memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

The United States may call itself a country of immigrants, but it’s not a country that’s known to be kind to immigrants. Not in the past, and not now; not by our government, nor by our citizens. Obviously there are major exceptions; there are a ton of organizations out there fighting really hard to make this country a safe and welcoming place for our newcomers (I’ve volunteered teaching English as a second or other language in the past with one of these great organizations!), and I don’t want to discount their hard work and amazing contributions. But as a whole, the crazies tend to shout incredibly loud and drown out the voices of the helpers; we make it as difficult as possible to come here legally (unless you’ve got plenty of money, and then the rules don’t count); and it’s difficult to start a new life here when you have nothing, because we offer so little in terms of help. One of the people speaking up about how difficult it is for immigrants is Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, an undocumented writer (she’s on DACA) of undocumented parents. Her book, The Undocumented Americans (One World, 2020), is an eye-opening gut-punch that examines the difficulties of living in the United States without legal status.

How much do you know about undocumented immigrants? You’ve probably read the stories of people smuggled in on trucks or making dangerous journeys across the desert with coyotes (people paid to smuggle others into the US), and seen the tragic photos of families drowned in the Rio Grande. What happens to the people who make it here? They pick your fruits and vegetables. They clean your office buildings. They build your houses. They package your food. They cook the food you eat in restaurants, they clean up after natural disasters, they rushed in after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001 to sift through the debris that gave them cancer in order to get New York up and running again. They serve and give. They do all of this without health care, often at massive personal expense, with zero protection- if their boss doesn’t pay them that week, there’s nothing they can do. And so they suffer. And Karla Cornejo Villavicencio wants you to understand exactly how much, and what that does to not only them, but to their families. Their children. Their communities.

There are other books that will illuminate the reasons people come here illegally- desperate for safety after their lives have been threatened, searching for a way to make more than $50 per week at a full-time job, etc.- but Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio is more interested in explaining the emotional and physical damage her people have suffered. Are suffering. Will suffer. She’s angry- rightfully so, because for all that a large faction of our country likes to talk about respecting life, we certainly have no problem using the lives of these people- taking what we need when we want restaurant food, clean offices, help after natural disasters- and then throwing them away once they’ve served their purpose. Their pain is fresh and raw, and what they suffer is passed down the line to their children. The Undocumented Americans is heavy proof that we as a society are shirking our responsibilities to humanity.

This is a sad, heavy book about a group of people who have suffered a lot even before arriving here, and who continue to suffer after they arrive. Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio floods each page with raw emotion, anger, desperation. She’s a Harvard graduate and a current PhD candidate at Yale, but she makes the case that so often, when we hear of undocumented immigrants, we hear of stories like hers, the brilliant kid who climbed higher than anyone could have possibly imagined, and don’t they deserve citizenship for their brilliance? But what about the other people- the ones who came here out of desperation, seeking safety, the opportunity for their kids to simply go to school, who work two or three jobs (or more) at a time in order to make sure their children would have paper and pencils and whose services and lives and abilities we Americans take advantage of every day of our lives? Are people only worth it to us when they contribute massively to capitalism? Are human lives only worth as much as their financial potential?

We’re so willing to dismiss this group of people, and this book will show you exactly what we’re looking past every day. I can hear the arguments now- “Well, they came here illegally, so it’s their own fault that-” and I want to scream. They’re human beings. They’re people. Why are we so hell-bent on making people suffer for such stupid, arbitrary rules? Why can’t we take care of people in a way that makes them more able to participate in society? Why are we so willing to throw so many people away, simply because they had the audacity to be born somewhere else?

This is a book that will make you cry, if you’re at all a decent person. I’ll continue to vote for people who want to be part of a compassionate solution, and to do what I can so that the people Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes about have better, safer, healthier lives and more opportunities than just breaking their bodies down piece by piece and dying young because of it. Because they’re people, and they deserve so much better than the cast-off scraps we deign enough for them. This book was truly amazing and heartfelt.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel

One good book leads to another.

If that’s not already something people say, it should be! I was fortunate enough to attend a virtual presentation by Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (amazing book; highly recommended), and at the end of that presentation, the woman who heads the program hosting him reminded us of another author event happening in the spring: our local parent education program will be hosting Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2007). I already had this event in my calendar- it’s not until the spring- but I was reminded that I needed to read the book, so I immediately put it on hold via interlibrary loan. It didn’t take too long to arrive at my local library branch.

