Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Optimistic Jew

It seems appropriate today, the day after Tisha b'Av, to turn toward the future with hope and optimism.

Tsvi Bisk, Director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking in Israel, is the author of the just-released and very well-written The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century. Somehow he found li'l ol' me and asked if I'd consider writing a review. Just a summary of the book had me intrigued, and The Optimistic Jew is well worth the read.

As an added bonus, Tsvi will be speaking in St. Paul this Sunday at 10:30am at the St. Paul JCC, and also at the World Future 2007 Conference at the Minneapolis Hilton between July 29 - August 1. I'll be attending his lecture at the St. Paul JCC. If you're in town, come see him! (And me! I'm friendly, honest!) With any luck, I'll be able to post an interview with him here, too.

So without further delay, here's more on The Optimistic Jew.

With the sobering predictions from successive American Jewish population studies, it’s easy to become pessimistic about whether it’s going to be worth it in the long run to raise an increasingly smaller new generation with a strong Jewish identity. Is there a reason for paying thousands of dollars for a child’s Jewish education?

Unequivocally, yes, says Tsvi Bisk in his new book, The Optimistic Jew (Maxanna Press, 2007). Director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking in Kfar Saba, Israel, Bisk not only knows that there’s a reason to be optimistic, he outlines exactly how we can create a strong, vibrant Jewish future, attracting younger generations of disenfranchised and unaffiliated Jews in the process. And we can do it in our own lifetime.

There are several keys to achieve this, according to Bisk. One is embracing cultural pluralism, and he likens it to an environmental paradigm:

“Environmentalism recognizes that “monoculturalism” (the cultivation of a single crop over extensive areas) endangers the health of the entire ecological system. Ecological systems that have an increasing variety of species and ever-increasing interactions between these species are healthy, vigorous, and robust. Ecological systems that have a diminishing variety of species and diminishing interaction between these species are sick and susceptible to collapse.” (p. 31)
And Bisk dismisses the idea that one has to choose between cultures: Jewish versus American versus Israeli versus any other cultural heritage, stating, “Individuals who cultivate within themselves a plurality of cultures also have a much better chance of succeeding. […] To the extent that Israel and the Jewish people at large can make this cultural attitude a norm, we will truly be a light unto the nations.” (pp. 139-140)

Another key is redefining Zionism for the 21st century. While Zionism was indeed a success, it is no longer applicable either to Israelis or the Diaspora. Writes Bisk, “Many young Diaspora and Israeli Jews have grown distant from Israel in recent years because Zionism is a 19th century ideology trying to come to terms with a 21st century reality.” (p. 57). In clear, down to earth language, Bisk retraces the history of Zionism, how it grew, how it succeeded, and what needs to happen to reinvent it for today and the future.

The third key relates to the role of Israel, within both Israeli and Diaspora culture. Since the creation of the State of Israel, the primary relationship has been one of the Diaspora financially funding Israeli organizations, ultimately directed by Israeli politics. Some Israelis, Bisk writes, claim that not only have these contributions had little effect on Israeli citizens, they have actually become detrimental.

“The time has come for a new paradigm wherein these relatively small sums go directly […] to more efficient and effective public administration, innovative educational initiatives and national projects (such as energy independence) that could mobilize the energies and skills of large numbers of uninvolved Jews.” (pp. 68-69)
Bisk casts a sharp eye on the secular European Enlightenment, citing it as the basis for a global return to fundamentalism in any religion. While Jewish responses to the Enlightenment brought us this far, he writes, they cannot sustain Jewish identity into the future. This is not simply a case of changing beliefs or creating belief where there was none, but rather creating entirely new Jewish expressions.

Pulling together politics, psychology, economics, history, sociology, and ecology, Bisk describes where we’ve been, where we are, and where we can be. He offers specific ideas and suggestions for creating the optimistic future he envisions, and cites actions we can take as both individuals and a people. Of particular interest is his outline for the Jewish Energy Project, which can all at once invigorate today’s Jews, reassert Israel’s place in Jewish life, and tackle the growing dependence on foreign oil.

