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

Am I the Orange on the Passover Seder Plate?

Orange on a Star of DavidWhen I was growing up, the colors of the Passover seder plate were primarily dull and dark. A shank bone, a roasted egg, horseradish, salt, and the delicious but yucky looking charoises (minced apples, nuts and dried fruit soaked in red wine). The one relieving color (and the dullest flavor) was that of the fresh parsley.

Then one year, a big, bright orange appeared on the seder plate. The story I was told back then was that it was in response to some rabbi who once said, “There will be a female rabbi when there’s an orange on the Pesach seder plate.” In other words, he considered both to be not only unlikely but impossible. Naturally, as the story goes, feminists started to put an orange on their seder plates, and the practice spread like wildfire.

Beyond any metaphorical meaning, I was delighted to see that orange on the seder plate. It felt like a fresh bit of life among the dull, dark artifacts of our history. As such it helped to make the history feel more modern and relevant. At the same time, it was a recognition of the long line of women who came before me, stretching back through my mother and grandmothers through the generations to the matriarchs of ancient times.

Besides, oranges have been one of my favorite treats for as long as I can remember. What fun it is to use my nails and fingertips to pierce and peel away the tough, pebbly skin, to get to the crisp sweet-tart pulpy juices that play on my tongue. And as a writer, I get a kick out of the fact that even the sound of the word is unique; no word in the English language rhymes holistically with orange. (Botanists will point to “sporange” which is a part of ferns, fungi, algae, or mosses. But really, how many of us will ever use sporange in a poem?)

All these years, I have identified with that orange on the seder plate. Read More

The Perfect Pandemic Anniversary Gifts

What is the perfect gift for a one-year pandemic anniversary?

Traditionally, folks would give something made of paper. I guess because couples who’d been married only one year didn’t have enough money for anything better. Or maybe because that was what they considered the true value of a one-year commitment. More modern gift registries recommend a clock for commemorating the one-year milestone. Well, I wonder how modern the people are who put together those registries, because I seem to be the only person I know who has (and wants) a clock in every room. Everyone else just looks at their phones, which seems to me an extra effort. First, you have to pull your phone out of your pocket. Then, wake it up. To check the time on my kitchen wall clock or my digital desk clock, all I have to do is glance in its direction. But I digress. This essay isn’t about the value of clocks.

Of course, now that I think of it, a clock would be a rather appropriate present for a pandemic one-year anniversary. For the past twelve months, time moved in bone-jarring jerks, sometimes feeling like a runaway train about to plow me under, then suddenly morphing into a slo-mo nightmare of trying to run in molasses. The gift of a clock would be an acknowledgement that, any day now, time will resume its usual tick-tock rhythms, marking seconds, hours and days with a uniform regularity. Read More

If You Could Transport Back to Eden, Would You Eat the Apple?

Snake offering apple to Eve

If you could be magically transported into Eve’s body before she reached for the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, would you pick and eat it, knowing what you know of life?

As I research the stories of Eve and Lilith for my novel Women of a New Moon, I return often to the original Garden of Eden stories in Genesis. The story of humanity’s exile from paradise has a bittersweet allure. Who doesn’t dream of being welcomed back to the original utopia where illness and hunger didn’t exist, where death was unknown, and life was gentle.

All of Creation was the embodiment of goodness, as God proclaimed. But did Adam and Eve experience Good? Could they understand what goodness was when they had known nothing else?

However if you were in Eve’s body in the Garden of Eden, with all that you know, you would have a soul-deep understanding of the tradeoffs inherent in the decision to eat the apple from that one forbidden tree. To not eat would mean to be immortal, protected, and forever innocent. To eat would mean Read More

And To Think That I Read It On Mulberry Street

Dr Seuss Books

Yesterday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises (the organization in charge of the Dr. Seuss literary legacy) announced that it would discontinue the publication of six iconic children’s books, because “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The six books are And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. The decision was made because Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) had used racial stereotypes in these books, portraying Blacks and Asians in demeaning ways.

It has been so long since I’ve read any of these books that I don’t really remember much about the illustrations or racial attitudes. But then, I am neither Black nor Asian. I assume that if he had done the same to Jews, I would remember it clearly, because I am a Jew.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” ~ George Santayana

Read More

How the World Food Programme Is Changing Lives

World Food Programme - picture of Villagers in Afghanistan gather food rations. (Photo credit: WFP/ Teresa Ha)
Villagers in Afghanistan gather food rations. (Photo credit: WFP/ Teresa Ha)
The United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) is the largest humanitarian organization in the world, known for rushing into danger to feed the hungry. I had the honor of interviewing Lara Prades, the head of the WFP’s geospatial unit, and learning how they manage to be seemingly everywhere at once. It would be an almost impossible management task if it weren’t for the GIS (geographical information system) that Prades runs.
“Saving lives is not enough. We also need to change lives.” ~ Lara Prades, head of WFP’s Geospatial Unit
Please click here to read the article that I wrote for MIT Technology Review.