The Land of Counterpane

I remember a children’s poem about a little boy “sick-abed” playing with his toys over the covers in his room. I am not going to quote the poem, except to tell the reader that the name is “The Land of Counterpane,” and it is by Robert Louis Stevenson. I am fully recovered or will be tomorrow, but last week I had to go to the hospital to confirm that I had COVID-19. They told me that if I went out up past 5 days after Friday to wear a mask, but I preferred to stay indoors. For sometime it was like having a very bad cold, but I was lucky in that it was no worse than that. I certainly wasn’t dying.

I told my friends I was sick–largely through email and facebook.com–but mainly I had an excuse to frolic in the lazies… I did write Blogs and Entries, but I read less than 100 pages of The Saga of the People of Eyri; portions of a book called Great Cats; and part of the first pamphlet of Great Epics of India: Puranas. I usually read more intensely, but I forgot The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History till next week… All of this sounds like more than it is… and I watched a massive amount of TV… for some reason I couldn’t read much of the Bible–something I like to do when ill–but I did read part of Psalms…

I cooked largely TV dinners, but last night I was well enough to fry latkes. Eating latkes will constitute the only way in which I keep Chanukkah this year… I am sorry I missed watching Zelensky’s heroic speech last night.. yet I had to fix supper… So I watched clips afterwards. Because Ukraine is struggling for it’s freedom, Zelensky understands what is best about America: he understands our desire for freedom and our belief in God. I believe he even knows that there is no contradiction between the two. As de Tocqueville said–despite usually disliking the United States–in a democracy religion is unlikely to die out because it is best loved in the hearts of the “common man.”

When Trump disappears from our politics, people will find a newer, better way to worship God… not that a person cannot be Catholic or Methodist or Presbyterian or Jew, but that they will understand in the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, they can share this land with Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists without any threat of what they love dying out. And hopefully those who find themselves losing faith because of current politics will find it again…

I don’t want to believe that the younger generation will fail either American traditions or lose faith in God. And to see a model of both patriotism and faith, all they need is to look at Ukraine. In Ukraine people are dying for their country in the way Americans did in the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II–and beyond.

And I have thought about all of this–because I have been too sick to work–all of last week and this week.

The Tale of Juan the Bear

I sent two sets of short stories, Maybe the Meek Shall Inherit the Earth and Poor Folk to the agent who is selling my 4-book The Bible According to Eve. My agent has commented more on Maybe the Meek Shall Inherit the Earth. And thinking about it I think of the first (and my favorite) novella in the book, “The Tale of Juan the Bear.”

Juan the Bear is an alcoholic but I like to think that in a society free of racism, his stories might rank with Earnest Hemmingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald… as does the story of his life, perhaps. Though more reminiscent of Twain’s King or Duke than Shakespeare’s Othello or Lear, his rough edges have the effect of high drama… his alcoholism and womanizing are the Achille’s heel reminiscent of the Bard. People say they look down on these flaws in men… yet F. Scott Fitzgerald’s downfall because of his drinking (though during the last 2 years of his life he kicked the bottle) and Hemmingway’s similar fall as an alcoholic (ending in suicide) besides his extreme womanizing (6 wives) are part of their glamor.

Without people aspiring to be like them in their extreme way of living, cat lovers celebrate Hemmingway’s 6-toed cat. Similarly, Juan loves his little rufus hummingbird Ernesto. Juan comes out each morning to greet his friend while filling the hummingbird feeder. This is an expression of greatness in little things. In this way, Juan’s private ruminations with Ernesto resemble Hemmingway’s love of his many-toed cats.

Though he writes sensitively about women, Hemmingway often treated women badly in his private life. Juan had two great loves–Helene and Isabel. Helene was a girl he found who wanted to become a nun. Yet she died young, with her brothers keeping close lookout for that rascal, Juan. Yet Helene gave him a goodbye gift–a statue of the Virgin Mary, which he does not even tell his second great love, Isabel, about. Isabel was a the daughter of a Spanish general in Mexico. Isabel agreed to marry him, despite her father’s wishes… and “the general” gave them a stipend as they travelled northward to the United States. However, Isabel turned out to be something different from the meek, kind-hearted Helene. She left Juan, and ultimately would have 5 husbands in all. Yet she delivers the eulogy at her first husband’s funeral, admitting that once a woman had loved Juan, no other man would do.

