Sunday, November 26, 2006

We are experiencing some technical difficulties

Please pardon the mess here as I fix some problems that arose when attempting to export blog posts and comments.

I should have posts back in correct formatting, the blogroll back up, and other fixes soon.

Thanks for bearing with me.

Squeaky Wheel or Lashon Hara?

“The wheel that squeaks the loudest

Is the one that gets the grease.”

Josh Billings, ca. 1870
I don’t like being a squeaky wheel. Don’t like it, don’t want to do it. There’s a reason (actually there are several) why I play a rabbi on paper instead of taking it to the next level. There’s a reason why I write instead of speaking publicly. (For the record, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the couple of divrei Torah I’ve given, but both were well-researched and written long before being delivered.) I’ve never been one to loudly “toot my own horn.”

This puts me in a very difficult situation as an author and a publisher. It’s my biggest challenge to date. Because horn-tooting and modest behavior just don’t seem to go hand in hand, and if they do, I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. (Any suggestions?)

Consequently, I thought long and hard about posting my support crises of last week. What were my real motivations? What did I want to accomplish with those posts? How was I going to try to accomplish my goal without hurting anyone in the process? Who else, if anyone, was going to benefit from this? Ultimately, how do I become the squeaky wheel without crossing the line into lashon hara?

Opinions may differ, but here’s what I did:
  • Before writing anything, I asked for the opinion of someone qualified whom I respect, who also is objective and completely separate from my community.
  • I determined that there was no point at all in just venting on the blog; something good (aside from my personal feelings) had to come of it that benefited more than me.
  • I had already tried to resolve the various yet related issues on the telephone or in person with the people involved, without much success.
  • I did everything I could to generalize, obscure, or otherwise conceal the identities of those involved, short of not writing about it at all.
  • I wrote only about things I had personally said, heard, or experienced.
  • I verified that there are others who are in similar positions, not feeling particularly supported within their local Jewish community, even when they’ve asked for said support directly.
  • I thought that writing was worth the risk if it alerted communities that supporting each other within our local communities is an unmet need (may I be so bold), and/or let others who felt unsupported know they they’re not alone.
I don’t know if there’s more I could have done, while still getting the message out. I don’t know if it will spark changes on a broader scale. I tried hard not to cross that line.

What I do know is that there are people who are active in their synagogues, active in their communities, who feel slighted, isolated, unappreciated or worse, because few people – if anyone at all – have told them that they and their contributions are valued. The message they get is that no one cares, or no one can be bothered to take the time.

What I want to say is that I care. I care because I know how that feels. And I care because I believe we have a responsibility to each other, not only in times of trouble and distress but also in times of joy.

When the community is in trouble let not a man say, “I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me.” . . . But rather a man should share in the distress of the community, for so we find that Moses, our teacher, shared in the distress of the community, as it is said, “But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon” [Exodus 17:12]. Did not then Moses have a bolster or a cushion to sit on? This is then what Moses meant [to convey], “As Israel are in distress I too will share with them. He who shares in the distress of the community will merit to behold its consolation.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 11a)
If we are obligated to come together as a community in distress, how much worse is it then if we turn away during times of joy and, as a direct result, cause distress?

And based on Rashi’s interpretation of kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh (all Jews are responsible for one another) that all are held responsible even for the sins of a few, it seems to me that if our actions can bring each other down, so too our actions can elevate each other.

I’m still learning this, and I’m by no means innocent. Still, I think of the good we can do by encouraging each other. And not just our friends and family and people we know well, but also the marginalized, the passed over, the ignored, the forgotten.

We have the ability to impact lives in a positive way, and sometimes all it takes is a “mazal tov.”

Thanks, Rabbi.

A Question of Support, Revisited

I almost didn’t go to shul yesterday. I wanted to go because there was a bar mitzvah of someone I know and whose family I wanted to support by being there and cheering (figuratively) him on. I wanted to go because I truly, badly missed it.

I reject the whole “G-d lives in the sanctuary”/“this is the house of G-d” notion when it comes to synagogues and churches and mosques. G-d doesn’t need to fit into some decorated box we create. But the decorated box can do a lot for us. And oh my, all I need to do is walk into the empty sanctuary at shul and inhale through my nose and I’m transported. All at once, I’m one with the hopes and fears and joys and losses and anguish and peace that lingers in this space. And I am reminded that I am not alone.

