[Book 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 

[The Shabbat Edition 001]

Hallelujah it’s Shabbat: my favorite day, ever, in this Universe. I can’t even remember what happened this week, I just know it was a long and almost boring one….so commence the weekend activities. 

I want to do my Shabbat entries in a very special formatting with the following: 

  1. A small synopsis of my week (most will be in relation to trying to live a Jewish life). 
  2. Life lessons-ish or from my Intro to Judaism class.  
  3. Any special moments or events that I got to attend. 
  4. What I’m looking forward to in the upcoming weeks. 

A Small Synopsis 

-Last Saturday/Sunday was spent with the CL cast. We opened our show at TBI. Sunday after strike we all went out to dinner together and had a blast. We have 2 more full show weekends at different locations, then it’s over. 

-While there on Sunday, I learned that the Temple is doing a Purim Spiel and so I talked to the cantor involved and I will be soon doing something with that. In the meantime, I googled “Purim Spiel” and came across two amazing shows. One being a Billy Joel tribute and the other Hamilton the Musical. 

-At Hanukkah (my one year) I privately declared that I was no longer going to eat pork or ham. Thank G-d that I have a legit reason to turn bacon down without getting “that look” because I really truly don’t like it… Anyway, I asked the market that’s close by my work to make a Cuban with turkey for me. My goodness… it is so delicious. Made my week just about! 

-I downloaded some Jewish music: songs for the holidays, songs for Shabbat (you better believe I’ll be listening to this all day!) and some violin music. One day I will post what I wrote about listening to “If I Were a Rich Man” ~ otherwise you can go read it on my Instagram a few posts ago. 

-Wholly Guacamole! I have a website now. Legendary. Not really, just felt like saying that. 

Lessons Learned 

I don’t know if this counts as a lessons learned, but it is something from my Intro class. 

I love how in Judaism you can continue to comment on just about everything and make stances, when in Christianity it had always seemed to be so cut and dry and you can’t question things, or else. I’m not writing this as an insult or slur, I’m just simply stating… I know I found the right religion to follow because I question everything… even my own question’s question I question. 

Events / Special Moments 

I am so excited that I finally have a space to share my moments with you… like—for instance—Art Shabbat from two weeks ago. I am bringing that up now, because I just went to another show at The Poetry Bar in the A/E building last night (Thursday). It was yet another moment to wander around in a spectacularly inspirational place. Arrival led us to pinning on a heart shape to our clothing, walking through the doors to hear laughter of friends, and then, listening to some speak about love-love-love, sing of fate, and how our DNA can become a part of The Poetry Bar. 

Now, Art Shabbat (service run by TB-E) was the most fabulous thing. I think it should be required at least once a month. You are connecting with something so real and tangible (objects of meaning) and the prayer / song (is the poetry) and this place was just so perfect for it. We sang Sanctuary—which instantly became my favorite song after discovering it from Central Synagogue in New York—nearly over a year ago. The way that one forms words… have meaning. The need to express through art without words…has meaning. It’s how you interpret, read and analyze everything. Perfect for Judaism, eh? 

We moved about the two rooms and the Rabbi spoke about certain moments, sang certain prayers then the owners would talk if it was something specific to their art. The only thing [we] missed the mark on was singing the L’chah Dodi.

I was drawn to their “dreamers corner” like a magnet pulling me in….I had no idea that that is where the plans were born until the owners spoke about it. It was almost like a permanent sukkah too. 

There were open suitcases and trunks every where. That excited the gypsy in me, but it also meant something else: I had already decided before walking in there that “suitcase” was going to be a part of my new writer’s group name (and also a symbol).…so, as you can imagine—the me who reads into everything—believed this to be a sign. 

Art Shabbat was literally the same week that everything I had worked so hard to obtain in 2018 was pretty much….poof, gone… doors slammed. It was the worst week on top of an already worst week. Seeing the word “surrender” written on their wall meant something to me… that I had to surrender my dreams. Maybe not permanently, but for then/now, it was the time to do so. 

And last night (Thursday), two of my writers joined me and they had their personal moments too while in there… one was thinking about improv because he hadn’t done it a while and came upon someone from his old improv class, the other was to paint angel wings and she mentioned it before walking in there and on the wall was angel wings. I—again—had my own moment. I mean, something is definitely happening within that place. I don’t know what, but I can feel the poet in me becoming inspired after being put to rest for so long. My words may actually have song in them again…..one day….  

What am I looking forward to this week? 

-I’ll be working at the CH this weekend with CL. I cannot wait, I have missed being there, and it has a proper stage—of which—I have missed greatly. 

