There have been some moments on my book tour when I felt like I’m on a journey revisiting my own life. Part observer, part social commentator, and part Jewish traveler, I seem to be making stops that connect in significant ways to voyages past.
The first striking moment was the discovery that Prof. Jon Levisohn of Brandeis University would moderate at my official book launch. Jon and I were very close friends when we were 14, and the truth is that even though we have only seen each other a few times over the past 20 years, he has a very special place in my heart. During that awkward period of adolescence when it’s easy to think that nobody sees you or understands you, Jon was a patient and kind listener, and a thoughtful, intelligent conversationalist. Actually, it seems to me that he still is all those things. His friendship was healing then, and his presence at my first ever book launch was incredibly comforting. It made me feel whole. As if to say, I have been on this journey for thirty years, taking me to this place, and I stll am this same person. And by the way, the fact that we both ended up with doctorates in education makes me wonder what we were talking about during those late night conversations all those years ago.
My tour has also taken me back to the Barnard/Columbia Hillel, some 21 years after I graduated from Barnard. I spent a lot of time at the Hillel back then, when it was in what now seems like a small office in Earl Hall. I was particularly active in Columbia Students for Israel, with my friend Josh Leibowitz, z”l, and I remember many hours spent preparing all kinds of flyers and events. We used to sometimes take over the desk of then program coordinator Helise Leiberman who was nice enough to pretend not to mind. (Helise now works with Jewish students in Poland, and we recently reconnected, and are now Facebook friends of course.) We were really happy then, I think – although seeing what HIllel has become, a multi-story building of its own, the Kraft Center for Jewish Life, with an Indian-themed kosher cafeteria, alarge synagogue that does not alternate as a mosque, and lots of spacious rooms and offices for every possible occasion including four different types of prayer services, just blows my mind. The building today is used by a thousand students on campus. That’s just amazing. Still, I should say that the moment that really blew me away was when I mentioned during my session that partnership synagogues have “only” been around for ten years, realizing that for some of the students in the room, that was more than half their lives! Their reality forced me to adjust my thinking and reconsider my narrative of social change.
At one of these events, I had a very special audience member: Susan "Sooz" Goodman, my first cousin once removed, whom I had never met in person! She's a fabulous musician, and just came out with a new disk called "Live out loud". Her music is a form of activism, and she's particularly interested in promoting awarness about anti-LGBT bullying. I've been enjoying her music for many years, but we only recently started talking via email and Skype. But this week, she drove several hours to come see me, and after my talk, I went to dinner with her and her son Miles, (who is graduating next month from Tisch as an actor). It was incredible. She is just an awesome person and it was great to connect with her.
I also had an evening at Drisha, the women’s learning institution on the Upper West Side. I spent a lot of time at Drisha when I was a Barnard student, and I particularly loved the bible classes with Rabbi David Silber. I cannot read the book of Genesis or the book of Samuel without his voice of commentary running through my mind. “Everything comes back to Breishit”, he would say, and that remains true. After I graduated college, I also spent some months learning in the full-time program – and in fact last week I had lunch with one of my Drisha “chevrutas”, or study partners, Miriam Goldberg. I think I can admit today that I don’t really love learning Talmud the way the other women there did. The truth is, I think I annoyed Rabbi Silber at the time because my questions about the Talmud were always sociological. I was always looking at the stories behind the texts, the ways in which the texts reflected societal realities. I can’t help but wonder how many kids in school studying Talmud have similar experiences. Anyway, I think that those encounters may have prepared me a little bit for my path towards sociological research.
Finally, the weekend in Baltimore, staying with my friends Aaron Frank and Laura Shaw, brought me in many ways full circle. Laura was a year ahead of me at Barnard, but light years ahead of me in feminist thought and activism. I was not a feminist when I was at Barnard, despite my feminist surroundings. It took me years of experiencing life, motherhood, adulthood, for the feminist pin to drop. But I have memories of going to a “Women of the Wall” meeting at Barnard that Laura ran with passion and expertise, and I also remembered a sign she had on her wall that read, “Women are a nation.” These things stayed in my consciousness until the time was right for them to emerge. Meanwhile, Aaron had a pivotal role in the writing of this book. He was the first person to interview Orthodox men, he shared his research with me, and he taught me a lot of things about what men are experiencing. As a couple, Aaron and Laura are true leaders. Their community is lucky to have them as members, and I am lucky to have them as friends.
Anyway, I have four more events over the next week, and although I must admit that I am physically exhausted, I am also spiritually and emotionally invigorated. This has been an incredible journey. And it’s not over yet!
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at email@example.com