Gawd, I’ve Missed Hugs!

Child and mother hugging

I haven’t had my furnace cleaned this year. Back in December, just as the Omicron surge hit, I called the man who had installed my new furnace a few years ago and made an appointment for a maintenance cleaning and safety check.  He arrived on time, which was a nice surprise. But when I answered the door, he was standing on my stoop, about two feet away from me, and wasn’t wearing a mask. (I was.)

I asked him if he had a mask in his truck. If not, I could give him one. (Back then, I kept a box of surgical masks on hand, in case. Now, I keep some extra KN95s.)

His answer “I don’t wear masks” was said with a good-ole-boy smile that I might have considered charming in other circumstances.

I was dumbfounded and just stared at him.

“Is that a problem?” he asked.

I said, “Yes.”

He left.

That brief interaction left me shaking and feeling violated. As the day progressed, I began to feel angry that someone would refuse to wear a mask in my home while a highly infectious virus was filling the hospitals yet again. Hell, this is my home! My anger eventually turned to righteous indignation.

Back then, the issues were clear. If you respected others and cared about public health, you wore a mask and socially distanced whenever you were outside your established bubble, and you got vaccinated as soon as possible. In contrast, those who refused to follow such basic protocols (which my grandmother would have called common decency) were the kind of people Read More

New Year’s Musings: What is the Measure of Time?

January 2022 Newsletter

Please click this image to view the full newsletter

 

New Year’s Eve has come and gone once more. For a few hours, the entire world paused to acknowledge the passing of another year. By dawn on January 2nd, nearly all echoes of Happy New Year and Good Riddance to 2021 had faded away, and we resumed our lives. What intrigues me is that pause, or more specifically the nature of a year, which is nothing more than a human construct.

Time is woven into the fabric of the universe, but calendars are something else entirely. Though we imbue calendars with all sorts of metaphysical and poetic meaning, they are merely our attempt to control nature, hoping to impose our will onto the ongoing circling of planets and stars. But where is the beginning and end in a circle?

Calendars were invented to measure and compartmentalize time into hours, days, months and years. They organize society, mark agricultural seasons, and track our responsibilities to the government, to our religion(s), and to each other. In other words, their primary purpose is bureaucratic.

So what is New Year’s Eve? What is January 1st? For that matter, what is June 12th or 5:18 PM? Why do these abstract concepts define our lives? Read More

The Measure of Time (a poem)

Every year, I become intrigued by the concept of a “new” year, of a calendar that we as humans have imposed on nature, on the ongoing circling of planets and stars. Where is the beginning and end in a circle?

Questions are the source of just about all my writing. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that that it has become a tradition for me to write a new year’s poem. Here’s this year’s:
A minute, an hour, a day.
What is the measure of time?
A child dances with sunlight
A pas de deux that seems to last forever.
An old woman reaches back to first love, Read More

A New Year’s Meditation on the Proper Use of a Rearview Mirror

Janus by Sally Wiener Grotta
Daniel Grota & Sally Wiener Grotta as Janus

When I created this image of Daniel and me as Janus (the Roman god of beginnings) for our 2013 New Year’s newsletter, it had been a toss-up whose face I would set to look back on the previous year and who would be looking forward to the future. But now that Daniel has been gone six years, I see an unintended symbolism in having him nestled in the back of my mind, forming an essential part of who I am.

In many ways, the past defines and shapes us, helping to prepare us for whatever awaits us beyond today. I wonder what that means vis-à-vis our future as we move forward into the year 2022, given that the unrelenting rollercoaster of crises that was 2020 and 2021 is at our backs?

That question filled my mind today, when Shayna and I embarked on our afternoon walk along the dirt road on the other side of our stream. It’s a stroll that Daniel and I had shared innumerable times, inevitably with a dog leading the way. At one of the many bends in the road, the image of a rearview mirror came rushing at me, and I couldn’t shake it. Soon it was joined in my mind’s eye by the picture of Daniel and me as Janus. Read More

Perhaps the Most Meaningful Contract I’ve Ever Signed

Honor, a novella by Daniel GrottaI’m thrilled to announce that I recently signed a contract with the playwright David Zarko, giving him the rights to produce a play based on Honor, a novella by Daniel Grotta. I can’t imagine any other contract feeling so right to me, helping to firm up Daniel’s legacy.

