Hilma and Meg Wolitzer talk over being mother and daughter novelists at the DC Jewish Literary Festival

Deborah Tannen speaks with Meg and Hilma Wolitzer at the 2014 Washington, DC Jewish Literary Festival / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

With disregard to what I wrote in my last post, I chose to attend the Hilma and Meg Wolitzer panel on Wednesday as part of the 2014 Washington, DC Jewish Literary Festival at the DCJCC.

Speaking to a nearly packed auditorium of fans of all ages and moderated by Georgetown professor Deborah Tannen, the two women touched on s variety of issues from personal to socio-political. Hilma Wolitzer regaled the audience with amusing tales about how her jello molds bridged the divide between her life as a housewife and desire to be a writer, and Meg Wolitzer spoke about how her novel, The Interestings, was inspired, in part, by fledgling teenage relationships between girlfriends and encountering a larger world at summer camp.

They also spoke about the difference in being a female writer in the 1970s vs today (where things have thankfully improved,) the way to mentor creative writing students with positive reinforcement, and take inspiration for novels from “slant truths” about real life. With regards to Judaism in fiction, both women occasionally feature characters of the tribe, but maintain that their lack of overtly Jewish themes have to do with how their stories manifest themselves. It was a nice little jaunt into the minds of literary novelists.

After the panel, the Wolitzers stuck around to autograph The Interestings, Belzhar and An Available Man. On a personal note, collecting signed books is quickly becoming a hobby and pastime. :p

The panel was promoted by Moment Magazine. The Festival continues until Oct. 19; for more information, click here.

Former Hassidic Authors Break Down Insular Walls in Society-Probing Novels

Anouk Markovits and Judy Brown discuss their novels on Hassidic life with moderator Lili Kalish Gersh at the DCJCC Jewish Literary Festival /photo taken by Rachel Mauro

What is hidden, and particularly what is sexual, seem to be a common theme in two novels presented at the annual DCJCC Jewish Literary FestivalI Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits and Hush by Eishes Chayil/Judy Brown. Markovits and Brown presented in front of a packed audience at this Moment Magazine-sponsored panel on Monday, October 15.

Markowits’s novel recreates Satmar history, from its Transylvanian beginnings to its migration to Paris and New York in the wake of the Holocaust. While probing larger cultural history, she focuses specifically on two sisters: one who reads secret secular books and ultimately leaves Hassidm, the other who keeps the faith but struggles with infertility in her marriage. Brown’s novel deals with the oft-ignored problem of sexual abuse in these insular communities.

Both authors read segments from their novels and then gave statements as to their inspirations/opinions about the Hassidic world from their vantage point of leaving it. I was particularly drawn to Brown’s allegory about how in Hassidm, religious garb automatically equals “good,” and it is difficult to fathom such things as “a man wearing a Shtreimel,” aka a religious Jew, being capable of acts of violence. She also grew up thinking of the secular world as “just decoration,” which has changed over time. (Her secular editors also sat her down to write a multi-page glossary for the back of her book. :P)

A lot of the Q&A with the audience seemed to hang on smoothing out cultural differences. Markowits admitted that one of the stranger parts of leaving the Hassidic world was realizing that “secular Jews” (anyone outside of Orthodoxy, I presume,) felt Jewish as well, though we adhere to far less ritual, if any. Brown corrected the moderator when she mistakenly referred to her as part of the Satmar, and the authors tried to explain the subtle differences between ultra-Orthodox groups that are, in fact, very similar.

Identity and loyalty are tenuous, even when one chooses to leave her community, and I really appreciated these women coming to talk to us. On such a harrowing topic such as sexual abuse, the authors spoke of the Hassidic world needing to take down its insular walls, and recognize that not all societal problems come from the outside. Fiction has a unique and visceral way of exposing the underbelly of cultural issues, and it certainly leaves its mark, given the size of this audience.

The DCJCC Literary Festival continues until Wednesday.

Freelancing at “Moment” Magazine

"Moment" magazine offices in downtown Washington, DC / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Every two months for over a year now, I’ve been fortunate enough to be called up to help the staff of DC-based “Moment” magazine fact check it’s publication. I partake in a great deal of Jewish activities throughout the area, but this might be my richest experience.

Founded by Elie Weisel and Leonard Fein in 1975, “Moment” has turned into the largest independent magazine in North America, covering more topics related to Judaism than I’d ever dream of. I’m always excited to sit down with a print out and learn something about Jews on Capitol Hill, Jews in remote corners of the world or Jews in baseball. Beyond these profiles and in depth feature stories, “Moment” poses questions of Jewish interest to scholars, rabbis of every denomination, and the regular Joe; includes book reviews, recipes and “The Jewish Word”; hosts contests from captioning cartoons to writing Jewish-themed fiction; and much more! I always find myself exhausted yet sated every time my week of reading, fact checking and learning is up.

