Major Project: What Makes a Jewish Author: Writing, Identity and Place (2018)

By October 21, 2018 June 26th, 2019 Bnei Mitzvah, Major Papers

The following essay about Jewish writers was written by Isabel Lubinsky, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

As a writer, I am very influenced by my personal beliefs as well as issues I notice going on in the world around me. Throughout the past two years, I have read books about the Holocaust and immigration to the Lower East Side by authors who have connected their writing to their values and Jewish identity. For my Major Project, I wanted to follow in their path. So I set myself the challenge to write a short story that encompassed my values and my identity as a Humanistic Jew and explore if there was any relationship between them.

When it comes to the environment, I think writing is a powerful way to bring about change. However, producing a piece of writing that is identifiably “Jewish” was a little less familiar, so I needed to do some research. To do this, I started by reading books written by Jewish authors and books that dealt directly with Jewish themes. One of these stories was Maus, which is a series of graphic novels about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman. In this work Jews are shown as mice, and the Nazis as cats. This symbolized the power dynamic of the Holocaust. I also read short stories by Grace Paley and Philip Roth and two novels illustrating different experiences during the Holocaust, titled, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. In these books, the authors all weave in values of their own. Bravery, determination, and the value of remembering and retelling the past are all present in these books and short stories.

It was from reading these works that I got the idea to write a period piece depicting a day in the life of a 12-year-old Jewish boy growing up in the Lower East Side during the early 1900s.  To get an idea of what life was like then, I visited the Tenement Museum.  What I found out was that life for a poor immigrant in New York City at the turn of the century was very hard. For the first time in history, people had to spend their lives in an environment of smog, grime and pollution.  My first short story, begins depicting an urban jungle, completely devoid of any plants or trees.

 

“The streets were alive. Bustling with annoyed New Yorkers, anxious to attend their day to day business. Their clothes still damp and smelling of salt from the recent passage to America. The constant droning of the ever-present city noise buzzed and the street wagons made their way over the stone pavement. The yelling of local sellers advertising their goods only added to the commotion. From afar I am sure one could be reminded of ants filing out of the nest to prepare for a day’s work. But New Yorkers, those living in the Lower East Side in particular, were not as courteous as I imagined ants to be. The jumble of rushing people differed greatly from what would be a single file line of marching ants. Every so often, a particularly frustrated person would give a great shove at the crowd in front, and they would all fall to the ground like dominos. It was actually quite amusing to watch.”

 

While everyone else is busy “living,” it is only the main character, who stops to observe his surroundings:

 

“On this humid August Friday the sun managed to break through the depressing grey clouds that littered the sky, and illuminated the sidewalk with shafts of golden light. Though people down below didn’t seem to notice this awesome natural beauty, and continued on with their daily lives, but it is often that way. It is hard to find a person who truly just stops and stares at a sight, pausing for a moment to take in the glorious wonders of the world.

I looked up. The crisp scent of morning was gone, and replaced by the rumbling and sputtering of impatience. The pure, light sunlight that was once smiling down on us, had turned to the pestering, insistent yellow of the afternoon. Over the veil of fog that was threatening to engulf the city, the pointed tops of the buildings were barely visible. It was a pretty good view from the Lower East Side. I remember coming up to the roof just as the sun was rising, watching the early morning light kiss the city. Watching it trace its fingertips over the entire city, gently nestling light into even the smallest nooks and crannies. Watching it lick its finger to wipe away the night, and in its place smudging light the color of pale, smiling, purple flowers. Until the most questionable alleyways, the ones that caused people to quicken their step, became just alleyways. Until the whole city grinned.  I always marveled at the way skyscrapers glistened and shone like diamonds when the sun reflected off of them. It was like tiny fractions of the sky stuck to the building, so bright that on especially sunny days I have been forced to lower my head.”

In making these illustrations, I am trying to highlight how often people forget to take the time to stop and appreciate the world around them.

In the final scene of the short story the main character has to get a job to support his family. This was something I learned from the Tenement museum and is reflective of the period. Even observant Jews sent their children to work on the Sabbath.  As I wrote in the story:

I was blinded by the sunshine of childhood. But now, not even the smell of pickles and the smiles of the vendors could cover up the stench of sewage and rotting garbage. Not even the fresh morning scent could wash away the grey that seemed to define this place.

