April 28, 2019

Personal Passover Reflections for 5779, Amidst Another Antisemitic Tragedy

Posted in Judaism at 12:00 pm by chavalah

Google Maps view of the Chabad synagogue in Poway, Calif.

I’d already drafted this post before learning about yesterday’s shooting attack at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, Calif. One woman, Lori Gilbert-Kaye, of blessed memory, was killed. Three more were injured, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, Almog Peretz, and 8-year-old Noya Dahan. The young girl’s family had immigrated from Israel because of continual damage to their home in Sderot due to rocket attacks from Gaza. Hatred leaves a long trail.

The attack came six months to the day after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh, and also on the last day of Passover. It stands as testament that the Jewish fight for freedom is never over. But luckily, we are not alone. Some 900 people of several faiths gathered at a nearby church for a vigil, and a crowdfunding campaign has already raised over $18,000. It’s heartening to end the holiday with the reminder that most people are kind, compassionate and just.

5779 marked the first time that I attended a synagogue seder. Rabbi Holtzblatt of Adas Israel in Washington, DC was kind enough to carve out time on the second night to administer to the community.

I was seated at Table 20 in Kay Hall, so there was a lot of interest here! Many people in attendance appeared to be young professionals, perhaps the type that couldn’t make it home for the holiday. But I was struck, yet again, about obstacles to doing Passover alone. Most folks were smart enough to come with significant others, or friend groups. I had more difficulty breaking into conversations. When I sat down at the table, there was actually significant discussion about “Game of Thrones,” but only inasmuch as to confirm that not everyone had seen the latest episode. 😛 It does seem like opportune timing to be thinking of “Game of Thrones,” considering the characters at Winterfell will be fighting for the ultimate freedom tonight! :/

This perhaps also stands as testament as to how popular stories can bring people together. We were all gathered at Kay Hall to retell the story of Exodus, but it’s difficult to be self-directed at a table of strangers. We had the Haggadah in front of us, but few people seemed inclined to follow the written word of the Maggid. Rabbi Holtzblatt provided some direction at the beginning of the seder, as we went through Kadesh (first cup of wine), Urchatz (the first washing of the hands) Karpas (dipping a vegetable in salt water) Yachtaz (the breaking of the middle matzo), Rachtzah (the second washing of the hands) and then the blessings over bread and matzo. By the time we got to Korech, or making a sandwich with bitter herbs (and the optional sweet charoset), my table was in a little bit of disarray. Probably because the horse radish had been all but consumed with the gefilte fish, and now we were scraping the bottom of the dish. We’d also gone through several bottles of wine by that time as well. Oh well! (I actually stuck to the grape juice because my problem with alcohol is that it’s rarely sweet enough for my palate. :P)

Rabbi Holtzblatt attempted to provide her own interpretation of events, from highlighting the synagogue’s work with modern-day refugees to grappling with the more vengeful parts of the story. But somehow it felt more topical and less fulfilling than a typical rabbinical service. Passover is really a holiday about family, when we’re supposed to be interacting around the table rather than listening face-forward to our leaders on the bimah. But still, something is better than nothing, and I’m very grateful to my community.

At the end of the seder, my table suddenly turned into the place to be. As the tireless maintenance staff entered to put Kay Hall back to rights and congregants started to leave, others joined Table 20 to sing popular Passover songs. My family isn’t religious–we didn’t have a seder this year–and I’m far from comfortable singing alone in Hebrew. :/ Perhaps this can be a point of self-improvement before next year.

Another thing to consider–I’m still halfheartedly poking at the idea of leading my own seder. There’s plenty of areas where I have to kick own butt about this, but the one that sticks out in my mind is focus. Considering we won’t be doing the full, unabridged seder (thank goodness Adas didn’t either or I wouldn’t have made the Metro home!), how should I make it meaningful? I read this article on JTA concerning various haggadot with themes such as the Holocaust to lesbian feminism. Again, this shows the vast applicability of the story of freedom, as well as Judaism’s storied history and evolution. I want to make sure my seder showcases both the universal and the temporal of our lives in the here and now.

At the very least, I’m grateful that I’ve maintained this tradition of yearly Passover reflection. But I should keep challenging myself to do better as well. Freedom is a journey, and I will keep circling back to the story of Exodus throughout the rest of my life. I hope all of you who celebrated had meaningful experiences.


March 31, 2019

Jewish Fantasy Quests and Fairytale Retellings!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 7:32 am by chavalah

Godserfs series covers

Continuing a tradition concerning writing about Jewish fantasy every few years in March. 😀 I have new things to say!

First, I’ll check back in with my list from 2016. I’ve read and reviewed The Second Mango, Central Station (which is technically science fiction but eh,) and Last Song Before Night. I still have yet to read A Highly Unlikely Scenario or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, but it’s currently # 22 on my goodreads tbr! 😛

Last month, I read The Godserfs series by N.S. Dolkart. Like most Jewish fantasy, I first heard about this on the Jewish Book Council website. Dolkart (writing under his real name) claimed to have written “The Jewish Narnia.” Narnia, he says, is Christian because it’s allegorical of Christian themes. Ergo, a fantasy would be Jewish for adhering to Jewish themes.

He decided to go with biblical interpretation. In another essay, he writes:

It is important to note that the Tanakh accepts and assumes the existence of multiple gods, besides the one “true” God. In Exodus 12:12, God says to Moses: “I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt.” Numbers 33:4 confirms that God “executed judgments against their gods.” These other unnamed gods are less awesome (e.g. Psalms 86:8, “Among the gods there is none like you, Lord”), but they’re around, opposing our God and each other, and generally doing no good in the world.

