Read “The Grass Eater,” my new personal essay as part of a live virtual reading organized by the AWP Creative Writing Caucus at the virtual AWP 2021 on March 4. At the center of the story is a devilish 7-year-old who wrecks his mother’s seaside honeymoon. The setting is the Republic of Georgia; the time is the disco era. The story was developed in a workshop led by Marion Winik. As of yet unpublished.
This was a new performance format for me to learn – I’d taped myself reading the essay “The iPad Wars” for City Tales, the annual storytelling reading by LACC students and faculty, and sent it to the organizers for post-production. The show went live on YouTube June 4. Previously published in The Citadel, “The iPad Wars” is about 7 minutes long, and comes first in the show. It’s about a parent confronting his budding 11-year-old tech wiz about her flourishing, yet potentially dangerous social life online.
The Citadel, a juried literary journal published at Los Angeles City College since the 1960s, includes my narrative essay “Christmas Dreidels.” In it, I explore my partner Jonathan’s and my experience of building an adoptive family built on the richness of African American and Jewish heritages, one in which widely diverse cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds add up to a new, organic whole.
Personal memories, interviews with my mother-in-law Tommie-Lee Taylor as well as the research into the images of the Elaine Race Riot in Arkansas, the 1920s’ maps of the Southern Pacific Railroad Co., and the 1963 Los Angeles Times editorials helped me write the essay, but more importantly, gave me an opportunity to juxtapose legacies of the Holocaust and WWII with those of racial violence in the US South and more covert racism in California’s Central Valley.
Below are a couple of excerpts. To read the whole essay, please contact me for a copy. You can also get the full The Citadel 2020 issue on Amazon as a paperback. I can’t recommend it enough – it’s full of compelling stories, poetry, and artwork.
The high school was far from the outskirts of Fresno where Tommie-Lee and her sister were waiting at dawn for the school bus. Seeing them for the first time, a new bus driver told the light-skinned Tommie-Lee to get on, but “you,” he pointed at her darker-complexioned sister, “gonna have to walk.” Tommie-Lee refused to get on the bus without her sister. That ended her high school.
The war was on, WWII, which would also become part of the family lore: Jon’s future father Louis fighting in Europe, his soon-to-be wife washing soldiers’ uniforms at the army base in Fresno.
“Hard work in this heat,” Tommie-Lee told me, “but there wasn’t any other for a young girl like me.”
She married Louis, a WWII veteran, in 1946. She kept order and stability in Jon’s childhood home, and yet retained a distinct sense of curiosity about the neighbors and their cultures. Enchiladas con salsa verde¸ which Tommie-Lee learned to cook in El Centro, were as much of a dinner staple as the traditional Southern mac’n’cheese, potato salad, and the unparalleled, in Jon’s memory, upside-down pineapple cake. [ . . . ]
I grew up with my grandparents, so the main point of reference in my childhood home were the years of their youth – the tumultuous 1920-40s, the era of the Bolshevik Revolution, the full emancipation of women and Jews, and WWII – the years of great hopes and enormous suffering. [. . .]
Scores of their relatives in Poland and Ukraine perished in the Holocaust. My grandfather’s teenage cousins, the only two members of his family to survive the Nazi occupation of his shtetl, swam across the wide Dniester River fleeing the oncoming German troops. When the soldiers overran them, the two girls continued their perilous journey eastward by night. During the day, the younger one with olive skin and dark hair would hide in the forest, while her fair-complexioned older sister, able to pass for a Slav, would beg for food in the villages. Eventually, they made it to the Soviet side, and this is how I know their story.
My grandfather Yosif, like Jon’s father Louis, fought in that war. Wounded in the Battle of Kursk, he came home with a medal – and with a clock, a palm-size carriage clock he picked up somewhere along the front.
It stands as tranquilly on our dining room buffet as it did in my grandparents’. It still runs.From “Christmas Dreidels” by Lane Igoudin, The Citadel, 2020.
PS. For more information about the Elaine Race Riot and the Arkansas Delta Massacres of 1910s-1930s, a tragic and overlooked piece of the American history, read The Smithsonian article, or visit the University of Arkansas online exhibit.
This post is part of Blessing the Sea 4.
Is search for the sacred a class privilege?
Or to put it differently, are the opportunities to touch the divine – beyond the formal religious settings open to the masses, like synagogues, churches, or mosques – luxuries afforded only to those who can afford them, and conversely, inaccessible to those who lack such resources?
