I was born in New York City in 1971, and spent the first three years of my life in my parents’ loft in SoHo. I only have handful of distinct memories from that early time. I remember a wonderful chest of wide, thin drawers in which my father kept his woodblock prints on delicate rice paper. I remember pushing some scrambled eggs off of my high chair. I also remember my father’s installation at Alan Stone Gallery of twenty-foot papier mache men engaged in a giant brawl. I would walk underneath the massive clenched fists and frozen-in-time scowls as if these were the furnishings of everyday life.
We moved to Connecticut when my brother was born, to a hundred-and-fifty year old home surrounded by woods, with a pond at the bottom of a little hill. In the summer my brother and I caught frogs and in the winter we went sledding and tried to stop before going into the icy pond.
Our father’s studio is attached to our childhood home. Any time of day we could stumble in to play or chase a paper airplane, usually in our socks despite our mother’s rule about always wearing shoes in the studio. At the border between studio and house, we’d try to pick all the woodchips off the bottom of our socks so we wouldn’t get in trouble with our dusty trails.
The studio is a ballroom size space filled with spikes and stakes, a landmine for children and adults. The unfinished plywood floor is so thin that parts creak and sag as you walk. There are parts of the floor actually punctured straight through to the basement, and other parts where you have to be careful not to trip over another square of plywood my father had just nailed to cover a hole, like a patch of denim on torn jeans. At my wedding when the dancing was at its peak I was afraid someone might fall through. Whenever my mother would sweep the studio floor before a party, she would end up with a pile of dust and razor blades in the middle of the room. There are dangling wires, open cans of turpentine, ridges of dried glue. There are no safety locks on the sander or the powerful ban-saw. But growing up there, I always felt warm and safe, the air buoyant with possibility, sunlight streaming through the skylights and windows in great rectangles on the raw floor.
From the minute we woke up in our bunk bed carved into the shape of a tree, under a ceiling my mother had painted sky blue with clouds, we were immersed in a creative process.
One time, I attended a lecture given by Rabbi Jerome Malino, may his memory be for a blessing, in Danbury. I raised my hand. After I asked my question, he looked at me sternly from the pulpit. He said, “You need to learn more.” Perhaps another participant would have been upset by this comment, but for me it was a challenge. I promised myself that one day I would return to him having learned much more.
I attended Wooster School in Danbury, an Episcopalian school where we attended chapel every day. I would sit and stare at the cross, listening to the stories and teachings of the chaplain, and reflect on my own beliefs. When I attended Brandeis University, I was aching to explore my heritage. In those first few months I attended services careful that I wasn’t holding the Hebrew prayer-book upside down. I spent my Junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. One of my greatest teachers was Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who shined like a prophet to me. While I was there, since it was just before the age of email, I sent daily letters home about my experiences. When I returned, I bundled my letters, six hundred pages worth, in a bit of rope and handed them to our family friend Al Silverman, who was at the time the editor-in-chief of Viking/Penguin. What he did still amazes me to this day. He took a red pen and edited the whole pile into a manuscript. A year later I had finished my first book, a novel I called “The Goat-Keeper.” Al loved the book and although it did not end up being published, his critique and encouragement was more valuable to me than I could ever express.
My senior year in college I applied to Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion to become a rabbi. I went to visit Rabbi Malino to talk to him about my decision. He said, “What do you dream about doing as a rabbi?” I spoke to him about all of my idealism, how I wanted to create community, and inspire people, and pursue justice, and do acts of loving-kindness. He then told me of a tailor who was looking for an assistant. A young man desperately needed the job. The tailor asked him, “What do you dream about?” and the young man answered that he dreamt about providing for his family, moving into a bigger home, his children robust and happy. He didn’t get the job. One day the young man said, “Last night I dreamt about stitching. Stitching and stitching and stitching.” After this he was hired right away. Then Rabbi Malino looked at me sternly as he had so many years before and said, “A rabbi learns. That is the most important thing that a rabbi does. She learns and learns and learns.” I have never forgotten this, and it is true. Not only from text, but in every encounter I have, in teaching, in counseling, in leading, I learn.
I sat next to Rabbi Malino during prayer services every Thursday while I was in seminary. He was the first person to read The Scroll of Anatiya, and I was very shy about sharing it with him, especially because the protagonist sometimes relieved her unrequited love for the Prophet Jeremiah by frolicking with trees. Rabbi Malino and I were in the elevator together when I said something insecure like, “I wasn’t sure if I should share it because I didn’t know if it was too racy or what,” and he looked at me more sternly than ever and admonished, “Don’t you ever say your writing is racy. You are a poet. Not everyone will always understand you, but you are a poet of the highest degree. You are a modern Ezekiel.” The doors opened and I was stunned. Hearing this from a man who often critiqued other students by saying, “You put a lot of fire into your sermon but you ought to have put your sermon into the fire,” was deeply moving to me.
In my third year of rabbinical school I met a classmate who had transferred from Los Angeles, Jonathan Klein. A year later we were spending the summer in Israel. One weekend we went to the Sinai desert where we climbed to the top of the alleged Mount Sinai, while the shower of Persius streaked the sky with shooting stars. At the top of the mountain, just as the sun appeared over the horizon, Jonathan asked me to marry him. Rabbi Malino was one of the rabbis officiating our wedding, and this time there was no stern look, only joy. When he pronounced us husband and wife, a breeze lifted the marriage canopy like a wing.
My first congregation was Temple Shalom in Norwalk, Connecticut, and I have been serving Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles since 2000. Along with the novel Drawing in the Dust I have written articles for numerous publications, including Harper’s Bazaar, Tikkun, Torat Hayim. A collaborative book of poetry and my father’s woodcuts is contracted to be published by David Godine Publishers. I’ve written chapters in a number of collections. I am currently editing my newest novel Whish. It is about a girl who develops the ability to understand Shame’ah, the language of the entire natural world. Once her ability is awakened, she finds herself dangerously in the middle of a secret war which has been raging since Jurassic times, of which humankind is entirely unaware. I know it sounds completely different than Drawing in the Dust, but the themes of oneness and passage of time are the same.
People often ask me is how I find time to write, between serving a large congregation and raising three children. I have thought a lot about this question, and I have concluded that it is not only about finding time. It is about being in love with the creative process, and being disciplined and faithful to the process. If you are concerned only with the finished product, you may never find the time. But if the process itself is what brings you to life, and fills you with energy and meaning, you will.
Another question people ask is whether I consider myself a rabbi first or a novelist. While the answer is clear in my heart, it is sometimes hard to speak it. I consider myself a novelist first, but this takes a bit of explaining. While God is often referred to as the “Author of All Life”, I like to relate to God as the Reader of All Life as well. Life is a love letter, written in logos deeper than language. I am a novelist first, but I don’t always compose with pen and ink, or keyboard and monitor. Rather, as a rabbi I help people compose with heartbeats and breath, identifying the myths and truths in their lives. A community is a library of timeless tales and adventures, of grief that poeticizes, often darkly, and of redemptions that fill the air with song. When I officiate life cycle ceremonies, I always feel as if I am trying to weave something strong out of delicate fibers. At weddings, I try to help build a solid foundation out of very feathery dreams. At births, I try to infuse joy and light into an entirely mysterious future. At death, I take the tiny strands of an infinitely complex life and try to thread them into something sacred. Writing and serving as a rabbi are not too different to me. In the end, it is about crafting stories, and helping people discover their grand themes and subtler metaphors. It is about offering these stories skyward to the Reader of All Life.