The art of the canvass

November 5, 2018

For many years I was a newspaper reporter and didn’t allow myself even the teensiest involvement in electoral politics. No campaign buttons, no bumper stickers, no lawn signs. I didn’t go as far as former Washington Post editor Len Downie, who famously didn’t allow himself even to vote, but I made every effort to show no bias that could be held against my newspaper and its news coverage. This was and still is standard practice in daily newspapers in the U.S., and it’s part of what is so disgusting about Trump and the right wing’s attacks on “biased mainstream media.” Every reporter I worked with over the years made scrupulous efforts to set aside their personal biases – for we all have them – and report in a fair and factual manner, even about politicans they personally found awful.

I wish I could sit down one-to-one with Fox News viewers and explain this to them. We try really, really hard to be fair. This is not a joke or a smokescreen. Journalists are individual people – people like your family, friends, neighbors – working our butts off and taking our responsibility as information providers in a democracy very seriously.

Anyway.

In 2008, I left my last newspaper job in one of the waves of news industry downsizing. I put an Obama bumper sticker on my car. Hooray! Amidst the sadness of leaving my profession, I was a citizen with a public voice again!

In 2012, I did one short round of phone banking for Obama. It was not enjoyable. It was the end of the campaign, and either people weren’t home or they didn’t want to hear from the 432nd person calling them.

In 2016, I went to Las Vegas and did a weekend of door-to-door canvassing for Clinton. It was fascinating, educational, and fun.

This fall, I’ve done a bunch of canvassing for Democratic candidates in swing districts in California’s Central Valley – four days for Josh Harder in Congressional District 10 (near Modesto) and this past weekend for T.J. Cox in CD 21 (south of Fresno).

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Getting ready to canvass at Josh Harder’s campaign headquarters in Modesto

Door-to-door canvassing took a little bit of attitude adjustment for me. With a graduate degree and 30+ years of experience in newspapers and nonprofits, I didn’t want to just be a “worker bee.” It felt wasteful to not be using my writing skills or organizational knowledge. But I wasn’t prepared to put in the months of time required for a higher-level role in a campaign, and what these campaigns needed was worker bees. So… off I buzzed.

If you’ve never canvassed, it can seem scary – talking to strangers! What if they disagree with you? What if they yell at you? But the scariness quickly wears off. Maybe two or three out of every ten households are actually at home. You become so happy to get a live person at the door that it almost doesn’t matter if they support the other candidate. And by and large, people are civil if not friendly. The campaign doesn’t want you wasting time on fruitless arguments with diehards for the other side: Your job is to talk to the undecided, identify supporters, and make sure those supporters fill out their mail ballots or go to the polls.

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Sign at T.J. Cox’s campaign office in Hanford (CD21)

Canvassing is exhausting. Like going to a zoo or a museum, you may not be covering a lot of miles, but you are on your feet all day. There is also an up-and-down rhythm of stress. You approach a door and your adrenaline rises: Will there be anyone home? Will they want to talk with me? What will I say? No one answers, and your adrenaline level plummets. Then you walk thirty feet to the next house, and the process starts all over again.

In a day of canvassing, there are usually one or two encounters that stand out and make it worthwhile. On one trip to Modesto, I managed to help a Latino voter sign up for an absentee ballot entirely in (my very poor) Spanish. On another trip, I met a single father of four who had volunteered on the Clinton campaign and who offered to volunteer on Josh Harder’s campaign. I met an elderly Filipina who gave me her absentee ballot to turn in – saving her a trip to the post office, and ensuring it wouldn’t get lost or forgotten – and who told me she was praying for Harder every day.

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My friends Monica and Lindsey canvassing in Modesto (CD10)

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Canvassing with my neighbor Leslie in Turlock (CD10)

In our trip this past weekend to CD21, my friend Beth had a string of luck meeting 18-year-olds who had never voted and weren’t yet registered. She let them know that in California, you can register all the way through election day if you go to the county elections office! They were thrilled to be able to vote – exchanged fist bumps with her – and she racked up another three or four votes for T.J. Cox.

One of the highlights for me of canvassing this year was doing it with various configurations of friends – one trip with the women in my writing group, another with my next-door neighbor, others with Jewish women friends, not all of whom knew each other before the canvass trip. Carpooling to the swing districts provided rare down-time to catch up, share life stories, and learn about each other. Navigating unfamiliar neighborhoods and working through our “turf” together was a bonding experience. On our CD21 trip, the five of us stayed at a wonderful Air B&B on an organic peach farm in Dinuba, and got a tour of the farm from owner Mike Naylor.

Consider election-season canvassing for your next “girls’ weekend” – less expensive than a getaway to a spa or to wine country, and better for the world!

Now we’re one day out from actual voting. I have no better idea than anyone else of what the outcome will be. I’m as wracked by fear and angst as any other liberal right now. But I feel less powerless than I otherwise would because of the “worker bee” canvassing I’ve done.

And I feel heartened by how many other people – both friends of mine and strangers — have been canvassing, phone banking, texting, and writing postcards as part of Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. They’re not just whining on Facebook – they’re putting in time and doing stuff.

Fingers crossed!

In 2020, I hope to take the next step — not just canvassing for individual days/weekends, but making a commitment of weeks or months to campaign in a swing area.

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Jesus in Novels

October 1, 2018

Last month I realized my novel needed a chapter from the point of view of Jesus. My initial reaction was terror: I can’t do that! 

After a suitable period of angst and paralysis, I turned to a reassuring comfort activity, something that I know how to do and that gives at least the illusion of productivity – research. I figured, See how other writers have handled this. And did a web search for novels about Jesus.

I found one that I’d expected — the classic The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, which was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese. But I also found three unexpected works by unlikely authors – D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, and Phillip Pullman.

Lawrence? Mailer? Pullman? Writing from the point of view of Jesus?

I had to read these! Here’s my thumbnail summary:

D.H. Lawrence: The Man Who Died (1929)

This short novella, just 43 pages, opens with a lengthy description of a young rooster, resplendant and virile, who is tied up by his peasant owner. His body is restrained by the cord. But inside he remains unbroken. Finally the rooster breaks his cord – at the same moment that an unnamed man wakes up from death inside a stone crypt.

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The unnamed man is of course Jesus, who remains nameless throughout the book. The rooster  — another “of course,” if you are familiar with Lawrence — also symbolizes Jesus. (He initially titled the novella The Escaped Cock.)

Lawrence’s Jesus doesn’t want to revive. His description of Jesus’s reluctance to return is wonderful.

“A deep, deep nausea stirred in him at the premonition of movement…. He had wanted to stay outside, in the place where even memory is stone dead. But now, something had returned to him, like a returned letter, and in that return he lay overcome with a sense of nausea.”

The drive to live overcomes Jesus’s reluctance. Here comes that rooster again:

“As he came out, the young cock crowed. It was a diminished, pinched cry, but there was that in the voice of the bird stronger than chagrin. It was the necessity to live, and even to cry out the triumph of life…. the everlasting resoluteness of life.”

Jesus encounters Mary Magdalene and his mother at the tomb. He realizes they want him to continue in the role of savior and prophet. But he wants something different now – he wants to live a normal human life.

“For me that life is over,” he tells Magdalene. “I have outlived my mission and know no more of it. The teacher and the saviour are dead in me; now I can go about my business, into my own single life…. Now I can live without striving to sway others any more. For my reach ends in my fingertips, and my stride is no longer than the ends of my toes.”

Magdalene is of course crushed by what he says: “The Messiah had not risen. The enthusiasm and the burning purity were done, and the rapt youth.” So she reworks the encounter in her mind into something more: “She conjured up rapture and wonder… He was risen, but not as man; as pure God, who should not be touched by flesh, and who should be rapt away into Heaven.”

