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Why Write?

By Linda K. Wertheimer (Lexington, MA)

Why writers become writers is an age-old question. I was one of those boring all-around students in high school, acing the sciences and math almost as readily as English and history.  Go into computers, my mother suggested.  It was the hot field in the early 1980s. I chose writing. Why? My career path, in part, stems from spending part of childhood as one of few Jews in a rural Ohio town. Below is my attempt to explain why I write.

I sat there embarrassed, confused, and silent. A woman had just walked into my fourth-grade classroom in my new school and stuck a series of bearded figures on a felt board. She talked about Jesus and his disciples. Then she led the class in Christian hymns.

After school, my middle brother and I ran into our house and recounted the same story about this woman who taught us about Christianity in our public school classrooms. We were Jews, the only Jews in our rural Ohio school system in 1974. My parents protested the existence of the religious classes, but school officials refused to eliminate the practice. So, once a week, my teacher escorted me to the school library and told me to wait until the half-hour class ended.

Isolation. Ostracism. Experiencing both after my family’s move from western New York to rural Ohio set the stage for my becoming a writer. I ached to protest in some way, but did not know how. The religious classes ended when I reached seventh grade, but the sensation that I was different than my classmates continued. A youth minister roamed the cafeteria during lunch recruiting members for a Christian youth group. Pastors led prayer at school Christmas and Easter assemblies. Classmates questioned my religious beliefs, which were shaky at best. At age 12, I dropped out of Sunday school mostly out of boredom; I was tired, too, of the weekly hour-long drives to our temple. I identified myself as a Jew, but I knew little about what that meant.

“If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to go to Hell,” a classmate said.

“I don’t believe in Heaven, either,” I responded.

“But what happens when you die?”

I sat embarrassed, confused, and silent.

When the school brought pastors and a Christian band in for the annual Easter assembly, I usually slipped out of the auditorium. I grabbed my flute from my locker and went into a practice room and tried to heed my flute teacher’s advice as I shut out the rest of the world. Breathe, breathe, relax. Then play each song as if it were an unfolding story. I discovered beautiful stories in Mozart’s Concerto for D Major, in Debussy’s haunting Syrinx, and in Gluck’s Menuet and Spirit Dance. Well into high school, I thought of becoming a classical flutist. Something held me back. I could invent stories to go with the music, but wondered whether I could ever meet the composer’s intent. I wanted to create music, but lacked the talent and natural ear to compose.

I wanted a way to push out the feelings that sometimes overwhelmed me from 4th to 12th grade in that rural Ohio school system. I played on the high school basketball team and ran track. I acted in school plays. But it was never enough. I felt like the odd one out. I was still the Jew.

Basketball gave me a physical outlet. Music gave some peace, but not enough. So I wrote. I wrote in my diary. I wrote editorials that praised the obvious – like the merits of being grateful at Thanksgiving – for my high school paper. I did not in those days turn inward with my writing. I was more interested in observing and exploring the lives of other people.

During my senior year of high school, I wrote for two daily newspapers in Findlay and Fostoria, Ohio. I wrote about foreign students visiting a zoo, about tax increases, and school board battles. I wrote obituaries. I drove a van to the local hospital to pick up birth reports and to the fire station to pick up the day’s fire calls, then typed them up. Sometimes I wrote meatier stories about others’ struggles with huge life issues like alcoholism and domestic abuse. My high school English teacher tacked one of my first major feature articles to the bulletin board. Peers congratulated me. I had another title: writer. Tossing aside my dream of becoming a solo flutist – a pipe dream, considering the competition — I chose journalism.

For 20-plus years after high school and college, I worked as a full-time newspaper reporter and editor. In Rochester, NY, where I wrote for The Democrat and Chronicle, stories about a high school teacher and his eighth-period chemistry class in an inner-city high school prompted readers to comment that they now understood why there was no simple fix for urban education’s woes. In Florida, where I reported for The Orlando Sentinel, I dug up $20 million worth of problems with modular classroom buildings that led to mold and collapsing floors. The school buildings got fixed.

