Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My Fifty-Second Year

My wife urges me to play “52” on the lottery. Because this is your lucky year, she says. Your first novel is being published. Your musical comedy,The Gringo Who Stole Christmaswill be performed at Proctors Theatre in December. Your blog appears twice a week on the Times UnionCommunity Blog site. You fixed the snow blower all by yourself, and kept the driveway clear without paying someone else to do it.
Not so fast, I counter. Who says anyone will buy my book beyond my family and friends? So far Amazon ranks it 200,000 among books in terms of sales. The ranking is the same as the population ofAkron, Ohio. The play is $70,000 and nearly a year away from a performance. And the Times Union, while widely read in the capital region, is surely noNew York Times.
You are your worst enemy, she says. You will sabotage the good things. I search her voice for irony. Finding none, I remind her I’m on the bottom rung of a very tall ladder. I picture gazing up at the well-worn soles of thousands of respected authors before me. Ernst Hemingway. Philip Roth. Lorrie Moore. Tennessee Williams. Plenty of writers like me have clasped the first rung and climbed no higher. Plenty of writers like me have clung to the first rung and fallen off.
My wife insists I shoot the lock off my wallet and play the lottery when the jackpot hits $52 million. But the publisher of my novel is small, I counter. I am like a vacuum cleaner salesman, going door-to-door to book stores to get them to stock my book. I remind her the play I wrote needs money and actors. My Times Unionblog appears in the Lifestyles category, near gardening tips and dating adventures, an uncertain platform for an author’s literary debut.
My wife urges me to look at the greater fabric of my life. How the first reviews of my novel on Amazon are all positive. How I wrote my new comedic musical in collaboration with Alex Torres, a well-known known musician and composer, and a reputable director and producer have climbed aboard – a step up from my last play, performed for my daughter’s sixth grade class. How auditions are being held this week to pick a cast. How the Times Union has tripled the number of people who see my posts compared to when I used Blogger.
I remind her that my book is merely one of hundreds of thousands of new books hitting the market each year. A lot of perfectly good books have fallen to the wayside. Gone up in smoke. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I say, purposely using clich├ęs to demean my profession.
My wife is fed up. Take out the garbage, she suggests. Do something useful instead of wallowing in self-pity. I grow defensive but hold back. Fortunately, it’s morning, and I feel positive about life. Then, like clockwork, around 11:30 a.m. the bottom drops out. By mid-afternoon I’m inconsolable. Everything turns dark. I wrack my brain for answers. Low blood sugar? Did my body digest that donut too fast? By mid-afternoon I am performing mental self-torture. My writing sucks. I have no new ideas. I’m not going anywhere. My life is a waste.
Then my brother emails me that he read my book, which he pre-ordered. He said he laughed out loud on the airplane. His wife laughed out loud at the dentist’s office. I feel better. After all, my novel is meant to be funny. I feel like jumping up and down and celebrating. I’ll hang on another day. Or at least a few more hours. I check my wallet and spy a wad of dollars. Maybe they add up to $52. Maybe there’s a lottery ticket out there with my number on it. Perhaps the jackpot’s closing in on $52 million.
Hey, you never know.
David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everything, which will be published in March and is available for purchase now on AmazonHis author events this spring are in Saratoga, Brooklyn, and Long Island. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

My First Two Five-Star Reviews!

I'm honored to say my novel, which hits bookstores next month and is now available on Amazon, has received its first five-star reviews! It's been a long journey for me (emphasis on long), and to see this reaction makes me feel like everything is worth it. Here's the Amazon link. And if you purchase from Amazon, please leave a customer review! The link:

Feeding My Soul, and Others, at the Meatloaf Kitchen

Sometimes I need a refresher course in humanity. I see the ragged people walking around Saratoga Springs with their canes, sitting forever in the nook tables at the library. I categorize them in the mental file called: People whose eyes I avoid. There’s an overweight man dressed in layers with a shopping cart who spends a lot of time on a bench on Division Street. I make a wide berth. I think: Get a job.
We have a tendency to file into simple categories people who are different, whose lives we don’t understand. Each time my mind leapfrogs to those thoughts I become a little less human. On Saturday I regained a bit of humanity, revisiting a soup kitchen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for the first time in twenty years.
I caught a bus down from Albany to New York City for a few days and showed up around 9:30 a.m. for the morning shift at the University Community Soup Kitchen, which serves up equal portions of hot food and dignity to those in need of both, in a restaurant-style setting.
I broke down some personal class barriers I’d erected in the interim I’d been away, reopening a place inside that has been under lockdown during my suburban life in upstate New York.