Jesus, meanwhile, flees all who knew him and wanders alone. He seeks physical communion – not mere sex, but the kind of spiritualized sex that is at the center of Lawrence’s other writings.

“Now he knew that he had risen for the woman, or women, who knew the greater life of the body, not greedy to give, not greedy to take, and with whom he could mingle his body… Perhaps one evening I shall meet a woman who can lure my risen body, yet leave me my aloneness.”

Ultimately he meets a woman who is an acolyte of the Egyptian goddess Isis. (Yes, this gets more and more sacrilegious. Just wait.)

The woman worships an “Isis in Search” figure who is seeking “fragments of the dead Osiris” that she can gather and revive and that will “fecundate her womb.”

The two connect with Lawrence’s characteristic sexual transcendance. This is the stuff that left me perplexed when I read him in college: the sex I was having was never like this.

“He was absorbed and enmeshed in new sensations. The woman of Isis was lovely to him, not so much in form as in the wonderful womanly glow of her. Suns beyond suns had dipped her in mysterious fire, the mysterious fire of a potent woman… She would never know or understand what he was. Especially she would never know the death that was gone before in him. But what did it matter? She was different. She was woman: her life and her death were different from him. Only she was good to him.”

Now are you ready for more sacrilege?

“And his death and his passion of sacrifice were all as nothing to him now, he knew only the crouching fullness of the woman, there the soft white rock of life. ‘On this rock I build my life.’ The deep-folded penetrable rock of the living woman!… The woman, hiding her face. Himself bending over, powerful and new like dawn.

“He crouched to her, and he felt the blaze of his manhood and his power rise up in his loins, magnificent.

“ ‘I am risen!’ ”

Oy.

The novella ends shortly after this. The woman’s family is conspiring to kill Jesus. She has become pregnant. He flees to wander the world but promises to return. “I have sowed the seed of my life and my resurrection, and put my touch forever upon the choice woman of this day, and I carry her perfume in my flesh like the essence of roses.”

Setting aside the groan-inducing bits about “the blaze of his manhood” and his “rising,” what is remarkable is how Lawrence kidnaps the Gospels’ resurrection story to preach his own doctrine of the holiness of physical love. With language and cadence similar to his other novels, he promotes a view of men and women as fundamentally different from each other and fundamentally alone, yet able at times to bridge that aloneness with sexual connection that neither demands nor possesses.

Here is how he described the novella, in a letter to a friend:

I wrote a story of the Resurrection, where Jesus gets up and feels very sick about everything, and can’t stand the old crowd any more – so cuts out – and as he heals up, he begins to find what an astonishing place the phenomenal world is, far more marvellous than any salvation or heaven – and thanks his stars he needn’t have a ‘mission’ any more.

Norman Mailer: The Gospel According to the Son (1997)

Of course Norman Mailer, who thought he could do anything better than anyone, would have to try his hand at writing Jesus.

You’d think that with Mailer’s interest in sex and power, his personal combativeness, and his liberal-to-left political views (he co-founded the Village Voice), this would be a shocking or at least iconoclastic book.

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In fact, I found it pedestrian. Basically a very modest gloss on Jesus’s life that could have been written by a somewhat-literary theology student trying to mimic the style of the Gospels.

Jesus narrates the book, which he says is an effort to set straight the misstatements about his life in the Bible. “While I would not say that Mark’s gospel is false, it has much exaggeration,” he says on the first page.

But the ways he diverges from the Gospels are practically invisible when compared with D.H. Lawrence’s wholesale reinterpretation.

For instance, instead of a literal multiplication of loaves and fishes, Mailer portrays it as a psychological multiplication. Mailer’s Jesus takes two fishes and five loaves and cuts them up into 500 teeny-tiny pieces.

“I would lay one flake of fish and one bit of bread upon each tongue. Yet when each person had tasted these fragments, so do I believe that each morsel became enlarged within his thoughts… and so I knew that few among these hundred would say that they had not been given sufficient fish and bread. And this was a triumph of the Spirit rather than an enlargement of matter.”

Not very different, I suspect, from how many modern liberal theologians might understand that story.

Mailer provides little psychological insight and practically no detailed, sensory descriptions of landscape, people etc. In that sense it’s not much different from the Gospels themselves.

There’s some marginally interesting stuff about how Jesus views his power to do miracles, and the motivations of Judas. But none of this was developed in a consistent or compelling way.

In short, it was a slog to get through this book. I didn’t see its reason to exist. If it had been anyone else but the already-famous Mailer writing it, I doubt it would have seen the light of day.

Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010)

Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass fantasy trilogy, is an outspoken atheist and critic of organized religion. So it surprised me that he had written a novel about the life of Jesus.

(Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised: I already owned an edition of Paradise Lost with his introduction and commentary.  “Christianity formed my mind,” Pullman writes in the afterword to The Good Man Jesus.)

PullmanI’ll say up front that this was by far my favorite of the three novels. Pullman builds it on a truly out-of-the-box premise – that Jesus had a twin brother, who recorded his life story and edited it in a way that created Christianity as a religion.

Pullman raises thought-provoking questions not just about Jesus’s life and the Church, but about what writers do and the distinction between factual accuracy and  “truth.” (A theme that is too relevant in today’s political universe.)

Quick synopsis: Mary bears twins, named Jesus and Christ. Jesus becomes a wandering preacher. Christ watches – supportive, but with different ideas of how to proceed.

Jesus adopts a low-key approach of delivering a message that “God loves us like a father, and his Kingdom is close at hand.” Christ tells his brother that he can  accomplish more good through miracles.

“Fine words convince the mind, but miracles speak directly to the heart and then to the soul,” Christ tells his brother. “If a simple person sees stones changed into bread, or sees sick people healed, this makes an impression on him that could change his life. He’ll believe every word you say from then on.”

Christ also argues that his preacher brother should build an organization to help make the Kingdom of God a reality – effectively, create the Church.  But Jesus rejects miracles as “conjuring tricks” and also rejects the idea of a powerful, wealthy Church.

“What you describe sounds like the work of Satan,” Jesus tells his brother. “God will bring about his Kingdom in his own way, and when he chooses. Do you think your mighty organization would even recognize the Kingdom if it arrived?”

Encouraged by a stranger who may be angel or devil, Christ goes on to record Jesus’s teachings and actions – while editing them to be more dramatic and inspirational.

“Christ wrote down every word, but he resolved to improve the story later,” Pullman writes.

Ultimately the stranger encourages Christ to betray Jesus to his death as a way to foster the spread of God’s word.

“Jesus could not be with people for ever, but the Holy Spirit can,” the angel/devil tells Christ. “What the living Jesus could not do, the dead and risen Jesus will bring about… Men and women need a sign that is outward and visible and then they will believe.”

After his death, Jesus’s life becomes more and more fictionalized, both by his disciples and by his brother. Christ believes he is spreading God’s Word but he also feels the seductive allure of telling a good story.

“I want to knot the details together to make patterns and show correspondences,” Christ says after Jesus’s death. “And if they weren’t there in life, I want to put them there in the story, for no other reason than to make a better story. The stranger would have called it letting in truth. Jesus would have called it lying.”

I love this!

The Good Man Jesus may be the most provocative literary challenge to institutional Christianity since the story of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.

Novelizing the Bible

All three of these works function more as re-interpreted myths than as real novels. Kazantzakis is a better choice if you’re looking for a psychologically nuanced, fully drawn, naturalistic depiction of Jesus and his world.