It’s a little more complex when the sanctuary is full of people, but the underlying message remains: I am here to connect, in Big Ways and little ways, and hopefully, to retain that connection until the next time.

I almost didn’t go to shul yesterday, but a little bird told me that I was missing the point. I was afraid to go lest someone who knows me personally and read my blog last week was upset with me, even though I had no evidence to support that theory. I was afraid to go because experience has taught me that there’s usually a backlash when you take a risk. And the backlash typically isn’t fun.

I was afraid to go, but that wasn’t the point. The point was twofold: 1) it was important for me to show the very support that I’ve claimed is often lacking in our community, and 2) it was important that I reconnect, because without That Connection, and without reconnecting with my family/community, I would continue to feel alone and let down no matter what happened.

I listened. And I went. The bar mitzvah was awesome and I’m really glad I was there. I reconnected on a lot of different levels. And then during announcements at the end of services, the rabbi offered an impromptu and much-appreciated mazal tov both to me and to the illustrator of Like a Maccabee (who was also there) on the publication of the book.

People did come up to me after services and offer congratulations and ask questions. The most amusing question was, “Now that this one’s published, your new novel is next, right? Right? Say yes; I don’t want to wait much longer.”

It was clear from people’s comments that they really did think I’d contributed something to the community by publishing Barbara’s book. It just took this announcement for them to say something to me.

I’m not going to presume to know why the announcement was made now, but I’m glad it was made. Well beyond the literal mazal tov, I think it makes a statement to the congregation that it’s okay to communally celebrate big events in our lives that aren’t necessarily life cycle events. And I think that’s important to hear.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thank Your Neighbor As You Thank Yourself

Yesterday I was in tears. I felt let down by my community. I was >< this close to sending an e-mail to my rabbi with links to a few of the support-related posts below and the single line of, "What do you think? Do we need to talk?"

Two days ago, a local Jewish school, where the illustrator of Like a Maccabee teaches, decided at the last minute to cancel the plan (which they'd initiated) to offer copies of the book for sale to grandparents and other "special people" on Grandparents'/Special Person's Day. The illustrator felt let down and unsupported by the school. I didn't blame her.

Last night, I felt hopeless. If I can't count on my family/shul community to celebrate with me on a joyous occasion (the publication of this book), then what happens when - G-d forbid - I need to rely on them for a sad occasion? There's a mountain of hurt here, including one friend having to recruit folks from the congregation to call me when I was on bedrest during my first pregnancy, and the fact that we couldn't even get a minyan together when I returned home after my father's (alav hashalom) funeral. Every letdown brings the hurt back up and magnifies it that much more.

Today I'd rather focus on the jewels in my life. I have some amazing friends. Some are Jewish, some are not. And for whatever reason, I've seen many of them in person just this past week. It's easy for us to support each other, to ask each other, "How are you really? What can I do to help?" Their happiness means a lot to me.

I know some awesome people here in the blogosphere, too. Folks I have never met in person, but who have been generous enough to invite me into their thoughts and dreams and struggles. They challenge my perceptions and expand my understanding of the world, and I'm thankful to them for that.

I have a husband who is supportive in all the right ways without ever being patronizing. Without him, I wouldn't be where I am now.

I have a renewed relationship with my extended family, something I was unsure would ever happen. I'm thankful for reconciliation.

And I have two children who remind me daily that there is joy in watching a worm crawl through the soil, contentment in a hug, and it really is possible to interpret Torah through the lens of The Lion King.

Now, we're off to another friend's home for Thanksgiving. It was an unexpected invitation: "Please come for Thanksgiving because we're thankful for your friendship." Wow. That alone was a gift.

Now, I'm celebrating Thanksgiving feeling very thankful to be Jewish, thankful to have a path to follow where the tangents are many but the parameters are clear. Where I've learned who I am and what that means. And where I've learned that it's all about the connections we make (and especially That Connection with the Holy) and not nearly as much about the pain when those connections are absent.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my American readers. And thank you to everyone.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

R. Akiva and the Anyone-Can-Do-It Syndrome

I don't know why (maybe something to do with the comments to this post from Shira), but I spent a good portion of Shabbat thinking about a short animated segment on one of the Shalom Sesame videos and whether the message it contained was actually true.

