Excellence – in book form.

I recently reviewed After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam (Lesley Hazleton), for the Dallas Morning News. Had it been up to me, this is what the review would have looked like:

OMG!! THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD!! IF THIS BOOK WERE A PERSON, I WOULD MARRY IT!! GO READ THIS BOOK!!1!

Ahem.

But as it was not up to me, the actual review went something like this:

“Reading these voices from the seventh century,” [Hazleton] writes of her source material, “you feel as though you are sitting in the middle of a vast desert grapevine, a dense network of intimate knowledge defying the limitations of space and time.”

One might easily say the same of this remarkable book. Surely anyone with an interest in the Muslim world or U.S. foreign policy should pick up After the Prophet at the first opportunity — and so, too, should any reader interested in a story of human passion and consequence, told with consummate skill.

The full review is here; the website for the book is here.

Now, really: Go read this book!! OMG!!

You can go home again.

Twenty-five years ago, I undertook to spend several months in the Middle East with a group of strangers. We were all students together at St. Olaf College, but while some of the 19 other travelers (+ two supervisors) already knew each other, I didn’t know a blessed one of them. For about five months, they were my family.

As families go, we were a stunningly good-looking one, generally smart (except when trying to break into guarded national antiquities under cover of darkness), consistently funny, always supportive and kind, and occasionally irritating as hell. In other words: Way better than your average blood family.

We went through a lot together, and unlike many such groups, were pretty cohesive, most of the time. These are people for whom, though many of us have fallen out of touch, I would do anything. In a trice.

This past weekend, I was called upon to fall back in touch with them, and I was there in a trice. And oh the fun we had!

The group member who is Highly Organized organized it all, tapping into the various strengths of the rest of us as he went along, and we wound up spending two and a half days in a gorgeous and gi-normous rented house in Chicago, laughing our fool heads off. And talking until 3:30 in the morning. And eating fabulous food. And watching belly dancers while eating fabulous food. And watching our beloved supervisor #1, a dancer/dance instructor/lovely and wonderful person, dance with one particular belly dancer, her face alight with joy and our hands sore from clapping.

New in-jokes were made. Better relationships were forged. And over and over again, we found ourselves admitting, that, well, we could have been better people back then — better to ourselves, better to each other.

Which, you know, was true. We were 20, 21, 22 years old, and kind of stupid. Because that is frequently the lot of the 20, 21, 22 year old (due respect to my delightful younger readers!).

But it wasn’t the whole truth, because the whole truth is: If we hadn’t given each other so much then, we wouldn’t have — we couldn’t have — been there with/for each other this weekend. We were ok, back then, in Jerusalem.

Indeed, we were lucky then, and we are lucky now. I wish this kind of experience — both the original trip, and the weekend I just had — on everyone. It was, in a word, lovely.

Really. You cannot imagine the beauty.

An easy fast.

Another Yom Kippur here in the galut, the exile. Another fast spent surrounded by the sounds and smells of people who have no idea what I’m doing, or why, another year in which I don’t get to hear the blessed hush of a nation’s highways and byways silenced by a minimal respect for the religious dictates of the day. Another year as a Diaspora Jew.

I don’t like fasting — I like eating too much to like fasting. And I am, aside from anything else, a big crybaby. I don’t deal as well as I would like with discomfort. But, if I could like fasting, I liked it in Tel Aviv. There is a magical something that comes over a busy city silenced by a shared and ancient act. Not everyone fasts, of course, but on that one day out of the year, the vast majority of Israel’s majority (secular Jews) bow to the needs of the spirit. There is no (publicly audible) music, there are no cars, there is no picnicking — if you eat, you do it behind closed doors. I miss that.

But here I am, another year away. I am where I chose to be, and I chose to be here for good reason.

And I am fasting, not because others see and understand, but because, for reasons I cannot name, it is meaningful to me. (I tried not to one year — oy. That did not go well). I join my people when I do this, and I say to God: heneni - I’m here. And the hunger and the self-imposed deprivation sharpens the mind (some years) and focuses the spirit. I just don’t understand how it all adds up. I don’t know why it becomes a driving need to do an unpleasant thing that I honestly think matters very little to God. I suppose I do think, though, that what matters to God is that I be honest about who I am — and who I am, should fast. And so I fast.

If you fast, I wish you an easy one, tzom kal. If you don’t, I’ll just wish you another hearty shana tova — the year is still fresh, and I hope it greets you well!

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If you want to think a little bit more about fasting, and what it can mean, you might want to look into Ta’anit Tzedek: The Jewish Fast for Gaza. I confess that I haven’t signed up, because I know I won’t stick with it — but any Jewish effort to draw attention to the insupportable suffering of the people of Gaza is a worthy effort. Take a look at the list of rabbis involved — you might see someone you know!