All of that said, I do have a confession about Juan and Isabel and their son Benito. I had a student when I worked at Breakthrough. He was my favorite student, and when I was almost through with him, I wanted to write his life’s story. Well, his father died tragically and his mother was on her fifth spouse. So to tell a story approximating his, I got a bunch of books of Spanish and Mesoamerican folktales… and that is how I discovered Juan. I admit my student was not a storyteller. A character like Juan the Bear Diego spoke about a place where my student had never lived. His mother was the only one of his parents who was Mexican (a mestizo) and his father was German and Irish. Yet I hoped to capture my student’s essence. Eventually, I would split the book in half (the other half being “The Education of Barbara,” also in Maybe the Meek Shall Inherit the Earth).

I have high hopes for Maybe the Meek Shall Inherit the Earth and Poor Folk… and–when they are finished–Tales of the Firebird, Part 1; Oz Revisited; God’s Laughter Reverberates Sugar Loaf Mountain; In Honor of Khashoggi; and Further Tales of Opossum Creek.

Religion: Its Earthly Costs and Rewards

In this age, it could be said that Religion is met with a great deal of cynicism. Some of the reasons are not that surprising: when religious people back leaders like Donald Trump, a skeptic might ask, “If these people are supposed to speak for God, who is good, why do they support a man whom is obviously lacking in character?” Then, with COVID-19 causing death still nation why, the same skeptic might ask, “Where is God amongst all this suffering?” These are difficult questions, and sometime I will try to answer them. However, right now I want to answer two seemingly shallower questions which I have heard asked.

The first is, “With all that it costs to truly practice a religion, why should I practice it? If I must keep special diets or certain rules regarding chastity, why is it worth it to be a religious person.” Now, I know the heart of this question. As a Jew I keep Kosher, and as a Jew I keep strict laws about sex. Then there are other laws regarding Shabbat and prayers. I admit that I have never mastered the laws saying that an Orthodox person must pray three times daily. Nonetheless, when I am not sick I go to shul once a week and on Holidays. Yet what skeptics miss in all of this is “the Joy of the Law.” A person who keeps the mitzvoth they receive from their Lord achieves purity of body, spirit, and mind.

Of course, different traditions address the Joy of the Law differently. A lay Catholic may eat fish on Friday and fast during lent. A Muslim keeps Halal and fasts during the month of Ramadan. Hindus and Buddhists are supposed to be vegetarians and meditate. And of course, the clergy–even in Judaism–is called on to do more than the laity. Though Orthodox rabbis are required to be married, many faith traditions expect the opposite extreme: celibacy on the part of the priest, monk or nun. All of this is a way of giving back to God–the giver of all things. This is the “cost” of religion.

Now we come to the rewards. I recall reading a book of Jewish folktales where it describes a Jew searching for Miriam. When the Jew finds Miriam, it turns out that on Shabbat she plays her tambourine and God’s sweet music spreads throughout the world, so that wherever Jews keep Shabbat, the music overcomes them with Joy. This is God’s love for the Jewish people… In a similar story, God’s feminine part, the Shekinah, leaves God to join herself with the Jews welcoming her in as “My Bride, my Queen” every Shabbat.

The point is that by constant prayers and rigorously keeping the strictures of faith, a Jew–really, anyone–can experience the Love of God. And the Jew who experiences such in this world, will find it again in the next world. When God breathes His breath into a baby, it is constituted to love God. And if during life it does so, in the Afterlife it will be rejoined with God. It is my own personal believe that the Soul will live with God in Heaven–that this will be its’ chief reward–but in this world the person who opens their heart to God will find it filled with His love and presence.

I know that even among the devout there are nay-sayers. Martin Buber said that once he turned a friend away from his doorstep to meditate, only for that friend to commit suicide. This spiritual narcissism is possible. Yet to say that the meditation is wrong is to throw the baby out with the bath water. A person could equally claim that keeping Shabbat makes people lazy because on the day a person is forbidden to work except under dire circumstances. Yet there is no harder worker than the Jew! Traditional Jews are known both for their commitment to their prayers on Shabbat and their commitment to their work on weekdays. Just so, prayers and meditation when appropriate–when other work is done and all of a person’s social obligations met–relieve the Spirit of a heavy burden. Ironically, it is the Shabbat which teaches us the real usefulness of our faith.