The problem is that our God, or “The God Most High” in the Godserfs series, isn’t exactly benevolent either. I say “problem,” because the idea of a cruel and capricious god doesn’t jive well with most modern day Judaism. Literal readings of the bible tend to make growing numbers of people critical of those who follow religious traditions.

So I went into this series feeling a lot of internal push-back. But soon the story carried me away. Yes the gods are cruel, but usually remote enough so that I can focus on other things. Namely the human characters, who were refreshingly complicated creations for genre fiction. I don’t care what defines their world; I want to see where our prophetic islanders, Criton, Bandu, Narki, Phaedra and Hunter, end up!

And admittedly, I felt smug to be reading a medieval questing series without all the Christian overtones. Yes, there were magical maguffins, but none of them led back to Jesus. Instead, magic led back to a leviathan creature, and sometimes even denoted human intelligence in trying to debate with and understand the world, Talmudic style.

I’m not actually that well-versed in biblical scholarship, so I suppose it’s not surprising that an engaging fantasy series would jump-start new interest. Mythology begets mythology, after all. As a fiction lover, I’ve always appreciated the power of a good story and good worldbuilding. I think that’s part of what drives me towards the Jewish religion, beyond identification with the ambiguous “Jewish culture.” “Belief” isn’t a simple morality tale.

But I’m also barreling forward towards my latest Jewish fantastical obsession–fairytale retellings! 😀 (Of a sort. I’m using the term liberally.) Come “SciFi September” this year, I hope to read these three:

Hopefully I’ll be back by March 2022 (or even before) to tell you what I think! Happy reading!

February 28, 2019

Thoughts on BDS, and Affording It Too Much Power

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 7:49 am by chavalah

Popular BDS Photo (Wikipedia)

Like many Jews, I’m no fan of BDS.

BDS, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, seeks to promote the wide-scale boycott of Israel due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A lot of it’s activity buttresses against antisemitism, with leaders and prominent members calling for Israel’s destruction, the targeting of Jewish civilians and even violence on American college campuses (and around the world.)

More generally, I don’t support academic and cultural boycotts of any kind. Such demands diminish the opportunity for compromise, camaraderie and empathy, and seek to see the world in black and white good guys vs bad guys terms. Once, on Facebook, a friend posted a BDS ad about a trip to the West Bank, which explicitly told participants to stay away from Jewish religious and historical sites in Israel. Presumably because that would mess with their narrative where Jews are imperialist colonialists in the Middle East.

But I’m not too thrilled with the path that BDS opposition has taken either, particularly in America. BDS is our latest “cry wolf/ antisemitism” bat signal. This blinds us to the true complexity of antisemitism, which in turn makes it more difficult to combat. A private citizen who is a BDS supporter, someone who isn’t shouting slurs, threatening Jews or actively campaigning to destroy Israel, but who wants to stand up against the injustices of the Occupation, might claim that we are tampering with the First Amendment right to free speech.

In fact, as BDS-centric lawsuits have cropped up in court, this is exactly the argument that has come up. Not to mention scrutiny–by Jewish sources, too– of Marco Rubio pushing anti-BDS legislation, say, when the country was in government shutdown. For the record, I support some legislation against BDS, but it has to be under the auspices of normal anti-discrimination laws. This opinion piece lays it down well.

The issue has been percolating in my mind, in regards to increasing antisemitism allegations against The Women’s March, as well as altercations involving other left-wing leaders. Often times, people on both sides of the issue cite progressive support of BDS as the reason for the controversy. But I find that to be an incredible oversimplification.

Recently there’s been a slew of leaders (often Black, which opens up a whole other can of worms about attacking the POC community) who have come under fire for things they’ve said about Jews and Israel. As I sift through all of the controversy, what strikes me is that “BDS” has become a blanket that obscures more serious issues.

Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez of the Women’s Movement allegedly stated that Jews were leaders in the slave trade, a falsehood popularized by The Nation of Islam. Later, according to early Women’s March leader Evvie Harmon, Mallory and Perez tore into another leader for being Jewish: I was raised in the South and the language that was used is language that I’m very used to hearing in rural South Carolina. Just instead of against black people, against Jewish people. They even said to her ‘your people hold all the wealth.’

Another leader, Linda Sarsour, has a history of gaslighting Jewish organizations she disagrees with, and effectively delineating that there are “good” and “bad” Jews.

Angela Davis, who almost lost out on an Alabama civil rights activism award due to actions blamed, in part, on the Jewish community, supports Rasmeah Odeh. Odeh was convicted and served jail time in Israel for her role in a 1969 Jerusalem bombing that killed Leon Kannie and Eddie Joffe, and injured 9 others. An outspoken opponent of the US’s prison system, Davis didn’t extend those beliefs to the USSR, wherein she called its Jewish refusenik prisoners “Zionist fascists.”

Marc Lamont Hill, a CNN commentator who was fired last year, tacitly endorsed Palestinian violence against Israelis and evoked a popular anti-Israel slogan. Hill claims that his remarks cater towards his belief that there should be just one, non-Zionist state in Israel and Palestine, and that he’s not specifically endorsing violence against Jews. But that feels like a bit of a cop out, considering the cultural and religious makeup of the vast majority of Israelis, as well as the multi-faceted Jewish history in the region, which he sees fit to ignore.

To be clear, I don’t think Hill should have been fired, nor Davis’s award temporarily rescinded. (As for The Women’s March, Carly Pildis hues close to my own opinion.) But I don’t think its racist to be critical of antisemitic beliefs and statements. This goes far beyond a boycott.