At The Dallas Morning News, readers filled the editorial page with letters in response to my narrative series about a college freshman’s financial, social, and academic struggles; the young woman, whose mother was on welfare, had been near the top of her class in the city’s worst high school. Her story highlighted the lack of college readiness among students in the city school system, and yet also inspired a mother to write me that she made her teen-aged daughter read every word. The mother was moved by my subject’s determination not to quit and determined that her own child would try college.

By intention, my last full-time job was at The Boston Globe, where I worked primarily as education editor coaching other writers. Journalism was an enticing and exciting profession. The rewards were often tangible. Write something one day and get a flurry of response – and perhaps even action – the next. But I wanted something more as a writer. In the spring of 2009, I took a buyout from the Globe. Leaving journalism gave me the chance to try to become the writer of my long-ago imaginings, a writer who might someday create words as lyrical as music. It also gave me the chance to stay at home with my first – and only – child, Simon, who’s now two.

In the past, when I wrote, a paycheck and byline were guaranteed. Now, there is no guarantee of regular publication or money, and even finding time to write is a challenge. By choice, I juggle caring for my toddler with writing. With no daily deadline and no singular boss except myself, I take more risks.

I am finally finishing a book I began in 1995 when I was working 40-plus hours a week as a newspaper reporter — a memoir about journeying through grief and getting closer to my Jewish faith. Before I finished college, my middle brother Kevin died in a car accident. The brother who had shared so many of the hard times with me in Ohio was dead at age 23; I was then 21.  I wrote nothing publicly about my loss until nine years later. Shortly after I started writing the book,  the Orlando paper ran an excerpt in its Sunday magazine, “Eulogy for Kevin, A final tribute to a brother – and a best friend.”  I finished a draft of the book five years later – in 2000 – then set it aside. The first stab at the book was a catharsis – that chance to get the grief and the facts down about a deeply personal loss. Something – perhaps the element of universality that publishers crave – was missing. I decided just to let life continue.

In search of a way to fill the hole in my gut from my brother’s death, I became more drawn to Judaism. In 2006, at age 41, I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah – and chanted from the Torah for the first time. Faith and grief in my life became forever linked. The passage I chanted was about how Judaism establishes a circle of mourners obligated to mark the rituals for mourning, including observing a seven-day period of mourning called shiva. I observed none of the Jewish mourning rituals after my brother’s death, but this passage was an awakening. Someone who lost a sibling, according to my faith, deserved the same place in the circle of mourners as someone who lost a child, a spouse, or a parent. I realized that my book was not just about a young woman who lost her big brother. It was a story about loss, faith, and the community we need to foster in our lives so we do not have to weather tragedy – or experience life’s great joys – alone. Faith became a part of my memoir. So did music. So did those experiences in rural Ohio.

No longer working full-time in a newsroom, I became a bolder, more passionate writer. I found the voice that was often silent during my childhood. I became braver about sharing my work with other writers and seeking regular feedback from a growing group of writers whose opinion I value. Daily, I am more alone than I have ever been while writing – and yet when I need it, I have the richest company around.

Less than a month after I left the Globe, in late spring 2009, I spent two weeks alone at novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Cape Cod retreat for writers. I finished a major draft of my memoir. The solitude and the time by the sea helped me make the leap from journalist to freelance writer and budding author. During those weeks, I added something to my book, four essays I call a “Concerto of Words.” Those pieces were the music I knew I could never compose for my flute.

I want someday to see my name on the cover of a book, but fame is not my motivator. Hope is. There is hope that someday something I write will touch countless readers’ hearts.

For the first time in my life, I experience regular rejection as a writer. My byline – by choice – is no longer a regular presence in one publication as I aim for literary journals and magazines. Some magazines have said yes to queries and essays, but many have said no. Rejection hurts, and yet it does not matter as much as I thought. I am writing what I want to write. This is the happiest I have ever been as a writer.

Linda K. Wertheimer is a veteran journalist writing a memoir about journeying through grief and getting closer to her Jewish faith. She served as education editor at The Boston Globe before leaving in the spring of 2009 to pursue two passions – spending more time with her toddler and writing her memoir and freelancing.