And finally, there will be no post on Monday, as I will be praying and fasting and no doubt wishing I could eat — but hopefully also sorting through the larger questions, too. I  will return to you on Tuesday, a wiser woman, I’m sure!

Picky? You have no idea.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, the lot of a freelancer is a painful one! Work is frequently produced that has meaning for the writer, but not so much for the editors of the world. Just before I finally gave up on maintaining an active commentary-writing career (roughly a year ago), I wrote the following, about my son’s struggle with/fear of new food. I submitted it to one outlet and then gave up, but I feel bad about that, because I was singing the praises of my boy here, and he deserves to have his praises sung. At any rate, I found myself thinking about it last night, because in just this last year, he has simply become a different person. He will try (almost) anything, and while he still doesn’t like a lot of it, I actually heard him recommend the red peppers to his sister the other day: “They’re really good!” It is just astonishing to me to see the change.

Anyway, enjoy the following! A snapshot of the unexpected bravery of a little boy.

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Picky? You Have No Idea.

Oh look! Here’s another article on the mistakes parents make with picky eaters. This time, six blunders are listed; sometimes, it’s ten, or five. Often there’s an effort to corral the bullet-points into a philosophy, always presented with an air of wisdom: “Parents need to understand….”

It’s been several years since I last thought such articles would actually help me and mine; today, I skim them more to see how much they repeat each other. “Get kids into the kitchen,” they say. “Make food fun!” Or, my favorite: “It’s not your job to get them to eat. It’s your job to provide a variety of healthy foods.”

I’m sorry – I’ve seen picky. I gave birth to picky. And these people don’t know what picky is.

As a long-time babysitter and nanny, I came into parenthood with some real life experience – and my eldest, now nine, spent years confounding every single piece of collective and individual wisdom I ever gathered about kids and diet.

Model good habits? Check. Offer bites of everything? You got it. Don’t bribe with dessert? Heaven forbid! “When he gets hungry enough, he’ll eat”? Well, not really.

On that last one, my husband and I had to choose our battles. When my son gets too hungry, he (like his mom) loses it. He loses it, and he loses his ability to understand that he has lost it. At nine, I will say that he’s begun to recognize this in himself, and is learning to take appropriate steps – but when he was two, his parents had to make a decision: Avoid the meltdown, or slog toward good eating habits? We generally went with the former.

The thing is, we were dealing with something not often acknowledged in all those helpful articles: a true neophobe, a person quite genuinely afraid of new food. I trace my son’s fear to the time when, at eleven months, he had a mild allergic reaction to peanuts, but the truth is that it almost doesn’t matter how it started. The fear was a fact, and it was visible on him.

Presented with something he couldn’t remember eating before, my little boy would literally quake with fear, often weeping at the notion of putting, say, a grain of rice, or a bite of chicken into his mouth. It mattered not at all that it was something his parents, favorite babysitter, or best friend ate everyday. It mattered not at all that he’d eaten it as a baby (bananas), or that he was genuinely hungry – he was, truly, terrified.

I cannot say that my husband and I always responded with equanimity to these circumstances. The weeping, shall we say, wasn’t always one-sided.

Neither was I always patient with the endless parade of parents who offered wisdom. “Have you tried avocados? Yogurt? Mashed potatoes?” a certain friend went on, and on, and on, threatening our very friendship.

And in spite of the limitations, his nutrition didn’t suffer too badly – it actually is true that whatever food kids fixate on, it’s what was in the house when the fixation began. They don’t veer into Cheetos territory all on their own.

So my son ate soynut butter sandwiches on whole-grain bread day in, day out; fruit leather from organic fruit; homemade whole-grain muffins with zucchini and carrots. We carried these things with us everywhere, literally across the globe.

When he was six, in a fit of not-so-quiet desperation, we tried flower essences, on the theory that it couldn’t hurt – and, joy of joys, it worked! A little. Within days, the door to experimentation was cracked just enough that we could occasionally get a little something in. Salsa, for instance, on his quesadillas. Dry cereal.

We talked about all this with him, probably too much. We acknowledged his fears, praised every advance, and encouraged (read: urged rather vigorously) that he dig deep and find the courage to try again. How about a tater tot?

Finally, the real miracle, at age eight. He had seen, often enough, that new foods needn’t be terrifying. He and I determined that he could make the effort to find one fruit or vegetable that he could eat in an entirely unprocessed form – and here’s the crazy thing: It was broccoli.

Then it was green apples. And grapes. Pineapple, strawberries, and cherries. Three bites (never more) of asparagus.

Meat still won’t cross his lips, nor milk, nor pasta. But a few times a week, he tries something he knows he’ll hate, and about every other month, is surprised to find he doesn’t.

And so the one piece of advice that seems accurate in cases such as ours is this: don’t give up. But when I see him eat these things, that’s not what I’m thinking. I am, quite simply, filled with pride.