Eboo Patel is an American of Indian heritage and an Ismaili Muslim. He grew up the next town over from me (making his upcoming visit extra exciting!) and graduated from the same high school system (though not the same school) that my son did. A slacker at first, his competitive nature came out during middle school and he began to take full advantage of his intellect. His diverse friend group, however, was a little harder to manage when it came to heavier issues such as religion, something he didn’t quite realize until he was older. College came close to radicalizing him, until he veered in a completely different direction, winding up a Rhodes scholar focusing on the sociology of religion.

Dr. Patel realized how often, in discussions of diversity, religion is left out of the conversation. He wasn’t serious about more formal religious practice until later on in life, but being Muslim was nevertheless an important part of his identity, and the way he connected to his faith was through service. Realizing that putting faith into action often highlighted the values all religions share, he set off down a path that eventually led him to form the Interfaith Youth Core, a service organization that brings together young people of all faiths to participate in service projects and connect via their shared values (and to learn about and from each other!). In example after example, he illustrates the tragedy of religious extremism and how the extremists don’t neglect the young people, but pull them in early and radicalize them in order to have them carry out the groups’ nefarious deeds. Why shouldn’t the good guys pull their youth in early as well and fill their hearts with the pressing need to not only serve their fellow humans, but to connect with each other and recognize that we’ve all got so much more in common than what separates us?

What a fascinating man. Dr. Patel seemed to grow up in such a normal way, slacking off in school to the point where a middle school science teacher was irritated to find he had him in class (a turning point for young Eboo, who realized he didn’t want to be *that* student). His college years were really interesting to read about, where he fell in with a group of friends who were just this side of radical. He could very well have veered off the path here, but other influences pulled him back in, and he seemed almost shocked to find himself at Oxford, where he finally discovered his passion and set about building an organization that would lead him to serve on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, as well as change countless lives.

Dr. Patel brings up so many good points in this book: so many faith communities tend to ignore their young people (and then are shocked, shocked! when those same young people don’t stick around as adults. There are some who do a great job at keeping their youth involved, though- the LDS Church is fantastic at this!). The extremists know that young people are the ones with the energy, who will turn their religious feelings into action, and Dr. Patel questions why we aren’t using their energy and enthusiasm for good. Why not put their desire to change the world into action, all the while forging stronger connections with each other and learning how to navigate and appreciate their differences? As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her amazing book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, understanding and appreciating other religions can very much lead to a deepening of our own faith practices, and a deeper understanding of the world. Why not teach our kids early on about how beautiful and beneficial this can be?

What an inspirational, hardworking man Dr. Patel is. I’m very much looking forward to hearing his talk this spring. He’s given me a lot of things to think about.

Learn more about Eboo Patel at the Interfaith Youth Core website.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer

My library sends out a quarterly newsletter to everyone within its service area, informing the community about scheduled programs, updates on the new library building currently under construction (completion scheduled for late fall of next year!), book clubs, activities for kids (still lots of virtual storytimes and take-and-go-crafts), and new services they’re offering. I look forward to this newsletter at the dawn of each new season. I learned about My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer (The Experiment, 2013) from one of these newsletters, as it was a book club pick. While I wasn’t able to make the book club discussion centered around this book, I still wanted to read it, and onto my list it went.

Jennifer Teege, a German woman of mixed-race descent, grew up as the adopted child of a white family. She spent the first three years of her life in an orphanage, with her biological mother visiting her on occasion, and spending time with her maternal grandmother. At age three, she became the foster child of the family who eventually formally adopted her at age seven- and after the adoption, as was the norm for the time, all contact with her biological family ended. Jennifer struggled with feelings of abandonment and trauma; trust wasn’t easy for her. And in her late 30’s, she happened upon a book about a woman grappling with her father being Amon Goeth (as it’s spelled in the book), one of the most vicious Nazis and head of the  Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. That woman was Monika Goeth, Jennifer’s biological mother.

Already suffering from depression and struggling to define her life, Jennifer was thrown into the depths of despair. Who was she, if that’s what she came from? What did this mean for her life, for her two sons, for her relationship with her adoptive family, for her relationship with her Israeli friends? How much of ourselves can we assign to those who came before us? Jennifer struggles terribly with the implications of this discovery, and it takes a lot of work, soul-searching, therapy, and thousands of miles of travel and years of research to come to terms with who her biological grandfather was.