Reading them, though, I thought about the powerful draw of novelizing the Bible – both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are filled with dramatic events and characters who take world-changing actions. But they say nothing about the characters’ inner thoughts, how they grow as individuals, or what happens in-between the dramatic moments. The novelist gets to fill all this in – whether Abel suspects Cain might kill him, how Isaac feels about Abraham after his near-sacrifice, the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. What fun!

This is what has driven some recent novels based on the Tanach, such as The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1997, about the rape of Dina) and The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2016, about King David).

As Philip Pullman said through his character Christ: I want to put those details in the story, for no other reason than to make a better story.

Meanwhile, what about my story?

I ordered these three novels, but even before they arrived in the mail, I went ahead and wrote my chapter with the Jesus point of view. It was reassuring simply to know that other people had done this and hadn’t been struck down by lightning.

“Just go ahead and write some stuff; don’t worry whether it’s any good; you can toss it in the trash if you hate it,” I told myself, which is always good advice when feeling intimidated or stuck.

Vacationing alone in the Lake District

August 11, 2018

I spent the past week by myself on vacation – or “on holiday,” as they’d say in England’s Lake District, which is where I was.

This was the first time I’d ever taken a full-on vacation by myself. I’ve traveled alone for reporting assignments and book promotion, moved to new cities alone (a long time ago), and spent two days alone in Puerto Vallarta last year when Sam had to return earlier than I did from a trip. But this was my first full week in a foreign place with no reason to be there other than enjoying myself.

I was a little nervous beforehand. But it was great!

England was an easy place to be a solo American traveler. We share a language (despite the occasionally confounding accents). It’s got reliable train schedules, comfortable hotels etc., and unlike some other parts of the world, a woman alone is not viewed as a target.

And the Lake District – the mountainous area in the northwest of England made famous by Wordsworth – was particularly welcoming. The region basically lives off of tourism. It has well-marked hiking paths that are easy to navigate. It has a great bus system that allows you to reach almost any trailhead or cultural site without a car. And its beautiful walks draw a variety of visitors – studly young rock climbers, multi-generational families, older couples who have been walking the fells (hills) together for decades, and a surprising number of single hikers like me.

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View of Derwentwater from top of Cat Bells footpath. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Steady stream of hikers climbing up Cat Bells. Note view of two lakes. Photo by Ilana DeBare

My home base was the Lairbeck Hotel, a small family-run inn in a spacious 19th century home on the outskirts of Keswick in the northern Lake District. Keswick swarms with tourists in the summer months, but it’s outdoor-oriented tourists, not the “file-out-of-the-tour-bus-and-take-a-selfie” packaged-tour crowds. It feels like Truckee or Banff: Everyone is wearing hiking boots, and there are more stores selling outdoor gear than you can count. No one dresses for dinner. People ask each other where they hiked that day. I felt very much at home.

Sam was backpacking in the Sierra while I was gone – hauling thirty pounds in his pack, sleeping under the stars, totally away from civilization for five days. The Lake District is a different kind of outdoor experience. I’m not sure there’s anywhere you could hike and camp for five full days without running into roads or towns. Instead, you do day hikes – between picturesque stone villages, or loops up and down the fells. You can easily get away from people by choosing the right path, but England is too small and has been settled for too long to have the vast amounts of wilderness we enjoy in the western United States.

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View of farmland from a ridge. Photo by Ilana DeBare

What England does have is an amazing network of public footpaths. Many of these paths have existed for centuries or even millennia, and private landowners are required to maintain the public right of way. (As opposed to the U.S., where landowners will shoot or sue anyone who sets foot on their property.) My hikes took me through sheep pastures, across wheat fields, down farm driveways, along a “coffin path” formerly used to carry the deceased to the nearby churchyard, and through countless wooden gates with an equally countless variety of latching devices.

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England’s public footpaths are usually well marked.  Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Footpath up the Latrigg fell that, like many others, goes through sheep pastures. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Derwentwater in the morning fog. Photo by Ilana DeBare

The paths offer stunning views from the tops of the fells – of lakes, farmland, villages, and clouds sweeping over the surrounding peaks.

And then at the end of your hike, you return to your comfy hotel or bed-and-breakfast or rental cottage. With a tall pint of ale in the nearby pub! With all due love and respect for my husband, I’ll take this kind of hiking vacation over a backpack trip any day.

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Pub near my inn.  Photo by Ilana DeBare

Before my solo week in the Lake District, I’d spent a similar week walking in the Cotswolds to the south with my friend Sue. By the time I reached Keswick, I’d realized that my “sweet spot” for hiking is six to eight miles, or about three to four hours of actual walking.

My time on the trails was longer than those three to four hours, though, because I stopped a lot. And that was one unexpected benefit of spending this vacation alone – I got to set my own pace, not just for the walking, but for everything.

Traveling with even one very compatible partner entails a constant calibration. Are they bored at a viewpoint and ready to get moving? Do they want to spend more time in the antiques shop? Like a good marriage, they accommodate you and you accommodate them, and it all works well.

But traveling alone, you’re only responsible to yourself — which forces you to pay more attention to your desires. So I spent a full hour sitting on top of the Cat Bells trail, just looking down at the dueling vistas of a farm valley and Derwentwater lake, while other hikers stopped to picnic and moved on. So I noodled around the edges of the Castlerigg stone circle in the drizzle, thinking about the 5,000-year history of those stones, for much longer than I would have with a companion.

I stopped to look at birds. I stopped to look at really nondescript birds!

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Visitors photograph a “druid” at Castlerigg stone circle. Photo by Ilana DeBare

This was “slow travel.” And I realized I wanted to get even slower. Next time, I would bring a small notebook or sketch pad with me. I wanted to interact with the landscapes in a more active way than taking a cellphone photo. Often we arrive at a beautiful or fascinating place, glance at it, click the camera to capture it, and move on. We lazily count on that photo to be the memory rather than trying to remember it ourselves. I wanted to feel the contours, remember the lines, articulate the feelings and thoughts evoked by the scene.

Two mornings, I stayed at the inn and worked on my novel on my laptop before going out to hike in the afternoon. The Lairbeck Hotel has a lovely, quiet garden, and one of those late afternoons after hiking I sat in the garden with a glass of wine.

I realized that was my ideal travel day – half the day writing, the other half out actively exploring. With a garden and a glass of wine at the end!

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The garden and house at Lairbeck Hotel. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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View of Skiddaw fell from my room at the Lairbeck Hotel. Photo by Ilana DeBare

It’s hard to achieve that kind of balance without a deliberate effort. When visiting a new place, there’s always so much to see. The temptation is to run from sight to sight, and then collapse at dinnertime. It’s even harder to carve out quiet time for writing, sketching, or reflecting when you’re traveling with a companion.

One of the benefits of this solo trip was I’m now more aware of what I want from my travel experiences. If I don’t get to every highlight listed in the guidebook, that’s okay: I’ll see fewer but spend more time at each, and more time on reflection.

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Sheep, sheep, and more sheep / Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Oops, not sheep! / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Trust yourself as an artist

February 27, 2018

I’ve returned to the writing life!

After six years working for Golden Gate Audubon Society, I returned to full-time work on a novel on January 1st. After a three-week family trip in January and early February, I truly settled down to full-time writing about two weeks ago.

Now – without bird-related blog posts, newsletters, and social media to write for Audubon – I have the time and drive to resume my own blog posts. My apologies for the long absence, and I hope you are still with me!

Let’s start with a few thoughts on trusting oneself as an artist.

This is a more complex novel than I’ve tried before – speculative fiction set in a world that I am creating, inhabited by characters from varied regions and time periods on Earth. I already have a draft of one volume that needs some significant revisions, and am working on a second volume that will follow up some of the loose ends from volume one.