Honor is a story about the fragility and power of the human heart. It explores the terrible toll paid when patriotism, personal ethics and the deep bond of friendship collide.

Next step on the road to production: a staged reading in New York City, hopefully later this year.

Discovering Myself in Arcane Talmudic Arguments

Bookcase of Jewish books

I subscribe to a number of email lists whose content challenge my mind and set me thinking in directions I might never have traveled without their stimulation. For instance, I enjoy receiving twice weekly emails of Maria Popova’s The Marginalian (formerly called BrainPickings) essays for their poetic and insightful curation of the writings of great thinkers, writers and artists.

I initially subscribed to MyJewishLearning‘s daily Talmudic interpretations as part of my research for a current work-in-progress, a new novel (Women of a New Moon). As a secular Jew, I’ve never really studied Torah or Talmud or any of the sacred texts beyond the cursory attention I gave to lessons at Sunday school. (Nor do I remember much Hebrew from then.) But I find myself intrigued by these emails, not necessarily for the Talmudic interpretations (which I often find irrelevant and boring). but more for the thought processes behind them. Those processes — the instinct to question and probe rather than just accept whatever is stated — is key to what I cherish about my Jewish heritage, and what has defined my life of intellectual and creative restlessness.Read More

My Day of Awe: Dressing the Torah for the High Holy Days

Torah scroll open on a golden background

All my life, the turning of the year has seemed to be something that would sneak up on me. Existing outside of everyday, it was beyond the reality that shaped my life, a pause imposed on the “real” world. One day I’d be playing with other kids on the jungle gym, or studying for an exam, or working on a story deadline. Then suddenly, the new year would appear on the calendar, and the clock reset to the beginning. Incrementally, life changed over time, almost unnoticed, unmarked except by momentous highlights: weddings and births, bar/bat mitzvahs and anniversaries, deadlines and book launches, and deaths.

This year is different.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days, time seems to be slowing down, giving me the luxury to wonder and wander, touching places in my mind and heart that I haven’t visited before.

That isn’t to say that deadlines aren’t looming, laying on the pressure professionally. Nor is the world any less hectic or demanding. But something in me was broken this past year of isolation and fear. Broken then healed, broken and healed… over and over again. In some ways, I feel like a piece of Kintsugi, a Japanese work of art created by using gold dust to rejoin the pieces of something that’s been damaged, creating beauty out of pain. But instead of gold, it’s light and lightness that is shining through the cracks in my universe. Shining on the stories within me, because stories are the gold, the light that keeps me together, and creates a new me with each character born and plot woven.Read More

My Latest MIT Technology Review Report: Mapping the Way to Climate Resilience

A building that's inundated by rising waters might be down the block from another that is practically untouched, though they're on the same floodplain
Natural phenomena like floods don’t conform to
human expectations.
My latest report for MIT Technology Review explores how GIS (geographical information systems) are being used to help companies like AT&T prepare be more resilient when climate change crises hit.

Many companies don’t yet know how climate change will change their business, but more are taking the inquiry seriously, signaling a new reality–one that calls for guarding against systemic risk while protecting customer relationships and corporate reputations. Recognizing that reducing carbon emissions is essential to combat climate change, AT&T has made a commitment to become carbonneutral by 2035.

“We just know it’s the right thing to do for our customers and–I say this from years of doing risk management–it’s good, basic risk management,” says Shannon Carroll, director of global environmental sustainability at AT&T. “If all indications are that something is going to happen in the future, it’s our responsibility to be prepared for that.” Globally, leaders from government, business, and academia see the urgency.

The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2021 names extreme weather due to climate change and human-driven environmental damage among the most pressing risks of the next decade. When citing risks with the highest impact, those surveyed listed climate action failure and other environmental risks second only to infectious diseases…

Please click HERE to read the full report.

“Honor” a Novella by Daniel Grotta Comes Alive in the Reading of a Play by David Zarko

Poster for a reading of Honor, a play by David Zarko, based on a novella by Daniel GrottaThis Saturday afternoon was an event that I have been looking forward to for a long time, and it was years in the making: a Zoom reading of David Zarko’s play based on Daniel Grotta’s novella Honor

I wasn’t the only audience member with tears in my eyes throughout the performance, and that wasn’t unexpected. Readers of Daniel’s small book have long reported how soulful and emotional the story is. Hardened, street-wise individuals have written me (and when he was alive, Daniel) that Honor made them openly cry, even in public.