This Evening Before My Birthday

This December 16 occurs the evening before Shabbat. The significance is that December 17 is my birthday. The unhappy irony is that during this time I am recovering from COVID, and however I have improved I cannot go to shul tomorrow. However, I can contemplate the meaning of the Holiday which will begin on Sunday evening: Chanukkah. True, Channukah is not really a big Holiday on the calendar the way Christmas is for Christians. It is if anything considered “assimilationist” to have a Chanukkah bush. Yet we are each supposed to light a Chanukkiah (the menorah’s correct name in Israel) each night and we have special songs to sing, and some of us include gifts in the festivities. I always make it a point to make latkes with sour cream. Ideally, the latkes go with jelly doughnuts and there is carbonated grape or apple juice to go with it.

Yet I find myself wondering the “big questions.” At one time Jews accepted the premise that a messiah would eventually come–there is no exact connection of this to Chanukkah, but still. Most of us aren’t waiting anymore; you almost have to be Orthodox to be that “extreme” in your faith. Yet in reading The Chosen by Chaim Potok, Michael’s father speaks of the idea that the non-Orthodox people of his period had that though there my not be a literal messiah there might still be an “end of history” when finally good would overcome evil… when the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed to the American public, Michael’s father puts his full energy into bringing about the State of Israel. I have often wondered if a person needs to be Orthodoxy to believe in this much: God’s place in History; the role of human beings in bringing about the Messianic Age; and the necessity of the Jewish state for all Jews until the end of times.

Yet at times I wonder about an Orthodox teaching that when everybody is good or everybody is bad, at one of those times the messiah will come. Why? Because Evil at the moment seems to have the upper hand. Looking at our politics in America, we notice that neither Republican nor Democratic Parties appear to satisfy a deep longing on the public’s part for goodness, stability, and faith in traditional values. Donald Trump is a kind of false messiah with his willingness to throw a match in the powder keg of bitter feelings on the right. Yet some of the issues that are being brought up on the left–I privately deplore the 1619 Project without wanting to be called racist–seem unlikely to win friends or influence people outside of those who already believe in them, too. I find in my politics I am “purple.” And Purple is not always a great place to be. It reminds me of an agnostic who wrote of the ancient Romans in the time of the last Roman pagans and early Christians, “I am neither above or beyond the fray” but often find given a specific issue that my feelings may be mixed or non-existent. I hope this does not give the impression of cowardly spinelessness or chameleon lack of character.

Anyway, I find that today we all seem to live in “the swamp.” I know that is a term Trump made popular only to embrace swampiness with all the fiber of his being. Yet I really imagine that corruption, especially at the top, makes this America’s second “Gilded Age”; I have my doubts about the morality of billionaires and that includes “liberal” billionaires.

That being said, I hope till my dying day I write primarily about the Middle and Lower Classes, the people I have actually known or at least known about all my life. I now know one of the great writing mistakes of my childhood was to write about the East Coast. I had never lived on the East Coast and knew nothing real about places like New York City. I needed to learn what Twain knew: a great writer can make Hannibal, Missouri sing as much as New York or London or Paris. So it is that though I did write Brazil and may try to write about that country again, I think my focus for my writing as of–well, not too long ago–will be primarily in the Midwest and South, with the largest cities being Kansas City, Chicago, and… with lots of work… New Orleans. New Orleans is a long shot, but perhaps someday I shall write a book set there… I hope to prove, however, that cities like Concordia and Emporia and smaller are just as important to humanity.

The Storm of COVID

Having COVID, however mild a variant (and mine is mild) causes a person to think about illness. If it were a worse variant than I have, I am sure my mortality would come to mind… Instead, my favorite Biblical quote about illness comes to mind,

The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity;

But a broken spirit who can bear?

Proverbs 18:14.