“Why Write?”is reprinted here with permission of the author. It first appeared on her blog, JewishMuse, where you can find more of her work. You can check out her website for more info: http://lindakwertheimer.com


Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

Ernestine’s Fudge Ministry

by Sharlya Gold (Sarasota, FL)

Sometimes a kid, not necessarily the best looking or the smartest, stays in your mind long after you leave school. For me, that kid was nose-in-the-book, Bible-reading Ernestine Rogers. She didn’t call attention to herself, but if there was a riff in all the horsing around before our 8th grade math class started, you could hear the soft turn of a page. Or even while the teacher was explaining a problem.

The first time that happened, Mrs. Adams didn’t appear to notice. She was at the chalkboard, her back to the class, until somebody tattled. “Mrs. Adams, Ernestine’s not paying attention!”

The teacher turned around, holding the chalk like a baton, and I felt sorry for Ernestine. She’d only been in class for a week; still, she should have known better.

But instead of scolding her, the teacher fixed the rest of us with an angry glare. “People, my job is teaching, and yours is learning. Do you have to write it 100 times to make it stick in your brains?”

“No, ma’am,” we mumbled, and after that we just pretty much ignored Ernestine. When she read her Bible, we just kept quiet, and most of us pretended not to notice.

I noticed, though, because Ernestine was a wonder to me. Imagine! A mousy little thing like that, standing up to the teacher. It began to bug me, wondering how she did it, so one noontime I passed up having lunch with my friends and went to the table near the back wall where Ernestine always sat

I slid onto the bench across from her. “Hi, Ernestine.”

She’d been reading, and now she looked up, keeping her place with a finger. She smiled, a surprised, happy smile. “Do you want to eat with me?”

“Uh…I guess so.”

I didn’t expect to feel so uncomfortable.

“It’s… nice back here,” I managed to say.

“It’s lonely, though.”  She smiled again. “But not today.”

She wasn’t making it any easier, acting like we were good friends.

Finally, I just said it. “Ernestine, I’ve been wondering why you always read the Bible, plus how you get away with it.”

“It’s just something I do,” she said. “When you trust in the Lord, you try to follow what He says which means learning the Holy Scriptures.” She paused. “Let me ask you a question. How well do you know the Lord?”

“About as well as I know math. Why?”

Instead of answering, she reached inside her lunch bag and brought out two neatly wrapped squares. “Homemade fudge,” she said, pushing one toward me. “It’s pretty good.”

Pretty good? It was great! Full of walnuts and not too sweet. I’d never tasted fudge like that–and I’d never met anyone like Ernestine.

While I ate the fudge, she read the Bible to me, all about the eternal damnation lying in wait for people who don’t seek salvation through Jesus Christ. “I’m going to help you get saved,” she said, and later, much later, I realized that Ernestine’s ministry had begun with me.

We had lunch together the next day, too, along with a little conversation, more fudge, and Bible reading. My two best friends got mad. They said I could eat with that girl my whole life and wouldn’t let me walk with them to our next class which Ernestine wasn’t even in!

I hadn’t told them about the fudge, but it really was the high point of having lunch with Ernestine. It certainly made listening to the Bible easier. Although I’d gone to Sunday School, those Biblical stories were totally new to me, and before long they started interfering with my sleep. Whenever I closed my eyes, I’d see those poor tormented people. I had to stay awake to keep them out of my dreams.

But Ernestine didn’t always read the Bible.  Sometimes, she’d just talk. She’d tell me about regular people who’d played into Satan’s hands. Like the doctor who was too busy saving lives to get himself saved. And the pilot who intended to get saved, but died in a plane crash before he got around to it. And the kind, generous couple who believed that good deeds alone would get them into Heaven. “They’re all in agony this very minute,” Ernestine would assure me. “I just pray that their lives are a warning to others.” I didn’t have to ask what others. She meant me.

After one especially tragic story, I raced home, threw myself into my mother’s arms, and burst into tears. The story of what I’d been going through for almost two weeks tumbled out as did my overwhelming fear: our family was going to Hell. “We have to get saved!” I cried, half-choking in my hurry to spur my mother into action, “We have to do it right away before we die. You and Daddy are already old!”