I poured coffee for dozens of down-and-out folks. They said thank you again and again. I chatted in basic Spanish with a nice Cuban man. I tried to talk people into less sugar in their coffee. “Four teaspoons,” several said. “Five,” one said. We laughed about it, though the word “diabetes” flashed through my brain. I handed out peanut butter and jelly slathered across slabs of bakery bread. They eagerly took them and said thank you again. We had no deep discussions, just simple friendly interactions.
I spent an hour spreading frosting and slicing cakes donated by area bakeries. I collaborated with young volunteers who were optimistic, hard-working, and eager to help. I felt if this was the future of the world, then perhaps, after all, we’re in OK shape.
The Meatloaf Kitchen, as it’s known affectionately by locals, has a special place in New York City. Guests come by the hundreds every Saturday, shuffling up in worn shoes, sleep-deprived and destitute. By foot, bicycle, and subway, from as far away as the Bronx, they make their way to the Lower East Side, and check their indignities at the door.
Sure the meatloaf’s to die for, and the coffee’s hot and fresh. You can’t beat the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – or the price: nothing. But these ragged folks also come for something else. Respect. A smile from the waitress. Friendly words from fresh-faced volunteers.
This past Saturday, volunteering after twenty years away, I took some nourishment there myself.
photo (55)A friend of mine who manages the place, Steve, who used to be my editor at The Associated Press when I worked there in the 1990s, had encouraged me to revisit and help out. Something inside me was ready. It was time to re-lower the barriers, I knew. To rediscover that the people I often step around are in fact human beings.
It was a needed homecoming. For a period of ten years in my life, in the 1980s and early 1990s, I served meatloaf on Saturdays to down-and-out folks here. At the time the University Community Soup Kitchen was run in the basement of a church several few blocks from its current location. After serving hundreds of people and cleaning up the place, a bunch of us would head out tired but exuberant and eat out at a nearby Italian restaurant, Frutti de Mare, or Kiev, the Ukranian joint. Then we’d play pool and drink cold beers. We’d often see the people we served wandering the streets, and exchange a friendly glance or a few words with them.
The kitchen was started in 1982 by two university professors at a time of explosive homelessness on New York City streets. They had a unique idea—to provide not just a hot meal but an oasis from cold streets. A place where the destitute could replenish their bodies and dignity. A restaurant without a cashier, where the volunteers would eat the same food they served to guests.
“We try to duplicate a restaurant situation with one exception—no cashier,” Steve said, addressing a group of two dozen volunteers Saturday, during a break in the morning shift. “If you’re walking in today and someone says the meatloaf isn’t cooked enough, we’ll take it back. We only serve food in a manner we’d want to be served in.”
Acceptance works both ways. Steve related to me a story. He was riding home early one morning on the No. 1 train, on the Upper West Side, far from the soup kitchen.  “It was about 1 a.m. and I was tired and I’d had a few drinks so I was kind of nodding off, when I saw a group of shady looking men get on the train.  I was worried at first, and started to think whether I should get out at the next stop.  But, in a couple of seconds I recognized them as members of a Doo-Wop group who were regular soup kitchen customers, and who even sang for us at our annual volunteer appreciation party a couple of years earlier.”
They were preparing to sing when they noticed Steve. The leader stood up and announced to everyone in the car,  “Hi everybody, we’re going to sing for you in a minute, but first I want to introduce Steve, here, who runs the Meatloaf Kitchen downtown, where you can get a great hot meal every Saturday.  We’d just like to say thanks to Steve and all the volunteers at the kitchen and sing this song for them.”
They launched into an old favorite from the 60s.  It left Steve both embarrassed and happy. “I saw that we really do make a difference in people’s lives, and they remember us for it.”
As for the other subway passengers, well, they just looked down of course, and tried not to be noticed, just like any other time.  “I didn’t care.  It made my night,” Steve said.
In addition to working at the soup kitchen, David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March and is available for purchase now on KindleHis author events this spring are in Saratoga, Brooklyn, and Long Island. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Debunking the Reality of My Fiction

My new novel is the opposite
in many respects of my life
on which it's partly based
As my novel The Opposite of Everything marches toward publication – it hits bookstores on March 11, and became available to Kindle users this week — I’d like to get a couple things off my chest.
I never wore a nose ring or pierced my skin for decorative purposes.
I never went Gothic.
My father never pushed me off a bridge, even accidentally.
My mother does not speak in a Yiddish accent and embraces my wife’s Hispanic culture.
My wife and I never tried to conceive a baby at my father’s home with his help.