For anyone who is interested in what the future of the Jewish people can look like—if we will it—this is a highly recommended solid read with a potentially real outcome.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Interview: Amy Cohen, author of "The Late Bloomer's Revolution"

I am just tickled to introduce to you my first author interview here on Books and Beliefs. Last week I read The Late Bloomer's Revolution and thoroughly enjoyed it. Today, I'm delighted to share my interview with the author, Amy Cohen:

Sheyna: Amy, welcome to the blog, and thank you so much for including Books and Beliefs in your blog tour. Let's get right to the interview.

You write about such painful, traumatic experiences, such as your mother's death and the broken engagement, yet you write with such levity and humor. How do you feel about sharing your pain in such a funny way?

Amy: First, I’m so happy you thought the book was funny. I love hearing that, so thank you. I come from a funny family. I think it’s just the way we deal with things. It’s never something we even think about, it just is.

Like today I did this radio interview by phone and of all days, workers were drilling and hammering in the apartment below me, so I couldn’t hear anyone who called. So I asked my doorman if from 1:30 to 1:45, they could stop banging and drilling and he said yes. So at 1:30 I begin my interview, and then not only does the drilling get louder, my doorman starts ringing my buzzer – repeatedly. After it was over, I said, “Julio I said NOT to call or drill at 1:30,” and he said, “oh sorry. I got confused.” Was it a nightmare? Yes. Was it such a disaster it was funny too? Absolutely. I guess my feeling when things go wrong is always, “might as well laugh.”

I think the second part of the question for me is “how do you feel about sharing your pain?” Which was incredibly hard for me. Maybe the hardest part. For many drafts, I was very glib and jokey and you could tell I was hiding a lot. So I had to go back and then back again and yes, again and again, and rewrite. And in order to do it, I had to be really honest with myself. Was I afraid of saying I got depressed (yes, absolutely I was) but why? Was I afraid to talk about how insecure I feel sometimes (yes, again.) And so I asked myself why and what I was so afraid of. And it took a lot of work.

I think also when I was going through all my most painful times, I wished so much there was a book like mine. I’d read other memoirs that I loved, but couldn’t find one that captured the feelings I was having. So I’m happy to share.

Sheyna: I found that the parts I laughed hardest at (with?) were the situations I found most familiar (and there were many), yet I was engaged at 19 and married by 23. Can you comment on the universality of what you wrote about relationships and what it means to be a "late bloomer"?

Amy: I have to say, I am just thrilled people are using the word “universal” in reference to the book. I think part of the universality (love that word), is that the book deals with all kinds of relationships, not just between men and women. It’s about relationships with your parents, with yourself, and also with your idea of yourself (your job, the things you think define you and make you a success, and the ongoing issue of where you think you’re supposed to be in life.) Those are universal concerns.

I’ve gotten a bunch of letters from men and women of all ages and different backgrounds (which has been amazing). Letters that include a film-making bachelor in London; an older, widowed grandmother from New Jersey; and a lovely, young Palestinian Israeli woman who said that she felt the book had a very universal message about relationships and how complicated they are.

Who knew? I actually wasn’t expecting so many people to use the term “universal”, but as I said, I couldn’t be happier people feel that way.

Sheyna: You clearly write from a Jewish perspective. In what ways do you think your Jewishness had an impact on how you dealt with the situations you wrote about?

Amy: What a terrific, interesting question. First, I have to say my Mother must be smiling now, because she would love this question so much (she was a “career volunteer” for UJA and the Jewish Theological Seminary.)

The ways in which my Judaism influenced me and my writing are numerous.