My mother stroked my hair and held me close until I stopped crying. “Now, listen to me. There are many different beliefs about God and many different ways to interpret the Bible. We Jews believe in God,  but not in the existence of Hell or Satan.”

“Are you sure we’re not going to burn forever and ever?” I asked.

“I’m sure, but if you talk to the rabbi, you’ll understand more. He’s better at explaining than I am. Want me to call him?”

I already felt better. I trusted my mother. She didn’t lie to me. She never said that medicine wasn’t bitter when it was or that a shot wasn’t going to hurt when she knew it would.

“That’s okay, Mama,” I said. “I was just so scared.”

She tilted my wet face so she could look into my eyes.  “Is there anything else?”

“Yes. One thing.” I took a deep breath. “Ernestine says we have to pray to Jesus.”

My mother thought about this awhile before she said, “Jews pray to God. Not to Jesus. Jews believe that Jesus was a wise teacher and a good, kind man. But a man. Like Abraham.”

I started to cry all over again. “But what’ll I do about Ernestine?”

“I don’t know that you have to do anything but be respectful of her beliefs. You can do that without accepting them for yourself, can’t you?”

I said yes, kissed my mother, and went to wash my face. But I couldn’t wash away what was really bothering me.  It was the fudge.

My conscience pointed out that I couldn’t go on accepting Ernestine’s fudge since I had no intention of accepting her salvation.

But I’d be earning the fudge by listening, I argued.

My conscience wouldn’t give up. Is it a fair trade, knowing what you know? it asked

I preferred not to answer, and in the end my conscience was no match for the fudge. Ernestine and I had went on having lunch together. I never told her what my mother said and made sure I was respectful as always. Still, something had changed, a subtle shift in our positions. I think she sensed that I was no longer frightened by her stories or in awe of her. The day she stopped bringing fudge, I knew it was over. I made up with my friends, and Ernestine went back to reading the Bible to herself.

She moved away after that year, and I lost track of her, but, recently, a friend from junior high told me he’d heard that Ernestine had become a preacher. She even had a church of her own.

I hadn’t thought of Ernestine for years, but I didn’t have to dig deep for the memory of how I’d dropped her like a lead weight when the fudge ran out. Guilt has never lain much below the surface in my psyche.

But hearing about her success sent a burst of relief through me, much like the time my mother allayed my fears of Hell. All those years, I’d carried the secret fear that I’d ruined Ernestine’s life. How silly it seemed now. How egotistical to imagine that she’d given up because her fudge ministry with me had failed. Good for you, Ernestine! I felt like shouting. Good for you!

And good for my mother, too, I thought. She could have discouraged our friendship, viewing it as a threat to my spiritual development. Instead, she took the occasion to teach me respect for others and their beliefs. That lesson stuck, even though my passion for chocolate fudge faded. My heart and mind—and waistline—have never been sorry.

Sharlya Gold, the author of The Potter’s Four Sons: A Fable and The Answered Prayer and Other Yemenite Folktales, writes books for children, and articles and memoirs for adults.  She teaches ”Writing your Life, Without Starting at the Beginning” at Temple Emanu El in Sarasota, Florida, where she lives with her husband, Len (“who deserves a medal,” she says, “for Support, Endurance, and Patience”).

“I had always considered this personal experience distinctly Jewish,” Gold says about the experience that she shares  in Ernestine’s Ministry of Fudge. “Two children, one with an early calling to proselytize, the other frightened into rejecting her own belief system. But as I learned after sharing this story,  many non-Jews, too, had their own childhood conversion stories.”

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On My Way To Hell

by Rami Shapiro (Murfreesboro, TN)

The man sitting next to me on a United Airlines flight to Denver was on a mission from God. A bumper sticker stuck to the side of his brief case said so. As we settled into our seats the flight attendant came on the overly loud loud speaker to remind us that, “If Denver is not your destination, now would be a good time to get off the aircraft.”

“I guess I should get off the plane then,” my neighbor said, making no move to do so.