My father supported me during my health and marital problems, and showed up for my police showdown with my first wife – the opposite, in some ways, of how the father character is depicted in my novel.
At my second wedding, I never canceled the caterers, never corralled guests to help cook, and never replaced the priest with Buddhist monks.
I hate heavy metal music.
I could go on with this list for a long time. Because it turns out that my novel, The Opposite of Everything, is the opposite in many respects of my life on which it’s partly based.
All fiction writers draw from real-life experiences for material, some more than others. But novelists with a rich past are in a particular bind.  Like me. Back twenty years ago, in one week flat, I learned I had cancer and required surgery to remove my thyroid, lymph nodes, and a sliver of trachea. As all this was happening, my first marriage fell apart.
Writing about one’s own troubles can be overwhelming. You’re forced to revisit all the ways life hurt you and those around you. Lots of writers do it, of course – bookshelves and Amazon are crammed with tear-extracting cancer memoirs. But my own temperament is different. When I first sat down to write, I couldn’t stomach reading back my own words. The words “predictable” and “melodramatic” sprang to mind. Too many sentences sounded sappy. My characters felt like stick figures manufactured to highlight milestones on my journey.
My life felt too hot to handle. So I distanced myself from it. I told the story in third-person. I replaced real names with offbeat ones (“I” became Daniel Plotnick).  I searched for humor in tragedy, stretched truths for dramatic effect, and made characters do crazy things their real-life counterparts would never consider.
In reality, for instance, my first wife had a predictably strong reaction to my diagnosis of cancer. With no treatment on the horizon, she supported me in her own way. One thing she did was buy several pounds of green tea, touting the benefits of anti-oxidants to keep me healthy. For my novel, I amped up her reaction. She shops in a panic at the health food store. Bursts through the door laden with groceries. “Handfuls of dark green leaves. Flax. Wheatgrass. A vial of primrose elixir. Pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, dried pomegranate. The kitchen filled up with the ripe odor of vegetables and nuts and fruit on the verge of turning. Plotnick gazed back down at the crossword puzzle to divert his attention from the hub-bub, but a large Kale leaf now blocked the Across clues.”
In reality, my first wife gained some weight amid our craziness. But for the novel, the wife character gains a lot. As a writer, I upped the ante. Troubled by his wife’s weight gain, Plotnick goes Gothic. In a climactic scene, he walks drunkenly through the door dressed in his black duds and stumbles across her as she binges on premium ice cream.
Of course, I face the danger that readers will see more in my book than actually’s there. Here’s the question that strikes fear in my heart – and in the hearts of all novelists mining their personal past: Nice book, but why did you make me look so bad?
So when the question came to me last year from someone I won’t name, my gut felt sliced open like a watermelon. But I’m just doing my job as a fiction writer, I thought.
So consider this blog post my effort to make a point of clarity. To pre-emptively answer any questions that might come up. Toward that end, I hereby reprint the first paragraph of my Acknowledgment from my novel:
 “This book is a work of fiction, pure and simple. As fiction authors do, I drew for material from my own experience, and went to town with it. My overriding goal was to create a fully realized story, rich with drama, comedy, and a narrative arc. Toward that end, the characters I invented to populate my story are precisely that – invented. Any perceived resemblances to real people are coincidental to my goals as a novelist.”
That said, I will always mine my past for material. Currently working on a second novel, and a musical comedy The Gringo Who Stole Christmas, which will be performed at Proctors in December, I stretch things for impact. I look to situations where comedy reveals painful truths about dying, broken hearts, and busted dreams. I free myself from the shackles of facts. As long as I am able, I’ll write my way out of this pickle I’m in.
David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March and is available for purchase now on Kindle. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Never Stop Dancing

Mary Flynn with my wife, Dr. Ingrid Bermudez
The first time Mary Flynn rode a motorcycle was thirty-five years ago. She was hooked by the feeling of freedom. The cool wind through her hair. The tug of acceleration. If she had a bad day she’d just get on her bike and ride, shaking the cobwebs from her head. Right from the start, Mary was a biker chick. Even today, after everything that’s happened, she thinks of herself as one.
The last time Mary Flynn rode a motorcycle was August 10, 2013. It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon under blue skies. Warm wind washing her face, Mary, 61, roared down the road on her black 2012 Harley Davidson Sportster 1200, headed to her sister’s house in Halfmoon. She was in a good mood, having just painted the trim on a room in her house where her grandkids slept when visiting. Mary looked forward to lounging by her sister’s pool and catching up with a friend visiting from Florida.