The animated story is a cute, child-appropriate rendition of the point at which not-yet-Rabbi Akiva comes to the conclusion that if water can bore through a rock, certainly Torah can bore through his heart. And at what most people then would consider an "advanced" age, he heads off to learn.

The message is pretty clear and quite inspirational: if Rabbi Akiva can go from an illiterate middle-aged shepherd to an exceptional Torah scholar, then you, too, can do whatever you set your mind to do.

I like the message. I want my kids to believe that they can live up to their full potential. I want them to believe that they can overcome all challenges and barriers. I want to believe that anyone who wants to learn Torah can.

This was the operating assumption back in R. Akiva's day. There was a certain, shall we say, hierarchy of status. Torah scholars were up there; those who couldn't even read or write were... not. And sad to say, there was a bit of condescension as a result.

Really sad to say, there still is. A lot.

But I've come to understand that there's a flaw in that assumption. Because it takes more than just really wanting it. It takes more than being willing to pack up and leave everything and everyone (including an incredibly supportive wife) for years at a time. It takes more than a burning knowledge that you will die if you don't learn.

These days, it takes financial means that too often are in direct conflict with paying the rent or mortgage. It takes time away from the precious little we already treasure with family. It requires that someone else be available to care for children. It assumes that you live in a place where there is opportunity, or that you have the means to relocate. It assumes that whatever physical or emotional disabilities you have, they can be overcome. And in most communities where time, finances, opportunity, child care, and a place to live are taken care of, it also requires that you be male.

I'm not saying that there aren't viable alternatives. I'm saying that it's more complex than "If Rabbi Akiva can do it, anyone can do it."

I'm not even convinced R. Akiva could have done it without support and encouragement. Support from his wife. Encouragement from his teachers. We - none of us - can excel in a vacuum. It takes networking. It takes encouragement. It takes interdependence.

When the teacher delights in being taught by the student, there is encouragement.
When the student receives constructive and helpful feedback, there is support.
When teacher and student come to see themselves as both teachers and students, there is interdependence.

I wouldn't change the animated story, or the message of encouragement it has for children. But I am acutely aware that without us working together, supporting and encouraging each other, none of us will succeed. And only the truly ignorant would think they could do it alone.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Question of Support

I've been thinking about that last post a lot today. And it prompted me to think about how we, as a Jewish community, support each other. And how we don't.

I've generally considered my rabbi to be supportive of my writing and publishing endeavors, though possibly held back from expressing that support formally within the shul (see Case 3 in the post below). Or maybe I'm deluding myself, but for now I choose to believe the former.

Anyway, I asked him a while ago why the lack of support within the local Jewish community, and even within the shul community - with some notable exceptions (thanks to those who wrote Amazon reviews, bought books, told others about Destined to Choose, and were emotionally supportive by asking me about the book and my writing and publishing life!).

I asked him if I'd crossed some invisible line, offended rabbis near and far, or if I'd said or done or written something that caused the lack of support and response. Because if it was something I'd done, I could maybe fix it.

We can blog about control issues some other time.

His response (paraphrased): "No, I don't think so. It's been a few years since I read it, but I don't remember anything offensive or that could be seen as offensive. I certainly wasn't offended."

He then continued, regarding what I'd termed the "tepid, at best" response from the community. Our community, he said, gave preference to those who had already established a following elsewhere. It would help, he said, for me to, as an example, "do a book tour in cities that are within driving distance but still 'distant' like Milwaukee, Chicago, Des Moines. Get good feedback there, and when you come back here, people will be much more receptive."

At the time, I thought, well if that's what I have to do, then that's what I have to do. Good to know for the second book's release.

And now, while I think the rabbi identified (one of) the problem(s) accurately, it bothers me.

Really bothers me. And here's why:

My shul community is the closest thing I have to family here. I consider them family in more ways than one. My biological family and my husband's biological family are (unfortunately) far away. Shouldn't my shul community/family be the first ones to support me, cheer me on, be in my corner? Why do I have to get validation from somewhere else before my local community even recognizes me?