One challenge is that, sitting down to work, I feel pulled in multiple directions:

  • Go back to revise volume 1, or lay new track in volume 2?
  • Finish mapping out the “grand scheme” of the plot and the cosmology of this imagined universe, or take it chapter by chapter?
  • Flesh out my secondary characters or focus on my main character?
  • If I work on the secondary characters, should I start with the 1920s Chinese communist, the 11th century Damascus merchant, the 4th century Hun, or the 21st century Brooklyn grandmother?
  • Or should I work on sections about my fun, non-human “magical creatures?”
  • Research? Or write?

I need to do all these things eventually; the question is where to begin and what to do on any given day.

My first reaction to the incredible privilege of writing full-time was – of course – despair. “This is overwhelming.” “I can’t do this.” “I don’t have the skills or knowledge or abilities.” And so on.

I dealt with that by shifting into familiar, comfortable research mode. Off to the wonderful underground stacks of the Doe Library at U.C. Berkeley, one of my “happy places.” I love the sleek spaciousness of this newish facility, and how the bookshelves move frictionlessly, magically, on tracks when you turn a giant handle. I love how as a UCB alumna I can check out up to 20 books at a time from one of the best research libraries in the world.

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Rotunda in the underground Gardner stacks at Doe Library

But most of all I love how visiting the library transforms the quest for information from an intellectual journey into a physical journey.

Rather than a serious of Google clicks, I descend staircases and wander through aisles of bookshelves. It’s like a treasure hunt. I start with my list of target books. When I reach the book I’m seeking, there are often related books adjacent to it that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I reemerge into the sunlit outdoor world with arms full of books – more than I can comfortably carry – and feel triumph at my “haul.”

It’s so much more tangible than online research! And it provides the fulfilling sense of having accomplished something.

Even if that accomplishment is illusory – often the books don’t provide the information I need – it’s still a good way to generate momentum and confidence.

So I started with research. I now know a lot more about communists in 1920s Shanghai than I did two weeks ago. (For whatever that’s worth.) Then it was on to 11th century Damascus. Read books, take notes, think about my characters.

This morning I felt like it was time to write. Something had quietly shifted inside me – from “I don’t know enough about this character to write him,” to “I want to start writing him.” It wasn’t a deliberative decision, just a shift in what felt possible or even necessary.

So that’s where the trust comes in. I opted to follow that feeling and start writing one of the characters, even though I’m still waiting to get another book or two about his era. And in order to write him, I decided to start a chapter or two before he comes on stage. That meant focusing on a different character who is there when he arrives.

It wasn’t a rational process. But it felt right, and I got about 1,000 words down. It was a starting point, past the “I can’t do this” hurdle, and now I can just keep going.

So: Listen to that quiet inner voice that tells you, as a creator, what you need to do next!

Even if it is a little bit out of order and not part of a rational “battle plan.”

I hate thinking

July 23, 2015

There! Doesn’t that headline sound like the beginning of a condescending rant about Republicans?

(Republican friends: Please don’t take offense. Just substitute the word “Democrats” and keep reading.)

But I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about the writing process.

I love days when I can sit down and write. I sit at my computer, I start writing, hours pass, and I have a bunch of new pages. Then I feel like I’ve accomplished something. i can blow the factory whistle, stop work, head home (even if “home” just means leaving my study for the living room), and do something completely unrelated with a light heart.

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But then there are days — weeks — where instead I have to think.

Maybe I’ve written a character into a corner and have no idea how to get her out. Maybe I have to re-conceptualize an entire character. Research the religion or medical condition or historical background of a character. Figure out a new sub-plot. Figure out the entire main plot!

This is different from what people talk about as “writer’s block.”  When I think of writer’s block, I picture sitting down and having no ideas, nothing to say. Or paralyzing oneself with fear. It’s a mind-numbing fog.

What I’m talking about is not a fog. It’s having some very specific problems with a manuscript that need to be thought through or, occasionally, researched. But the thinking does not happen in a controlled, manageable, linear fashion. I wish it were like writing a news story or a fundraising letter, where I could say, “Okay, I’m going to sit down at 2 p.m. and have this done by 5 p.m.” But it’s not.

Instead, my mind wanders. I play Facebook Scrabble. I move the laundry. I write out page after page of notes and outlines that look organized but basically just re-state the problem. Even if I focus on trying to find the answer, it doesn’t come.

And I want to write! I don’t want to sit around thinking. I want motion, action, progress. I want to look at my computer and see “1,269 words” at the bottom of that Microsoft Word window. I feel like someone in the driver’s seat, bags are packed and loaded in the trunk, key in the ignition, the open road stretching ahead, and the damn car isn’t moving.

car

I want to have everything figured out so I can blast forward putting it on paper.  After all, this process is all about the writing, right? We call ourselves “writers.” We go to “writers’ retreats” and “writers” conferences.” We buy books on writing and join writing groups.

Nobody says “I’m joining a thinking group.”

But maybe we should.

My rational self — the self that is not tearing its hair out and wanting to blast forward — knows that thinking is an essential part of this process. That’s especially true at the stage I’m at with this current novel — first draft just finished, ready to start revising and improving.

I need to think about what works and what doesn’t work, what I want to add, and where I want to take this manuscript. That’s just as important as getting all those pages of the first draft down on paper. And it doesn’t happen on command or on schedule. Maybe for some people it does, but not me.

I need to calm down and give it time.

That’s my rational self talking. But what I really want is: motion, action, progress.

Pages.

In praise of fava beans

July 12, 2015

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I could have counted all the vegetables I knew on two hands. Carrots, peas, broccoli, string beans, celery, lettuce…. My mom was probably on the adventurous side because she made fresh artichokes for us even though we lived 3,000 miles from any artichoke fields.

Now of course the American palate has expanded. Kale is so trendy that it is just about passé! Safeway sells baby arugula. People have learned to roast brussel sprouts in olive oil rather than boiling them to odoriferous pulp.

Still, we all get stuck in food ruts, cooking the same familiar things over and over. I was bumped out of my rut last year when we joined a CSA food box program. That stands for Community Supported Agriculture, where people support nearby organic farmers by ordering a box of produce each week, a kind of vegetable version of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

You don’t get to choose what comes in your box. You get whatever is seasonal. So in the past few months, I’ve learned to cook and like watermelon radishes and kohlrabi. Now I even buy watermelon radishes at the store!  (Note: They are large beet-sized radishes with very pretty circles of pink, white, and light green. I dice them and roast them with beets, cauliflower, and butternut squash.)

I got another bump this week when our neighbors went on vacation and ordered us to eat whatever was ripe in their garden. This gave a whole new meaning to the phrase farm-to-table, since their garden is about six feet from my kitchen table.

Among other things, they were growing fava beans. Now, fava beans were something I’ve never had interest in buying or growing. I’d eaten them in paella, where they were big and brown and tasteless and mushy. You get three or four beans to a pod, and not too many pods on a plant, and they seemed like a whole lot of work for… just beans.

IMG_2575

Fava bean plant — look for the protruding bean pods / Photo by Ilana DeBare

But God forbid anything should go to waste. So I picked a bunch of our neighbor’s beans and perused various web sites to figure out what to do with them. I decided to blanche them and serve them with olive oil and salt, like tapas.

They were awesome!

Preparing them was half the fun. It takes more time than throwing a head of broccoli in a pot, but it’s much more interesting and sensual.

First you shell the beans. I was amazed to open up a fava pod and find the beans cocooned in a kind of fleece lining, a soft, wispy white fuzz covering the inside of the pod. It was like a sleeping bag for beans. This is a plant that knows how to take care of its babies! (Hint: score the seam of the pod with a knife to shell them more easily.)

