The state of the Jewnion


If you come to my home, it will be hard to tell that Jews habitate within. Sure, there is the kiddush cup from our wedding, sitting on a side shelf, or a menorah in the library, or the mezuzah tucked away in our front door. Our ketubah is lying around somewhere upstairs.  There is a vintage travel poster urging you to “Come Visit Palestine!” with a picture of Jaffa sprawled out near the sea. Hebrew letter Jewish? Or just hipster?

We’re just normal suburban Americans (right).

We are not extremely outwardly Jewish in our daily lives, if being Jewish means going to services, knowing anything about prayers, or not eating shellfish. And, according to a new poll by the  Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, because of us, the Jewish people of America are screwed.

The poll found that,

Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.

The poll has just described the entire Northeast Philadelphia Russian population, and probably half of Israel. And yet, I’ve never met more a Jew more fervent than my atheist grandfather.

Of course, religious Jews are up in arms and Jewish organizations that rely on telling Jews that there are no more Jews are FRANTICALLY UPSET,

“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York.

But I’m angry, too. Are you saying that just because I don’t go to Friday night services, that you won’t count me as one of your people? I guess even crying at Prince of Egypt doesn’t count?

American Jewry has always had a stupid relationship with what it means to be Jewish that starts and ends by measuring how many times someone goes to a synagogue, which is like counting how many foodies there are by how many 4-star restaurants they go to. Maybe they’re eating at hole-in-the wall places you don’t know. Maybe they’re cooking at home.

That shit is hard to measure, but the Jewish community can’t be bothered to measure it, because that would mean actually thinking instead of panicking and trying to raise money from rich Jews who are also concerned about the Situation.

  • How many times you’ve been called a kike because you had an obviously  Jewish first name or last name in Russia
  • How many times you or family have been denied immigration to Israel by the Soviet government
  • How many restaurants you’ve gone to to find the perfect falafel
  • How many websites you’ve visited to find out when Hanukkah is this year
  • How many times you’ve teared up through Anne Frank
  • How much time you’ve spent thinking about Jews in the 1930s for your novel
  • The amount of time you spend on Yediot Ahronot and thinking about Israel
  • The ping of happiness when you see an international foods grocery section that has both matzah and Bissli.

None of these are measured in the survey, and yet all of them are my reality as a non-religious Jew who is as Jewish as you can be without knowing the difference between mincha and bracha.

Try these on for size, Pews and Jews, shut up,  and don’t come back until you start making sense again.


How to be full-on Jewish half of the time



Several glasses deep into a bottle of wine a couple months ago, my friend and I decided we needed more Jewish rituals in our lives. She has a toddler and wants to make sure he is steeped in Jewish tradition, but, also being ex-Soviet, is not sure how to go about doing it.

So, this past weekend, Mr. B and I hosted a Passover seder. We probably shouldn’t have, because people really only do seder the first two nights, I think.  I’m not 100% clear on seder rules. But, I had some time last Saturday and all of our friends were free, and it was marginally during the week of Passover, so, that’s when we decided to have the seder.



Mr. B and I are prepared for anything. Anything being either pogroms or the Siege of Leningrad.

I haven’t been blogging because every time I sit down to blog, my mind goes to my summer classes, work, or completely out the door.

Last weekend, it went to Seattle and Portland, where Mr. B and I spent a couple days on sanity leave (aka vacation.)  Much more on that later, but for now, here’s one of my favorite pics from the trip, from the ferries to Bainbridge Island. I think it pretty much sums up the Pacific Northwest.

On vacation, I was devouring The Bronze Horseman, which is an excellent vacation read because it is a lighthearted romance set during the Siege of Leningrad.   By light-hearted, I mean that people were resorting to cannibalism.

Aside from that bit, it’s an emotional, heartbreaking and funny and beautiful book and I highly recommend it as a vacation read when you’re relaxing and don’t want to at all to think about why the author would mention that there aren’t any more rats in a city. I finished it two nights ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about the story since. For example, I’ve been thinking about what I would do if I were in the Siege of Leningrad.

As a white person living in the first world with no discernible problems whatsoever, I often have these situations where I like to test myself by thinking about how good of a job I would do in a time of great mental duress that I have been extremely blessed never to have experienced.

Never mind that the actual times I was under mental duress, during the Israel-Lebanon War in 2006, I completely came unglued and decided that the faulty exhaust on the Number 7 bus stopping under our building in Tel Aviv was really Hezbollah.