About 100 feet from her sister’s driveway, Mary slowed—the speedometer read 28 mph, she later recalled. A gray pickup truck moved up a side road toward her, but she wasn’t too concerned. “I said to myself, ‘that’s alright, he has a stop sign.’”
But the truck didn’t stop. Her Harley plowed into it. Mary flew into the air across two lanes of road and landed on the pavement on other side, rolling into a culvert. Her leg was just about severed. She’d broken her shoulder, all her ribs, chipped her hip bone, tore her spleen. She had tendon sticking out of her fingers.
She was bleeding heavily as “severely ungodly pain” ripped through her.

It had been a tough few years for Mary. In 2010, she lost her husband to esophageal cancer. They’d married when she was fifteen years old and he was 19, and of course they both rode bikes. His last few years of life she’d taken care of him and watched him die.
After her accident, a cruel irony welled up in Mary. She lost her husband on August 13, 2010. She lost her leg on August 10, 2013.
The dates helped her understand some deeper purpose at work.
“I figured if I could make it through my husband’s death and take care of him for so many years,” she says, “I could handle this.”
The road that gave Mary her freedom had taken it away. And she knew she had to claw her way back to regain it.
Mary lay in the culvert, drifting in and out of consciousness. At one point she looked up from her broken body and saw the driver of the pickup truck, an elderly man, staring at her. She begged him to call 911 but he just stood there. Was he in shock? Somehow, she managed to throw her motorcycle helmet up in the road, hoping someone would see her.
helmet1A woman heard her screaming and a man who’d been driving the opposite way came back. There was a younger boy with a belt, and the man and woman cinched Mary’s leg with it, both pulling tightly to stop the bleeding.
As they waited for an ambulance, the woman talked with Mary, trying to comfort her. But Mary felt herself drift. She felt herself floating above her body, looking down.
Don’t let go. Stay awake, she told herself.
Lying there in pieces, she thought of her grandsons, 12-year-old Josh and nine-year-old Michael. How she wanted to be there for them. Play ball with them again.
The ambulance driver and police officer couldn’t believe she was still coherent. But she was determined not to let go, even through the unbearable pain.
When I interviewed Mary last week, six months after her accident, the first thing I noticed is how cheerful she was. A patient of my wife’s, Mary rolled up to me in her wheelchair after her medical appointment, smiling. A pretty woman with short blond hair and stylish glasses, she was neatly dressed in a sweater. Her earrings were silver crosses. The stump of her right leg is covered with a silicon cap to protect the skin.
“I wanted to walk in here for Doctor Bermudez,” she said of my wife, apologetically, as I jotted notes in a small pad. “But I’ve been using the prosthesis so much, I rubbed my skin raw. I was way too excited. I had my hallway worn out.”

Mary had hoped they could save her knee. After passing out in the emergency room at Albany Medical Center, she woke up many hours later and saw her daughter, Michaele Ann, and her sister. Mary looked down and saw half her leg was gone. But the knee was still there. Through the fog of painkillers, she felt hopeful.
After two surgeries and six pints of blood, however, too much tissue had died to save the knee. Doctors removed the knee in a third operation. At Sunnyview Rehabilitation in Schenectady, she learned how to get around in a wheelchair, in and out of bed. Because of her fast progress, they kept her only a few days. “I was bound and determined to do everything I could myself. I didn’t want to be an invalid.”
Mary lived with her daughter, Michaele Anne, for two-and-a-half months. She sold her 2011 pickup truck because she couldn’t drive and couldn’t afford the $600 monthly payments.
The thing that got to her was her loss of independence. “I felt like I was never going to play ball with my grandsons again. I used to ride dirt bikes with them.”
One day her grandsons asked to see her stump. She was nervous about it, but when they peeked under the sheet they reacted OK. They wanted to help her. “Do you need more bandages?” they’d say, offering to grab them off the shelf or table. “I felt relieved,” Mary said. “They took it a lot better than I thought.”
Last October, her friends and family held a fundraiser, to help Mary pay the medical bills, at the American Legion hall in Mechanicville. Some four hundred people showed up, just about all of them bikers. Her daughter, Michaele Ann, who sings in a rock band, serenaded her mother. Her mother was in a wheelchair as Michaele Ann danced around her, singing lyrics.
On Facebook, where they posted a video of the pair dancing, a friend left the comment: “Nothing holds Mary Flynn down. NOTHING.” “Three months after the accident, and look at her!”
“Never stop dancing,” a third wrote.