These questions came up for me while I was listening to the prominent Chicana novelist, activist, and academic Helena Maria Viramontes deliver a talk at a writing convention this spring. In it, Viramontes turned the spotlight onto the acts of holiness in the communities engulfed in poverty and state-sponsored oppression. Violence and brutality can take us over, she surmised, whip us into a cycle of reactivity, make us forget our own uniqueness and worth. But we can still transcend them by noticing the sacredness of our surroundings, no matter what they are.
“I remember how important it is to raise our eyes from instruments of distractions before it’s too late, before our rage ravages, and we dare not find the fortitude to name faces of flowers; once we hear the hoarse voices of the treetops. then describe them, once we see the way the ecosystem allows permission for us to exist, then be grateful, once it asks us to let go our ego, then do it. . . We become divine in the presence of holiness.” [i]
“La vida es la lucha” | To struggle is to live
In her speech, Viramontes traced her ideas to the mujerista theology of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a Latina theological anthropologist who studied everyday forms of resistance in impoverished communities. [ii]
Before joining the academe, Isasi-Diaz, who had come to the US as a Cuban refugee, was a Catholic missionary in Peru. A missionary ethnographer? Why not?
To Isasi-Diaz, daily lives (lo cotidiano) are the central expression of “the most oppressed women in our communities who struggle to survive and flourish constantly.”
“Lo cotidiano constitutes the immediate space of our lives . . . where we meet and relate to the material world that is made up not only of physical realities but also of how we relate to that reality (culture), and how we understand and evaluate [it]. . . Lo cotidiano is what we face everyday and how we face it. . . It extends to our experience with authority, and our central religious beliefs and celebrations…
“Lo cotidiano refers to a simple world. It is a world where one has to take of what is scattered along the surface minute by minute: . . . how to feed the family today, how to pay for the oil or gas they need to heat their homes today, how to get money to buy the medicine their children need today. . . The urgency of lo cotidiano often makes it necessary for one to leave the causes or reasons for later, a ‘later’ that often does not come because the urgency of the present never diminishes.” [iii]
Mujerista theology also sees this daily life as intertwined with the Divine, in part because it is a space inhabited by popular religion, a mixture of pre-Colombian and Catholic practices: images of saints and of La Virgen, rosaries, blessings, retablos, home altars, and so on. This sacred space empowers poor and oppressed Latinas women to transform their reality, and “they transform it when they manage to survive by somehow providing shelter, food, clothing, medicines for themselves and their families.”
Everyday spaces, sacred spaces
“The sacred is found in all of the practices we deem necessary to resist invisibility, degradation, and invalidation,” Viramontes suggests. “Everything we do can be considered acts against erasure, and hence sacred, a sacredness that heightens our state of being and answers to our instinctive urge to transcend. . . Our kitchens, gardens, special oak trees, porches or patios, workshops, and sidewalk views become. . . sacred space where we recognize our existences, own our ways of being.”
Examples of such sacred acts against erasure in the Jewish culture are the writings during, or as I prefer, despite or fighting back the Holocaust – Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Primo Levi, the Piaseczno Rebbe.
But it can also come from connecting to the places where you are, not just existing in, or passing through, but noticing them, contemplating their relationship to you and your life, and engaging to transform them.
Similarly, Viramontes proposed several mujerista-based practices to enhance the spirit of synergy and creativity, including: “Commit to finding the sacred in everyday life. Build around those moments of grace. Believe in writing [or any other creative activity] as Scripture in its power to complicate, to create empathy, to direct us towards meaning.”
What I learned from Isasi-Diaz and Viramontes is that the response to moment-to-moment hardships and oppression – cultural, religious, economic, and so on – the response itself is a fulfilling, sacred act.
[i] Viramontes, H. M. (2020). “My Insurgent Heart: AWP 2020 Annual Conference Keynote Address.” The Writer’s Chronicle, 53(1), 21-27. September 2020.
[ii] Isasi-Díaz, A. M. (1996). Mujerista theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books.
[iii] Isasi-Díaz, A. M., “Lo Cotidiano: A Key Element of Mujerista Theology,” Journal of Hispanic / Latino Theology, 10:1 (Aug. 2002) 5-17, excerpted from pp. 5, 8-10, 14.
This book review is part of Blessing the Sea 4 newsletter.
Gluckel of Hameln’s memoir has many layers. Written in simple, vivid language for her children over 300 years ago, it makes a surprisingly fast and lively read.
