true title, The Most Dangerous Thing. It’s not too long, nor too common, and it sums up the book perfectly. (If you’re wondering just what is the most dangerous thing, you’ll have to wait a little.)

       Currently I’m looking for a title for an adult book I’ve written that spans twenty-five years of a woman’s life. It’s about love and loss and mothers and the way some people have to make a new family if they’ve lost their first one. The book has over the years I’ve been writing it been called: Open Your Heart, (un)Lucky, and It’s Better To Go On Long Walks. Each of these has spoken to some aspect of the book, but has been rejected for various reasons. Open your Heart was too common, (un)Lucky was well, unlucky, and The Long Walk title too glib. None of them really spoke to the heart of the book either. In desperation (and amusement) I tried using an online book title generator. This resulted in:  Lonely Japan Boy, The Seven Angels, Gift in the Crying, The Acceptance Ring, Dragon in the Planet, and my personal favourite The Legacy of the PotterSome of these aren't bad, but they've got nothing to do with my book!

       I’ve spent most of my long bike rides this summer trying to unearth the book’s true title, but a talk with my friend Robbie finally sent me in the right direction. I haven't nailed it down yet, but I think I'm getting closer. Possible options are Finding Home, Swing on a Star, Back to Belonging, Away and Home, and Someone to Dance With. Readers, if you have strong opinions about these, let me know! I seek advice!

     So what makes a good title? I like an usual combination of words like Hideous KinkyTheir Eyes Were Watching God and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The Cat’s Table also intrigues me. But I’m also equally happy with titles like Home and The Road Home. Perhaps I just love these last two books (by Marilynne Robinson and Rose Tremain) and don’t really care about the title. I imagine so. Books with two word titles that are easy to say, and remember, yet slightly unusual like Deborah’s Levy’s Hot Milk and Midnight's Children are what I aim for. With that in mind, I’m thinking of calling my next two books Rock Me Tight and The Tree Lover.