A couple of months ago after reading Shalom Auslander’s essay, Mr. B and I discussed what we would do if a second Holocaust happened in America.  This discussion came about because I was saying that I’m a minimalist and Mr. B challenged me to list the five things we would leave home with and I couldn’t come up with only five, because I have way more than five books.

“What are you going to pack if the Nazis come,” Mr. B asked.

“Just a couple of things. Toothbrush, toothpaste, and lots of warm clothes.”

“That’s nice.”

“You sound condescending.”

“Yeah, because I’d bring cash.”

“WTF?  What good is cash going to be when you have to escape to, like, Alaska?”

“It’s going to be very good because we can exchange it for gold and then exchange it for other goods.”

“It’s not when no one values gold or cash where we’re going.  Warm clothes on the other hand…”

“So you’re going to leave the house with six layers on?  That’s going to hinder your mobility.  I’m leaving you behind to the Germans.”

“You’d leave me behind to die?”

“That’s ok, you look goy anyway, so they’d never take you.”

Once Mr. B was done racially profiling me and deciding that I was better off as S.S. cannon fodder than safe and warm in Alaska, I began to trust him less.  Which is why I didn’t include him in my  siege of Leningrad fantasy survival scenario.

The main character in the Bronze Horseman, Tatiana, survives through her sheer internal fortitude and will to live for another main character, Alexander.  I decided would probably survive by being really strong and murdering people for their bread rations.

“You would murder people for food?” Mr. B asked loudly.  We were sitting at a busy coffee shop in Seattle overlooking Pike Place as we were having this discussion.

“Yes.  You don’t know what I’m capable of. My animal self is much closer to the exterior than it is for other people.”

“You would never, ever survive a siege.  You love food too much.”

“That’s true,” I paused to lick some of the whipped cream from the top of my iced coffee.  “But I could get really brutal if push came to shove.”

“Like how brutal,” Mr. B asked through his americano, unimpressed.

“Like Machiavellian-type situations. Like I’d wait outside the houses of the old and feeble for sweet relief to come and then come take their food.”

“You would never last a day in a siege,” he repeated. “You’d just get really hungry and complain all the time.”

“Oh, like you’d last in a siege.  You’re too kind and don’t have a mean bone in your body. You’d get taken advantage of all the time. Then eaten. By those like me.”

“That’s not true,” Mr. B said, hurt by this slander of his character. “I’d form mutual cooperation societies. Like they do in Hunger Games.  And we’d roam the streets.”

“How would you be doing this?  Shouldn’t you be at the front fighting the Synavino Offensive?”

“What, you think they allowed Jews at the front?”

“Um, yes? Also, a lot of my grandfather’s family served?”


“But you would be terrible at the front because, you know, you’re not angry enough. Probably best to try and stick you somewhere in intelligence.”

Mr. B and I fell silent and continued to drink our coffee, weighed down by the realization that, despite the fact that we’ve been told we’re Russian all our lives, if we were ever put in a country where you have to live on your wits as opposed to a system of established rules, we’d be done for.

(except for me. Because, remember, the animal closer to the surface and everything.)


Scotland the Brave: It’s about to get a little anti-Semitic up in Edinburgh. Also, rainy.

As you last recall, we were by the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

When we got back to Edinburgh in the evening, we were cold, rainy,and exhausted. But,tough luck, because that night was the first night of Hanukah, and, as you guys know by now, the first Rule of Russian Tourism is : “if you’re here you might as well see OMGEVERYTHING POSSIBLE.” The day before while walking around St. Andrew Square, I spotted the tell-tale Chabad menorah, and decided that we were going to take a break from pretending to be WASPS and Japanese tourists:

and go to the Menorah lighting.

In Scotland, I missed being Jewish in a country completely devoid of any acknowledgement of Jews living among the locals (i.e. kashrut certification, Larry David sitcoms, etc.). And for two, I was extremely curious about Scottish Jews. What was the deal? Were there really Scottish Jews? Did they also wear kilts? Were there any Scottish/Jewish foods?  And if so, how much would you have to pay me to eat something brought to you by the people who invented haggis and the people who invented gefilte fish?

So, sore, tired, and cold, we walked up to St. Andrew’s square, across from the Bank of Scotland and site of the Occupy Edinburgh protesters.

I know.  The irony of the Occupy Edinburgh 99% combined with all of us rich Jewish bankers was almost too much to handle.  By the time we came, there was a group of maybe 40 or 50 people and it was well after sunset.