There are anecdotes galore – funny, heartwarming, or bizarre, like when she and her mother give birth to their babies in the same room and then can’t figure out which one is which. Or traveling under the protection of a family friend, who turns out to be an alcoholic, drinking himself to the point of “falling under the hedge near a pool of water.” Yet, as “he was, after all, a human being and a Jew,” it is now up to Gluckel to oversee his safe delivery home through all the taverns and inns of Holland and Hanover.
There is awareness of political news familiar to us today – European wars, the rise of court Jews, Shabtai Zvi’s affair – but still a lot more than simply the recollections of a merchant’s wife from the era of Louis XIV and Isaac Newton.
For one, the reality that Gluckel (1646-1724) portrays is quite different from today.
One of Gluckel’s earliest memories is among the most telling. When she is 2, her family, along with the rest of the Jewish community of about forty families, are expelled from Hamburg by the city council order.
They flee to a nearby town of Altona, owned by the Danish crown. Despite expulsion, Jews are still allowed to do business in Hamburg, so they commute daily to Hamburg from Altona, but doing so meant that “our poor folks took their life in their hands because of the hatred for the Jews rife among the dockhands, soldiers, and others of the meaner classes. The good wife, sitting home, often thanked G-d when her husband turned up safe and sound.”
Adapting to this ever-changing realities of living in an archipelago of micro-states that comprised Germany was an essential skill. If you’ve mastered it, you will, with G-d’s help, do well. If not, you may pay for it dearly.
How do you make it in a land where tolerance for Jews is on a scale of lukewarm to zero?
Relying, as Gluckel shows, first and foremost, on your family networks. Marriage, like Gluckel’s at 12, becomes an important step to secure a foothold in a particular town, or a connection with a particular family.
Family networks provide the wealth needed to start a business, secure patronage of a local ruler, find a rabbi, obtain education (in Gluckel’s case for both boys and girls), or a place to flee to. Gluckel’s husband Chayim, mostly a dealer in precious stones, was not among the richest, but his and Gluckel’s networks expanded into France, Netherlands, Poland, East Germany, and south to Switzerland.
Gluckel, a merchant’s wife in what we now call the Early Modern period, is inspiring in her leadership. While Chayim travels to trade fairs throughout northern and central Europe, Gluckel is running the household and raising their 14, yes, 14 kids, and yet is ever-present in Chayim’s business dealings. “Not that I mean to boast,” she writes with somewhat false modesty, “but my husband took advice from no one else, and did nothing without our talking it over together.” In another scene, she drafts a contract for her husband’s business partnership with an unreliable partner. When Chayim dies, Gluckel takes over and expands the family business, and with eight of her children still living at home, travels to fairs herself.
Faith was also essential to survival. Judaism provided Gluckel a framework complete with language, literature, observancies, calendar, and social networks.
Religious texts offer the comfort and explanation of the volatile world Jews are set to inhabit. The educated and pious, though not meek, Gluckel often speaks to G-d and quotes from the Tanakh, Pirkei Avot, the siddur, and even from the Talmud trying to make sense of it all.
“Say your prayers with awe and devotion,” she instructs her children. “During the time for prayers, do not stand about and talk of other things. While offering your prayers to the Creator of the world, [do not] engage in talk about an entirely different matter. Shall G-d Almighty be kept waiting until you have finished your business?”
The most crucial event of her life, the one that she keeps returning to is Chayim’s death. And here too, she contemplates it as a woman who keenly feels G-d’s presence in her life.
“When his soul took wing, there flew with at all my glory, wealth, and honor. My dear mother and her children sought to comfort me, but it was as oil poured upon fire, and my grief grew only worse for it. . . The days that the dear friend of my heart lay dead before me were not as bad as those that followed. Then it was my grief deepened hourly. But in His mercy, G-d at length brought me patience, so I have taken care of my fatherless children as far as a weak woman can, bowed with affliction and woe.”
Quoting Talmud’s teaching that “man is bound to give thanks for the evil as for the good” (Berakot Mishna IX), Gluckel is trying to come to terms with her loss:
“I know that this complaining and mourning is a weakness of mine and a grievous fault. Far better it would be if every day I fell upon my knees and thank the Lord for the tender mercies He has bestowed on my unworthy self. I sit to this day at my own table, eat what I relish, stretch myself at night in my own bed, and even have a shilling to waste, so long as the good G-d pleases. I have my beloved children, and while things do not always go well, now with one, or the other, as they should, still we are alive. . . How many people there are in this world, finer, better, juster than I, . . . who have no bread to put into their mouths! How then can I thank and praise my Creator enough for all the goodness He has lavished upon us?”