Screen shot 2014-02-17 at 9.52.55 AMShe was fitted with a prosthesis and taught by the therapists to walk with it. It was a complicated leg with a computer chip in it. It cost $70,000, and Mary had to pay $11,600 of it.
She’s hoping to be proficient by spring. Day doesn’t go by now that Mary doesn’t think about the extra Harley Davidson still sitting in her garage. It’s a 2006, a big bike, and she used to take her two grandsons on it. She biding her time. A little more practice on her new leg, she’s gonna give it an whirl.
Because even after everything she’s been through, Mary is still a biker chick. She getting back her independence. She still has her own home, and though she can’t ride right now, she knows she will soon.
She’s prepared for anything. One worry is that the big bike might fall on her $70,000 leg, damaging it. Her Plan B is to ride a “trike”—a three-wheeled motorcycle.
“I will be riding a Harley Davidson again,” she says, with a hopeful smile. “I just don’t know if it’s the one I have at my house.”
David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March. His author events this spring are in Saratoga, Brooklyn, and Long Island. Click here for more information.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Of Crabgrass, and Letting Go

As I stare out the window at our frozen backyard, bracing for yet more white stuff to fall, I think of what lies beneath. I think of our patchy lawn. Crabgrass, sleeping in seed.
For now it remains buried under layers of snow. But one day soon, spring will come. It always does. And the crabgrass will spread across our half acre of lawn like a pale dishrag, massing against our house. Its unruly blades will poke up as if Mother Earth were giving me many middle fingers.
Because I’ve picked my battles in life. And they don’t include my lawn.
Once again, I will let go. A little more this time. A little more deeply.
At the age of 52, I’m letting go.
Of my precocious daughter, who turns thirteen on Sunday and holds her Bat Mitzvah in May. Of my novel, which will be published next month after I coddled it for thirteen years.
Of the lawn, which is already 90 percent crabgrass.
I remember the stages I passed through to get to this point. How it felt for me giving up the idea our grass should look like a golf course.
Growing up on Long Island, I learned weeds are bad — to be controlled, pulled up, and generally reviled. A melancholy Billy Joel sang about his suburban dad who “never lets the crabgrass grow too high.” So when my wife and daughter and I moved upstate in 2003 to our four-bedroom house on a half-acre, one of my first calls was to a lawn care company.
crabgrassBut the applications of herbicide, announced in cautionary yellow flags stuck in my lawn, made me nervous. As our puppy and daughter played on the lawn that first summer, I worried about liver cancer. I imagined weed poison stunting my daughter’s growth. The second season I told the lawn company to skip some treatments. Seizing the opportunity, crabgrass sprouted around the edges of our property. The next season I thought of my own slow-growing cancer, which I’ve battled for many years. I fretted over poisoning the water and earth, for the sake of aesthetics. Something snapped in me. I cancelled the lawn care company. The hell with the neighbors. The crabgrass was ecstatic.
At first I saw the spreading patch-quilt as a blemish on my reputation. I figured my neighbors were judging me. I’d return to my house under cover of darkness, when the lawn was invisible, like a criminal returning to his lair. I looked forward to fall and winter, when the crabgrass slept. I particularly liked snowstorms which blanketed everything under a carpet of sameness.
But time, and crabgrass, marches on. Next summer, I know, it will again stubbornly shimmer across our lawn, a jade-green testament to what happens when you let go. Oh sure, some patches of Kentucky Bluegrass will poke through here and there, ghosts of an old life, reminders I was once locked in battle for control of my lawn.
I’m reminded of other areas in life. I think of my daughter, my impulse to try to control what she does and where she goes. I tell her she must practice cello and piano before her playdate. I forbid her from eating a marshmallow fifteen minutes before dinner. She reminds me she excels at music and always cleans her plate. Sometimes I flash back to her Jewish mikvah for comfort.
She was six months old, when the rabbi told me I had to submerge her in the ritualistic pool for three seconds. I had to let her go. Like God commanded Adam and Eve to go from the Garden of Eden. Like Moses beseeched Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” I held her tiny body against my bony chest. I dropped her. She gazed up at me through the water with pale eyes. Her tiny arms flailed, seeming to wave goodbye. By some automatic reflex, my hand jerked and scooped her back up and clamped her to my chest. Through the din of her screams, the rabbi checked his stopwatch and smiled sadly, shaking his head that not enough time had passed. By the third try, though, I finally got it right. My daughter was Jewish.

Letting go of my novel, which I started when my health was in crisis, was especially hard. I could have tended to it until the day I died. But when a publisher offered me a contract last year, I gave up the notion of perfection to someone who was not me. When I stand up before Northshire Bookstore at 7 p.m. on March 20, presenting my novel to a crowd, I will release it to the public, signing it away.
