“Christmas Dreidels” in The Citadel 2020

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 just a couple of excerpts. To read the whole essay, please contact me for a copy. You can also get the full volume of The Citadel 2020 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.

Against Polarization

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.

Last Year in Jerusalem

In the summer of 2019, I was studying in an intensive program at the Conservative (Masorti) Yeshiva in Jerusalem. It turned out to be one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had. Here’s a brief account of my discoveries from that time.

Last year in Jerusalem… struck by a teaching of Rabbi Kook, explained to us passionately by Yiscah Smith, one of the yeshiva teachers. The Lord, she said, in creating you, has given you a unique spiritual path, and thus it is your religious (!) duty to follow your authentic path, and to remove any obstacles that might obstruct it. At once, my decade-long spiritual wanderings and the deepening faith are united; the exact junction of my life illuminated.

Last year in Jerusalem… hiking the hills in the Valley of the Cross near my home in Rehavia, the air heady with sage and fennel, much like the hills in Los Angeles, but the scent and the terrain somehow familiar to me deep within my bones.

Last year in Jerusalem… led into nigunim, wordless incantations sung acappella as a group, by the young, charismatic nigun teacher Joey Weisenberg. Our voices rise and fall, merge and separate, and after losing the count of repetitions (10th? 20th, 30th?), the measured, controlled sense of time falls aside, replaced by the sense of peace and shekhinah, the divine presence, right here in the heart of Jerusalem, which carries me like a cloud.

Last year in Jerusalem… transported 2,000 years back into the times of King Herod with a tour of underground tunnels, as I stand fifty feet below the crowded Old City on an excavated street running alongside the wall of the Temple. The street is narrow: I can physically touch the Temple wall with my right hand, and the stone beams of a house across with my left, while my feet are planted on the well-worn but intact cobblestone.
Who were my ancestors that would walk these steps bringing offerings to the Temple?
What offerings am I bringing?

Last year in Jerusalem… discovering the architecture of a Talmud page in a class taught by the charismatic Rabbi Joel Levy, and then battling over the meaning of each word, each phrase, with Sam, my havruta partner, as we join our skills – his in Hebrew and Aramaic, mine in literary analysis. And then the raucous discourse accumulated over centuries begins to take off the page: opinions, stories, fables, barbs flying back and forth and into outer space.

Basic color-coding of a Talmud page:

Mishnah (Palestine, 3rd century CE)
Gemara (Babylonia, 5th century CE)
Comments of Rashi (11th century, France)
Comments of the Tosafists (12th-13th cent., France/Germany)
Comments of R. Nissim ben Jacob (11th century, Tunisia)

Last year in Jerusalem… leading my first mincha (afternoon service) after a couple of weeks of basic training; my voice rough from a lingering cold, cutting the air of our study hall, which doubles as the yeshiva’s daytime synagogue. When after the first couple of lines, others are beginning to join in, I feel elevated because this is happening, the communal prayer – I can do it, I too can make it happen.

Last year in Jerusalem… a Shabbat dinner set on a balcony overlooking a winding, leafy street in Baka, a neighborhood southwest of the Old City. Our prayers, laughter, and the clicking of the wine glasses are echoing the prayers, laughter, and clicking of the wine glasses from the balconies next to ours and across the street. After dinner, our hosts take us for a stroll through the quiet, carless streets of a million-soul city, teens congregating in groups, adults conversing with each other, and I feel thankful for the experience and wistful to be in a place where this could be every Friday night.

Walking from the old City (L) to Baka (R)

Last year in Jerusalem… praying at the egalitarian section of the Wall by the Robinson’s Arch. Here, at sunrises on Wednesdays and at sundowns on Friday nights, away from the crowds and the hubbub of the gendered sections, I experience an intense sense of connection to the divine. With familiarity, my eye picks out one rectangular stone among many, the one with a subtly redder hue, as if beckoning me towards my unique, pre-determined path. If there is a spiritual center of the Universe, this is it, this is the ground zero.