Whew. This is obviously a heavy topic and a compelling story, likely an adoptee’s worst nightmare. Jennifer is legitimately distressed, as would most people be. Her biological grandfather was a horrible, horrible person, responsible for the murder of thousands; her biological grandmother, whom she absolutely loved, was far more supportive of him than Jennifer would have expected, and this also caused her a great deal of strain. As someone who is a dedicated traveler, who spent years living in Israel and who is fluent in Hebrew, being a woman of mixed-race, she’s completely certain that her grandfather wouldn’t have treated her any different than the Jews he shot from his balcony at the camp he presided over.

I had some issues with this book. While it’s an intriguing story, I disagreed a lot with how the author handled some of the situations she found herself in. She obviously had very fond memories of her maternal grandmother, who had never been anything but kind and loving to her. Even after learning about her grandmother’s romance with and lifelong support of and defending of Amon Goeth, she still chooses to cling to those memories and defend her grandmother. That is absolutely not the choice I would have made. People who are nice to you but not nice to people who are different from you…are not nice people. People who defend bad people are not nice people. I could have respected if she had said, “I have very fond memories of my grandmother, but it disturbs me greatly to learn of her support for this Nazi murderer and I cannot look at her the same way anymore.” I realize I’m seeing this in a more black-and-white fashion, but something things ARE black and white, and defending Nazis is one of them.

I also really struggled with the way she treated and referred to her adoptive family (some of this may be due to social and cultural differences; adoption was looked at very differently back then. And there may also be translation issues as well- not with content, but more along the terms of differences between how Germans refer to adoption and how it’s talked about here). It seemed almost as if the moment Jennifer learned about her Nazi grandfather, that biological family became her sole family and her adoptive family ceased to exist, ceased to matter to her. This may be due to her underlying trauma that hadn’t yet been addressed, but there were a lot of places here that made me feel really bad for her adoptive family in terms of how she spoke about them (and I’m absolutely NOT of the mindset that adopted kids need to be grateful their whole lives to the family who chose them. Eff outta here with that gross BS; we’re the lucky ones for those kids being in our lives and we need to honor the trauma they’ve experienced by losing their biological family). I’m definitely willing to cut her a lot of slack in regards to this, especially as she does write about having a better relationship with her family these days, but I wish that would have been covered a little more. So this book is a wild ride that has a lot of issues. I felt terrible for Jennifer throughout quite a bit of it; she was very obviously deeply distressed on learning such shocking information. I hope she’s since figured out she’s not responsible for her grandfather’s crimes, and just because she shares a few segments of DNA with him doesn’t mean…anything, basically. We get to be our own people; we don’t have to be anything at all like the people who came before us, if we don’t want to be. That’s the beauty of it all. 🙂

memoir

Book Review: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

I’m not one to go out and read bestsellers and books that are super popular just because everyone else does. It’s usually pretty rare for me to run out and get something that was just published; I’m much more of a ‘comfortably wading through the backlist’ kind of a reader (a lot of this comes from reading off my TBR, but I’ve never been one to check the bestseller lists for new reading choices. End-of-the-year lists, however, are a massive weakness!). But sometimes I read things for a certain purpose, and occasionally those reads have a deadline to them- book clubs, for one, and author talks, like this one. Our local parent education group announced this past summer that Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (Mariner Books, 2019), would be appearing virtually with their program this year, and I was like “Nice! Guess this means I’ll have to read that book of hers that I’ve been seeing all over the place.” It always looked interesting, but again, my TBR beckoned. Her visit later this month, however, has forced my hand, and I picked up a copy from a library display of staff picks two weeks ago.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Lori’s boyfriend up and dumps her, stating that he doesn’t want to live with a kid for the next ten years (a major problem, since Lori’s son is only eight). This causes somewhat of an existential crisis for Lori, and as a therapist herself, she needs to get things figured out and get back on her feet, in an emotional sense. In between her own sessions with clients struggling with various things in their lives, from facing their own death, to the death of a child, and how to rebuild a life in the twilight years, Lori sits on Wendell’s couch and tries to make sense of what went wrong with her boyfriend.

As a therapist, Lori seems deeply insightful and is able to pinpoint just the right question to ask to make her clients think. As a client, she even recognizes her own problem patterns but can’t seem to step outside of them without Wendell’s help. She recounts her own journeys through life while describing those of her clients (no HIPAA violations here, though!), picking apart the intricacies of human behavior with wisdom, understanding, and deep sympathy. Every story in the book wraps up with a decently neat little bow- obviously not how therapy always works, both for the client and the therapist- but it makes for some satisfying reading and provides a deeper look into what great therapy can be and should entail.