A fava bean pod / Photo by Ilana DeBare

A fava bean pod / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The white fleece inside of the pod, with beans removed / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The white fleece inside of the pod, with beans removed / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The beans themselves were smooth and flawless. I thought of bars of new soap. I thought of round stones that had been smoothed by a million years of running water. Apple could have stolen the clean lines and minimalist chic of its iPhone from a fava bean.

Next comes the hull protecting each bean. Some people peel the hulls and then eat the beans raw; others pop them into their mouth and eat them with the hull. I tried both ways and they were both good — would be a great TV snack. But for tapas, I wanted a large quantity of peeled beans.

Fava beans, shelled but not yet peeled / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Fava beans, shelled but not yet peeled / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I brought a pot of water to a boil, blanched the beans for three minutes, then spooned them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Boiling loosened their hulls and it was easy to slide the skin off. There’s something sensual about the frictionless ease with which the beans slide out of their cases in your fingers.

Removing the bean from its hull / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Removing the bean from its hull / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Voila! Fava beans, ready for olive oil and salt. The taste is starchy but also sweet, with a hint of nut or chestnut. Simple yet fresh.

I would feel bad about eating all of our neighbors’ fava beans, but they’re in Italy.

I suspect they are eating even better over there.

Fava beans with olive oil and salt / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Fava beans with olive oil and salt / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The end is near (of the novel, not the world)

June 30, 2015

I’ve been working on the first draft of a new novel for slightly more than a year. Progress has been in small steps punctuated by constant breaks: My halftime job at Golden Gate Audubon gives me the rest of the week to write, but the paying work often creeps over into the unpaid work and then there are all the other interruptions of family, holidays, life.

This week, though, I’ve reached the last chapter.

Audubon work was relatively contained in June so I got on a roll. I saw the end of the book ahead of me, a long straightaway after winding through mountains. I was writing a lot! I became unusually spacey, caught up in imagined conversations between my characters while driving or taking my spin class or buying groceries. I was so distracted that I locked my keys in the car at the gym last week.

locked-out

Evil zombie woman looks at her inaccessible car keys

Then Sam went backpacking for the past five days, so I had my own private writers’ retreat here at home – nothing to do but write, go to the gym, and heat up canned soup.

Yesterday I was exhilarated to reach this point. To get the whole darn thing down! To have a narrative that goes from point A to point B! To write  down on paper all the ending episodes that I’d had in my brain for months!

I had to restrain myself from posting jubilant cheers on Facebook. Huzzah huzzah huzzah! Champagne for everyone! Wait, I told myself, until you are actually done.

Today I got even closer. I started what will be the last chapter.

And now I don’t feel exhilarated at all. Quite the opposite.

I’m sad because something very sad is happening to my main characters. I’m anxious because once the first draft is done, I need to put on my critical hat and look at all the things that suck with the manuscript and make it better. I’m worried because I’m not going to have a chance to finish the draft until this weekend, when Sam will be out of town again and the post-draft letdown will really hit and I will be by myself and I will feel REALLY AWFUL.

For me, one of the necessary tasks in writing a first draft is to suspend all critical voices. Like many writers, and I suspect particularly women writers, I have a very persistent internal critic that is happy to point out every way in which my work is hackneyed, melodramatic, overwritten, predictable, boring, cliched, shallow etc. Over the years, I have gotten very good at shutting the valve on my critic while I plow through a first draft.

But then the first draft is done, and it’s time to edit and revise. I need to be critical. But there’s no halfway setting for my critic valve.

Once released, the critic blasts out with the power of a New York City fire hydrant on a hot summer day, and I’m flooded with self-loathing:

NYC hydrant, 1969

NYC hydrant, 1969

This book sucks! I can’t write decent dialogue! I’m no Virginia Woolf! I’m no Tom Wolfe! I’m not even Wolf Blitzer! This book should be flushed down the toilet before anyone can laugh at its incompetence, which is only exceeded by its hubris!

I’m worried that’s what happens next. With Sam out of town. So…

To-do list for the weekend:

Trip to Ace Hardware. Look for a Critic Wrench that can open the valve part way. A little bit at a time. Drip by drip, revision by revision.

But first, finish the book.

And second, open that champagne. Even if I’ve forgotten that I earned it.

The Seder Table: A Short Story

March 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, I had a short story about Passover published in the J, the weekly Jewish newspaper for Northern California. Because this is Passover week, I figured I’d share it with you here. One of my goals when I set out to write it was to fit the tight 800-word limit of the J’s fiction section. Happy Passover!

The Seder Table

By Ilana DeBare

Normally she would be thrilled to have the twins flying home at the last minute for seder, but this year Robin wanted to bar the door. She reached for the big silver platter that had been in her family since the 1800s and attacked it with her square of chamois like a siege army. She didn’t want Jen and Maia leaving school, a vicious reminder of all that was wrong, like her friends’ solicitous phone calls asking if they could make the matzah balls this year, or the fatigue that set in around noon, or the goddamned bald head in the mirror.

Robin set the big silver platter aside, shiny as a new morning, and reached for the ceramic seder plate. It was a junky piece of kitsch, but it was her kitsch. She’d bought it in the Old City on her junior year abroad and used it every Passover since then. It had been through ramshackle seders on the living room floor in group households when she was single, seders that careened on fast-forward when everyone had squirming toddlers, decades of seders in which friends arrived with new husbands and then no husbands and then second husbands.

Robin was wiping down the plate when her cell rang. Dan. Checking in on her, no doubt. Which was sweet and considerate and loving and made her even more furious.

“Everything’s fine,” she answered curtly. “I’m doing the platters.”

“Well, hi-it’s-nice-to-hear-from-you too.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve just got my hands full. I can’t talk now.”

“No prob. How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

“Tired?”

“No.”

“Do you want–”

“I said I was fine. Look, sweetie, just get the girls at the airport, okay?”

When she reached to return the phone to her purse, a wave of exhaustion nearly brought her to her knees. Pacing. She had learned to pace herself in this new, hopefully-temporary metabolism. In past years, she tore through seder preparations in three intense days. Now, like a taffy pull without the sweetness, Robin had stretched those three days of work into a week. She had graciously agreed to let friends make the desserts and the charoset; she had even condescended to order the gefilte fish from a deli. All she had to do today – all – was polish the silver and glassware. Of course she could handle that.

After a nap.

It was four in the afternoon when Robin woke. She had never been a napper, and she planned on rejoining the ranks of the joyously, obliviously non-napping sometime soon. This round of chemo was working. The doctors were uniformly encouraging. Next Passover she would make the gefilte fish again. To hell with “next year in Jerusalem”; next year in normalcy would be just fine with her.

Robin reached for some crystal wine glasses that had belonged to her mother. Like everything else, they were dusty. She grasped multiple stems in each hand, like squawking chickens held upside-down by their feet, and padded toward the sink. And then it happened – who knew why, just a click of the front door like any other day, Dan arriving with the girls, but it spooked her and she twitched and the flock of crystal chickens flew out of her hands and smashed on the floor.

My mother’s crystal; what will she say? she thought, and then She can’t say anything, she’s been dead for 15 years, and then At least it wasn’t my seder plate and then Oh God, why do they have to see me this way because tears were running down her face and she had slumped onto the floor amidst the shattered glass.