As a progressive, I feel betrayed that the new left’s call for “intersectionality” has somehow missed the Jews. As an American, I’m aware that the most dangerous antisemitism towards my own community comes from extremism on the right. As a cynic, I wonder how many people care about bigotry at all, or if they just want to use it a cudgel against the other political party. The Zioness Facebook page is often filled with bitter complaints whenever the group comments on progressive causes. Never mind that their manifesto says that they “fight for…women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and any other human being whose rights are denied.” Obviously some people just follow the nonprofit to spew vitriol on feminists, by way of Zioness’s criticism of The Women’s March.

I’ve basically been in a whirlpool about all of this for months. Writing helps. 😛 So too did attending a Deborah Lipstadt talk about her new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now. There’s something cathartic about attacking the problem head on, defining terms and engaging in history without bias.

At the end of the day, BDS is more pernicious than it is benign. It seeks easy answers and feeds into old hatreds. But banning it might do about as much good as banning Holocaust denial in Germany. It hasn’t stopped antisemitism from rearing its increasingly violent head.

More generally in the world, there seems to be a extreme rightward shift towards authoritarianism and xenophobia, including in the Israeli government. Sometimes I want to bury my head in the sand and leave the world to its bitter fate. But then I remember organizations like Roots and PCFF, and the non-toxic side of Jewish twitter, like Batya Ungar-Sargon and Carly Pildis who advocate for nuance and empathy.

Ultimately, I’m responsible for my own moral compass, not all of humanity’s. I’ll do my best to speak up for a world that engages with empathy, complexity and community. Hatred and cruelty will always exist out there, but sometimes a bit of perspective can help turn my rudder in the right direction. There’s still a subset of people out there who are fighting for a compassionate future. Those are the people who deserve my focus.

January 30, 2019

2018: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 8:21 am by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Reaching the tail end of the first month of 2019, so it’s time to roll out one of my blogging traditions. I’ve opened each new year of Chava’s Footsteps this past little while by blogging about the Italian Jewish community. Here is a collection of news articles, mostly published to Tablet Magazine or JTA but there are some others too, that detail 2018 stories pertaining to Jews in Italy and/or Italy’s relationship with Jews. A couple of these stories are more broadly about Europe, but Italy is always mentioned specifically.

The election year garnered a few stories about where Italian Jews came down on politicians and movements. We also have the usual blend of food stories, Holocaust references (both philo and antisemitic), and nods to older history. Always love reading about a new museum.

Cycling is always a big theme; in 2018 an Italian race opened in Israel for the first time! Though elsewhere, anti-Israel sentiment at Italian Liberation Day celebrations caused tensions for the Jewish community. In inspiring news, Italian Jews stood up for Roma communities, long persecuted in Europe. And as a personal favorite niche–there’s a few stories in here about writers and publishing! I should check these people out.

I’ve included all of this and more below; please feel free to add more stories in the comments. So, without further ado!

Read the rest of this entry »

October 30, 2018

My Picks for the 2018 GoodReads Choice Awards!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 10:16 pm by chavalah

My 2018 picks in fantasy and science fiction.

Before I begin, rest in peace and baruch dayan emet to the victims of two recent terrorist attacks on American soil–Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in Jeffersontown, KY, and Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger at the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. The latter constituted the worst US antisemitic attack in history. Wishing my people a refuah shleimah. I’m proud to be here on this blog promoting the wealth and beauty of Jewish religion and culture.

I waited so long to write this that the Choice Awards opening round is now live! Alas! My objective for this blog post is to point out books that I’d like to nominate this year. Some will be on the lists and some won’t. We can write in votes until November 4!

Like many people, I think I’m kinda rigging the system. I’m not voting in every category, but there’s no way that I’ve read a majority (or even minority) of the books published in 2018. In some genres, I’ve only read one! We all know that the most well-known books (*cough* Fear by Bob Woodward in nonfiction *cough cough*) will end up the winners.

That being said, I view these awards as a way to show support for the books I’ve loved, not as a test of comparisons. I’ll go to the big frou frou awards for that. 😛 On GoodReads, I (and I hope you will join me) just want to shout out my love of reading! So here we go! My picks! Links lead to my reviews, except for the graphic novel and the picture book.

Girls Burn Brigher by Shobha Rao. A harrowing but beautiful novel about friendship, and the cost of misogyny and destitution: the ways they can break you but also what can lift you up.

Historical Fiction:
Eternal Life by Dara Horn. A retrospective on motherhood, Jewish history from the female lens, and the meaning of life.

Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer. Lyrical and evocative, this sequel to Last Song Before Night takes our protagonist to a new city with strange magic and hidden schemes.

Science Fiction:
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. Chronicles the lives of humans–and aliens–associated with the Exodan Fleet which left a dying Earth–and asks what its purpose is once its found safe harbor.

History and Biography:
Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America by Shari Rabin. Positing that freedom of mobility and loosening of religious organizations defined the American Jewish experience of the age–and onward.

Graphic Novels and Comics:
Grace for Gus by Harry Bliss. I got this for my niece, but I think my adult relatives were more enamored with the detailed pictures paying tribute to New York City and current events!

Debut Author:
Beneath the Haunting Sea by Joanna Ruth Meyer. I’m probably “cheating” here more than anywhere else because I know this author, but I looked forward to reading her YA fantasy for years and she didn’t disappoint!

Young Adult Fantasy:
A Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir. Though I didn’t find the third book to be as explosive for the characters as A Torch Against the Night, the politics are revving up and the magic is growing much stronger!

Picture Books:
Black Bird, Yellow Sun by Steve Light. I bought this for my infant nephew, and my sister sent pictorial proof that he was taken by the colors and imagery!

I’ll be back this weekend where I’ll “NaNoBlogMo” my thoughts on the GoodReads generated lists! Happy reading!

September 9, 2018

5778 in News of the Jews

Posted in Judaism at 9:13 am by chavalah

Continuing in the vein of my posts for the last two years. Wherein I assess my personal thoughts about the broader Jewish world before the start of High Holidays this evening.