“Stand in the corner and observe from a distance,” I instructed Mr. B.  “I don’t want to get caught up in this situation.”  By which I meant that I was terrified that the Chabad rabbi would make his way over to us, say hello, and make Mr. B put on a kippah or something.  As a huge introvert, I did not want any part of that.

Which is why I took all of my pictures surreptitiously without flash, which, I guess, kind of makes the whole event look like a cult gathering instead of a joyous celebration of light. Speaking of light and dark and weather, guess what?  Yup.  It was gently misting upon Goy and Jew alike at this point.

It was pretty surreal.  There were some older ladies, some younger guys (most with American accents), and a couple of  families with small kids who were wearing English/Scottish football team jerseys and also kippahs.  One guy, I kid you not, came in an actual kilt.  It was the first and last time I saw someone wearing a kilt in Scotland. I hope to God that he was wearing the Jewish tartan.

You never really think about how weird and funny it is to be Jewish and something else at the same time until you see someone ELSE being Jewish and something else at the same time.  Does it look just as ridiculous to other people when American Jews singe the American national anthem? But is it really that much better to be a Jew in Israel these days? I didn’t know. What I did know is that I was cold, damp, and unfortunately sober, and that we’d already been waiting 20 minutes for the menorah lighting, and I realized I didn’t even see the menorah.

However, people were walking by, looking at our group with  outright curiosity, especially the rabbi, who was all rabbi-geared up. I don’t know what the prevailing sentiment is in Scotland about rabbis or how many people have ever seen one, given that Scotland’s Jewish community numbers are wee, but the more I stood there, the weirder I felt about being Jewish. Not really pogrom-y, but not really comfortable.

“These guys have really poor event planning,” muttered Mr. B, partaking in that most ancient and scared Jewish traditions of kvetching. “If you were planning this event, we would already be singing Hava Nagila and well on our way to latkes.”   I shrugged in a Russian, non-committal way that suggests that the universe is always against you and there’s nothing you can to keep it from lightly misting on your parade if it wants to.

I looked around, but no one seemed to be as miserable as me, not even the guy in the kilt.  I was later reminded of the Corries’ rendition of Scotland the Brave, “How I wish the wind was warm! Scotland the Brave.”  By the way, I have been trying to reconcile my feelings about this song for the past week.  On the one hand, it is awesome. On the other, what does “wee fat Jews mean”?

Finally, an American rabbi, who I believe is the head of Chabad in Edinburgh, spoke up.  “Folks, the menorah is on its way and is being carried up the street as we speak.”  Up the street?  Why was the menorah not here?  This event planning was indeed terrible.  Finally it came, with two to three guys carrying it and municipal electricians behind it with a car and a ladder to light it.

I have to say, it took a while to light that menorah, not only because candles will, by the laws of physics, not light in a country whose Constant Dampness factor is 100%, but because it was also a bit windy and they had the wrong candle and oh my God everything was going terrible and thousands of years of Jewish tradition down the drain.

The full-fledged curiosity of onlookers continued and, juxtaposed with the fact that we were almost standing among the Occupy Edinburgh tents, which were silent for the night, embarrassed me and made me realize how absurd the whole situation was. Finally, after about 20 more minutes of groping in the dark,  they got the first candle and the shamash lit.  Then we sang all the right songs.   The Hanukkah spirit grabbed me, and I started to feel buoyant, like, yeah! We Jews can make it anywhere! “Now we can leave,” Mr. B and I said with relief.

It was at that exact moment that the bonnie Scottish wind blew the candle out.

I sighed and we left.

What I knew after we left is that I had a bunch of reading to do. The first thing I discovered is that there was a distinct reason that the menorah was late.  It was because the one I had seen the night before was vandalized and destroyed and, somehow, the Jews of Edinburgh had managed to rebuilt it in a single day.  So my sensations about feeling uncomfortable as a Jew in Edinburgh were not completely unfounded, although maybe this was a distinctly isolated incident.

The second thing I learned is that there are some real ballers in Jewish/Scottish history, the most baller one of all of them being Lord George Gordon

“In 1787, at the age of 36, Lord George Gordon converted to Judaism in Birmingham, circumcised at the synagogue in Severn Street now next door to Singers Hill Synagogue, something rare in the England of his day. He took the name of Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon (“Israel son of Abraham” Gordon—since Judaism regards a convert as the spiritual “son” of the Biblical Abraham) and underwent brit milah (“circumcision”). Gordon thus became what Judaism regards as, and Jews call, a “Ger Tsedek”—a righteous convert.”:

Can you IMAGINE converting to Judaism at one of the most hostile times towards Jews in history? (Ok, that was all of the times, but still). Can you imagine being circumcised in 1787?  Think about it for a minute. I did. And when I did, I realized that it was probably more painful than having to wait 40 minutes for a menorah to be lit.  Although, we were waiting outside in the Scottish weather.  So I don’t know.



Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

My life has been pretty chaotic lately. New job, new school, new house, and, thanks to that whoreicane Irene, now we have a sinkhole situation in our driveway.

However, when I started reading The Magicians last week, I could feel the chaos melting away and I knew right away this book and its sequel, The Magician King, were going on my list of favorite books.

I heard about The Magicians when it first came out, but for some reason I wasn’t drawn too it; I think I thought it was going to be too dark.  It was also billed as an urban fantasy, a ‘grown-up Harry Potter,’ and ‘somewhat snobby.’  All of that pushed me away.

But then I got Kindle for iPad, The Magician King came out, and I thought it was time to give it a shot.

It is so rare for me to love a book that I’ve been in a kind of post-Magicians haze for the past two weeks.  Everything about this book and its sequel are perfect.  The plot is interesting, magical but not overly so, moves quickly, explores college live and the dilemma of the “quarter-life” crisis, but also what it means to want something, and the power of goals and consequences.

As soon as I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.  I love fantasy books.  But they have to be smart fantasy books, not the kind that are churned out by the hundred and have the picture of the fairy with wings on it, and they have to be believable.  Like The Hobbit, or Narnia, or, my favorite books of all time, The Golden Compass, which I’ve reread almost every year since I was 13.  I also loved, loved, loved, loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (another not bad one is Elfland.)

The thing about a good fantasy book is, from the minute you open it, you have to feel like you’re along for an adventure with the characters.  You can smell the strange flowers, understand the constraints of the fantasy world and believe them, and generally feel excited that you’ve discovered a new universe.

Grossman gets you there right away.  You’re trailing Quentin Coldwater, which is a very WASPY and pretentious name for a very WASPY and depressed kid.  You think you’re going to hate him because he’s so mopy and inactive.  It’s Brooklyn in the fall and he loves a girl that doesn’t love him back, but her boyfriend is friends with him.  Quentin is a Huge Nerd and trying to escape Brooklyn.  You just have to know there’s somewhere better for him.  Almost right away, weird things start to happen/  There’s a strange portal in an abandoned Brooklyn garden, and your stomach is in knots: the chase is on.

He ends up in a school for magicians.  Like Hogwarts. Only, it’s unfair to compare The Magicians to Harry Potter because Grossman makes it all seem real, like you could attend.  And magic is not just waving your wand.  It’s intricate hand positions and knowing the phases of the moon and feeling it intuitively.  It takes weeks to work up to your first spell, and Grossman has you believing if you crammed hard enough, you could do it, too.

The thing I really love about Grossman’s descriptions of Quentin’s four years at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy is that, if you were a nerd and overachiever as a kid,  you can tell Grossman was a nerd and overachiever as a kid.  You can feel with the way he writes about Quentin’s struggles to get spells right and memorize Old Church Slavonic and Italian for certain chants, about the late nights spent making little marbles move half an inch on their own, that Grossman highly overachieved and stayed up late nights to overachieve.  You know because, as an overachiever, you’ve also put in the hours, going to bed at 2 or 3 in the morning to finish that paper, to get that 96, to be the best.  You know how 2 in the morning when you’re memorizing the periodic table feels.  And everyone at Brakebills is the same.

They’re also all cynical, smart as hell, and funny as hell.  I rarely laugh out loud when I’m reading, but every page of Magicians has a funny turn of phrase that made me highlight. The book is laced with dark humor and undertones and never dull.  You feel yourself going up with Quentin’s every victory, knowing that something greater (and perhaps more frightening) than studying and reciting him awaits at the end.  And in the scary parts, you’re actually scared.  Read the chapter called “The Beast” and tell me you don’t think about it for days afterwards.  It’s so well-written and psychologically creepy.

And once you get to the end, there is a huge payoff.  But then the novel ends.  But that’s ok.  There’s a sequel and all of the magic, the occult, the perfectly-written, humorous and flawed characters are there waiting for you.

What you also notice when reading both this book and its just-as-good sequel is how good of a writer Lev Grossman is.   There’s a rule in writing, I forget who said it, but basically, if you put a trashcan in the first chapter, it has to go in the last as well, about not writing extraneous text.  Everything in The Magicians is pertinent,so pay close attention. And everything is magical.