If a person believes that the end of illness will be either recovery of her health or being recovered by God in the afterlife, then a person shall find they can bear their infirmity. Yet suppose a person’s weakness is not merely physical? Suppose like me the person has Bipolar, and an optimistic outlook is difficult. Of course, I take pills… yet apart from the fact that there is a world outside of pills, perhaps those pills are not “enough” to recover the happiness that ordinary people supposedly have as a given?

The Bible speaks a great deal of health, but it also speaks of a “broken spirit,” and that is why one of my favorite portions of Isaiah describes a suffering servant, interpreted by Christians to be Christ himself and by Jews to be the Jewish people:

He was despised, and forsaken of men,

A man of pains, and acquainted with disease,

And as one from whom men hide their face:

He was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried;

Whereas we did esteem him stricken,

Smitten of God, and afflicted.

Isaiah 51:3-4

The servant was not esteemed, in part, because of his physical ailments. He is “acquainted with disease,” yet the more debilitating fact is of the disease itself. Only God and his servant understand the depths of human suffering. The great mystery is why God, who is good, allows illnesses from leprosy to autism to exist at all. Perhaps it is a kind of test of the healthy: can they behave humanely towards those whom are difficult to understand, or are they destined to be as cruel as Victorian society was towards the Elephant Man at one time? Surely the sick represent the “least of these” as much as children to Christians–and Jews.

Yet sickness has the potential to move the diseased closer to God. Though there have been cases where illness became a roadblock between a person towards belief or towards God, the reverse must be acknowledged. It must be recognized that to have that “broken spirit” can form an open heart with which to receive God. It is as though the soul were Noah on his Ark. The rains of suffering had pounded the world and the Ark alike, and then finally receded. Then Noah set forth the raven and next the dove to be his eyes… and discovered that life outside of the Ark had revived once more… and Noah and his family left the Ark, because the world was no longer a stormy world of woe. So COVID is like a great flood, but soon it will pass and the surviving people will leave the feelings of isolation and illness to return to the lush beauty of life on earth… and, refreshed, they will see God in the rainbow. Or so I see it… but to experience the joy, a person must first experience the brokenness of spirit of knowing about the storming outside of the Ark which we all experienced during COVID-13 and COVID-19…

“We must listen carefully to what the candles are saying.”

I have COVID and am recuperating… I have had it since Saturday, I think, and went to the hospital to be diagnosed with it yesterday or Tuesday… Because of that I have not been doing much writing. Because of that I also consider myself quarantined through half of next week, though I hope I will at some point be well enough to make latkes for Chanukkah. And because Chanukkah is coming I got an email from Chabad regarding Chanukkah. And it quoted their rebbe, Rebbe Schneerson in saying of the Hanukkiah, “We must listen carefully to what the candles are saying.” Of course, for Chabad this means moralistic religious teachings–and there is no blaming them there… but for me it is the miracle of light, and the miracle that even home sick, somehow the light is still within my grasp… I may or may not light lamps at home (I hope to) but the real light of the Hanukkiah is within a person’s heart.

It is true that to Judaism, the willingness to fulfill the mitzvoth, the love of doing the deed commanded by God, is the point of Jewish practice. Jews believe that in some sense the feelings of the heart are situated by the deeds of the doer of the mitzvoth. A person can habituate herself to be kind even if naturally she is prone towards harshness. It is like the sage Socrates when somebody commented that based on Greek science he ought to be a very carnal disposition. Yet his friends scoffed: Who was more virtuous than Socrates? Then he said, “No, it is true, I indeed have to fight my natural disposition to be virtuous.”

That said, it is a lie that Jews only believe in “works” over faith. No, a Jew without a heart is an empty instrument, unable to play the melody of human kindness. It is only that kindness does not merely come from the heart and is not merely habituated, but requires both sources. I have pondered this a long time…

When I was young I was taught Salvation by Faith… and the version I was taught was very narrow minded, not doing justice towards what is kind about the Christian religion at all… but part of what was “wrong” about it was it de-emphasized works whether average hardworking-ness and also virtues based on “habit.” I know this was not the New Testament’s intent–or I hope it is not–but after listening to my Grandma Alderson tell me that Mother Teresa “had better not believe it is for her good works that she is going to Heaven, because if she does she is going to hell,” I just never was able to recover what was Christian in me as a child. And because my dad–while believing in Grandma’s beliefs–would be the laziest man alive in so many ways–I felt I needed to get away from those beliefs for health’s sake if nothing else, and that I needed to unlearn the habits he had inadvertently taught me like sleeping late in the morning and procrastinating when I needed things done… I had to straighten out my work habits in college.