I’ve learned that change comes in patches. First crabgrass appears along the edges of driveway and on lawn fronting the street, in the sunniest parts of the lawn. We try to fight it with herbicide.
But when the snow finally melts, the crabgrass will surely win. And in a backward sort of way, so will I.
David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March. His author events this spring are in Saratoga, Brooklyn, and Long Island. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Like Bread and Torah

Every successful couple has their special recipe for getting along, for living with each other’s differences. Bingo on Tuesdays for him, bowling on Wednesdays for her. Then there’s Jonathan Rubenstein and Linda Motzkin. He makes the bread; she makes the Torah. His passion is kneading and braiding dough into traditional Jewish challahs; hers is using a turkey quill to faithfully hand-write on animal hide, over years, the roughly 300,000 Hebrew letters of the first five books of the Bible. Somehow it works for them. They get along.
Of course, Jonathan Rubenstein and Linda Motzkin are no ordinary couple, and their secret sauce isn’t so secret. They are co-rabbis of Temple Sinai, a reform synagogue in Saratoga Springs. They were the first husband-wife team in the United States, if not the world, to job-share a rabbi position, and after twenty-eight years co-officiating at Temple Sinai, they’re still going strong, as is the temple.
LIndaYet at the heart of their relationship, which stands as a role model for the congregation’s 200 families—including mine—is a basic tenet of getting along. They give each other space to pursue their separate passions. They come together where it makes sense—whenever they chant arm-in-arm in front of the congregation, say, or team-teach Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. What works for them, works for the community they lead. Because the lines are blurred.
Because the truth is that bread and Torah aren’t that different, after all.
“Without bread there is no Torah. Without Torah there is no bread.” So says the Talmud, the venerable compendium of Jewish teachings and commentary. Inspired by that ancient message—sustenance of body and spirit go hand in hand—the rabbis in 2004 created the Bread and Torah Project, a one-of-a-kind program that unites their distinct areas of focus. The couple travels to schools, conferences and retreats to give participants hands-on experience. Participants split into groups—one focused, say, on the processing of deerskins into Torah parchment panels; the other kneading dough into long spindles and braiding them together. Then the groups switch.
To those who might scoff that baking yeasty dough has little in common with scribing animal skin, the rabbis are quick to elaborate on the Talmudic explanation. Both activities involve rolling, they explain to their students—one of dough, the other of scrolls. Both are sacred processes involving blessings or statements of sanctification. Tree taps are used for each— for both maple syrup to sweeten Rabbi Jonathan’s bread, for acacia trees for gum Arabic crystals, an ingredient in Torah ink.
gothicThen there’s the whimsical answer seen in a photo of the rabbis that’s posted on the Bread and Torah website. Paying homage to the farm couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, Rabbis Linda and Jonathan stand side-by-side, absurdly grim-faced, clasping similar-looking plants—she holds a bunch of reeds, which are sometimes used to make Torah quills; he holds a bundle of wheat, which of course goes into dough.
“This is another area where each of us, being who we are—pursuing our own interests and passions—turns into something, almost magically, that’s perfectly complementary,” Rabbi Linda told me last week, as she took time from her rabbi duties to chat and sip a hot beverage at Coffee Traders in Saratoga.
But even as they’ve embraced Torah and bread making, Jonathan and Linda, who have a socially liberal bent, have turned these traditional roles on their heads.
Trained as a soferet, or Torah scribe, Linda—who has the slender, strong-looking hands of a writer—is one of the tiny handful of women in the world engaged in a craft traditionally dominated by men. And she is unique among female scribes in that she is the only one who hand-makes her own parchment, using deerskins donated by local Adirondack hunters for the Torah scroll she is currently writing.
Rabbi Jonathan, for his part, runs Slice of Heaven, a bakery located in the temple that makes challahs, a bread traditionally in the hands of women for special occasions like Shabbat and life-cycle rituals.
“There’s something delightful about the areas we’ve staked out,” Rabbi Linda says. “The male is in the kitchen baking. The female is out there handling hides from hunters and fleshing dead animal skins.”
Rabbi Linda’s first passion in life was art. She is an experienced calligrapher, which she describes as an expression of the artist’s vision and ego. But another side of her, later in life, was drawn to the structure of Torah scribing. A scribe gives up his or her ego and becomes a “channel for transmission of a sacred text you didn’t create,” she observes. In 2007 Rabbi Linda completed a scroll of Ester and now is at work on a full-length Torah. And now she’s bringing together, in a sense, these two parts of her life. Her latest project is illustrating animal hides that are damaged or otherwise unfit for use as Torah parchment. In June, she opens a show of her parchment artwork, called “Sacred Scraps,” at Spring Street Gallery in Saratoga.