This is really a lovely read with an awful lot of insight. Lori reminds us that suffering isn’t a competition; just because someone else has a problem that seems bigger doesn’t mean that yours is nothing or insignificant, and that’s something I think we all need a reminder of (especially thanks to the barrage of those gross social media memes that portray someone suffering from a terrible illness or a major loss, and then it says something like, “Your problems don’t seem so bad now, do they?” STOP THAT. Stop trying to make everyone compete in the Suffering Olympics). Her ability to connect with her clients is remarkable, especially with the client she refers to as John, an arrogant, self-centered narcissist who uses barbs and sarcasm to deflect from the grief and pain he’s been carrying around for years. It would be easy to write him off completely and immediately, but Lori keeps trying until she’s able to find the way to getting John to open up. I don’t know that I would have the patience.

This is a moving story, full of other moving stories. Heads up for a lot of references to death, including death of a child and its entailing grief, and death from terminal illness, and learning to let go. Thinking about all the painful stories therapists listen to makes me wonder how any of them do such an intense job, and how busy they’re all going to be listening to healthcare providers process the trauma they’ve endured throughout this pandemic. The academic community is going to be researching, writing, and developing new methods of trauma treatment for decades to come after this.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is both intense and gentle at the same time; it’s a memoir that reads like a novel, but you’ll also learn a lot about what it takes to become a therapist, and a few important lessons about human nature as well.

I’ve been through a few therapists myself in the past; the best one I ever had was also named Lori, and I still hear her voice in my head quite often, despite leaving her office for the last time in 2004. I looked her up after finishing this book, wondering what she was up to, only to find that she passed away in 2017 after a bout with leukemia. May her memory be for a blessing.

Visit Lori Gottlieb’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar

Combing through the selection of ebooks on my library’s website one day, I came across a book titled My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008). UM, YES! I’m always fascinated by the diversity of Jewish communities around the world and I love reading further about ones I’ve only ever heard mentioned by name (like the Jews who fled to Shanghai, China during World War II, which I hadn’t really known much about until I read Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin). And lo and behold, this book was in as I’ve been working my way down the ebooks on my TBR. Win all around. 😊

Ariel Sabar wasn’t the greatest son growing up. He never connected with his dad and treated him terribly, especially as a teenager, but as an adult, he became curious. Who was this father of his? Yona Sabar is one of the world’s foremost scholars of neo-Aramaic, a language of which he happens to be a native speaker. He grew up in Kurdish Iraq, in the mostly Jewish town of Zakho, the last generation to live there in the years before modernity reached the town. His family fled to Israel in 1951, where he struggled to learn the language and live in a way that was entirely different from everything he’d ever known. A hard worker and a good student, Yona earned a place at Hebrew University, where his studies of the linguistics of his native language, via the folktales and lullabies he grew up with, propelled him into a career that would take him around the world and have him consulting with Hollywood when they needed help with Aramaic translation.

This is the story of a man whose life has undergone numerous massive changes. Time and time again, Yona has had to reinvent himself and learn how to survive and thrive in entirely new societies, in entirely new languages, and he’s always risen to the challenge, though maybe not to the level of coolness his teenage son desired. His son worked hard to understand him as an adult, however, to research and pen this riveting account of a fascinating life, and to do what he could to make up for the ways he felt he had failed his father. My Father’s Paradise is a beautiful account of a son’s understanding of his father, but it’s also a look at how the world has changed over such a short period of time, and what’s necessary for survival when times are difficult.

Wow. This was truly a fascinating book. Imagine growing up in a small Iraqi village with no electricity, with dirt roads full of sheep, where clothes are still dyed by hand and washed in the river, and by the time you’re verging on retirement, your life consists of air travel, credit cards, air conditioning, the Internet, all viewed from your modern home in Los Angeles. Yona Sabar grew up thinking he would likely take over his father’s dyeing business or work some other small job in his village of Zakho, and because life happened, he’s a world-renowned scholar and professor. That much change is absolutely mind-bending. How anyone could even begin to process all these changes is mystifying.