My Grandma also had a lot to say about guilt, which along with fear was at the root of her faith… and I have had to overcome that… Which is why I picked up a teaching from Process Philosophy, or what I believe to be its implications. Process teaches that God is a Creative Being first, and that God is always changing, and works through History and not just through individual lives… well, I came to the realization once: becoming a good person is a process. It is not about guilt or continual repentance, though those things do have their place… No, the idea is that when a person does a good deed they become a good person, and when they do a bad deed, they become a bad one. And if a person works on good deeds–which is what the mitzvoth are–they become godly. Unfortunately, the person who does evil therefore becomes devilish. I do not consider it important to know whether evil has a personification which exists in reality. It is only necessary to know that what is good is what a person should do and what is evil should be avoided. This is hinted at in the Talmud when it prohibits demonology. It matters little whether real demons could exist; a person should not occupy herself with evil.

Anyway, though I hope I have candles to light–I certainly have a Hanukkiah–I know that for the sick person the mitzvah is not the same as for the healthy. The healthy person goes to the synagogue to pray. The sick person stays at home, recuperating… That way the sick person does not infect others, and when she recovers resumes her normal duties… Yet while recovering, she must think of those duties. She must merely lounge as if enjoying–to the degree that it is possible–Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” or the Holy Book of the Psalms. God speaks to us through the silences of life and not just through the noise.

Searching for the Light

All this week Aunt Clara was here… and on December 8, 2022, we celebrated my 43rd birthday… At a bookstore called Eighth Day, Clara bought me 4 books and Mom bought me 3. Then we went to Barnes & Noble, where we had a snack and looked around the bookstore–but bought no books. After that we went to a restaurant, Red Rocks. It is my favorite restaurant in Wichita… I hope doing all of this was not too much stress for Mom. She commented on being tired that Thursday. Yet perhaps the most important thing about this week was how things were going business wise. One of my agents said that it would be 2 months when I had to go to New York City to sign the contract with HarperCollins. The other one said he is also talking to HarperCollins. We shall see how it goes.

The thing is that at the moment of seeing light at the end of the tunnel as an author, my mother’s mind is fading. She doesn’t always recognize me. It isn’t her fault, mind you… My older sister does not make things easier: she blames Mom for being sick.

I hope to have A History of Frances Westin Williams done in time for Mom to have it… it is a biography of my maternal grandmother, Mom’s mother. To complete my book, I need to read:

  1. Swedish history-from the Viking (The Cambridge History of the Vikings); to the Napoleonic Wars (in which I had two ancestors who fought; to the period when Swedes came to America; and the Modern History of Sweden (how Raoul Wallenberg saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.
  2. Swedish literature- beginning with Icelandic sagas (two of which involve Vikings coming to America); to Sigrid Undset’s Nobel Prize winning Kristin Lavransdatter; to Pippi Longstocking; and Selma Lagerlöf, whose The Saga of Gösta Berling won the first Nobel Prize for a woman and for a Swede. However, I prefer The Adventures of Nils and Further Adventures of Nils by Lagerlöf.
  3. I also need to read about the pioneering period (Great Grandpa liked James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and Grandma had a copy of Twain’s Roughing It); I also have my Grandma’s genealogical history typed up on my computer. One story which is purely Grandma was a History of Boston Corbet for a newspaper. Boston Corbet gained his notoriety–among other things–from shooting and killing John Wilkes Booth. Eventually he would be placed in a hospital for the criminally insane. Grandma seemed to find him quite a character…
  4. Finally, I shall reread my books about the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Pawnee, both their histories and their mythologies… I am thinking I may look into the Fox and Sac tribes, to see if they also were ever in the State of Kansas. Grandma among her things said that the tribes who had existed in the area where she was a pioneer included the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Pawnee.