A defining event in Rabbi Jonathan’s passion for bread making came decades ago when he was twenty-seven years old, living at home with his parents and his 96-year-old grandfather, a former baker who’d given it up because of age.
One day Jonathan was kneading a challah. His grandfather looked up from the couch. A light came into his eyes. With a great effort he staggered over, nudged Jonathan aside, and began to knead the dough.
photo (50)“He really wanted to get his hands in that dough and feel the process,” Rabbi Jonathan recalls. He’ll never forget that moment. It was when Jonathan realized he too loved the process of shaping and braiding and letting the yeast do its miraculous job. He felt inspired to write a poem.  “For Shabbat, the dough gives its gift of rising,” sings the last line.
“Every time I go away the bread rises,” he explains. “I feel like I’m participating in this elemental and miraculous process. It probably sounds a little romantic. But I love making bread. I love everything about it.”
Bread and Torah. Jonathan and Linda. There you have it.
David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March. His author events this spring are in Saratoga, Brooklyn, and Long Island. Click here for more information.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Grim News About Cow Flatulence

Yesterday, as I relaxed in front of our fireplace after snow-blowing the driveway, feeling toasty under a blanket, an Associated Press headline crossed my computer screen:
“Flatulent Cows Cause Methane Explosion at German Dairy Farm.”
Honestly, that’s what it said. Naturally, I was unnerved. I drew the blanket closer. What concerned me was not the obvious fact that a barn exploded due to cow farts and burps. After all, the barn was located thousands of miles from my home, and my family was safe. It was the larger global implications.
As local German police told the AP, the explosion was caused not merely by a few cows expelling methane gas — but by ninety at the same time.The incident was one more reminder that the already faltering effort to curb global warming has run into, well, headwinds. You don’t need a degree in Bovine Digestive Tract Disorder (BDTD) to know methane is a huge contributor to climate change. It’s 20 times more likely to trap greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. The planet’s 1.5 billion cows, according to a U.N. report, might be more dangerous to Earth’s atmosphere than trucks and cars combined.
Evidently detonated by a static electric charge that “caused the gas to explode with flashes of flames,” according to German police, the barn explosion just slightly damaged the roof and only one cow suffered light burns on a lightly used udder. But the larger global threat is worsening. The U.N. estimates that agricultural methane output could increase by 60 percent by 2030 if the world doesn’t curb its growing appetite for meat and milk. 
“Overall, we conclude that methane emissions associated with both the animal husbandry and fossil fuel industries have larger greenhouse gas impacts than indicated by existing inventories,” wrote the authors of a study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
It would be an oversimplification to conclude that if the cow flatulence rate doesn’t drop, lower Manhattan could become an underwater reef. Still, every time we bite into a Big Mac, it’s not only our own gas we have to worry about. But that of every cow that had a part in the creation of that hamburger patty and American cheese slice.
As a world citizen worried about rising seas, drought, and the possibility of catching malaria while visiting Montreal, I want to look on the bright side. Today, ninety-seven percent of climate scientists – practically all of them – agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. Maybe the overwhelming consensus will trigger action. Maybe the planet will get its act together and curb the greenhouse gases that cause global warming before it’s too late. Maybe solar and wind power and other alternative fuels will become economical replacements for fossil fuels. Maybe people will stop clear-cutting the Amazon. Maybe there’s hope for our great great grandchildren, after all.
It will take innovative thinking, that’s for sure, and I’m willing to contribute my two cents. For instance, has anyone considered putting Beano in the cow feed? While untried on cows, as far as I know, it might be worth a shot.
Perhaps if we put the issue front and center of every American, as I’m doing with this blog post, people will grow concerned enough to take action.
Hollywood could be a big ally in this regard. Perhaps Vince Gilligan should consider a sequel to his immensely popular TV crime drama Breaking Bad. It would be called, you guessed it, Breaking Wind.
Instead of an ailing middle-aged teacher who turns to making a highly explosive substance that upsets the social order, it’s about an ailing middle-aged teacher who turns to making a highly explosive substance that upsets the social order.
Right. Next topic.