Honor, a novella by Daniel GrottaHonor is the story of Jeff Smith who, as his bully of a brother-in-law Gene Engelhardt is fond of retelling, is “what the cat dragged in.” He’s a scruffy, bearded hippie who Gene’s sister Bonnie fell in love with decades ago, after meeting at a Washington peace rally against the Vietnam War. Even shaved and doing whatever the Engelhardts wanted, his in-laws never accepted or approved of Jeff. Now, Jeff is saddled with a family, a dead-end job, and, after Bonnie died of cancer, a mountain of debt. Read More

Guest Blog: : “What would our holidays look like without assumptions of female servitude?”

What would our holidays look like without assumptions of female servitude?On March 25th, Elana Sztokman posted a question on her Facebook page that asked:  “What would our holidays look like without assumptions of female servitude?” The essay she posted as a follow-up to that question was so intriguing that I asked her permission to reprint it here.


by Elena Sztokman This morning, I asked a Passover question on my page: What would our cultural celebrations look like without the assumptions of female servitude.

The thread included some honest answers about women’s exhaustion and about the OCD-inducing minutia of some of our less meaningful rituals. It also included, predictably, some men insisting that there is no inequality in their lives because they are amazing partners.

I wasn’t on my computer at all today because I was, predictably, preparing for passover for much of the day (along with my husband, who works as hard as I do, and that’s not the point….) So I didn’t get to engage in the conversation or explain what I meant. But I just now wrote a comment to elaborate, and I thought maybe it’s worth sharing here:

My point was not to hear about all the men who help out, as nice as that may be (even though for the record, I do NOT necessarily trust husbands’ self-reports on how great they are to their wives. I believe it when I hear it from the wives….) Anyway, my point was not for people here to deny the role of female servitude in our cultural heritage, because that’s just gaslighting. (If you have never felt or experienced the impact of patriarchal structures in your life, consider yourself lucky.) Rather, I’m suggesting that we think about the effect of these expectations on the way our culture evolved. Because I would like us to rethink the whole thing. Because assumptions of female servitude construct the whole way we mark everything — pesach, chagim, even shabbat. Everything

We have designed cultural events that rely heavily on someone — usually a wife/mother — devoting their entire life to getting it done so that someone ELSE can enjoy the experience with freedom. (And of course, the entire culture is built on heteronormative paradigms — single women, non-parents, divorced women, gay couples, don’t really exist in the way our culture was constructed for most of its history.) The culture was created to enable a man, no matter how many wives or children he had, to practice whatever religious rituals his religious school determined, completely unencumbered. Even the idea of three times a day minyan outside of home relies on the idea that SOMEONE will hold down the fort at home during that time — making lunches, getting kids dressed, cooking, cleaning, homework, putting kids to bed. If the people creating the rules of the culture could not rely on such servitude, would they have made such demands like 3x/day minyan? That’s my question.

So for seder, for example, if the rabbis who felt like sitting around all night drinking wine and discussing pilpul did not have servants/women around to do the work of executing their ideas about what seder should look like, would the rabbis have crafted the seder the way it is, with so much kitchen labor and such unrealistic expectations for kids and families about how the meal might go?

I’m asking, if the people making the decisions about what the culture should look like were ALSO the people charged with getting it done, is this what we would have done? A late, long meal with zillions of rules and weeks of work that induce OCD? Really? Is that the way we would like to transmit our oral heritage? Maybe there are better ways.

Because I think that if the people doing the heavy lifting and the people getting to enjoy it were one and the same, we wouldn’t be doing all this. We might have a more common-sense, easier-to-produce, better-for-relationships event. Maybe go to the park and have some fruit salad. More flexibility and creativity and less indoctrination. Maybe less of that measuring a kzait thing or reading passages about 50,000 plagues that nobody even understands. Maybe daytime and not into-the night. Shorter. Less preparation. Less rules. More compassion. More humanity. Less meaningless rote ritual. That’s my theory. It would look different.



BIO: Dr. Elana Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, educator, and political activist. Her most recent book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on my Life as a Jewish Woman, is available from Lioness Books at www.lionessbooks.com/shop Follow her at www.conversationswithmybody.com or www.jewfem.com