Simple wisdom? What could be deeper?
More on Gluckel. And read the book!
In August-October 2020, the Applied Jewish Spirituality institute in Jerusalem, which offers classes and resources on Judaism and mindfulness, published my 3-part mini-blog called “Setting the Right Intention with Morning Prayers.” The series describes how to set up an individual spiritual practice that combines Jewish morning prayers with mindful techniques. It draws on both traditional Jewish prayers and psalms, and Buddhist texts, as well as my original photos. I’ve been using and modifying this practice for over a year since returning from the summer 2019 study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
I was motivated to write this blog by an ongoing interest in Judaism and Buddhism, in particularly, Zen. I’d been practicing meditation in the Soto Zen School tradition since the mid 1990s, and in 2016, after nine months of study and preparations at Zen Center Los Angeles, underwent jukai, a lay ordination, with a ZCLA affiliate. Meanwhile, I have remained deeply engaged with the Jewish faith and tradition.
I am touched to see Rabbi Daniel Raphael Silverstein introduce the last post in the October Applied Jewish Spirituality newsletter as follows: “The multi-talented writer and teacher Lane Igoudin recently completed his 3-part series on creating a personal liturgy that combines morning prayers with mindful contemplation. This final installment is especially beautiful and rich with concrete ideas for practice.”
I am now working on new pieces that follow up “Setting the Right Intention” with more strategies for incorporating spiritual practices into daily life.
Delighted with my first publication in a major Jewish newspaper: an opinion piece in The Forward on the challenges of celebrating Jewish High Holidays amidst the unprecedented synagogue and communal space lockdown. These extraordinary times offer an opportunity to create individual sacred spaces to celebrate the end of one Jewish year and the start of another. Our homes have already morphed into surrogate offices, schools, and playgrounds; now they’re about to become miniature synagogues …
Published in New York, The Forward is the oldest, continuously running (since 1897) Jewish news publication in the US, which for decades was the largest Jewish newspaper in the US, and at some point, had a wider circulation than The New York Times. Now entirely online, it has 50,000 subscribers and, according to its website, “more than a million unique visitors each month.”
Something has changed drastically in the last several years in the political debates in the US: not so much the topics, but the debates themselves. They’ve gotten more virulent, either/or, “wish so-and-so gets sued; put in prison; catches COVID” kind of vitriol. My Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts are bloated with such posts from people standing on the opposite sides of the same issue.
How similar they are in their intolerance. What a sad spectacle it is to watch them demolish one another.
Complex issues today are reduced to a dualistic, either/or interpretation, as if there can only be two sides to any issue. If you believe yourself to be part of a certain camp, you must subscribe to its full agenda. Otherwise, you run the risk of being flogged by your own brethren and excommunicated.
A case in point. A friend of mine shared this Facebook post, which struck me as odd. I don’t see a contradiction. We should teach our kids – and I try to do it too – to be just and compassionate, so they could grow up into ethical, engaged citizens and be proud of the country they’ve built.
To me, it goes deeper as there seems to be a cultural shift underway from liberal inclusivity towards a new sort of tribal, compartmentalized fragmentation. As a product of the 1990s, I believe in tolerance and multiculturalism. My partner and I built our bi-religious, interracial adoptive family from many backgrounds, not excluding or devaluing one of the cultures, but welcoming all of them to create a new and vibrant whole.
And it worked. For decades, I have felt at home in this multicultural America, with friends and neighbors of all races, religions, and sexual orientations.
This inclusive, multicultural vision has been under attack from all sides, with a renewed preference of one over many, however that one is defined and reduced to, and deliberate deafness and blindness towards the others, towards diversity.
I refuse to let go of the inclusive, multicultural vision, however. I find it easier to withdraw from the debate, rather than participate in something that is flawed, incendiary, and ultimately destructive. I don’t avoid politics. I have my beliefs and preferences. I support certain candidates, sign petitions, participate in the protests, but will not engage in vitriol.
We are not becoming stronger, or winning new supporters by screaming louder, or insulting those who disagree with us. We can however, be stronger, if we are willing – actively willing – to engage in coalition building, to be less rigid, to explore the true, multi-dimensional complexity of issues, and to accept that even when we disagree with the others on some issues, we still value them. This discordant, but friendly inclusivity is what I hope to see return.
Glad to have contributed a post to the blog of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) College Creative Writing Caucus. It synthesizes writing strategies and pedagogical approaches to encourage bilingual/multilingual/ESL college students to write in English, derived from the AWP 2020 panel I moderated earlier this year.