The United States

I’ve been doing a little bit of reading about the American Jewish experience this year. We’ve always been in a bit of a weird position. We’re legally white, because the powers that be in the 19th century figured that helps establish Manifest Destiny and the idea of a superior culture, based on color. I’m not sure if any other nation, even other British colonies, formulated its identity so firmly along race lines. For Jews, it’s a far cry from the inferior position that we held in Europe (and often in North Africa and the Middle East.) But just because we were legally white doesn’t mean that we didn’t face bigotry and persecution here. “Cultural” whiteness isn’t so clear cut, at least with us.

This is helping me deal with realities for Jews on the left today. (The perception of Jews on the right seems to lie between Nazis screaming “Jews will not replace us!” and the fetishizing of Israel as a pornographically gun-happy state. I’m kinda scared to watch Sacha Baron Cohen’s “mockumentary” on the subject.) For my purposes, I’m projecting American Jews as “other” from our country’s politics. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the Jewish narrative is cyclical. We don’t fully fit in anywhere.

It’s an easy cop out, though, to not engage. I know that my “activism” consists of watching Zioness from afar and occasionally reposting articles in the hopes that my liberal friends will consider an empathetic approach to Jewish issues. I FEEL both despondent and resigned to the fact that we’ve been here before. So few gentile movements give decent credence to the Jews. We have to contend with Women’s March leaders defending (or at the very least downplaying) Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitism, or dismissing the storied, progressive history of the Anti-Defeamation League. “Intersectionality,” the new left says, does not apply to Jews.

So thank you, JTA, for publishing this opinion piece. Let me take the message into 5779–do NOT disengage. Find common ground for the greater good. But keep resisting, too. Make sure that Jews are heard.

The Personal

I really love my book club (hi guys!) Should be doing more about my Jewish affiliation, but y’all are my biggest kehila right now.

Even though I think y’all think I’m crazy for how much I associate The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin with Jewish themes. But seriously–this might be the most kosher book I’ve read this year! Excepting–lol–that I believe the fortune telling aspect, and main conceit of the story, is a little too far into the Christian predetermination camp.

The themes of this book loom large during the High Holiday season where, metaphorically, we exist somewhere between life and death. There’s beauty and tragedy to the image of Gd sitting poised to write our names or blot them out of the Book of Life. But on a deeper level, these holy days remind us of the fragility of life. Death is inevitable for all of us. But how are we going to live in the here and now? That’s up to us, and these ten glorious days give the structure to assess for the future, however lengthy or brief.

With every passing year, I find myself more emotionally connected to Rosh Hashanah. This might be the only time of year when I believe in the “God” who feels prevalent in the general understanding of Abrahamic religions. Gd as a sense of personal expectation, at least, of separating “right” from “wrong.”

Usually I’m an agnostic. Aside from love of family, my most deeply held belief–so deeply that sometimes it startles me–is in the Jewish narrative. I think about the long thread of Jewish religion, culture and history and I’m left gasping for air. Gd is simply a character in the story. The beauty and pain, the persecution and promise and hopeful redemption of the Jewish narrative is what makes me believe in a higher purpose.

I’m not trying to spit on, y’know, the vast majority of the world or anything. 😛 I’m just saying I know where my place is, because this belief is so integral to me. I tend to express this devotion through reading and reviewing a boatload of Jewish literature per year. But I have to challenge myself, too. Judaism is about kehila. We may also be the people of the book, so props to me for that, but I need to interact more with the people, too. This is where I belong.

The Israel

To get the most important bit out of the way–next year to renewed actions towards peace with Palestinians. I don’t want to be glib, but the topic obviously merits its own space.

On a more personal note–what the shit. And more of this?

I know I’m focusing on the negative. It can be difficult, as a Diaspora Jew, to feel the nuances, the bad and the good, of the Israeli experience. I continue to be grateful to The Promised Podcast, but as an American, non-Orthodox Jew, its easy to feel those deepening divisions. A nice counter to that argument–JTA recently published that many Israeli and American Jews are sick and tired of the Chief Rabbinate. Next year to focusing on where we agree and effecting pluralistic and empathetic change.

L’shanah tova.

August 9, 2018

My Top Four Experiences from 2018 San Diego Comic-Con!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 9:25 pm by chavalah

I was so busy trying to get an artsy shot in the exhibition hall that I didn’t even notice these lovely ladies from Harper Collins smiling at me!

Another year of San Diego Comic-Con has come and gone. And I was there–attending for my third time! SDCC is one of the biggest conventions in the world, and tons of entertainment media has already covered the highlights. But they mostly focus on big industry news from the movie and television studios.

My Comic-Con experience is a lot quieter. But just as fun and meaningful for a fan girl! 😛 I’ve chronicled my four favorite experiences from the four days that I attended the con. Getting geared up for my next trip to geek capital!

#1) Hitting the Bookish Exhibition Hall
My experience in the exhibition hall of previous years has been fleeting. The area is so packed with everything from big industry funhouses to smaller sellers that it attracts some major crowds. But this year I had a mission–stake out the big five publishers! I have a booktube channel and bookstagram account to honor, and they had free books to hand out! 😛 I got soooo many free books (here’s my haul!) basically from any bookish booth I could find. …I miiiight have broken my SDCC custom bag on the very first day. :/ Will that stop me from going so crazy in the exhibition hall next time? Wait and see!