Ariel Sabar truly captures the spirit of the Zakho his father grew up with, a Zakho to whom modernity has finally arrived. It’s a place that exists only in memory now, with modern buildings and American pop music a part of its current landscape, but through the power of Ariel’s writing, the Zakho of old comes back to life. If you enjoy writing with a strong sense of place and books that will transport you to another world (especially worlds of the past), this is a must-read. But more than a sense of place, he captures the strength and determination of his quiet, humble father, a man who, despite circumstances that haven’t always been easy or pleasant, despite coming from a family that has suffered trauma along the way, has always risen to the challenges presented to him. He’s a father to be proud of, with a proud past and a proud history, and watching his son recognize all of this is heartwarming.

This is a lovely, fascinating book. You’ll learn a lot- about the Kurdish Jews of Zakho, of course, and what their lives were like, but also about strength, perseverance, and what it takes to mend a frayed father-son relationship. I really enjoyed this.

Visit Ariel Sabar’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son by Michael Ian Black

If you’re my age (40) or older, you might remember a sketch comedy show from MTV called The State. With sketches like Barry and Levon, The Jew, the Italian, and the Redhead Gay, Doug, and The Animal Song, The State was irreverent and hilarious, and twelve/thirteen year-old me was utterly obsessed. Quite a few of the cast members have gone on to have flourishing careers in Hollywood, including Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, Thomas Lennon, and, one of my favorites, Michael Ian Black (not gonna lie; tween/early teen me thought he was super cute). So when one of my friends mentioned she was reading his A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son (Algonquin Books, 2020), onto my TBR it went. I checked the shelves for it a few times at the library, but it was always checked out, but last time, it was in. Score!

The book begins with some disturbing images of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Black and his wife reside in Connecticut, one town over from Newtown, and were thus tasked explaining the murders to their young children. This sent him down a path of pondering what’s wrong with manhood and masculinity today, since it’s overwhelmingly boys and men that commit these atrocious mass shootings. What are we doing, what are we teaching our boys that far too many of them find solace solely in violence? Why do we shove boys and men into such small boxes, emotionally speaking, and then act shocked that so many of them are emotionally stunted? Why do we act like being emotionally stunted is a good thing? What are we even doing here???

This is a really deep look into how badly we fail our sons and how much our society suffers for it. Some of it is a memoir, of where Black succeeded, where he failed, where he could have done better, and where he was allowed to skate by simply because he’s a white man. Other parts are heartfelt advice to his son: do this; don’t get messed up with that; allow yourself to feel things; don’t fall into the traps of masculinity that society says you must; I’ll keep trying to be a better man, and so should you, because we owe it to ourselves and to the world.

This is a really beautiful book. Time after time, I was blown away by Black’s in-depth thoughts on how toxic we’ve made manhood. (Remember when Fox News flipped out about Obama’s tan suit and his ordering Dijon mustard on his hamburger? That’s part of it. Flavor and style are feminine traits, y’all. Real men eat sawdust and wear barrels with straps *eyeroll*) We can all be better about this; we can all do better with this, and there are so many examples of how in this book. This is a subject about which he obviously cares deeply and has spent a lot of time thinking about, and it shows in his writing (which is smooth, witty, and enjoyable to read). This is a man who loves his kids and isn’t afraid of being tender with them. I hope his son realizes- someday, even if he’s not there yet- what an absolute gift his father has given him by writing this.

Who can benefit from this book? Quite frankly, everyone. Parents of sons. Parents of daughters. Anyone who interacts with men and women. Young men. Young women. People who read. People who don’t read. If you’ve ever wondered what’s wrong with American society, you should definitely read this book. Reading this made me wish I could sit down for a long conversation with Michael Ian Black, because he’s obviously an intelligent man who puts a lot of thought into the things he cares about, and I’d love to hear more from him.

What a wonderful, moving, thought-provoking book. I was sad to reach the end.

Follow Michael Ian Black on Twitter.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch

Another memoir! I’ve been reading off of my TBR as usual and have been ordering a bunch of these memoirs from interlibrary loan. I’m wondering if I had found a list of Jewish-themed memoirs and that accounts for this streak in my TBR. Probably! Anyway, that’s likely how Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch (Shocken, 2015) wound up in my reading pile. The publishing world has seen quite a few memoirs written by people who have left the Haredi world, but honestly, I’m not tired of these at all. There’s something that fascinates me deeply about the hows and whys of people who radically change the way they live- whether it’s going from living a strict religious life to a more relaxed one (or the other way around!), leaving a terrible relationship, going from rags to riches (or the opposite way around!), moving to a new country, all of these scenarios intrigue me. I’m so grateful to all the memoir authors who dig deep and allow us to take a peek into their lives and hearts and minds.