My little boy met a demon, and slew it. Because he chose to be brave. And that matters far more to me than that he ever try cauliflower, parenting advice be damned.

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer and mother of two gorgeous children. She lives outside of Chicago.

Update.

For those who are interested, you can now see what I look like, on the About page.

Good times!

Good stuff: Temples of words.

I just saw this amazing, mind-blowing, delightfully gob-smacking picture over at boingboing:

This is a church that has been reimagined into a bookstore. A bookstore! If I lived within walking distance of this glorious place, I fear my retirement fund would be gobbled right up. And then I’d move on to the kids’ college fund. (Luckily/sadly, it’s across the ocean, in Holland).

BUT, if I spent all our money on books, I would have to put at least a little aside, in order to retro-fit my house to accomodate my purchases.

I think this should do it:

(For more achingly killer views of both book utopias, go to Merkx+Girod Architects and Gizmodo).

Reason #12,087 that I hate the occupation.

I love Israel.

I don’t “love Israel” in that way that Diaspora Jews are taught to “love Israel” — that sort of dreamy, Zionist, ingathering-of-the-Jews, aren’t-the-Israelis-a-heroic-and-beautiful-people, we-must-be-ever-vigilant kind of religio-cultural devotion — rather, I love the actual Israel in which I actually lived for 14 years of my life. I particularly love Tel Aviv.

I love Hebrew, I love the sea, I love living in a Jewish culture, I love the proximity of history to everyday life, I love the tiled floors of old Tel Aviv houses, I love the sunset in Jerusalem (though I mostly hate Jerusalem), I love the walk from my friend Hazel’s house to mine (though I haven’t lived there for 11 years), I love the flowers, I love the music, I love the literature, I love the radio, I love certain spots and streets and corners and coffee shops and foods — oh! Krembo, and cottage cheese, and challah pooshtit — and I love many people. It was my home in a way that no other place has ever been, and even after all these years, in many important ways, it still is.

And all I can think about is the fucking occupation.

My husband and I left in 1998 because I wanted to live a few years as an adult in America, and I wanted to get my Masters Degree at an American university. I was accepted and fully funded at the University of Chicago, so there I went, with every intention of returning.

I stress this last because so few people believed me at the time, and, I suspect, believe me now. I never wanted to live here in America, never wanted to raise children in the galut. I wanted to go home.

But we were always pretty far left on the political dial, and the Israeli response to the second intifada was just too much for us. Over the course of a year, my husband and I separately came to the same conclusion: We did not want to raise our children in that place, where it was more important to perpetuate the war than find a solution, more important to feel the victim than acknowledge that one was victimizing others, more important to hold on to the settlements with every last drop of our children’s blood, than to stop spilling blood. By 2003, it was clear: We were staying.

And from that moment on, all that Israel has been for me has been one, big, awful struggle. I see all of it, all of it, through the prism of the conflict, the occupation, and Israel’s continuing failure to admit its responsibility and go to the negotiating table in good faith. And indeed, a very special slice of my rage is reserved for the constant Israeli effort to just ignore the conflict, sip coffee and enjoy the Mediterranean sun, and not spare a thought for the mayhem being pursued and perpetuated a mere handful of miles away.

And so every good thing — every Gidi Gov song, every word of Eli Moher, every picture of Rothschild Boulevard, every happy memory or wish for the future — just hurts. Mostly hurts. I weep over pop songs, dread getting off the plane, walk the streets of Tel Aviv (either in memory or in fact) with a weight in my chest that is at once sharp, and dull.

Rather than celebrate Tel Aviv’s centenary from the heart of the city I love, I am here in exile, passing judgment on people who say stupid things like “I think people here would prefer to live in another country. And living in Tel Aviv is the closet thing to living abroad.”

Rather than consider this whimsical carpet of flowers, “inspired by the tiles and murals found in the homes of Tel Aviv’s founding families,” I must consider today’s inauspicious meetings between Obama, Netanyahu, and Abbas — inspired (I fear) by a human inability to let go of lost causes.

I want, to borrow a phrase, my country back.

Or, at the very least, I want to be able to go home, in some real way.

I realize that the home I once had was predicated on a hope for the future that has since been torn to shreds, and thus, the home to which I want to return may have only ever really existed in my mind. I suppose that some of my rage about the conflict is really that of a thwarted child: “They said there would be cake!” They said I would be able to build a life that I loved in my home.

I further suppose — I know — that these are first world troubles of the highest order. I considered adding up all the Palestinians killed in the occupation and then calling this post “Reason # [whatever that total is + 1] that I hate the occupation” because its feels so insanely disrespectful to the victims of my country’s policies to be whining about crying over songs.

But there it is, and I can’t deny it. Part of my sorrow over the occupation is very personal, very small, and very inglorious.