My father’s mother, Grandma Flossie, was one of those Jewish grandmothers who was more afraid if something good happened, because then it could all be taken away and if you never knew how good things could be, you’d never know what you were missing, so better that they should never be good. I think that’s such a recipe for high neuroses – if things are bad, they’re bad. If things are good, they’re bad. That played a lot into the way I see and write about things.

I’m also reminded of the woman on my bike trip who said, “how many Jews do you think are on this trip?” which I think was her way of saying “who’s like us?” I think Jews so often have a sense of being included, but also being outsiders. That certainly plays into the way I think too. There we were up in the Canadian Wilderness with sturdy, Bison-eating, Nordic types and there was a sense of assimilation, but also not. I’m reminded of that great scene in Annie Hall when Alvy goes to visit Annie’s family in Wisconsin, and he just feels like an alien. He tells the family he’s been seeing an analyst for fifteen years, and says, “I’m making excellent progress. Pretty soon, when I lie down on his couch, I won’t have to wear the lobster bib,” and they look at him like he’s nuts.

I also got a strong sense of my Judaism from my mother who believed Judaism was about compassion. In terms of writing, I always have a great deal of compassion for my characters, especially ones who broke up with me just after I’d gotten fired.

Sheyna: Finding a lasting relationship is just as much an issue within the Jewish community than in the rest of American society, and maybe even more so for those who will only date other Jews. What would you suggest Jewish organizations, especially synagogues and JCCs, can do to create more opportunities for Jewish singles?

Amy: Well, since my brother and sister met their spouses THE SAME NIGHT at a Jewish Singles party thrown by a few of my mother’s friends, I always think that’s a good way to meet people. I have a lot of friends, too, who met on JDATE. MAKOR in Manhattan is terrific, too, because they have great, cool music and hip lectures and classes and a cute cafe. It’s an excellent model.

Sheyna: As I was reading The Late Bloomer's Revolution, I kept thinking it was kind of like a Jewish Bridget Jones' Diary, but your book is true. Have you heard this comparison before and what do you think about it?

Amy: I haven’t heard this comparison – although let me say I think it’s genius. I’ve heard “Jewish Sex and the City, but with family.”

I’ve also heard people call my book a “beach book,” and someone said, “How do you feel about that?” And I said, “Beach book. Gym book. Subway book. I don’t care. I’m just so happy people are reading it.” Kurt Vonnegut said, (and I’m completely paraphrasing him), “read a soup label. Read a gum wrapper. Just read.”

Sheyna: Based on your experience, what do you think is the greatest obstacle to singles finding happiness today? (Note that "happiness" does not necessarily mean "relationship" or marriage.")

Amy: Listening to friends who say you want it too much or not enough. Or that they need to “get out there,” or try online dating again even if you hated it, or go out with a friend’s mother’s ex-coworker’s son, who isn’t much of talker or a looker, but “you never know.”

The whole process is enervating. You have these nights where you’re sitting with a stranger and you have nothing to say and it feels like your life is seeping away. My advice is always to embrace the life you have – really embrace it – go on that trip to Thailand you wanted to take; sneak into a movie that’s almost sold out and get the best seat and never stop believing the life you want will happen, just not necessarily in the time you thought.

Sheyna: And because I just have to know, and wondered about it all through the book: how did the rash on your face finally resolve and what did you need to do to keep it away? (Really, I was ready to break out the champagne in anticipation of the chapter where you wrote about it disappearing and you being able to leave your apartment again!)

Amy: I love that you were going to break out the champagne. We’ll have to toast something else (like you getting married at twenty-three!) Actually the rash just slowly and I mean, sloe-hoe-hoe-holy went away. The doctors never knew what it was. And, not surprisingly, now I’m a lunatic about my skin.

Sheyna: Thank you so much, Amy, for sharing yourself in your book!

Amy: Sheyna,Thank you! It was a pleasure. What fantastic, thought provoking questions. Really, really just so great.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Relationship is a State of Mind

I'm always amused when I hear nouns used as verbs. "Let's coffee tomorrow." or "I'm going to office from home today." And of course the now-infamous "I googled him before we went out."