#2) Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Viewing
This is a regular staple for me, both at SDCC and with the local DC-area Browncoats. There’s a couple of things that make this year extra special, though. First of all, it’s the ten-year anniversary (Joss Whedon, Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion were in town for the reunion!) I didn’t actually see that in person, but I did stick around for Dr. Horrible’s Unofficial Singalong Sequel. I was rather impressed with how the amateur production team handled the material. Their songs started out mimicking the originals but then turned into something new. And the characters grew a bit as well–meaning that Penny finally got to tell off Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible for their macho BS. 😀 So much power of fandom here…from singing and reacting to the original, to banding together to create something new. As Dr. Horrible says, “the status is NOT quo…” we’re changing it!

#3) Harry Potter 20th Anniversary Poster
I usually try to stay away from anything having to do with getting an autograph. They tend to be ridiculously expensive and tickets sell out well in advance anyway. But I was tentatively perusing the Unofficial San Diego Comic-Con Blog when I came across this announcement. It was for an exclusive Harry Potter poster celebrating the 20th anniversary, no tickets required! We just had to show up half an hour beforehand to get in line. Of course, this is Comic-Con and no one showed up at the last minute. We were circling the Sails Pavilion like vultures, trying to stay a step ahead (no pun intended) of the events staff whose job was to keep everyone moving. With so many people in attendance, we could easily cause a traffic jam. But when they announced the opening of the line, a mass of people swooped in so fast that it merited its own sound effect. 😛 Scholastic was extra kind to all of us as we waited for the big event. Not only were we promised a signed edition of the exclusive poster (three of the illustrators were waiting with pens in hands), but we also got a commemorative tote bag, pin, and another expansive poster from Brian Selznick! Indie bookstore Mysterious Galaxy was also selling Potter books, so I decided to shell out the cash. I purchased the second illustrated edition since Jim Kay was on hand! It was like winning the jackpot!

#4) The Psychology of Shipping Panel
This happened to be the last panel that I attended, and I think I went out on a high note. A team of psychologists and doctoral students from Marshall University shared intel from their study on favorite fandom ships and what they say about the shippers. I don’t tend to “ship” characters romantically very often, but the concept does give me the fuzzy feels of being involved in fandom. Sure, it’s pretty silly to feel so attached to the lives of popular fictional characters, but it is a method of camaraderie after all. You can always find someone who “ships” the same pairing that you do! 😛 But more interestingly, perhaps, this psychological research tried to pinpoint the different types of relationships, and ergo why specific people are drawn to specific ones. Suddenly this is about understanding ourselves more than it is about something imaginary! 😛 I long to see the full report–alas, trying to explain the ins and outs to lay people in under an hour turned to confusion at times–but I don’t think that’s in the cards. They are interested in new subjects for further research, so maybe I will be getting in touch! I’d like to be included as one of the fans of science fiction/fantasy pop culture! And in heartening news…the Katniss/Peeta ship is still going strong. 😀 #TeamEverlark

Bonus Note
I didn’t attend this panel, but apparently it made enough of a splash for JTA to notice it. In “Art During the Holocaust,” Ruth Goldschmiedova Sax, a survivor, spoke of her experiences in the camps, and also how Nazis used comics as antisemitic propaganda. Meanwhile, in the United States, predominantly Jewish comics used the art form to speak against the Nazi regime, which other panelists expanded upon. I decided to skip this in order to stay in a lighter head space, but man do I feel like I missed out on something important. Tangentially, during downtime at the Con, I was reading Nadja Spiegelman’s memoir, I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This. It’s intergenerational conversation style sorta hues to her father’s infamous Holocaust graphic novel, Maus. So maybe I did take part, in a way. 🙂

June 30, 2018

“The Expanse” Season 3 and a Michael Chabon Addendum

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:46 pm by chavalah

Broader Jewish Inclusion, Not Exodus

Chabon singin’ / wikipedia

Last month I was pretty glib in denouncing Michael Chabon’s graduation speech at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. But in seriously reading the thing, it’s not fair for me to get away with a mic drop. His words aren’t quite so self righteous as I made them out to be, as he grapples with legitimate violence and cruelty that comes out of some “separatist” ideologies of Judaism.

I do still think that he’s being alarmist. The vast majority of Jews, particularly in America, add more to their identities than the religion alone. Just check out any wikipedia page of a celebrity with Jewish heritage.

Intermarriage numbers are around 50%, and as the child of intermarried Jews and the family member to even more of them, you bet I’m peeved when my co-religionists calling it a plague. But this also furthers my resentment of the fetishization of intermarriage, too. Chabon lauds people like me as “mongrels and hybrids and creoles,” but he’s never had to stand in front of a group of Modern Orthodox Jews who look at him like he’s an alien until he explains, “no, it’s my mother who’s Jewish.” Like the award-winning novelist, I’d like to eradicate this dangerous form of wall-building (and especially to stop dismissing Jews of patrilineal descent!) But I wish he’d acknowledge the reality for intermarried Jews and their descendants before turning us into some banner for his cause.

Edmund Case, the founder of InterfaithFamily.com (disclaimer: I’ve written articles for them…also, Case is coming out with a book in 2019?! *adds to tbr*) posits the message of inclusion rather than exodus thusly:

We need to broaden our thinking about heirs to Jewish tradition and include not only those who are born Jewish or Jews by choice, but those who are in relationships with Jews. We need to adapt our concept of Jewish “people” to a broader Jewish “community” that includes everyone who is Jewishly engaged – Jews, their partners from different faith backgrounds and their children – to welcome and include all of those people as heirs to our valuable heritage.

To that end, I’d also add the Jews of Color out there. Chabon told the graduates directly: “Find room in the Jewish community for all those who want to share in our traditions.” Why dismiss Jewish pride as the purview of terrorists like Baruch Goldstein, instead of expanding it to include Jews in All Hues, Kulanu and etc? People like Shoshana Nambi, who’s studying to be the first female rabbi from Uganda? (Kol HaKavod!!) Not to mention all of the “traditional” Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews who celebrate Jewish heritage but also respect and engage with others.