Speaking Out on Gay Parenting and Writing at Lambda LitFest

Loved being on the panel “Our Families, Our Stories: Writing and Parenting in the Trenches” at 2019 Lambda LitFest and reading there the opening of my book Dispositions. From a lesbian Mom with a child from a short-lived straight marriage, to a pioneering, single HIV-positive Dad, to two gay Moms raising their kids, each with her own, unique path, to our story, we presented a wide range of moving parenting experiences.

To me, the last 15 years have also been an experience of being both in and outside the traditional parenting narrative. What sets gay male parenting apart is that it is a 100% intentional endeavor. We have fought an uphill fight, and have come a long way. In 2019, our right to parent is a reality, but any way you look at it, parenting remains of little interest to many within our community. And it’s fine because it’s how it should be: intentional, not a slip-up, a by-product, or a means to end. LambdaLitFest1 9-27-19 (Final)

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Lambda LitFest Writing/Parenting Panel

Please come to our panel “Our Families, Our Stories: Writing and Parenting in the Trenches” at Lambda Literary Festival. Here’s the panel description:

For those LGBTQ writers who are parents, the realities of parenthood intersects at every level of the professional author experience. Queer parents are often intentional in creating their families and in how they position their identities as writers, from craft to publication and marketing. Markedly so when you define yourself as other than a traditional “parent” and know how much words matter.
This interdisciplinary program features diverse authors who have published in multiple genres in magazines and books. The queer parenting experience is historically underrepresented and is now a rising area of focus in literary publishing.
Panelists will talk about how they both write about and interrogate some of the assumptions of parenting today.
Readings (fiction/memoir/poetry), followed by discussion.

    #lambdaliterary

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Interview in LA Collegian Wired

In April, Los Angeles Collegian – the student newspaper of Los Angeles City College – interviewed me about the UCLA / Medical Humanities project for their Facebook / YouTube newscast called Collegian Wired – East Hollywood News. I participated in the development of this new major at UCLA in October 2018-March 2019 as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow with the UCLA Excellence in Pedagogy and Innovative Classrooms (EPIC) Program. The broadcast went live May 17 and is about 10 minutes long. Since my UCLA segment does not appear until about 5 minutes into it, I am posting here the video segment itself which Collegian Wired has excerpted for me.

 

Convening a panel on ESL/multilingual writers at AWP 2020

AWP 2019 has just swept through Portland, but the planning for the next one, AWP 2020 in San Antonio, TX, is already underway. I have submitted a panel proposal to the AWP 2020 conference organizers titled “Nurturing Future Danticats and Nabokovs: How to Engage Multilingual and ESL Students in Creative Writing.” If accepted, our panel will feature presenters from around the country – California, Kansas, North Carolina, and Texas – sharing ideas for how to engage our multilingual and non-native students in creative writing activities. The panel description is below:

Multilingual and ESL students, a sizable segment of college populations, are traditionally underrepresented in writing courses. How do we help them develop their voices? How can we tailor writing pedagogies to their needs? Community college panelists from around the country discuss teaching creative writing and publishing to migrant farmworkers, utilizing poetry translation in multilingual classrooms, refocusing grading policies to foster creativity, and tips for successful inclusion of these students in writing contests and literary journals.

 

Lane Igoudin
Member, Two-Year College Writing Caucus, AWP

#awp20

#awp2020

Letter to the Editor of The Jewish Journal Published

On return from AWP, I found that my letter to The Jewish Journal (LA) got published in my absence. I’d sent it in response to a prior feature article about why the US should continue to support Israel. I suppose JJ timed it with the Israeli elections, as they put it at the very top of the Letters page, both in print and online. My letter highlights the spiritual significance of Israel in the American worldview.

 

Letters: Israel Respects All Faiths, Reality vs. Fiction, A Deserved Tribute