 

I bent down and picked a piece of fabric out of the dump, holding it up so the light shone through it. I stuffed the cloth triumphantly into my pocket and continued searching. This tedious process of picking out cloth from the dump did have a purpose. I liked to think of it as a mission. Pick up as many pieces of fabric as possible, then return it to the factory so that it could be turned into something. And I got paid!

 

Walking home from my “mission” it hit me. Like getting the breath knocked out of you after being punched in the stomach. It was late Friday afternoon, almost Shabbat. Instead of dashing home, I let the realization sink in. I scuffed my feet against the sidewalk, kicking small stones and watching them roll lazily into the road, before slowly coming to a halt, teetering and then falling, lying in the street. I hung my head. When I was little we used to celebrate Shabbat. If I try, I can still remember the smiling faces of my parents and siblings, flickering in the candle light.

 

Here the protagonist is mourning the loss of Shabbat that he used to observe. An unexpected discovery however, brings him back to the present, full of gratitude for life:

 

“Despite the exhaustion I had a sudden urge to do something I hadn’t done for a long time. As if in a daze I climbed the fire escape to the roof. Before taking the final step, I looked out onto the city, the sun had almost vanished behind the buildings, leaving the sky a warm orange glow. A comfortable blanket before the darkness of the night. I stepped onto the roof, and stood there for a moment before walking to the middle and sitting down. I sat down and began fiddling with something, my attention elsewhere. I looked down to see a green stalk wrapped around my fingers. In my shock and amazement, I pulled my hand away from the plant. I looked closely and saw that the plant emerged from a small crack in the roof, its roots going down into the ceiling of what could have been someone’s house. It was rare to find a spot of green in this desert of factories and brick buildings. I looked out on the horizon half expecting all the buildings to be coated in green leafy plants, but they were still the same, comprising but three colors, black and white and brick. I looked down at the plant once again, the veins in each leaf fingerprinted delicately onto the fabric- like green. I smiled, and made my way down the fire escape again, looking out at the city for the last time before the night fell. I thought of the hidden plant, and suddenly the city didn’t seem so grey. Actually, it seemed bursting with life that I was just yet to discover.”

 

In this short story I have tried to create a world dominated by industrialization and urbanization. Against this background, the protagonist, a young Jewish boy, manages to find beauty in the world around him, but only because he stops and takes the time do so.

But how does all this relate to Judaism? In undertaking research I was pleased to discover, that like I do, the Jewish tradition places a high importance on the environment –  and its conservation. From Reform to Orthodox – every Jewish denomination is environmentalist. Their stance on the environment is guided by the Torah – which states that humans should be good stewards of the earth and protect and conserve it.  For example, there is a Jewish law in the Torah that prohibits wasteful consumption and promotes conservation. It is based on Deuteronomy 20:19-20:

“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.”

According to the Torah, when we waste resources we are violating the mitzvah (commandment) of Bal Tashchit (“Do not destroy”). This law teaches us to value our resources and also shows that we should conserve our supplies and take care of them.

Another law in the Torah which also promotes environmentalism is the ritual of Shabbat. Once a week, observant Jews limit their resources. They do not drive and walk to attend synagogue. They do not cook, shop, or turn on lights or appliances. By doing so, they are reminded that our resources are finite and to consider the value of them. Although my family does not observe Shabbat in the traditional sense, we do take time to rest by reading and relaxing in the park.  And I have learned that in Judaism, this is what Shabbat is all about. The word “Shabbat” comes from the root Shin-Bet-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest.  I think that observing Shabbat in this way encourages environmentalism because once a week you can slow down and appreciate nature. It gives you great sense of awe and you realize the world is a precious resource and not just a place for us to use.

However, I think that the most important teaching in the Torah that has to do with environmentalism is Tikkun Olam, which means that the responsibility for fixing the world is in our hands and it is one of my values. During this bat mitzvah process I have come to learn that this teaching is not only a major theme in modern Jewish social justice theology, it is of particular importance in Humanistic Judaism. The idea that we are the ones who must fix the earth goes hand in hand with environmentalism. Learning these teachings has helped strengthen my own environmentalism and my appreciation for Judaism. I believe that repairing the world is our responsibility and as you heard in my values paper, activism is a big part of my family life. I choose to write because I want people to take something away from my writing, to not only want change, but to create change. In another short story I wrote, I look at the future. I depict a dystopian future set in 2116 at a time when no trees exist. In my second story, the protagonist is a leader who decided to destroy the last tree on earth.