Finally, Chabon says, “It seemed to me then, sitting at my brother and sister-in-law’s table, that Judaism had survived for so long not because of its famous tradition but rather because of its mutability, its flexibility, its adherents’ capacity not just to behave but to feel as though they have always been what they never were before.” I’d like to find a middle ground. Change doesn’t come out of nothing; one has to engage with tradition to find it. And change for change’s sake is as reductive as blindly following rituals. The real “wall” is to be unquestioning about it all. Sometimes “divisions” are necessary. The Shabbes distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane” dictates a day of rest and reflection so that we don’t run ourselves into the ground with unquestioned work. And every time we confront human rights issues means drawing lines in the sand. Chabon has come out strongly against the Occupation in the West Bank. Hopefully, heeding his own words about flexibility, he’s empathetic to both sides while being unflappable about abuses.

I think I’ll end it there, having done, I believe, this subject a little more justice than I did in May. Now, speaking as a Jew with a decidedly un-Jewish interest… 😛

“The Expanse”…Expands in Season 3// SPOILERS!

Final season on SyFy!

Header fail. 😛 But I still think the synopsis holds up. Tl;dr–I’m still catching up on seasons one and two of “The Expanse.” I watched the first few episodes when they aired and wasn’t impressed by a few things. I (wrongfully) thought that Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) was a one-dimensional bad guy. But I think I had more of a point when it came to the Miller/Julie storyline. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw explains it well on the Daily Dot:

Miller’s initial storyline was genre-savvy, but not in the Buffy sense. Tracking the missing heiress Julie Mao (Florence Faivre) across a bustling space station, he was a noir cliché: a grizzled, morally ambiguous white guy in a trilby hat, increasingly obsessed with a young woman he’d never met. Beautiful missing-or-dead girls have motivated many a male antihero over the years, offering a kind of romantic mystery without requiring a real relationship. Julie Mao was the face of the show, her body floating through space on the season 1 posters and home release, but she wasn’t really a character.

All of that had changed when I randomly came across a mid-season 2 episode a year later. Bobby Draper (Frankie Adams) felt like the new Julie, but she was actually at the forefront of her story. It was all about how she was a gung-ho, nationalistic marine, but when she’s used as a pawn she starts to question the superiors who had defined her reality. This also led her to become part of the broader plot, a “Game of Thrones”-esque conceit, where the warring human politics aren’t actually as important as the supernatural lurking in the background. Well, on “The Expanse” maybe it’s even worse because humans are messing with it and causing all sorts of destruction.

That leads us into the first part of season 3, where our main (I’d argue) protagonists, a “Firefly”-like crew of misfits on board their ship, the Rocinante, are trying to save a friend’s daughter. Some nefarious scientists are trying to inject her with “the supernatural” element, the protomolecule, in order to make a weapon. They also get entwined into the Earth/Mars/Belt warfare plot, cos people can’t seem to leave them alone. 😛

Some of the audience don’t seem to like the political storyline, which is generally about the fissures between Earth, Mars, and the underrepresented people who live on space stations in the asteroid belt, mining resources for “the inners.” Much of the first half of this season’s storyline revolved around Avasarala trying to stop a war that her colleague, Sadavir Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) is keen to start for the good of Earth. He’s thwarted in part by a new character, Rev. Dr. Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell), who offers a refreshingly human take on a religious character for a scifi show. She’s earnest, perhaps a little naive, also moral and driven. Errinwright and Avasarala are traditional politicians–often conniving but also driven by genuine ideology, not greed. Anywho, part one of the season ends with Errinwright’s arrest and the Roci friend is reunited with his daughter.

The second half is a bit of a game changer, with the war called off and everyone working together because the protomolecule is creating “a ring” in space on its own. I appreciate how the show isn’t afraid to take risks and alter course, but I do think that it messes a bit with the pacing. Something like six months passed between two episodes, and we’re supposed to feel the tension concerning the long absence of one of the Roci crew. But only a few weeks later, real time, she realized her mistake in leaving and charted a course back.

Still, this show hits me in the gut with character feels. I’m not usually much of a shipper, but Holden (Steven Strait)/Naomi (Dominique Tipper) pushes all my buttons. It’s like watching John/Aeryn on “Farscape” again (except that I was a bad fan and sometimes I shipped John with Chiana. :P) They’re just two lost souls from different cultures trying to find some love and a fresh start…*wistful sigh* Well, another reason why “Nolden” reminds me of J/A is that I’ve heard evidence of grown men shipping them too, hee. Yeah, I could watch the season three finale on repeat solely for the lovey dovey stuff.

OK, I’m being a little glib. Holden and Naomi have more going on in their personal arcs than their sexy, sexy romance (seriously *wipes brow*) but this show also does relationships well. The second part of the season focuses on the part distrustful, part respectful push and pull between two Belter leaders, Drummer (Cara Gee) and Ashford (special guest star David Strathairn!) I was a little iffy on Ashford’s antagonistic turn in the finale, but then again the stakes were high and people make stupid decisions when they’re afraid. I’m also a fan of Drummer’s surly “I don’t get what you see in him” attitude with Naomi re: Holden. 😛 She’s sort of the biggest badass in the room (in the finale she refused to let her broken spine get the best of her and walked around on mechanical legs), which is usually a turn off for me, but in her case, I’ll allow it.

Same, too, for Bobby, who at least uses her brain as much as her brawn, and it looks like she’s defected from the Martians (again?) at the end of the season? Not sure. Also a little unsure about the new relationship between Anna and Roci crew member Amos (Wes Chatham.) He’s the brutal, unscrupulous sort of watch dog character that, again, usually turns me off, though I’m contractually bound to be in Chatham’s corner for life since he’s a “Hunger Games” actor. 😛 And he brings a certain…soft determination? to his character’s convictions, which maybe makes him a good fit for Anna after all. On the surface it seems like he should find her self-righteously idealistic and naive, but instead he’s taken a shine to her. I was also a little underwhelmed by “the revenge plot” of Julie’s sister, Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole) but it looks like she’s along for the ride in season four, too.