The thing is that while I work on A History of Frances Westin Williams, I am haunted by Tales of the Firebird Part I. It is my writing about Russia, Poland, Ukraine, the people of Chechnya and hopefully the Baltic region. I want to write more about Central Asia, which was ruled by Russia, then the Soviet Union, and now is in danger of becoming a Russian satellites once more. However, first I will write about European Russia first because of what is going on in Ukraine… this is probably an injustice of sorts: Tajikistan and Kazakhstan ought to matter to the world as much as Ukraine… nonetheless, because of the current suffering in Ukraine, I will limit “Part I” to a book about the states which were once satellites of Imperial Russia and the U.S.S.R. Then I shall try to publish it…

Yet because Mom is ill, I feel a special need to write about Grandma. And I hope that Mom lives to see me successful as a writer: having sold several books to traditional publishers and therefore finally economically self-sufficient. That is the light of the tunnel for me.

Star of David, Shine for Me

I am thinking of the man I love, how he is so kind and brave and strong. Yet he may not know how I feel… and while I guess I am willing to tell the world, I cannot tell him. I won’t go into why I keep my affections private (trust me, they are good ones), and public (not so explicable), but since he is Jewish I wrote the following love poem for him:

I wished upon a Jewish Star
a Star of David on which my wishes
climb to the Heavens, far above
the practicalities of pragmatists.
we struggle in my mind, he and I,
like Joseph with his angel
yet the angel is a devil whose fight
leaves me in the dark of night.
Oh shining star above
cast your light on me below.

Love and (monetary) success always seem beyond me, and yet (monetary) success finally seems within my reach… I hope to have published Vol. 1 and 3 of The Bible According to Eve published at around the time Faust in Love shall be published. And I have two volumes of short works my publisher for The Bible According to Eve is also looking at: Maybe the Meek Shall Inherit the Earth and Poor Folk. Yet if success in my career is at arm’s distance, success in love… my private life is as bleak as ever…

It is funny… I believe my parents were more keen on the idea that I would put school and ultimately career first rather than romantic love… I guess it has worked out… but perhaps not as they planned: writing is the kind of career in which great success or great failure are possible. Yet Teddy Roosevelt said that the person who acquires greatness is the person who risks great failure in the hopes of great achievement. I have a friend and an aunt who dropped a full ride scholarship to get married. I have no idea why they did not go for what I took for granted was my goal: success in school first, and if Mr. Right ever came my way it was frosting on the cake.

Anyway, when I love men I write them poems. So I hope if my love comes across my poem, he will forgive my forwardness and consider asking me out.

Meeting New People

There was a time when I had a prejudice against Chassids and the Amish.  I know this is not nice to admit, but I saw them as both unfriendly and anti-intellectual.  However, this changed in my taking a class Religion in America.  The teacher wanted each of us to study a religion in America outside of the one we grew up in.  So I told him that I was raised Protestant; took some of my undergraduate education at the Catholic school; and converted to Judaism.  Anyway, the teacher recommended to me that I study Chassidism.  It was for a 40 page paper. 

            For the purpose I went to Chabad’s website.  I was surprised how friendly and accepting they were: they were perfectly open to my being a Conservative Jewish convert.  I was surprised because I had the impression that Chabad did not take converts from non-Jewish backgrounds.  However, quickly I met Bronya, and we would discuss things like the religion but also my workplace, where I celebrated Jewish holidays on the grounds that if I celebrated the Christian holidays with the members and staff, they ought to have the opportunity to share my faith, too.  Bronya was very supportive about my mental illness (Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder); my work with other mental patients; my cooking; my Judaism; my problems with my father; and my writing.  I would even cut and paste both recipes (like how to make a pumpkin pie using a real pumpkin) and my poem written below.

            Anyway, I was having a dark night of the soul a few nights back and wrote this poem—which I sent to Bronya:

Dreams—

Forever they elude me.

There is always a Mountain Peak

Higher than the one I am on.

And though my arms reach out

I cannot fly like the eagle in the wind.

Artist, Novelist, Poet, Historian—

Oh, the things I would be,

If I could do it all—

Yet my arms fall by my side

And they cannot fly like the eagle.

My dreams are forever beyond my reach.