-Also, after we strike on Sunday: hopefully I will get to catch about 30 mins to an hour worth of Gulfport’s first ever Pride Celebration. I want all the color. And glitter. Ah! I hope there’s glitter! 

-Getting back together with my writer’s group after about week off…..although I have no earthly idea where we are going to host our regular meetings yet. 

-Going to the first rehearsal with Purim Spiel at TBI. 

-I bought myself a Valentine’s Gift: a very beautiful purple/pink hamsa necklace from my favorite jewelry company that I found through Instagram. I can’t wait until it arrives and I get to show you all! 

-Going to see Leslea Newman on V-Day at Temple Beth-El. In preparation I was googling “Letter to Harvey Milk” and came across the musical, so—of course, as a musical nerd—I downloaded it. Big mistake. I was blasting it in my car during my lunch errand run and the words…the depth of the songs…the meaning… hits a part of my heart and soul that doesn’t really come out any more due to being hurt. I’m not sure why all of these things are happening, I just know they are, and you know what… maybe it’s time I stop questioning it and embrace it. Another time, another entry for this subject, though… maybe after I see her on V-Day. 

Much love, Karen Maeby 

Starting (nearly) at the Beginning.

My story of finding Judaism at Hanukkah 2017 is so close to my heart, but I don’t want to share it just yet. I want this particular post to be my first.

It was the weekend of January 19-21st, 2018. I was finishing up some projects at the theatre when my mom called and said my aunt was in the hospital, wasn’t doing well, and I should probably call her. I called my aunt and was only able to speak to her for two seconds before the nurses had to come in and give her more oxygen to her already maxed out tank. It wasn’t looking good, and my strong intuition told me so. I texted with my cousin and asked if I wrote a note for my aunt could she read said note to her “just in case” I don’t get to tell her myself. This is what it said (note written 1/20/18):

Dear Aunt Patsy, 

I wanted to tell you a secret that only a few of my close family-friends in FL know. I want you to know that I am on the beginning journey of the soulfulness of Judaism and finding God through that religion. While it isn’t Christianity or where the rest of you–my family–have stemmed from, this is my journey and since finding it… I’ve never felt so alive, and I have reconnected with the soulfulness that I used to have. I’ve always been opinionated about such, and have studied and tried so many religions, and that fits me well with what I believe in and the way I measure my soulfulness all of these years that I have lived. I went to a Jewish restaurant and they go to the synagogue that I am wanting to go to, so I’m super stoked they will be introducing me to their people. If you have ever worried about me and my soul, don’t, I believe I am in good hands now right where I belong. I wish you could come down here and meet all my theatre family– I’ve found such a good group and they take care of me, I them, and we have so much fun. They are my people. They’re all saying prayers and positive thoughts for you. I need to go now because I have to start setting up for the second production today. I love and miss you, Aunt Patsy. 

By the grace of something, I had the chance to help out with a theatre production that I was not scheduled to work. It kept my mind busy. Thankfully. It was the very next day when I was hosting my writer’s group that I received the text that my aunt passed away.

A few months later, I texted my cousin (my aunt was her mom) to ask her what she told her after reading my note. This is her reply:

When I read her your message she sat there quietly, looking upwards and she got big tears in her eyes and she was smiling. I will paraphrase what she said, “Please let Karen know that i am proud of her and she has always been so artistic and I love that about her. I love how she goes for her various passions. A good place to start her spiritual journey is Judaism. Jesus was Jewish so she can’t go wrong starting there.” She said to follow your heart and look to God and he will answer all of life’s questions.

My writer’s group hosted our first event in April 2018, and my aunt’s death inspired me to write a play called “Anna’s Serendipity” that had to do with Anna finding a way to tell her grandma about her path of Judaism–but there’s a whole lot more that happens in that journey: death, possible love, etc. I have plans on eventually turning this into a full length play & movie script.

I don’t know why I was keeping my new found faith a secret at that time, I think I was more afraid of putting it out there and it not be able to happen. But then again, I had researched so many religions and nothing ever fit… except for this one.

One year later: I remember this letter and how much has changed since then. One year since losing my aunt who loved God so much, and–like my grandma–she wanted me to find him too. One year since looking into Judaism. A few weeks ago was my one year anniversary since I had been going to the restaurant as mentioned, and nearly more than six months since I started going to the synagogue with three months into my Intro to Judaism class.

I have had a lot of awesome experiences thus far, and they’re still continuing. I can’t wait to share my past and future with all of you.

Until next time,
Karen Maeby <3