I knew what was coming. Two years ago I attended a seminar on the art of evangelizing sponsored by a local Baptist church. There were about 25 people enrolled in the class, and the gist of what we learned was how to find openings in otherwise banal conversations that would allow us to shift the conversation toward the topic of salvation through Jesus Christ. Curious as to whether or not the man had heard the opening and was about to finesse it into a proselytizing moment, I said: “You’re not going to Denver, then?”

“Oh, Denver is on my way, but my final destination is heaven.”

There it was! Of course now I had to deal with the opening gambit. So, I smiled, maintained eye contact, and raised my eyebrows in feigned curiosity.

“You know there is only one way to heaven, and that’s through faith in Jesus Christ. Are you saved? Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

So clumsy! He shouldn’t have hit me with a declarative statement like that. He should have engaged me a bit more in actual dialogue. Amateur.

“I wouldn’t presume to say I am saved,” I said. “In fact I suspect that those who are certain of their personal salvation are actually falling victim to the sin of spiritual pride. I leave salvation up to God. But I do agree there is only one way to heaven. I just don’t think faith in Jesus is it.”

Having taken the proselytizing class I knew I was pushing every spiritual hot button my seatmate had. He reached for his Bible and was, no doubt, about to quote from the Gospel According to John. I could feel him girdling his loins that he might defeat me in spiritual combat, but I wasn’t looking for a fight. I laid my hand on his for a moment and said softly, “Jesus says, ‘Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate.’ That’s Matthew 3:36, right? Compassion is the way to heaven. To mistake the messenger for the message is like mistaking the menu for the meal. You will never taste the truth of what God’s offers. I don’t want to argue with you about Jesus, I want to walk with you on his path.”

This line from Matthew should be the hallmark of Christian teaching, just as it is the hallmark of Jesus’ message. The reason it isn’t is that you can’t build a religion around it. You don’t need priests, pastors, rabbis, gurus, imams, or any other clergy person to practice loving-kindness. You don’t need churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, altars, or sacrificial cults to practice loving-kindness. All you need is loving-kindness. This is what makes the way of loving-kindness so frightening to so many religious people.

Religion gives lip service to loving-kindness, but in the end the final arbiter of your fate is not kindness but loyalty to this or that tribe, denomination, ritual, creed, etc. And do not think I am talking only about western religion. The history of every religion is riddled with violence, sexism, jingoism, and xenophobia. No organized religion is free from violence, because violence is intrinsic to the nature of organized religion.

As long as there is a hierarchy to maintain, a power-elite to support, and a populace to control, the propensity for violence— physical, psychological, political— is always going to be present. But none of this pertains to the way of loving-kindness. There is no hierarchy, no privileged elite, no one to keep in line. There is only you and the world you encounter moment to moment. Will you engage this moment with kindness or with cruelty, with love or with fear, with generosity or scarcity, with a joyous heart or an embittered one? This is your choice and no one can make it for you. If you choose kindness, love, generosity, and joy then you will discover in that choice the Kingdom of God, nirvana, this-worldly salvation. If you choose cruelty, fear, scarcity, and bitterness then you will discover in that choice the hellish states of which so many religions speak. These are not ontological realities tucked away somewhere in space, these are psychological realities playing out in your own mind. Heaven and hell are both inside of you. It is your choice that determines just where you will reside.

“You are going to hell,” my seatmate said flatly after I had shared with him the thoughts I have just shared with you, his voice cracking just enough to let me know this is not the fate he would wish for me.

“I know,” I said just as flatly, “but without loving-kindness we are in hell already.” Then I smiled, powered up my PowerBook, and quickly typed out the conversation you have just read.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award winning author, poet, essayist, and educator whose poems have been anthologized in over a dozen volumes, and whose prayers are used in prayer books around the world.

Rabbi Rami received rabbinical ordination from the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and holds both PHD and DD degrees. A congregational rabbi for 20 years, he is currently Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Middle Tennessee State University.

In addition to writing books, Rabbi Rami writes a regular column for Spirituality and Health magazine called “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” and blogs at rabbirami.blogspot.com. His most recent book is Recovery, the sacred art (Skylight Paths). He can be reached via his website, rabbirami.com/.

This essay is reprinted with permission of the author. It originally appeared on Toto: Behind the Curtain with Rabbi Rami (http://rabbirami.blogspot.com).

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