Chaya Deitsch was raised in a not-terribly-strict Lubavitch family. Lubavitchers are best known these days for Chabad houses and Mitzvah Tanks. If your city has a yearly giant menorah for Hanukkah, odds are that Chabad is responsible for it (Nashville used to have one down on Broadway by the river; it always used to make me smile when I’d drive by it every November/December). Over Chaya’s life, the movement went from being more kabbalistic and hyperspiritual to one more focused on outreach and bringing secular Jews back into regular observance. Chaya’s family lived in New Haven, Connecticut, outside of the Lubavitch center of Crown Heights, New York City, and thus, with the eyes of the community not on them full-time, the parents are more relaxed and Chaya and her sisters are allowed more freedom than most other Lubavitch girls.

From an early age, Chaya knew that life as an adult Lubavitcher wasn’t for her. The early marriage, soon followed by an ever-increasing pack of children, wasn’t what she wanted for herself. The restrictions on female worship- being separated from the men by a sheet or a mechitza (or being tucked away altogether upstairs in the balcony), not being allowed to sing, not being allowed to fully study or engage in religious debates- grated. The focus on modesty and gender-based dress standards irritated her. None of this was what she wanted for her life, though in her late teens, she made a last-ditch effort to please her parents by attending a strict British seminary (a post-high school year or two of religious study for Orthodox students).

There’s no set moment where Chaya decides to walk away; there’s no big moment where she dashes away in the night or blows up her life by making a single decision that will take her away from the fold altogether. Rather, she slowly moves away from her strict Orthodox standards, small step by small step, into a life that feels more authentic to her.

If you’re looking for major drama, you won’t find it here, but you will find a story of a woman who understands both she and her parents tried their best, and that there’s no set way to live that works for everyone. Unlike most other stories of people who have walked away from Haredi or Hasidic families and who are summarily shunned, Chaya still manages to maintain a good relationship with her family. They may not fully understand her, and she may not fully admit to them all the parts of her new life that don’t jive with how they live, but they’ve kept each other, a testament to the strength of their bond and the unconditional love of her parents. This is a really big deal and I have to say I was extremely impressed with how understanding her parents are. I hope I can always accept the choices my kids make with such grace.

This is a really lovely memoir of a woman who recognizes early on that what she’s raised with isn’t right for her- not because she wants to act out or defy anything in a religious sense, merely because it’s just not a good fit, and I find that incredibly admirable.

Follow Chaya Deitsch on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: TREYF: My Life as an Orthodox Outlaw by Elissa Altman

Sometimes it’s hard to write a review of a memoir. The best memoirists are able to craft a narrative of their lives that centers around a theme, that has a direct story arc that continues throughout the story and wraps up in, if not a full conclusion, then an understanding that makes the whole story make sense, that shows the growth and maturity the author has experienced. This is what I hope for from every memoir I delve into (and I read a lot of them; it’s a genre I enjoy, because I appreciate the glimpse into someone else’s life), but I had a harder time with this in TREYF: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw by Elissa Altman (Berkley Books, 2016).

The definition of ‘treyf’ is something that is unkosher and forbidden. Ms. Altman writes a lot about what made her family treyf, and what made her treyf: her family’s departure from the religious and ritualistic aspects of Judaism; their consumption of unkosher foods; her preparation of pork products in her deceased grandmother’s kosher kitchen; the dawning realization that she’s not entirely straight (a much bigger issue in the 80’s and 90’s than today).

Despite its occasionally focus on unkosher foods, this is really a memoir of a dysfunctional family. Mom and Dad’s marriage was strained and unhealthy. Mom pushed her daughter towards seriously unhealthy eating habits. Grandma had some seriously repressed sexuality. The creepy neighbor moved away quickly after it became known that he had a thing for little girls; Ms. Altman alludes several times that she was one of those little girls, as well as being molested by a teenage neighbor (neither is written about in graphic detail, but heads up if this is a difficult topic for you). The family is close but struggles in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons, and their struggles are common to both families from that era, and to families who have survived trauma or who have recently immigrated in the past few generations.

The memoir ends on a depressing note; Ms. Altman remarks that she is exactly the person her family made her to be, and that if you belong everywhere, you actually belong nowhere, a thought that gave me pause. Who do we become when assimilation is the end goal? Should assimilation be a goal at all? Why? Are we stronger instead as separate pieces of a mosaic?

