[Flash Review] The Gift by Leslea Newman

While I’m trying to unwind from the show tonight and with coffee in hand—a very terrible idea, nonetheless, at this midnight hour—I decided to start reading Leslea Newman’s short stories in the “A Letter to Harvey Milk” book. I am going to sort of do my own kind of “review” along with thoughts of mine for the first one which is called The Gift….we’ll see how it goes. 

“To be a Jew in the twentieth century is to be offered a gift…” – Muriel Rukeyser (a quote she put before the story, I felt like I needed to add.) 

The short story “The Gift” follows Rachel from age 5 to 29 through moments of her life: holidays, school, relationships—and the most important—the journey she took to return to her Jewish roots after denying it for so long. 

Rachel at 8: It’s Hanukkah and all she wants is a Christmas tree because everyone else has one—specifically for the colorful blinky lights and decorations and songs. Thoughts: Yep. After 30 years of celebrating Christmas, what was the best part? The colorful blinky lights and taking out old homemade ornaments from the past. This comes second after being with family, but nothing had been “normal” after age 16 when my best grandma died. The holiday spirit and traditions went with her. In better news, I was given my first Menorah in Dec 2018, and was so proud to light it…. I haven’t put up my tree in about 2-3 years for Christmas. It’s like I was finished with the holiday, and I had that strong feeling it didn’t belong to me anymore. There was definitely a reason for that feeling. 

Rachel at 10: Easter Bunny vs. Passover (matzo all the things). She saves her money to buys cookies then trades with a friend to eat a bologna/cheese sandwich and wonders if God will punish her. Thoughts: First of all, I’m so glad matzo is in my life. It’s like, I embrace that so hard. Secondly, I would probably give just about anything to have colored hard boiled eggs again…. because I haven’t had them in ages. I just want all the color, and I love eggs. So there’s that. While reading that she yearned to taste sin, I am reminded of my recent decision (at Hanukkah) to give up pork/ham/bacon. 

Rachel at 14: Puberty, comments on looks and weight. Thoughts: Oy vey. I finally got out of my ugly awkward stage at 31. Took a long time. I still remember yearning to be as pretty as the other girls and skinny like they were. My pictures from then are horrific. I was such a tomboy—never being adored like the other girls were. I was ashamed, awkward and definitely didn’t fit in. I was the odd bird….left alone, reading, wondering why I couldn’t be like the others. I was a nobody and it hurt. And this is going to be entirely too opening myself up but I’ve never really felt like a woman—as opposed to “girl”—like, maybe I was missing something that announced the coming into womanhood. You see where I’m going with this? 

Rachel at 18: Denies her Jewishness when she meets her college roommates. Thoughts: I get why one steps away from what you’re forced to do as a child, but as someone who is coming into this… it really hurts to see anyone denying something so deep as being Jewish, especially since everything that had happened.  

Rachel at 20: Searching for Christmas gift for her Secret Santa and goes into a store owned by Jews—a silver chai and a mention of a latke. The owners send latkes home with her and when she returned to her dorm, she ate them right up. Thoughts: I was screaming YES. YES. YES. Like, some familiarity of her past. When you’ve missed something for so long and you embrace it. I think this was the first taste of her Jewishness coming back and I was hoping for the tune of she would turn around instead of run from it. I had my first latke at Hanukah this past year, and it was delicious. Now I’m like applesauce or sour cream like the rest. Fun fact: I hate hash browns but love latkes, same with hating normal chicken soup and loving matzo ball soup. 

Rachel at 21 – 23: realizes she likes girls more than boys, so she went with her first girlfriend. She read Diary of Anne Frank and had a true fear moment about the Nazis coming back. At 23, when she asked her gentile gf to go with her to seders, the gf replied, “I’m a little Jew-ed out.” Thoughts: Oy vey (again). That comment made me want to scream “drop her like hotcakes”—who says that to someone that you love and want to be with? I remember when I lived at home, this was probably high school age, I fell asleep while watching Diary of Anne Frank for the 100th time and when the Nazi sirens went off, I woke up, and had the most terrible fear about me. It was horrible. I cringe when I hear the siren. I also had a dream in 2010 about being in a concentration camp… that was a terrifying dream. 

Rachel at 24: Was given Christmas stamps and was wished a Merry Christmas. Thoughts: this was me this December. I didn’t know how to react to either, actually, and I’m probably going to have a hard time with this for a while. 

Rachel at 25: She goes looking for Hanukkah candles and no one seems to point her in the right direction. The mention of latkes and Fiddler on the Roof. Thoughts: I had so many issues with going into stores wanting to find the Hanukkah things, only to see one or two items. It was so disappointing…. to see so much Christmas from October to December. As I had my first true taste of it this holiday season, I completely understood what it meant to be the minority. 

Rachel at 26: Finds a tallis while shopping at a used clothing store. Thoughts: You find exactly what you’re looking for when you’re not looking for it at all. Everything happens for a reason. Just like timing…she wasn’t really ready to embrace Judaism again until this moment… and just like I shouldn’t question my timing with finding Judaism when I did. The right time just happened.

Rachel at 29: is with a 3rd gf—not Jewish—but she wants to learn. It’s Rosh Hashanah and she is going to shul—reflecting on the year like you’re supposed to at this time. Last sentence: Rachel has come home. Thoughts: I was so happy that Rachel decided to come back home and embrace Judaism. From a future Jew, deep down I know how important for true Jewish-blood to continue the traditions, going to shul, celebrating the holidays… all of the things. We must never give up or forget where we come from. 

Overall, what a read. Only 20 pages and it hit me in all kinds of feels and moments. As odd as it is—since I couldn’t have done any of these things because I didn’t grow up Jewish—I related and I felt it as it was happening. The moments-the holidays and when she was insulted by some off-hand comment about being Jewish….I felt it. Hard. The mention of latkes, chai necklace, Fiddler on the Roof, ‘shul’, Rosh Hashanah… all hit me like I know what they are, seeing those words make me excited, and I just want to embrace it. I’m truly trying to make sense of why I feel so deeply about all of this as the way I do. I can wonder and think about it but may never know, just know that I’m here for the journey now and whatever happens will happen. Maybe I was originally born to a Jewish family and was one of them that was killed in the Holocaust and my soul had enough time to come back around from reincarnation to being born in a gentile family just so that my journey would include finding my way back to Judaism to help the Jews who have lost their way about them, or to lead other gentiles in the proper direction. Maybe that’s why I’m partial to being gypsy and I have some kind of pull towards suitcases.…if I came from that time…..you know, if I were to be one of those that had to pack only one suitcase. It would fit in with always moving around and having to figure out what to take with you if you had to leave fast. As tragic as that may sound, it is also beautiful in my mind because I feel like I actually belong somewhere—to a group of people—and having moments to truly appreciate and embrace as whole heartedly as I am……and the life I am living after wearing my chai necklace for almost a year, my Star of David necklace and now my hamsa. My singing to Shabbat every Friday. My yearning for matzo ball soup. The smile on my face when I hear Yiddish words and actually know what they mean. I’ve traded in more than half of my past, likes and bad habits all in return for what I’m seeing and doing now which is so much better for me, anyhow… And, knowing that I found an author—Leslea Newman—who I can count on for those things, for more feelings after reading her work….I just can’t express how I’m feeling right now. So many, too many feels. 

Karen Maeby 

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