Sitting in my journalism grad school program five years ago, I always imagined a “utopia” of news writing—where the stories were layered, deep, fascinating, informative, and challenged the reader’s ideas of the world. Nothing comes closer to this ideal than magazine writing, and “Moment” is very much the cream of the crop, not just due to the reporters, columnists and other writers, but also the tireless editors who work for hours on end, long into the night during deadline week. I seem to share everything with these folks during this time—from late-night snacking to experiencing the Virginia earthquake of 2011! 😛 It’s really the best kind of workplace—fun and dedicated people; a meaningful connection to Judaism.

If you haven’t subscribed to “Moment” yet, then what are you waiting for? The next issue, for Sept/Oct 2011, will be out on newsstands soon. I’ve read my “advanced copy,” and I promise you don’t want to miss it!

Jewish Scholars Convene to Discuss The Ten Commandments in Books, Magazines and DCJCC Panels

Nadine Epstein, David Harzony and Bill Kristol make up part of the panel discussing the relevance of The Ten Commandments at DCJCC's Authors Out Loud event / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

First David Harzony, a Jewish philosophy scholar, publishes a book on the significance of the Ten Commandments in 21st century life, then Moment Magazine uses the Decalogue for it’s January/February 2011 issue (full disclosure—I helped to fact check this publication,) and now, on Thursday night, local Jewish thinkers sit down to discuss their thoughts as part of DCJCC’s Authors Out Loud series.

Among the diverse tribes-people who first discussed and debated their points before taking questions from the audience were Harzony, Nadine Epstein, editor of Moment; Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard; and Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel. William Daroff, Director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office, officiated.

The setting was academically intimate, a rug laid out on the floor, plush chairs for the panelists and a table with water. Some of the points that were brought up included how important are The Ten Commandments in Torah? What would we feel about them if we read them without the prejudice of what they’ve come to represent over the course of history? Are American Jews distancing ourselves from a basic tenant of our faith due to the influence of the Christian Right? What are the differences between Jewish and Christian interpretations of The Ten Commandments, and are they important? When 90% of Americans have strong opinions on the Commandments, yet only 40% can name all ten, what does that say about our discourse? Should in depth study of the Commandments be encouraged, even by secular Jews, in public schools, rather than just seeing the Decalogue as a political symbol? Are The Ten Commandments meant for everyone or are they meant just for Jews?

I’ve listed these questions, and left out plenty more, mostly to prove that this is an issue without clear answers, which personally, if I were to write an eleventh commandment, might be it. 😛 I really appreciate the chance to look at The Ten Commandments as more than just a rallying point in the church vs state argument. To study them in a religious setting and to take them seriously as a part of my heritage might lead me to a different place regarding the public sphere. Can one believe in a text about moral absolutism while honoring the “relativist” theory that “my truth” may not be “your truth”? Or maybe I could look at something like Hinduism’s Ten Commitments (mentioned in a Moment interview) as another “translation” of “the greater good.” Already I can tell that this philosophizing will require a lot of quotation marks. 😛 But if this panel was all about addressing The Ten Commandments as a relevant document in the 21st century, I think we nailed it.

For more on The Ten Commandments, check out MyJewishLearning.com here. And follow Harzony’s upcoming book events here!

Rebecca Goldstein Discusses “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction” at the DCJCC Literary Festival

Washington Post Senior Book Editor Ron Charles talks with Rebecca Goldstein about her new book as the closing act of the DCJCC Literary Festival / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

As a concluding act to the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, Rebecca Goldstein addressed Ron Charles of Washington Post Book World and a packed theater audience Wednesday night about her current, humorously titled novel, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.”

Melding philosophy and strong characters, the book deals with the protagonist, Cass Seltzer, who hits the big leagues with a best-selling book on religious delusion, an offer to teach for Harvard, a successful mathematician girlfriend, and more. But he is also haunted by two great mentors—his former religion and philosophy instructor Jonas Elijah Klapper, and a math prodigy and rebbe’s son from a Hassidic sect Azarya.

Like Cass, Goldstein might be described as “an atheist with a soul”—she was raised as an Orthodox Jew and kept the traditions until her parents died as part of shalom bayit, peace in the house. Although she explained she can’t believe in Gd for “moral reasons” (reconciling the extent of human suffering with a divine being,) she treats religious communities with sympathy and temperance, both in this book and her previous novel, “Mazel,” which again focuses in part on the Hassidim.

In comparing religious communities to atheists, Goldstein drew interesting parallels between cathedrals and universities, and the religious apostle/disciples relationship versus the secular professor/grad student one. Everyone looks at that elevated, idolized sense they get from religious conviction, she said, and if they can’t find it in Gd, they find it elsewhere. But Goldstein is cautious about the nature of belief. As a philosopher, she takes hers rather seriously.

