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.

After 11 Months, Am I Too Feral for Polite Society?

Bulldog by Sally Wiener GrottaThis past Friday, almost exactly eleven months from the day I locked the door of my home against the Covid-infected world, I received my first vaccine shot. I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn’t an oncoming train. I have started to imagine what it will be like to be out among other people. Yes, I will still have to be masked and appropriately social distanced. But with some people, like my sister once she has her vaccinations, I will actually be able to share a human touch and loving hugs.

The problem is… well, I’m worried. I think I may now be too feral for polite society.  All signs of civilization have been stripped from me. I’m a wild woman of nature, living out Read More

Guest Post: Facing the Beast by Peggy O’Connor

I received a number of private emails in response to my blog essay Aftermath, which I wrote the day after the January 6th invasion of our Capitol building. A number of my readers wrote about not only their own fears and reactions, but that my perspective had given them some hope. Of course, that pleased me. Still, I hadn’t thought of it as a hopeful essay; it was simply my way of trying to process the frightening events using the one tool I have… writing.

One email — from Peggy O’Connor — was different from the rest. She told a story from her childhood in the “genteel” South and in occupied Japan. It’s a tale of innocence told with love, and yet with a clear understanding also of her ignorance of the worlds in which she lived. Peggy’s email resonated with me, capturing a simple truth that we can take from January 6th. I’m honored that Peggy chose to share her story with me, and has now given me permission to share it with you. (Please read it to the end; it isn’t going to be what you expect.)

“I read your article. It is uplifting. You are describing a moment in time where we must face the beast, and in facing it, overcome our fear of responding to it. The scab has been ripped off, and the infection beneath is exposed for cleaning and healing with care and attention.

“I have a childhood tale, one which informed my world view as a Southerner.Read More

Robotic surgery gives doctors new savvy

Robot Assisted Surgery, article by Sally Wiener Grotta, image from MIT Technology Review
Image from MIT Technology Review
A few months ago, I had the privilege of interviewing innovators, forward thinkers and doctors on the cutting edge (pun intended) of robotic-assisted surgery (RAS). The result was my overview article that covered the current state of the art of RAS in hospitals, plus a look at the future when RAS will become far more common.
“Eventually, there will be a hierarchy of surgical care. Robots will be used for simple, repetitive surgeries. RAS medics will handle the common operations, in which inherent variability requires human judgment. And remote surgeon specialists will be called in for the more difficult, creative procedures.”
Please Click Here to read my article, published in MIT Technology Review.

Envisioning better health outcomes for all

Mapping covid-19 cases across Europe (source: MIT Technology Review)
Mapping covid-19 cases across Europe (source: MIT Technology Review)

I loved doing the interview and research for this piece. So meaningful. This kind of meaty feature piece is why I originally got into journalism. Okay, my name isn’t on the piece, but the information is out there now. That feels good. (Written for MIT Technology Review)

“…According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared to the general United States population, African Americans are 1.4 times more likely to contract the coronavirus, and 2.8 times more likely to die from covid-19. Similarly, Native Americans and Hispanics/Latinos are nearly twice as likely to be infected by coronavirus, and 2.5 to 2.8 times more likely to die from it.

“Underlying these statistics are significant structural, social, and spatial issues. But why is this? And how do we begin to quantify and address the nested problems of public health inequality?…”

A cool distribution system powered by a GIS (geographical information system) may be the answer.

Please Click Here to read the full article

New Year’s Newsletter: Reaching for Hope through Art in Difficult Times

Sally Wiener Grotta's January 2021 newsletter
Please click to read the full newsletter

Happy New Year and Welcome to the (soon-to-be, I hope) New Roaring Twenties

What a rollercoaster ride we’ve been on since my last new year’s newsletter. I hope you and yours are well, and finding reasons to smile despite the strange and difficult times we’re experiencing.

Since the initial March lockdown, I’ve been sheltering in place in my comfortable bunker (as I’ve come to call my home), alone with my dog Shayna. While I had some bad spells (who didn’t?), I managed to keep a somewhat even keel by choosing to treat the whole episode as an extended writing retreat. Up until last Wednesday, the words were flowing rather well, including making a decent dent into the first draft of a new novel Women of a New Moon.

Throughout my isolation, I often fantasized about what it will be like once I’m released. I imagined all of us being freed from fear by vaccinations, so that we can safely gather with (and hug!) family and friends, dance to live music, and mix with strangers in theaters, restaurants and art gallery openings. As I had written in a previous newsletter:

I crave the fellowship of artists, writers and all kinds of creative thinkers…. I need them almost as much as I need air and water and chocolate…. It helps me see beyond my here and now, and inspires me to reach deeper and wider in my own work.

It’s this craving that gave me hope. I was sure that others must Read More