 

“They had asked me if I was sure. If I was positive I wasn’t making some awful mistake. I said yes. Held my head up and nodded, not a note of hesitation infiltrating the egoistic confidence. And they began. They started with the trees. They pulled them up, their roots reaching down for the soil. Begging to be returned home. But their pleas were ignored, they were not returned. The last forest that had graced our world turned into housing departments for our overcrowded population. I didn’t even look away as the trees were broken down piece by piece. I had watched it all, an expression of grim satisfaction plastered on my face. Next came the grass. The protests of nature were drowned out by the mechanical groans, louder than any swarm of bees. Then concrete was left, untouched. No child came out to carve their initials, or press their hands into the grey substance before it hardened. I had overseen the whole process. Up until the very last apartment had been purchased.”

 

This excerpt shows the main character’s conflict about the decision he made. In the next scene the protagonist reflects on what could have been. I wrote:

 

“I remember long ago imagining what it would be like if people enjoyed spending time in the open air. Long ago I had questioned the very system upon which our society was solely based. I had pondered what it would be like to feel the rough bark under my skin. To sit in the shade of a tree, which bent over to whisper secrets in my ears. To feel the ripple of grass under bare feet, or the strongest gust of wind in all of nature’s fury. To feel the soft patter of rain upon a face turned upwards. Staring into the stormy clouds, and laughing at the rumble of thunder. Laughter is music that I rarely hear anymore. To feel the sunlight smiling down upon me, or the moon grimacing as night turns to day. Or most of all, to feel air. Real air. Not artificial air. But, the crisp morning air. Infused with the dew drops that cling desperately to blades of grass. The air that you savor that taste of, rather than just quickly exhaling. Air pure enough to taste. A scent of pure joy. The air that you breathe for the love of it, rather than for the need to survive.”

 

My goal for this scene of the story is to illustrate how different the world would be without nature. The story ends with a mysterious package delivered to the protagonist. The main character begins:

 

“I peered into the box, and in my shock almost dropped the precious container. I pulled out a tiny plant delicately placed in a small cream-colored pot. The green leaves, brighter than any color I have seen in years, stood out in the room of pale, white walls, like a light in the darkness. I gently touched a leaf and felt the veins run through the fabric- like material. I felt the soil. The plant had been recently watered.

 

This small plant was the only semblance of life left in this colorless world. It was a life vest in a violent sea. The eye of a hurricane, or the shelter from the storm. But no, I had gotten rid of the trees and plants in the first place. There was no way to go back in time, and besides, I had helped our nation. Supported those in need of housing, and a place to live. Our overcrowded population needed a solution, and ridding us of that forest benefited everyone. The forest had not provided us with anything worth saving, and we had no reason to let it remain on the land we needed.

 

I left the plant on the desk, and picked up the box, preparing to throw it out, when a slip of paper fell onto the cold floor. I reached down to pick it up, clasping the small scrap of paper in the palm of my hand. I unfolded the plain piece of paper, fascinated that such a small object could hold such a new level of curiosity. My eyes move along the paper as I process the words and their meaning.

 

‘This is the last of its kind. I have placed the fate of this beauty of nature in your hands. Maybe if you choose to do what is best for this earth we can possibly undo some of the terrible acts you have committed against this planet. We can possibly bring back the joy and awe that this small plant brings to us. Maybe we can reverse what has gone wrong in our history.

I felt my stomach twist in guilt. Emotions that I had worked hard to forget arose, this time stronger, and demanding acknowledgment. In the back of my mind I felt a hint of anger at allowing myself to do such a thing. This person – whomever they were – had just voiced the fear that I had kept locked away for so long.

 

This is when I realized what a terrible, irreversible mistake I had made. ’

 

This story projects a worst-case scenario of what could happen if people do not protest against deforestation, support efforts to end global warming, and to begin to value our environment.

 

In this final project I set out to comment on values important to me through creative writing. Discovering that I share certain values with Judaism has not only strengthened my own environmentalism but also my appreciation for my Jewish heritage. In writing a story set in the past, I have gained a greater understanding of how issues threatening our environment have evolved. By creating a dystopian vision of the future, my hope is that people will realize that we have to take action in the present. Writing, in my opinion, is one of the most powerful way to evoke deep feelings about an issue and to bring about change.