And Bronya sent this Robert Browning quote back:

“…Ah, but a man’s reach
should exceed his grasp
Or what’s a heaven for?…”

Bronya has always understood my dreams of being a writer.  This was initially surprising to me because on the outside Chassidism is so confining to women.  Yet I did write in my paper that the problem with feminists who spoke of Chassids is that they spoke for Chassidic women: they never bother ask the women what they wanted for themselves.  Feminism, though right that Chassidic men are the ones who traditionally spoke for Chassidism, assumed that Chassidic women must necessarily see their religion as oppression based on this fact.  I felt that this was misguided.  I felt that it was possible that what feminists ought to do is ask Chassidic women what they wanted—inside their community or outside it—based on the recognition that Chassidic women might get something positive out of their faith, conservative though it is.

            My own idea for such a project—which I hope to pick up someday—is the idea that the folk stories and traditions of Chassidic women could be written down.  The Grimm Brothers pioneered interviewing mostly women for their tales: 2/3 of their stories were told to them by women.  This means that for their own age, the Grimm brothers might even be considered feminists.  More, two women in their interviewee group went on to write books in German which they published.  Alas, I do not recall the names of these two women and am too lazy to look it up.  However, the book this information is in is Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales.  I recommend it to any person interested in the Grimm Brothers; folklore; women; or German literature.  However, it strikes me though books in Jewish folklore exist, they are not read enough… and also though there are many books of Chassidic folktales, they are mostly books of men only, with Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust written with a mixture of the male and feminine perspective. 

            Yet knowing Bronya personally has proved to me that Hassidism has made positive contributions to Judaism, and will continue to do so.  I will probably never be a Chabadnik but I appreciate them as friends.  And—believe it or not—while eating at Yoder, Kansas I met my first Amish person with a similar experience.  He was such a sweet person!  And he was selling antiques, one of which I bought—a model ship cast in iron.

On Reading Betty Freidan

It has been a long time since I read The Feminine Mystique. I don’t always connect well with feminism in general with its emphasis on sexual “freedom” and its occasional anti-religious tone in the cases of some feminists. In those dreams I have had of love, I have never wanted more than one man–and I wanted him to be my husband or fiancé. I had a friend in California who said that to feel pain when you break up when you had sex with them it was Nature, “but you have to fight Nature on it.” I admit part of my chastity belt is that I do not date a lot, and I don’t know that premarital sex is always wrong. Yet I always wished whoever my first sexual partner would be my last. It is not wholly accidental that I have never had a lover and sometimes fear I shall never have one.

Yet I was moved by something Freidan said: she thought women needed more than romantic fulfillment to be happy. That was part of why she said the myth of the happy housewife was just that: a myth. Having never been married I can’t say I had the opportunity to be a housewife–happy or others.

Despite this I like Freidan’s emphasis on their being a “Me” which is part of my reason-for-being. I do not want my life to revolve around another human being’s, no matter how wonderful he is. And I think that a woman’s desire to work for herself is how Betty Freidan defined that “Me.”

I find my “Me” which is my reason for being in my writing… True, my writing is often about social, cultural, moral, religious and even political issues. To find self-actualization in things as diverse as Judaism and politics is an odd thing. Yet I believe there is something at once personal and transcendent about writing that is the antithesis of slogans like “the Personal is Political.” I believe, by contrast, in that quiet, private space where “I” can exist freely and spontaneously.

This space is like the Self is when a Jew prays or when the non-Self is when a Buddhist meditates. It is the reaching after spiritual and existential truths. When a person is in this space, other people cease to exist, so overcome with love does the Self feel. God breathes a second soul into the person.

Of course, not all writers are religious nor all writing so either. There have–obviously–even been atheist writers. Yet for me writing is a religious vocation, and the true author’s profoundest Truths are written in her books. I don’t know if I shall ever find romantic love. Yet I know I have God’s love. And I know in my vocation as writer, I finally can say I have a career.

I believe that Betty Freidan wanted–whether or not she was personally religious or spiritual–each woman to live for herself. It wasn’t just a husband or a family that would make her happy, but the sense she lived her life for herself. I believe Betty Freidan was right or almost right about this. I also believe that in this sense even a nun could be convincing as a feminist, as a woman who loves without romantic or filial attachments–by which I mean she has no husband or children at all… and yet is happy.