Let's take the family analogy one small step further. Especially for those of you who are parents or teachers, would you ever say, "I'd be happy to show my confidence and pride in my children, but only after their teachers give them good feedback"? (Okay, Jack-who's-good-at-pressing-buttons, maybe you would ;-) , but...)

I attended a Hadassah focus group last year, in which we "younger women" were asked what we wanted to see in Hadassah, especially our local chapter. Several of us were involved in the arts: literary arts, visual arts, theatre arts. Every single one of us had experienced the same non-reseponse and lack of support from the local Jewish community. What I learned from that group is that this is not a common reaction. Other cities, other communities, were quite supportive and celebrated local talent rather than ignoring them. There were Hadassah arts programs that celebrated local members' works, some of which were purely social and others that doubled as fundraisers for causes that Hadassah supports. We have nothing of the sort out here.

And it all begs the larger, more global question that applies to every community, Jewish or not, that has the same attitude toward local artists that mine does:

If you do not support your own, your family, your local community members, what does that say about you?

And what does it say about a Jewish community that puts Image or Status before Community?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Why I’m angry and ashamed to be Jewish

When I started this blog, I thought I ought to present a kind of public face. Positive, informative, engaging. Maybe that’s worked for me and maybe it hasn’t. But it also means that there’s another side (at least one) that I never show.

Until now.

Because while I’ve been neck-deep in work, promoting Like a Maccabee and doing lots of publishing-y things, I’ve been getting increasingly pissed off at certain parts of the Jewish community, including parts of my local community.

I’ve been holding a lot of these feelings back for a long time, since Destined to Choose came out, and I’m really good at rationalizing it. Maybe it’s PMS or maybe I misunderstood or maybe my expectations were too high.

Now I’m convinced that I’m not the one to blame.

Some of my recent experiences even leave me ashamed to be Jewish.

Case 1: A small Jewish wholesaler contacted publisher-me to order copies of Like a Maccabee to distribute to her customers, which include Jewish bookstores, Jewish book fairs, Jewish schools, synagogues, JCCs and the like. We tried to negotiate a mutually acceptable discount. She was unwilling to accept the best I could offer. She (we’ll call her CJ - not her real initials) did not care that she would be supporting Jewish publishing and Jewish authors and Jewish books. I finally offered to send five copies at cost with free shipping (which translates into my losing money on this deal), and CJ agreed to see what the response would be.

I later found out that her terms for some of CJ’s customers – including Jewish book fairs – were exactly what I had originally offered her, the offer she turned down as “not enough of a discount.” Then I felt used. I felt like she took advantage of me.

I sent the books I’d agreed to sell CJ at cost, and I coughed up shipping costs. I sent an invoice, payable upon receipt. It is now a month later and CJ still has not paid. When I had my assistant call to find out what was going on and when we could expect payment, CJ was rude and then she hung up on him.

Case 2: A local synagogue where the editor of Like a Maccabee is actively involved has a huge Chanukah fair each year. I contacted the woman who organizes the fair and makes all the buying decisions, and asked her about carrying Like a Maccabee. It’s locally illustrated, locally edited, locally published, was just released, and takes place during Chanukah. Perfect fit, wouldn’t you think? She grumbled about it being too expensive from her wholesaler. (Guess who her wholesaler is? See Case 1 above.) So I offered to give her the quantity synagogue discount for 5 or more copies, eliminating the wholesaler’s cut out of her profits, and since she’s local, I offered to personally bring the copies to her, also eliminating shipping costs. She was unenthused. She was anything but supportive of this book. And then I found out later, she bought one copy. This Chanukah fair is HUGE. She has multiples of nearly everything she sells. And she bought one #%@& copy. Way to go to show support of the local Jewish community.

Case 3: Another local synagogue, with significant ties to several people involved in the production of Like a Maccabee, hasn’t even bothered to return my e-mails and phone calls. Ordinarily, I’d let this one go, because I know they’re busy and I’m really gifted at making excuses for them. But – okay, truth time – this is MY synagogue. I’d hoped for at least some response, but I was half-expecting to be disappointed again.