David Kalish is the author of the comedic novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March. His author events this spring are in Saratoga, Brooklyn, and Long Island. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Four Decades Later, Finding What I Lost on Long Island

My sister and our Weimaraner, circa 1973
I’m not exactly sure when I forgave my parents for moving to East Meadow, Long Island. The year was 1971; antiwar protests raged across America, but all I knew, at the age of nine, was I missed my friends from Brooklyn. Then our dog went missing. One day Rusty, a beagle — the one friend I was allowed to bring from Brooklyn – nudged open the front door with his nose and ran away, never to return. Presumably, I thought, back to Brooklyn.
Or maybe, if he was lucky, he’d find the meadow I couldn’t find in East Meadow—a meadow located east of nowhere in particular. Looking around, all I saw were detached houses flanking a maze of empty side streets. My sole consolation for getting yanked from my urban life – where you could pick up a football game just by stepping outside – had been the thought of bounding across a grassy field filled with snakes and salamanders. But that wasn’t happening.
One evening a neighbor, who’d heard of our loss, brought a stray dog to our house. He was a sleek silvery Weimaraner with a threatening bark that had been hanging out in alleys, scaring the neighborhood kids. My mother had a thing for strays, put him in the backyard, and asked me if I wanted to take on the responsibility. That night, I gazed into the dog’s clear blue eyes. I named Silver under a moon that color, figuring what the heck.
Muscular and noble, Silver won me friends. He was like the Arnold Schwarzenegger of dogs. One day a neighbor, Andy, rode up on his bicycle and seemed impressed by Silver’s muscles as I walked him around the block. We took Silver and Andy’s dog, a German Shepherd, to a large sump near my house, letting them romp unleashed.
One time after a snowstorm Andy and I tied a rope from Silver’s collar to my Flexible Flyer sled at the snowy bottom of the sump. I sat on the sled and grasped Silver’s leash while Andy called the dog from afar. The dog tugged fiercely, got the sled gliding fast. I braced myself against the cold wind, the world blurring past, laughing uncontrollably.
Though I was mostly oblivious to current events in 1971— Charles Manson sentenced to death, three million people killed in what was then East Pakistan – I began to ask myself: where was the world I thought I knew? How would I make my way in this strange new place? Like the rest of America, I was searching for something. I gradually discovered an answer. A hidden side to East Meadow. Neither concrete nor country, but rather somewhere satisfyingly in between. Because I had two feet, a banana-seat bicycle, and a maze of streets to get lost in — the perfect neighborhood for reckless riding. By the time I graduated to a Nishiki ten-speed, tires spitting dirt, my diploma was written all over me: one well-chipped front tooth, a scarred chin that had seen more stitches than I had bike spokes, and several pretzeled bicycle rims.
At some point, I forgave my parents for moving to East Meadow. It was partly the dogs, partly the bikes, partly the fact that parents brought home my newborn sister Shari, giving me a little friend to babysit and bond with. Possibilities opened up along East Meadow’s less traveled roads. Summers, I kept lazy pace with her tottering steps as we walked the mile down the hot tar of Powers Avenue to Veterans Memorial Park on Prospect Avenue. There, in the suspiciously warm shallows of the kiddie pool, I became co-captain of her Fisher-Price houseboat, connecting with her through play.
Pedaling the streets with fellow bicyclists, we ventured into forbidden places. Through a hole cut in a fence, we’d enter the strip of woods insulating the expansive split levels of East Meadow’s western border from Meadowbrook Parkway.  We’d corral our bicycles by a near-dead brook. The water weakly murmured, but in our imaginations we thought we heard rushing rapids in the whoosh of parkway cars.
When my friends and I got our drivers’ licenses, the era of bicycle riding came to an end, signaling an end to a carefree era, of pointing our handlebars toward no place in particular. In 1979, I graduated from East Meadow High School and went away to SUNY-Binghamton. After that I returned to visit, yet drifted from the places and people that connected me to Long Island.
But while I’ve lived in several places since—Brooklyn, Vermont, and upstate New York—none gives me pause like East Meadow. I wouldn’t call what I feel nostalgia, because I often felt lonely growing up there. Yet I’m tugged back to the feeling of discovery. Back then, I tried everything. Even today, I try to relive that feeling of discovery, using East Meadow as a benchmark.
Mornings, I drive to a forest near my upstate New York house and wander the paths with my two small dogs, unleashed, like my thoughts. We go off path and crunch through undisturbed snow. Here, the low sun cuts through the bare trees, splashing paint balls across the trunks. Squirrels scurry up tall pines. Mourning doves coo. Along this path, as before, dawn arrives cold and sweet.
David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March. His author events this spring are in Saratoga, Brooklyn, and Long Island. Click here for more information.