Then I started to hear, "I'm in relationship." Excuse me? In relationship? Isn't there an "a" missing, as in "in a relationship?"

But I realized that, no, it was true. Relationship is not just a state of being, a state of couplehood versus singlehood. It's a state of mind, too.

I know, this coming from the girl who met her husband-to-be just before high school graduation, got engaged to him a year later, and married him a year into graduate school. In fact, we just celebrated our 16th anniversary. Over 20 years together, I've known Husby longer than I didn't know him. It's a cool milestone to pass. We're in relationship.

I also just finished reading Amy Cohen's The Late Bloomer's Revolution and sent off my interview questions for her blog tour.

If I'd seen the book in a bookstore, or even in the library, I probably would have passed on it for one simple reason: relationship. And I would have missed a great book.

It's a memoir, a sometimes heart-rending, sometimes exhilarating, always funny account of looking for love but not quite finding it. And as a long-time married woman, with kids no less, I wasn't quite sure if I'd see any of myself in this book.

Boy, was I wrong. Because it's not just about being single or being married. It's about - all together now - relationship. It's about how you see yourself and how you project that to others. It's about how much you love yourself (without going overboard) being the measure of how much another can love you. It's about coming to terms with who you are and where you come from and using it all to take risks to grow and change. It's about life.

I suppose dead people might not get that much from reading it, but I recommend it to everyone living. Especially if you're in relationship, or looking to be.

Being a Packrat Pays Off

I went looking in the garage for a second broom just now.

Oldest and Youngest sons decided to have a Spaghetti Fling in the kitchen last night, and after scraping limp pasta off the front of the dishwasher and picking it out of the mudroom rug, I decided they would spend today doing chores. After washing walls, chairs, doorjambs, and the toilet (they're closer to it, and besides, they're boys - they get it dirtier), I figured they'd be less likely to redecorate my kitchen again anytime in the near future.

So their last chore was to sweep the outside walkway from the back door to the back gate. Hence, I needed two brooms.

This should not have been a problem. We have four. But three are apparently missing, perhaps eaten by the nocturnal garage-dwelling Broom Monster.

At any rate, that's not what this post is about. Because as I was searching for the now MIA broom, I found a piece to an old baby gate that we replaced with a new version of the same thing and use to keep the dog off the back deck. Until now, we've been wedging the gate closed in a creative fashion that the dog can't - yet - figure out. But with this piece I found in lieu of the broom, we can actually lock the gate closed now!

See, there is a reason to keep anything that just might be useful at some point in the future. Now if I could only find those brooms...

Monday, July 09, 2007

Late Bloomer Blogger?

So cool. I received an email recently from author Amy Cohen's publicist, asking if I'd participate in Amy's blog tour for her new book, The Late Bloomer's Revolution.

Of course!

I know firsthand how important creating that WOM-BUZZ is. WOM-BUZZ, which makes me think of wombats, is a publishing industry acronym standing for Word Of Mouth Buzz, and basically means doing everything possible (generally legal) to get Lots of People talking and writing about Your Book.

So, I am reading

The Late Bloomer's Revolution, and loving it!

By Monday, I plan to have an interview with the author, Amy Cohen, herself.

And if that wasn't enough, in the next week or so I'll be posting a review of The Optimistic Jew by Tsvi Bisk.

So stick around... things here are heating up!

I Miss New York

New York was amazing. Just... yeah. Amazing.

One week on my own without kids, pets, spouse, bills, ringing telephone... and five awesome days in the company of other authors and publishers and book people where we mutually supported and encouraged and applauded each others efforts.


And now I'm home and Oldest Son is out of school and Youngest Son is into everything and Husby is working lots of overtime and... did I mention I miss New York?

Looking forward to next time. And Shira, you can bet I'll call when I'm in the neighborhood again!