I wish President Obama the very best of luck, and I will continue to do the various things I do to advocate for a just two-state solution to the conflict.

And until that is achieved, I will continue to long for a country that slips, every day, farther and farther from my grasp.

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Earlier:

Sometimes it just hurts.

Israel/Palestine: the basics.

Israel/Palestine peace advocacy – places to start.

Israel/Palestine – a reading list.

Good stuff: The truth.

On Friday, I found myself cutting and pasting all of these good, interesting, funny quotes, stuff that made me think. I may someday make individual posts of all of them, but for today, I’m going to let you think your own thoughts:

  1. “People will come to a convention, stand there in a Spock costume, look at someone in a Chewie costume, and say, ‘Look at that fuckin’ geek.’ How dare you pass judgment on those 12-year-old girls who like vampires!” (Director Kevin Smith speaks the truth about sexism, elitism, and geeks). (And btw, world: Stop hating on Jersey Girl! It was sweet, and not every movie has to be Clerks or Dogma!)
  2. “It’s a fine line between wanting to be appreciated as different, but not wanting to be treated differently.” (Cartoonist Tak Toyoshima speaks the truth about diversity). (See: Secret Asian Man, on my blogroll).
  3. “The greatest expression of rebellion is joy.” (Filmmaker and father of the glory that is Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Joss Whedon speaks the truth about what it means to be punk in today’s world). (Wait, what?  “What’s Dr. Horrible?” Oh, for the love of all that is good and holy, if you haven’t ever seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, go watch it. Now. No, abandon your reading, come back when you have a moment, but really: Find 40 minutes to watch one of the best little movies you will ever see).
  4. “Let us… make a habit of empathy, of recognizing ourselves in each other.” (The POTUS speaks the truth about living right).  “Random acts of kindness” are nice — but making a habit of it is better. Especially since every single one of us needs some empathy, every day.

Birthday!

Would you just look at this? Look at what my sister and her fiance gave me for my birthday! This, in the wake of the “well, I guess I’ll just be grateful that I have a functioning car” post of a couple of weeks ago. Some presents are just right, you know what I mean?

I tell you what, I am a lucky woman indeed.

birthday 09

And, as an added bonus, I found the Beatles singing the original “Happy Birthday”…!

Shana tova.

This evening marks the beginning of Rosh HaShana, a holiday known as the “Jewish New Year” but which is really the Jewish celebration of the anniversary of Creation, and is, thus, the World’s New Year — a two day celebration of Creation and God’s malchut, sovereignty, over the Earth.

It’s a time when we are meant to consider our role in the world, our deeds and plans, and reflect on what we can do to make the next year better than the last. It’s also the start of a ten-day cycle that ends on Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, on which we ask forgiveness (of God and each other, and, to my mind, ourselves) for sins known and unknown, for the cleansing of our spirits as we move out of our prayers and back into the world, renewed and ready to continue our work of tikkum olam, repairing the world.

Because the world is not yet finished, we’re taught. We are partners in God’s creation — “His work,” as our prayers have it, “that God created in order to do.” That which He created was created in order to do, to make, to build, to heal, to repair — to work with the Holy One Blessed Be He, and make the world with Him, every day.

Given my years of peace advocacy, when we come together to celebrate our holidays, I tend to go straight to thinking about issues of peace and justice, about Israel and Palestine, about people living in bombed out homes (whether in Sderot or Gaza), about children growing up in fear, and my anger — my rage — that we have yet to find a just solution, one that acknowledges the humanity and dignity of all of those created in God’s image — “He has told you, oh man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God.” (Micha 6:8)

I want, however, to find a place within me in which my Judaism is not About Israel.

Because it’s not. It’s can’t be. Faith cannot be about one’s relationship with a place — no matter how important — or a people — no matter how beloved. It must, first and foremost, be about the relationship between the Creator and the created, between the Divine and the human. My Judaism must be about how I worship God with my acts and move through the world, conspiring with Him in the act of creation, every day, in every place. It cannot — it must not — be so narrowly defined as to refer only to one place, and one political struggle.

Else, it will be too easy to turn away. It will be too easy to give in to the rage, to the fear, to the pain and the hurt, and announce “a pox on both your houses! On all your houses! On anything to do with any of you!” And walk away.

I do not know much about myself, on any given day, but I do know this: I’m a Jew. That has got to mean more than moments of rage and pain, arguments and advocacy. As the world renews itself and begins its New Year, I will pray that the Holy One will aid me as I work to renew myself, and my faith, and my part in creation.

יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון לבי לפניך, יהוה צורי וגאלי

“May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before you oh God, my rock and my redeemer. ” (Psalms 19:15)

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UPDATE: I just read this, “In This New Year, Be Careful with Words,” by my friend Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. Please go read it — it’s lovely, and it’s just so apt. Go, shoo, go read it.

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