I love the diversity of the cast, and all of the science, though I don’t really understand it. 😛 And since I’m still ignorant of some stuff that happened in previous seasons (I’ll be caught up next year!) I’m sure I’m missing some deeper nuance. But one of the things that intrigued me most in the second half was the reappearance of Miller (Thomas Jane)–who died in season two! 😮 He appears as an apparition to Holden, but it’s not really him; it’s more like the protomolecule is trying to find the best way to communicate with our main character. This reminded me a bit of a scene near the end of one of my favorite movies, “Contact,” where the aliens speak to Jodie Foster’s character by impersonating her dad. It’s certainly a bit weird and intrusive, but something big is going on underneath the surface. Can’t wait for the next season, Amazon! 😀

May 31, 2018

Thoughts on some Jewish American Writers, Anne Frank, and a OUAT Coda

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:45 pm by chavalah

Philip Roth, probably peeved at something from the American Jewish community

The other week my mother commented to me how surprised she was by the outpouring of think pieces dedicated to Philip Roth’s passing–not knowing that I intended to add my own. 😛

Philip Roth died at 85 years old on May 22, 2018, Z”L. I may be leaning into something too caustic here, but what irony that it’s the same year that the Nobel Prize for Literature won’t be awarded. Well played.

Roth has been on my periphery as I’m someone who’s invested in the Jewish literary world. I’ve read two of his novels–The Ghost Writer, which annoyed me, and Portnoy’s Complaint, which I loathed. Still, I’ve been gearing myself up to give his collection another try. I’m considering a reading project for the future where I choose from winners of the National Jewish Book Award, so for Roth that would be Goodbye Columbus, The Human Stain and another of the Zuckerman alter-ego books.

The Men Who Love Philip Roth* have told me that I should focus on his later material rather than his earlier stuff. It’s a little more political, slightly more removed from himself (though I’m under the impression that Roth rarely removed himself from the center of his work), and generally less offensive to my lady feels. TMWLPR explain that for them, Portnoy’s Complaint was a sexual and philosophical awakening into what it means to be a man.

I’m not knocking on that, even though I still believe Portnoy’s Complaint to be garbage. I’ll leave the constant and unexplored sexual abuse out of it, and ask how many writers could get away with a main character who never changes and is surrounded by a bunch of cardboard cutout stereotypes? Only one whom the literary establishment has decided is nevertheless a genius, I suppose.

Dara Horn might have the right of it (surprise surprise, the think piece I agree the most with was penned by a woman):

Philip Roth’s works are only curious about Philip Roth. Of course, most writers lead with characters like themselves, and for Roth’s contemporary Jewish readers, his warts-and-all portrayal of people like himself was an honor, inviting them into American literature. But that was the outer limit of Roth’s imagination. His strength lay in those brilliantly rendered characters and voices like his. His weakness was that those voices denigrated just about everyone else.

But I’m allowing myself to move away from empathy for The Men Who Love Philip Roth. Because, like them, I’ve identified writers who prodded my own thoughts about sexuality and what it means to be a woman/person. The first writer I had this experience with is Anne Frank. (And if anyone is writing chiefly about herself, well, obviously she’s a diarist.)

I’ve actually documented the experience of reading Frank’s sexual exploration when I was 14 years old myself. And I’ve monitored, with trepidation, the recent reveal of some hidden, racier pages in Frank’s diary. I’m just very defensive about Anne, okay? Especially in the face of our lewd, “gotcha!” culture, which likes to snicker over corrupted innocence.

Then again, maybe it’s a good thing, as this article brings up in a statement from the Anne Frank House:

“Over the decades Anne has grown to become the worldwide symbol of the Holocaust, and Anne the girl has increasingly faded into the background. These—literally—uncovered texts bring the inquisitive and in many respects precocious teenager back into the foreground.”

One thing that Frank definitely wanted for herself was to become a professional writer. It’s impossible to parse if that would have happened had she lived, or how her outlook might have changed after her experiences in the camps. Survival, after all, is only one variable of what would have been Anne Frank’s life. Still, I would have loved to see her as a towering literary figure in adulthood. Imagine what it would have been like to speak of her in the same circles as Philip Roth. Roth himself imagined Frank as an adult in The Ghost Writer, but only from the outside–she existed as a projection for the male characters. Her only real act of agency was to decide to erase herself. I certainly hope that the reality wouldn’t be so bleak. But sadly, we’re only stuck with our reality, where Frank didn’t live to be 16.

Still, to think more optimistically, as Frank herself tried to do in her diary, she did become a famous writer. I’ve been thinking for awhile about what books I might like to reread (though generally I’m overwhelmed by how many exist that I haven’t read for the first time!) The Diary of Anne Frank is definitely near the top of my list.

Though I’m not sure if I’d identify so closely with Frank’s sexual musings, now that I’m no longer 14. As an adult, I find myself drawn to Meg Wolitzer’s novels for that purpose. Her female characters have experiences, sexual and otherwise, that run the gamut of what I’ve had, want to have or will never have. But they’re still very relateable.

Anne, I saw as more of a peer, despite the fact that she was born 54 years before me. Wolitzer is a few years younger than my mother, and in my head I’ve slanted her a bit into “the mentor” role. (Especially appropriate now that she’s probed the boomer-to-millennial mentor experience in her latest, The Female Persuasion!)