I enjoyed this book as a story of a family with its own deep-seated difficulties, but that wasn’t what I had expected going in. The use of the phrases ‘treyf’ and ‘unorthodox outlaw’ had me expecting a memoir akin to Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox, but instead, this was more along the lines of a random family that just happened to be Jewish and who rarely interacted with the religious aspects of it (which is fine! I’m not at all judging that, to be clear. I had just expected a memoir about a woman who had moved away from the religion she had been raised with, and instead found a story where her father fed her canned Spam as a girl).

So I didn’t dislike this, but I didn’t love it, either. Her descriptions of her grandmother’s goulash sounded incredible, however (even though I don’t eat meat!). Food is always better when it’s cooked with love, and it sounded like Ms. Altman’s grandmother packed that dish full of it. 😊

Visit Elissa Altman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich

Reading lists are both the best thing ever and the bane of my TBR. I don’t know that I’ve been able to look at many lists titled things like, “100 Books Coming Out This Year That You Can’t Miss!” or “You Will Literally Die If You Don’t Read These Books!” without my TBR growing exponentially. It’s really the best problem to have, isn’t it? It was a reading list that introduced me to Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich (Penguin Group, 1997). The premise had me hitting that want-to-read button immediately, and interlibrary loan delivered the book into my hands- in a stack of other interlibrary loan books, of course, because, as we know, everything always comes in at once!

It’s not until she’s an adult and has children of her own that Elizabeth Ehrlich begins deeply pondering what her Jewish identity means. Never fully identifying with the religious aspects, she turns to the kitchen of her mother-in-law Miriam, a Holocaust survivor who still maintains a kosher kitchen and cooks nearly everything from scratch. Homemade noodles, chopped liver, all the dishes that Elizabeth remembers her grandmothers laboring over appear on Miriam’s table, and Elizabeth wants to know more. Something in these old ways calls out to her, and at Miriam’s side, she begins to learn and ponder the traditions that have been passed down for millennia through her family. Little by little, she moves toward a kosher kitchen, toward trying out the religious aspects of Judaism, seeing what fits, seeing where she belongs, all the while recounting the stories of her family members- mostly women, but some of the men as well. These people lived through some of the worst violence humanity has ever perpetrated on their fellow men; the miracle of their survival pushes Elizabeth to look deeper, work harder, to create something to pass down to her children. Even if they ultimately reject it, giving them something from which to turn away- and maybe return to one day- feels right.

This is an absolutely lovely memoir. Miriam and Ms. Ehrlich’s bubbes and her mother are women of valor, women who experienced horrors, who weren’t given many options in their lives, but who persevered anyway, doing the best they could with what they had. They exemplified hard work and honor, working both in and outside the home, without many of the tools we take for granted. Seeing all they did without many of the luxuries I own really made me think while I was reading this.

I deeply identified with Ms. Ehrlich’s draw toward certain aspects of Judaism, that pull without fully understanding the why of it. Sometimes you just feel moved toward something that doesn’t necessarily make logical sense- it’s a bit like falling in love, I think. There’s not always a rhyme or reason to it. When she was faced with the daunting task of kashering her kitchen and living a kosher life, she was somewhat dismayed by all the extra work it will take, all the time and emotional labor necessary to remember which sponge is used for wiping up meat spills and which for dairy, all the strength it takes to tell her children no, that we don’t eat that, and then cooking after a long day at work. But still she felt drawn to do it, even knowing the difficulties, and that is something I understood and felt on a visceral level. (Not for the exact same reasons- I’m vegetarian, so that cuts out like 99% of the problem right there, and I live in a house with three non-religious, occasional meat-eaters, so unless I wanted to maintain my own set of pots and pans and dishes, keeping a kosher kitchen wouldn’t really be possible for me. I *could*, but I don’t know that anyone else in the house would remember which dishes were just mine, and I’d end up having to re-kasher them like twelve times a day…)

She’s hard on herself, seeing all the ways she falls short of Miriam’s ideal, but still forging ahead and jumping in with both feet, which I found deeply admirable. So often, we shy away from what intimidates us- I know I’m guilty of this- especially when we know that perfection is unattainable. But she begins anyway, taking the steps to live the life she feels drawn to, and that’s a message to live by.