“Mom!” called Jen, and they were suddenly around her, hugging her, so eager to make it all right. But it would not be all right, Robin knew, even if the chemo worked and her hair grew back and the gefilte fish swam back to her stove. If not this, it would be something else – the stroke that took her mother, the “female problems” that took her grandmother. It felt like only yesterday that she was triumphantly bargaining a few shekels off the price of an already-dirt-cheap seder plate, yesterday that she was inhaling sweet talcum powder from plump baby bodies. But the girls were grown; their childhood was gone; her own youth was even longer gone; and now her mother’s crystal was gone too. It was just a matter of time until all that remained of their cherished lives would be brittle heirlooms on someone else’s seder table.

Robin reached one arm around each girl. “Careful,” she managed to say. “The glass. Don’t cut yourself.” But what she was thinking was: We are always leaving Egypt, Pharoah’s chariots are always at our heels, and there will never be enough time for the matzah to rise.        

I’m running for Congress!

January 14, 2015

I’m running for Congress!

The World Zionist Congress, that is.

“Huh?” you may ask. “What World Zionist Congress? I never heard of such a thing. And how the heck is Ilana involved with it?” 

Patience. All will be explained.

The WZC, for starters.

The World Zionist Congress

Founded in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, the WZC started out as a global gathering of Jews devoted to creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It met every few years to elect officers of the World Zionist Organization, which functioned as a kind of state-in-formation during the years of the British Mandate.

21st Zionist Congress in 1939 / Photo from Wikipedia

21st Zionist Congress in 1939 / Photo from Wikipedia

After creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the WZO’s focus shifted to promoting immigration to Israel and connecting Jews around the world – particularly young people – with Israel. Today it oversees a budget of about $30 million, and has joint authority over the $475 million budget of the Jewish Agency.

Leadership and focus of the WZO is decided every few years at a World Zionist Congress, with the next Congress scheduled for Jerusalem in October 2015.

Participation in the Congress is divided up by country, based on the size of the Jewish population in each country. So Israel gets 38 percent of the seats, the U.S. gets 29 percent, and other Diaspora countries get 33 percent. We’re a Big Kahuna!

The U.S. delegation in turn is determined by elections, with different movements within American Judaism fielding slates of candidates.

American Slates in the WZC

The slate that won the most votes in the last WZC in 2008 was from ARZA, representing Reform Judaism. This makes sense since, numerically, more American Jews are affiliated with Reform synagogues than any other set of institutions.

The overall breakdown of the American delegation in 2006 was:

  • ARZA (Reform Judaism) – 55
  • Religious Zionist Slate (Orthodox Judaism) – 35
  • Mercaz (Conservative Judaism) – 32
  • Zionist Organization of America (right of center) – 5
  • Hatikvah (left-of-center coalition supporting the Israeli Labor and Meretz parties) – 5
  • Likud (right of center)– 3
  • Green Zionist Alliance – 2
  • Herut USA (right of center) – 2
  • Reconstructionist Judaism – 2
  • Other – 4

So what about Ilana?

All very interesting, but you are probably still wondering what I’m doing in the middle of this.

I was approached in late 2014 by by an old friend from Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist youth movement that was such a key part of my teenage years and formed the base for much of my Jewish and political identity.

At Hashomer Hatzair's Camp Shomria in the mid-70s. I am in the second row, third from right. Photo by Yonit Brownstein.

At Hashomer Hatzair’s Camp Shomria in the mid-70s. I am in the second row, second from right. Photo by Maria Kontos Barrett.

She asked if I would serve as a delegate for Hatikvah – the Progressive Zionist slate.

Hatikvah represents folks who support the left-of-center Labor and Meretz parties in Israel. It also includes alumni of Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim-Dror, the kibbutz-related youth movements. And this year it has added leaders of the New Israel Fund, J Street, and Americans for Peace Now.

In short, it’s the central gathering spot for American Jews who share a vision of Israel as a socially just, democratic Jewish state that is committed to a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The name “Hatikvah” (hope) is fitting. We carry on the founders’ hope that Israel will be a just and ethical light among the nations. We persist in our own hope – despite more setbacks than anyone can count — that Israel can reach a negotiated peace agreement with security for its own residents and self-determination for the Palestinians.

How could I say no?

Not quite like student council

I haven’t run in any kind of election since 6th grade student council, when I campaigned via “win with Wendy” posters in magic marker. And these days people spend tens of millions of dollars to get elected to the U.S. Congress.

Hatikvah

I was a little worried about what might be involved in being on the Hatikvah slate.

In reality, though, I don’t have to do much. (Except spread the word like I’m doing here!) The slate is headed by big names like folk singer Theodor Bikel, J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, New Israel Fund Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, Princeton political scientist Michael Walzer, and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers. There are about a hundred people on the slate in total. I am WAAAAY down at the bottom.

So unless the slate goes as viral as a stupid-cat-tricks video, there is no way it will win enough spots for me to be seated. It’s not likely I will have to go to Jerusalem to take part in the Congress next October.

My role is less like Hillary Clinton than like a neighborhood precinct captain trying to get out the vote.

So… I’m asking you to vote!

Why vote?

Yes, you can probably vote, even if you never heard of the WZC before this blog post. Here’s what’s required:

  • You need to be Jewish.
  • You need to pay $10 to cover the cost of the election, or $5 if you are under age 30.
  • You need to be at least 18 years old and a citizen or resident of the US.
  • You need to support the Jerusalem Program, a basic set of principles about Israel being the homeland of the Jewish people. You can read the principles here.

In the last set of elections, only 80,000 American Jews voted. So in fact, this is a situation where a relatively small number of votes can have a big impact. YOUR vote can have an impact.

American Jews – especially those of us on the left side of the spectrum – complain a lot about Israeli policies. We complain about the Israeli government not listening to us.

Here is a chance where we are being invited to make our opinions heard!

Granted, the WZC is not going to determine the future of the Middle East. The upcoming Israeli elections will determine who runs Israel for the next few years — much more important than the WZC. But the WZC does have a say over those $400-500 million that are spent on education and settlement.

And the composition of the WZC sends an important message to Israeli policymakers about what American Jews think.

Do you believe that funds for new housing should go to needy areas inside Israel proper, rather than to settlements on the West Bank? 

Peace Now demonstration in Israel

Peace Now demonstration in Israel

Do you believe that Israel should remain a democratic society that respects the civil rights of its minority populations? 

Do you believe that the Israeli government should provide equal status to all streams of religious Judaism, and not treat Orthodox Judaism as the one “official” Judaism? 

Do you believe that Israeli women should have equal rights to travel, dress, work, and pray as they want? 

Do you believe that Israeli should do more to provide economic opportunity and a safety net for its poorest citizens? 

Do you believe that Israel needs a two-state solution for its survival as a Jewish and democratic state? And that it desperately needs leaders with the courage to pursue that goal? 

The Hatikvah slate in the WZC election is a way to make your voice heard on all these points.

I’d love it if you choose to vote for Hatikvah – the slate representing the values of historic Labor Party leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, the legacy of the kibbutz movement, the energy of progressive American Jews.

But it’s also fine if, as a Reform Jew, you prefer to support the ARZA slate. (Our rabbi at Temple Sinai, Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, is a delegate with ARZA.)

ARZA and Hatikvah share a commitment to religious pluralism and women’s rights in Israel, and to a two-state solution. In fact, Hatikvah formed a working coalition with the Reform and Conservative slates during the 2006 Congress.

Here’s how I personally might decide between those two slates: If my primary concern were religious pluralism within Israel, I would vote for ARZA. If my primary concern were reaching a secure two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, I would vote for Hatikvah.

How to vote

Voting takes place online. It starts on January 14, 2014 and goes through April 30.

Still not convinced? Here’s a column by Sue Fishkoff, editor of the J newspaper, talking about why you should vote in the WZC election. It’s got the great title, “Time to stop whining and start voting.”