Goldstein ended by expressing gratitude that recent events like 9/11 have taken the religious debate out of philosophy classrooms and into the public square. Perhaps this is why “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction” is attractive to philosophers and lay people, and religious and atheists alike. With thought-provoking books like these, we can bridge gaps and grow as people.

This program was co-sponsored with Moment Magazine, celebrating its 35th anniversary. The DCJCC literary fest is officially over, but stay tuned for upcoming events through the Authors Out Loud program. Check out the Facebook page for more.

Chillax with Happy Hour and your Local Jewish Magazine!

Leah kitty peruses the latest issue of Moment Magazine / photo taken by Rachel Mauro.

Care to escape the heat for drinks and summer fun? Try Moment’s happy hour from 5:30 to 11:30 pm at One Lounge! Featuring socialization, prizes, and a revered magazine on Jewish culture.

I’d be going to Moment’s first happy hour myself, but unfortunately I’ve come down with a cold. Full disclosure: I am now volunteering at Moment and helping them with a digital archiving project for their 35th anniversary. I’ve gotten to sift through magazines dating back to 1975, proving that Moment, which was started by Elie Weisel and Leonard Fein, has always had its pulse on Jewish culture and education.

Moment includes columns, features and other content delving into all aspects of Jewish life, including conversion and intermarriage, women and gay issues, Jewish advocacy in the Diaspora and Israel, and my personal favorite, profiles of Jewish communities abroad.

The latest issue, which came out a few weeks ago, features articles covering such topics as: gender segregation on some Israeli busses, profiles of the Borscht Belt and other Jewish entertainment staples, an Ask the Rabbis section on asking questions, poetry and book reviews, a profile of the Jewish community in Myanmar, and more. Really a detailed and thoughtful look at the spectrum of the Jewish world!

For more information on Moment, click here.

Upcoming Events: July 19-25

Shavua Tov! Below, I’ve compiled a list of Jewish events I’ve found to be going on next week. Please feel free to comment with any others, and I will add them. See you around town!

Monday, July 19

GLOE Volunteering Food and Friends
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/501432717?view=Detail&id=124601

Wednesday, July 21

Montgomery County Council At Large Candidates’ Forum
http://www.jcouncil.org/site/Calendar/1472483418?view=Detail&id=103961

JCC of GW Book Discussion
http://www.shalomdc.org/calendar/index.aspx?startdate=7/21/2010 4:00:00 PM&enddate=7/21/2010 5:50:00 PM&id=75&eventid=460415&recurrenceid=0

DCJCC Blood Drive
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/501432717?view=Detail&id=124545

Moment Magazine Young Professionals Happy Hour
http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=127504763944504&index=1

Thursday, July 22

Drive-In Movie: Caddyshack
http://www.sixthandi.org/EventDetails.aspx?evntID=391&dispDt=7/22/2010 7:00:00 PM

Adas Israel: Community Portal Feedback Session
http://www.shalomdc.org/calendar/index.aspx?startdate=7/22/2010 10:00:00 AM&enddate=7/22/2010 11:00:00 AM&id=75&eventid=492573&recurrenceid=0

Turkish Coffee and Fortune Telling
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/501432717?view=Detail&id=124462

Friday, July 23

Tikkun Leil Shabbat
http://www.jufj.org/event/tikkun_leil_shabbat_27

Downtown Shabbat with Larry Paul and Robyn Helzner
http://www.sixthandi.org/EventDetails.aspx?evntID=73&dispDt=7/23/2010 6:45:00 PM

B’nai Tzedek: BBQ and Barchu
http://www.shalomdc.org/calendar/index.aspx?startdate=7/23/2010 6:00:00 PM&enddate=7/23/2010 8:00:00 PM&id=75&eventid=492529&recurrenceid=0

Saturday, July 24

Shaare Torah Tot Shabbat
http://www.shalomdc.org/calendar/index.aspx?startdate=7/24/2010 10:15:00 AM&enddate=7/24/2010 10:45:00 AM&id=75&eventid=432222&recurrenceid=10400

Shabbat Nitzanim Services
http://www.shalomdc.org/calendar/index.aspx?startdate=7/24/2010 10:30:00 AM&enddate=7/24/2010 11:00:00 AM&id=75&eventid=384140&recurrenceid=9375

Sunday, July 25

Jewish Thirties/Forties Speed Dating in Bethesda
http://www.prosinthecity.com/jewishevents.php#DC_9235

Olney Jewish Festival
http://www.shalomdc.org/calendar/index.aspx?startdate=7/25/2010 1:00:00 PM&enddate=7/25/2010 5:00:00 PM&id=75&eventid=481240&recurrenceid=0

Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation Ice Cream Social for Prospective Members
http://www.shalomdc.org/calendar/index.aspx?startdate=7/25/2010 2:00:00 PM&enddate=7/25/2010 4:00:00 PM&id=75&eventid=491064&recurrenceid=0

DCJCC Emery Shelter Visit
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/501432717?view=Detail&id=124544