I wonder if Miriam ever felt intimidated by the older women in her life, if she ever felt that her cooking, her kitchen, wouldn’t measure up. Will Ms. Ehrlich’s grandchildren feel the same as they observe her preparing Miriam’s recipes? Do we all feel like this to some degree, that we’ll never be the strong, capable women our foremothers were? This book raised a lot of questions about how we connect to our pasts and what we carry with us into our futures, what we pass down, and I’m glad this ended up on my TBR. I don’t know that I’ll try any of the recipes in it- some of them sound absolutely delicious, but in terms of heart-healthy cooking, they’re not something I would normally make (thank you SO much, genetic cholesterol levels!). Perhaps one day, I’ll get up the courage…

I don’t see any websites or contact information for Elizabeth Ehrlich; if you’re aware of any, let me know in the comments and I’ll amend this post. Miriam’s Kitchen is the winner of a National Jewish Book Award.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

I first learned of Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett (Celadon Books, 2020) from my friend Sibyl, who came to my parenting group’s book forum to tell us all about a new memoir written about a man’s aftermath of being raised in a cult. I was intrigued, but kind of forgot about it for a bit (I think there was a lot going on at the time) until I started seeing it pop up on Twitter, and that’s when I added it to my TBR. And since one of the challenges from my parenting group’s reading challenge this year is to read a book recommended by another member, I turned to Hollywood Park. Whew, this is a sad one.

Mikel Jollett and his brother Tony were born into the Synanon cult, which started as a drug rehab and was good until it wasn’t, as everyone in the book said. (Big shout-out here to the podcast Cults, on Parcast; this is where I had learned about Synanon a few years back. I hadn’t heard of it before. If you’re not familiar with Synanon and you want to read this book, I highly suggest you listen to their episodes on this cult before diving in.) His parents, who were no longer together, escaped when Mikkel was five and Tony was about six. You may wonder why the cult affected them so deeply the rest of their lives, since they were so young, and this is because by the time Mikel and Tony were infants, Synanon had a policy of separating children and parents, because in the cult’s way of thinking, children shouldn’t have parents, they should be ‘children of the Universe.’ Thus, Mikel and Tony grew up, like other kids in Synanon, being raised in what seemed like those awful Romanian orphanages of the 1990’s under Nicolae Ceaușescu, unable to form attachments to other people. It gets worse from there.

Their mother has either borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder and spends their childhood gaslighting them, denying their feelings and experiences, and making everything about herself. Poverty abounds in their household, and their mother brings a parade of men through the house, trying to form the family of her dreams. Both boys turn to substance abuse to cope with the dysfunction; Mikel manages to escape this early on, but Tony falls into full-blown addiction. With a massive amount of hard work and therapy, Mikel and Tony manage to forge healthy lives, but the drama along the way is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

My goodness. This isn’t *quite* at the levels of dysfunction seen in The Glass Castle or Educated, but it’s just as raw and painful. Mikel’s father, though rough around the edges, had his heart in the right place and was an effective parent, and his stepmother Bonnie is an absolute gem, so it’s not all tension and pain, but the chapters with his mother are…they’re rough reads. She’s dismissive of everything Mikel and Tony feel, everything they experience, and won’t anyone think of how hard this (this being anything from leaving Synanon to the death of someone Mikel loves) is on HER??? She’s the kind of person you just want to grab by the shoulders and shake in order to force some sense into her and get her out of her own head. I have a feeling she’s going around these days, talking about how hard the publication of this book has been on her, and I can’t say I have any sympathy.

This is also a story of addiction and the toll it takes, and how it’s passed down the line, how we continue to act out our family traumas so that the next generation repeats them. Both Mikel and his brother have taken the steps to break this chain, but not without some damage already caused. It’s a painful read and may be even more painful if you’re struggling with addiction or you love someone who is or has struggled. It might also be a tough read for anyone who has lived with a narcissistic parent. But it might also be enlightening, seeing what Mikel and Tony go through, and how hard they work to rebuild healthy lives for themselves. Take into account what you’re ready for before you read, and be kind to yourself. Recovery of any sorts is a long, difficult process.

Hollywood Park is a painful story of growing up amongst massive dysfunction coming at the author from nearly every direction, but it’s also one of growth and triumph for those who are willing to put in the work, arduous and challenging and daunting though it may be. I flew through this one, but I’ve heard from others that they didn’t care for Mikel Jollett’s style. It’s not an easy read, emotionally-speaking, but it’s worth it. His life is a fascinating story, and I flew through this book. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Follow Mikel Jollett on Twitter.