Click here to register, view a list of the various slates, and then vote.

Click here to learn about the Hatikvah slate and its platform.

Click here to read about ARZA, the Reform Zionist slate.

I know, our lives our very busy. Take five minutes and vote right now before you forget!

Then please share this post – or the slate of your choice – with your friends.

In Conversation: Rabbi Yoni Regev

December 28, 2014

One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the fifth in an occasional series of interviews with the clergy of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif. 

Rabbi Yoni Regev

Rabbi Yoni Regev

Rabbi Yoni Regev started serving as Interim Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sinai in summer 2014, his first pulpit after ordination.

At age 31, Rabbi Regev is older than many new rabbis since he is Israeli and served in the Israeli army before enrolling in college and rabbinical school. His wife, Lara Pullan Regev, is also studying to become a rabbi and serves as Director of Jewish Living and Learning at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. It’s unusual to have an Israeli-born rabbi serving an American congregation, so I asked a lot of questions about that!


Q: How did you decide to become a rabbi? Your father is a rabbi in Israel. How did that influence your decision?

A: My father was a rabbi and we were overtly Reform, which was unusual in Israel. I grew up going to the Reform movement’s kindergarten and then the early TALI schools as they were developing. (TALI is a Hebrew acronym for public schools that have Jewish enrichment, which were run by the Reform and Conservative movements.) My mom was a teacher in one of them, so it was an all-encompassing experience for us.

A lot of my parents’ friends were also rabbis and professionals in the Jewish community. In a lot of ways, it was all I knew. We had guests every Friday night. I remember the lively discussions around the table – politics of the day, politics of the Jewish world. My mom is a great cook and has kept a book since before my parents were married of every person they’ve hosted in our house, cross-indexed with what she prepared and what they like to eat and what they don’t like to eat.

Q: It sounds like she is not just a great cook, she is an obsessive-compulsive cook!

A: No, she is a hostess who takes things seriously. She cares about people feeling welcome. She would know that if someone last came to dinner in 1999, and enjoyed a particular rice dish, they might enjoy that rice dish again.

Q: Did your dad lead a congregation?

A: When I was first growing up, he was on the faculty at at Hebrew Union College [the Reform rabbinical school]. Born and raised in Tel Aviv, he was raised completely secular and first became exposed to Judaism through the Reform movement as part of a U.S.-Israel student exchange.

He was selected by his high school principal for an exchange program that involved going to Camp Swig in 1968, which was a transformative time for him. He became very involved with the nascent Reform movement in Israel when he came back. He became a youth group leader, and later decided to follow that up with rabbinical school.

I always enjoyed going to services with him. He would sometimes lead services at HUC. In 1989, he founded the Israel Religious Action Center, which is the Israeli counterpart of the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C., and which served as the legal arm of the Reform movement in Israel and in many ways its social advocacy arm as well. He served as its founding director through my years in high school and then was appointed as president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism in 2001.

Q: Quite a pedigree! It’s like being the son of a Chasidic rebbe.

A: It was all very natural for me. That said, my sister – who grew up in the very same house – couldn’t care less and was never excited about attending services. She’s a musician and now a pastry chef professionally. So that did not rub off at all on her.

Q: What was it that appealed to you?

A: It wasn’t just my father. The issues he was involved in – battles over “who is a Jew,” battles for conversion recognition, battles for freedom of religion in Israel – were things that were in the press and were hot topics all the time.

At the end of the day, I realized that being a rabbi combines all the things I feel passionate about – work with a community, daily study, and bending your mind in new directions. And I always loved the stage and being in front of people.

What I was drawn to as I was ending my army service was music. I had imagined I would follow the path to cantorial school. But almost as soon as I came to the States [for university] and started being involved in the Reform movement, I realized I loved singing but it wasn’t what I wanted to do full time.

Rabbi Yoni Regev considered becoming a cantor before he became a rabbi.

Rabbi Yoni Regev considered becoming a cantor before he became a rabbi.

Q: I was surprised to hear your dad is a sabra, because you have no Israeli accent. You have an American accent.

A: I always had that. My mom is American. She made aliyah in 1978. My sister and I were raised bilingual at home, speaking Hebrew with my father and English with my mom. My sister speaks English fluently but doesn’t sound American. So you could attribute it to my singer’s ear, but I have a suspicion it was influenced more by watching a lot of TV, because I don’t have my mom’s accent.

Q: In one of your high holiday sermons, you mentioned your decision to become a Reform rabbi in America rather than Israel. There is such a need in Israel for for an alternative to the poles of completely secular or completely Orthodox. It seems like it would be a very attractive place to be a Reform rabbi. What made you come to the U.S. to work?

A: As someone who related in the American vernacular, I felt I could explain the realities of life in Israel in a way that people could hear them. Also, I always felt I would do better working in a team and being part of an established institution. In Israel, it’s still very much a start-up kind of approach [in the Reform movement].

One interesting thing is that since I started school, the interest within Israel in becoming a Reform rabbi has spiked incredibly. Ordination classes of one or two were common in the 1990s, and four was considered a big class. Now they are ordaining much bigger classes. This is coinciding with a deep need within Israel for rediscovering authentic Jewish roots. For a long time, the notion was that … religion was really reserved for the Orthodox. If you weren’t Orthodox, you shouldn’t touch it. But we’ve started seeing people in Israel coming to the Reform movement for b’nei mitzvah and wedding services. Even though there is no legal recognition for [non-Orthodox] weddings, people are yearning for egalitarian, meaningful services.

The other part of [how I chose to work in the Untied States] was that I ended up meeting my wife Lara. She’s from L.A. and she was also applying to rabbinical school. At that point we decided our path would have us here.

Q: What’s it like to experience our liturgy in a language that you understand fluently? I know enough Hebrew to recognize most of the words, but it’s still not comfortable for me. I have to puzzle out the words.

A: For me as a Hebrew speaker, on the one hand, it’s so much clearer. But as I learn about the history of the liturgy, I realize how much I’ve glossed over because it’s so easy to understand. I’ve sometimes failed to see the liturgical work that went into structuring it. Reading it in English, I rediscover some of what the Hebrew means.

Q: Is it less mystical when you understand it and it seems part of daily conversation?

A: So much of popular culture and music in Israel comes from liturgy. Part of it is an earlier generation of people trying to reclaim ownership of the traditional Jewish sources by popularizing them, like psalms that made it on the pop charts.

Think about the Shma that we sing anytime we’re not using the organ. Tzvika Pik, who is sort of a Bob Dylan in Israel, wrote that melody for a festival. He also wrote the melody for Adon Olam that we use today, which was played on the radio in Israel.

So what’s it like to understand it? In some ways, it may breed a little bit of contempt or lack of attention. But I always try when I pray to find at least one thing that I haven’t noticed before.

Q: One question I ask all the rabbis I interview: What is your personal view of God?

A: The easiest answer is that I believe in a God that is the source of creation and the source of everything we see around us in the world. At the same time, I struggle with the God of the Bible, who doesn’t pay very good attention, who gets angry too easily, who seems to have created us with all kinds of faults.

The great challenge is that so much of our faith is built around prayer and a kind of immediate personal relationship with God. Our prayers are deeply personal and invoke a centuries-old covenant, which is continually rededicated between us and God. It’s a reciprocal kind of covenant.

If we don’t buy into that kind of relationship, then in some ways prayer becomes an act devoid of meaning. Yet I’m a big believer in prayer – not just because of the kind of transformational power it has on people, but because I believe it does have an effect on God.

Q: So you think there’s a God who listens and responds to prayer?