I’m three books away from having read her entire backlist. So I guess, MWLPH, that she is my Philip Roth. I hope that as time goes on, my fellow bibliophiles cement talk of her contributions to the literary world.

*Yes, there’s been more than one whose approached me, though their outlook is pretty uniform


In other Jewish American writer news, Michael Chabon is making headlines again after his controversial graduation speech at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. I’m not going to touch on his Israeli criticism here; it’s been widely covered elsewhere. I’m not even going to touch on his antagonistic attitude towards religion, though it does dovetail into what got my goat. 😛

I mean ostensibly, I started this blog to grapple with what it means to be a Jew from an interfaith family. And here strides in Chabon, declaring that inmarriage is “a ghetto of two.”

I’m the last person to spit on intermarriage. My parents are intermarried, after all, and I’d rather not forfeit my own life.

But I hate this brand of self-righteousness in dictating what other people should or shouldn’t look for in a marriage. There’s plenty of reasons why Jews should marry other Jews–shared interests and lifestyle choices, for one. Less tsuris over the religious identities of your children. Mutual respect for Judaism’s spiritual, cultural and historical contributions to the world. It’s a step into a larger community, not a retreat into a ghetto.

I’d assume that Chabon didn’t use this forum to air dirty laundry about his own Jewish wife, Ayelet Waldman, but this is a strange counterpoint to her own remarks that landed her in controversy.

I’m not here to pass judgment on anyone’s relationship, but if I were to get snippy about something…why is marriage often understood to be the end all, be all of everything? Particularly for those of us who are single, of course, but even for those in wedded matrimony, you can nurture other relationships. I wouldn’t exchange my Jewish and non-Jewish friends for anything. And if there’s anything that I’d like to rail against, it’s how romance is seen as uber-important, and friendships are often undervalued.

Farewell, Storybrooke.

This last bit doesn’t really fit with the others, but I couldn’t let May go by without bidding farewell to the ABC tv show, “Once Upon A Time.” OUAT was special for it’s focus on several female leads with strong storylines. It’s a show that got more convoluted with time, and this season, which became the final season, served as a reboot of sorts. I still stand by what I wrote last year about how I wish the show had ended. Season seven was overstuffed with new characters, thinly drawn storylines, and some shoddy time travel mischief. And while I’m complaining, I rather wish that “the wish realm” had stayed the sort of place where our real characters could confront their inner demons. Actually, that’s what it turned into for with Rumple, Henry and Regina for the last couple of episodes, and the show was better for it.

I still love the show’s central theme about hope conquering darkness. I can put up with a lot of magic-power opaqueness if that tenant is upheld. I also love that with Alice and Robin, the show finally gave us the fleshed out, same sex relationship that it had been promising. Of course, not all promises could be realized by the end, which is why we got a throwaway line about Lily’s revealed parentage. 😛

It was definitely time for OUAT to retire, but I’ll miss my weekly sojourn in front of the television, my chats with friends, and listening to the unofficial Once podcast. It’s been a good seven years. And remember the most powerful thing anyone can have: “Hope. Believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a very powerful thing.”

April 16, 2018

Pesach in 5778: Wandering the Wilderness

Posted in Judaism at 10:39 pm by chavalah

My Passover care package this year. Now that the holiday is over, I can go to Panera! 😀

After my seder last year I wanted to keep going with a bang, but that’s not the way things turned out. I did go home for the first weekend of the holiday, but was largely busy with unrelated family stuff (if I squint hard enough, I can pretend that our activities paralleled the Exodus story. :P)

We ate some traditional food and my mom and I sort of hashed over the re-telling after everyone was gone for the night. I also forced her to listen to me recite some interesting-to-me passages from progressive Haggadot. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t feel too genuine or spiritual. I kept asking myself what would make my Passover experience better–how I could improve and feel like I’m doing some justice to this holiday. I don’t want to blindly follow rituals (though a little bit of incorporation is certainly welcome.) I’d like the chance to invite people over and discuss the meaning of oppression and wandering through the wilderness and the power of community, perhaps. I want to read passages from Jewish sources and novels and poetry and make everyone bring and discuss their own, like a school project. 😛

In essence, I realized over the first few days of Passover, I wanted something that I already have. Guided yet free-flowing conversation about intriguing narratives and themes–sounds a bit like my Jewish book club! :O So does this mean I’ve already found what I’m looking for? Or should I challenge myself to be more traditional, and step outside my comfort zone by offering myself as a “host” for a young professional seder? The local JCC is always seeking people to set those up.

I want my family. Passover remains, for me, the most difficult holiday in which to be a Jew on one’s own. Sitting quietly in shul just isn’t a big part of it, though the next week I did schlep into DC for the Shabbat service that fell on the eighth day. Before starting the Yizkor service for the deceased, Rabbi Alexander talked about resurrection and the song that Moses and Miriam sang at the Red Sea. He asked us to share with one another memories of our departed ones and music. And suddenly I found myself talking this other young woman who was at shul alone. I told her about this memory of playing “Greensleeves” for my mother’s mother, of blessed memory. She was visiting in Baltimore and she told me that it was her favorite song. I sounded it out on the piano and she twirled around like a ballerina.

Another fun aspect of this particular Shabbat–Cantor Brown led us in Passover melodies like Dayenu and Chad Gadya as we davened (prayed) part of the Amidah. And I realized that this is something else I could bring to my own practice, particularly with my mother–this love of song. I definitely need to get more comfortable with the Passover music. 😛

I’m not sure if I have a “point” to make with all of this, but here’s my best Pesach 5778 wrap up. #1: If you want to make something meaningful, then you have to be a leader and put in the effort. #2: You usually have most of what you’re looking for. You just have to piece it together.

I hope that all of you celebrating spring festivities had a meaningful one.

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