Again? Yes. Because I got the same sort of non-response when my book, Destined to Choose, came out. My shul has a history of publicly, within the shul community, supporting its members. I thought this was awesome. When one member had his excellent memoir-ish book about his career as a physician published, the shul encouraged the congregation to go to his book signings. He gave a d’var Torah and read from his book. The shul had copies for sale in its tiny gift shop. When another member had his Holocaust memoir published, he received a similar, if not more supportive, response. When yet another member publishes her research in academic journals most of us don’t read, she is lauded from the bima and is asked to teach classes for the congregation.

When my book was published, there was a “Yishar koach” notation in the monthly newsletter. I got a “Kiddush today is sponsored by Sheyna Galyan in honor of the publication of her book, Destined to Choose” but only because I donated money toward Kiddush. That was it. I donated a copy to the shul, where it sat in the program director’s office for a YEAR before the shul finally decided they’d come up with a plan to be supportive.

Their answer was an author’s panel, because quite frankly, they didn’t think anyone would come if I did a reading and Q&A after services on Shabbat or a signing and book sale on a Sunday morning after minyan. The panel was scheduled for Halloween day, a Sunday morning that year. It was not heavily promoted as many other shul programs are. There were precious few announcements. There were no mailings. I did my own promotions for it, but there’s only so much one person can do without support.

The shul said they wanted to do the panel because they were trying to protect me from being hurt by no one showing. With very little promotion by the shul for the panel, guess how many people came? About a dozen. Most were family members of other authors on the panel. I sold one book – to one of the other authors.

I asked if the book I’d donated to the shul could be placed in the shul library and I was told “Absolutely!” It never showed. I still have no idea what happened to it.

So what gives with the lack of response – even just a quick e-mail – with the publication of Like a Maccabee? Maybe the shul discriminates against fiction. Maybe Minnesota’s Jewish community has issues. Maybe it’s me (but I don’t think so). I don’t know what it is, but it’s been stuck in my craw since what I’d referred to in a conversation at the shul as a “tepid response, at best” to my book in 2003. Shul leadership didn’t agree, but I’m not sure what they would call it. It ain’t supportive in my book, especially given the support shown to others.

And that’s why this latest hurts so much more.

I’ll confess that it’s been bothering me so much that I’ve recently been uninterested in going to Shabbat services. How can I go and be grateful and social and full of blessing when so much around me seems to be screaming “You/your book/your work is not worth our attention”?

I live my life acutely aware of Jewish values. I treasure justice. I abhor seeing others marginalized, victimized, or otherwise treated unfairly. I believe that morals should outweigh greed, that supporting each other and helping each other to survive in a very non-Jewish world is more important than getting that extra 5% discount.

And there is one more factor, one that my rabbi and some others in the shul and community know details about. I have a disability, the specifics of which are not necessary to share with the world. What is important is that I cannot survive for long in the corporate environment. Working from home and combining my talents and skills in this field allow me to work around my disability and remain a productive member of society.

I am trying to supplement my family’s income, in part so we can continue to pay the high costs of living a Jewish life and having our child (perhaps next year, children) in a Jewish school. Yet, without the support of my community, support for me as an author and as a publisher, I’m fighting an uphill battle to do any of this.

I’m not asking for support in the form of everyone buying a book. I’m asking for support in the form of people publicly showing their enthusiasm and confidence in what I do, enthusiasm and confidence that can have a ripple effect around the community, the country, the world, so that those who do want to buy books have the opportunity to do so. All of which seems to me to be fully in synch with Jewish values.

I don’t know what it will take to heal the hurt. I do know that the perfunctory “I apologize for anything I might have done this year to offend you” often offered at Yom Kippur is just not good enough.

Especially when it happens again.

As for Case 1 and Case 2, I don't know what to think. Case 1 isn't even in Minnesota. I'm disappointed in certain parts of the Jewish community, and I'm angry that some few seem to be living up to what I'd hoped to G-d was an antisemitic stereotype of greedy, rude, spiteful, and self-serving.

The author of Like a Maccabee, Barbara Bietz, has had exactly the opposite reaction. Her (Jewish) community, friends, family, schools, bookstores, newspapers are all excited and thrilled with the book and its publication. She's done book signings where she's talked about how it takes a village to write a book, how so many have given their support from inception to publication and beyond.

I want my village. I'm not seeing it. And that makes me very sad.