A: I didn’t say that. I don’t think that’s how it works. And I very much like the framework of Reform theology, which says that waiting around for God to act and for the Messiah to redeem this world is not what God expects of us.

Rather, prayer is in many ways an internal call to action — an understanding that the work of creation is in many ways done, but caring for this world is an imperative left to us.

In some ways it would be so much better if like most Ultra-Orthodox Jews, we could just say “It’s in God’s hands, I’m not in charge, God put down a rule book and I’m just going to follow the rules, and anything that happens is God’s will.” That’s very freeing. But then so much of the exploration and responsibility for what we see in the world around us is taken out of the picture.

I can say with some confidence that there is a God that set the universe in motion. And that in order for life to have meaning, God set the universe in motion with the intent to care for what happened after that. Our work is to reach back and find the connection between us and the God who set it in motion.

In times where people find comfort in another image of God, I don’t deny it. I don’t pretend to have a definitive image of God. When I’m called upon to provide comfort in the name of God, I bring God as close as I can and allow that to mean whatever it means to the individual who needs God. I don’t see a paradox or dishonesty in that, because we don’t have an answer one way or the other.

Rabbi Regev (right) leads a program for the Temple Sinai preschool / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Rabbi Regev (right) leads a program for the Temple Sinai preschool / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Q: How about the other big question. What do you think happens after death?

A: If nothing else, we are at peace. We are relieved of the weight of being alive.

There’s a lot of comfort in the traditional view that we are gathered up with our ancestors, and I try not to make that too literal or embodied. The idea that we are connected to this chain of people who came before us is meaningful. Those who have passed live in our hearts and minds, and thus live in our midst. Honoring our dead and celebrating their lives is one of the things that gives our own lives meaning. We pass that on to the next generation, and thereby matter in some deep and lasting way.

That’s one of the reasons I decided to focus very strongly on re-examining our approach to Jewish burial as part of my senior work [in rabbinical school]. I recently published an article discussing the need to re-examine burial and death — specifically how we have lost touch with the generational connection meant to take place as part of the burial process.

Q: What are we not doing that we used to do?

A: The roots of of Jewish burial have almost nothing to do with how we practice today, which derives from Europe in the middle ages.

At its root [in Biblical times], burial was a family affair. You had a family or clan burial plot – usually a cave. When you died, you were laid to rest in this burial cave for a year. At the end of a year, the family would return for what was the original yahrtzeit and perform the final act of unreturned mercy – gathering up your bones and placing them in an ossuary with your ancestors’ bones, so you would be physically gathered up with them.

As a living person, you had a deep understanding of where you came from and where you were going. Your relationship to the deceased did not end with their death.

Today, my grandparents on one side are buried in Israel and I don’t get to visit them as often as I’d like. My grandparents on the other side are still living, but their parents are buried in Rochester N.Y. and Providence R.I. I’ve been there once or twice. When I have children, I doubt they’ll ever go.

In major metropolitan areas, the ability to bury within an hour of the city has almost completely disappeared. So you are not able to visit, to interact, to be connected with the deceased. Cremation is not any better. It’s much worse for that purpose.

This is a broader question that society is going to have to face. Societies have changed and there are so many more people alive now. There are more people who are going to die in the next century than have died up until now in all of modern history…. The earth can sustain that amount of burial, but not in cities.

Q: Are you suggesting we go back to ossuaries?

A: We have to reimagine what it means to be gathered up to your ancestors. The family unit has become so fluid and so fractured that saying you are going to have a connection with your family burial place is simply unrealistic. But it’s a kind of responsibility that communities can take upon themselves in a way that families cannot.

There are different ways to do that. Temple Beth-El in Boca Raton has a mausoleum on the synagogue premises. They have found that people enjoy making a visit to their loved ones a part of visiting the synagogue. Unlike the rare visits to the cemetery, connecting death with the ongoing cycle of life demystifies it and engenders a better connection through the generations.

Q: I would ask this question of any rabbi. But particularly as an Israeli rabbi working in America, how do you feel American Jews should relate to Israel?

A: That is a question I feel very strongly about. American Jews have been given short shrift as far as their relationship with Israel. For a long time, the paradigm has been that we derive part of our authenticity from Israel, and since we live comfortably here, we owe some sort of tax on our comforts to support our beleaguered brothers in Israel.

Unfortunately, this means we have ceded the kind of responsibility and investment in the fabric of Jewish life that was envisioned in founding the state of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.

One of the great truisms of the Israeli political psyche is, “You don’t live here, you’re not exposed to the terror that we live with, your kids don’t go in the army – so butt out. We know better. This is our life.”

I don’t think that’s extraordinarily wrong. There are security realities that simply can’t be judged from the outside. At the same time, I do believe that Israel is the project of the Jewish people. For us to feel a sense of ownership over that project, we have to be given a bigger stake in the game than being cheerleaders on the sidelines.

Q: Should American Jews be allowed to criticize Israeli policy, particularly around the settlements and the peace process?

A: Up to a point, absolutely. The notion that any criticism from within exposes us to a weakened position facing the outside world is a form of self-delusion. If your positions are so weak that they can’t withstand a real critical debate, then you’re obviously not standing on a very strong foothold. Any political system that rejects dissent out of hand is one that is deeply uncertain of itself.

That said, there is truth to the reality that American Jews – as well as Americans and Europeans in general – do treat Israel with a different set of standards. They apply a standard that is far, far stricter and disproportionate relative to other democracies.

Look at what’s happening right now on border of Turkey and Syria, in Kubani. Thousands of ethnic Palestinians are being put to the sword, but I don’t see demonstrations in San Francisco. I don’t see people in the Port of Oakland blocking Turkish or Syrian ships from coming to port. There have been 160,000 civilians killed in the civil war in Syria, and no one is marching down the street over that.

At the U.N. Human Rights Council, nearly half of all condemnations are against Israel. Is Israel perfect? No. But does it commit half of all human rights violations in the world? No. Is it worse than Sudan? Than Darfur? No. Would I even put it in the same sentence as those countries? No.

Q: I believe that Israel as an issue is going to be increasingly challenging for American synagogues, because Israeli politics keep moving further and further to the right. There will be a schism between Israel and many U.S. Jews if we don’t get any kind of peace settlement and end up with de facto annexation.

A: That’s a true and very challenging perspective. The collapse of the ‘90s peace movement left a vacuum of political aspiration for peace in Israel that has been very hard to replace. The disillusionment has been crippling. When I was growing up, parents would always say, “By the time you grow up, peace will have come and you won’t need to go in the army.” I don’t think anyone says that anymore.

The ingredients [for a peaceful settlement] are there. Everyone knows the basic premises for peace. But it has to become more costly for both sides to go on fighting than to make the sacrifices for peace. So far, it’s been too costly to make the sacrifices for peace.

Any actual peace will require both sides losing significant standing. And since both sides still want to win, we don’t have peace.

Q: As American Jews, what can we do? Do we just have to wait for Israel and the Palestinians to bloody each other enough?

A: Partly, we need to have that conversation – that it’s too costly to not make peace. We need to say, “We believe that peace is necessary, justice is necessary, equality is necessary.”

Carte blanche for the established political system in Israel has not proven successful. But do I think boycotts or divestment are right? No. The solution is not withholding funds but giving funds, in a more directed way. Voting with your pocketbook rather than using it to slap someone down.

Q: So we should fund the institutions of civil society there?

A: Yes, in a non-apologetic way. In a Jewish way. We’re pretty smart people. All we need to do is change the equation a little bit.


This is the fifth in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. Click on these links to read previous interviews with  Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, Rabbi Andrew StrausRabbi Andrea Berlin, and Rabbi Steven Chester