I know that I’m supposed to have angst about my bat mitzvah, but looking back on it, mainly what I see is a great party: a delicious Persian spread, flowing cocktails, and a buzzing dance floor. What I am angsty about is what was missing. Save for a few Hebrew school girlfriends, nearly everyone at the party was family or family friends, and nearly everyone was Iranian.
The interface between family and the outside world is tricky for Iranian Jews. Our fiercely loving family bond is truly beautiful. But, within the world outside of that community, I grew up with the clear message of “you’re not like them.” Whatever they do is fine for them, but their rules don’t apply to you. It’s a sentiment that can make it hard to find your place. There was never a directive to nourish myself with experiences or to figure out where I fit in and what my contribution should be.
As an adult, I’ve come to value defying that insularism. I get huge joy from connecting with people as different from me as possible. So, if I were to reboot my bat mitzvah, I’d change up the crowd. I’d invite my Tunisian neighbor and her Syrian friend who shared grim stories from their respective countries as we drove to an Arab nightclub one night. One spoke of a sense of creeping religious conservatism, and the other spoke of starving relatives trapped in a war zone for the other.
I’d invite my burly, tattooed former coworker who, as our lunchtime conversations grew personal, quietly confided that his ex “Maria” was actually Miguel. I’d invite my most formative old flame: a freewheeling, bronze-skinned surfer with just-passable English who taught me an openness that serves me to this day. It took me some time to learn it, but the lesson is simple: to truly know yourself, you have to look outward.
Tannaz Sassooni is an Iranian, geek, techie artist who aspires to write the ultimate Persian cookbook. www.tannazie.blogspot.com
When I was first asked to write a piece regarding the “Art of Return,” I thought it would be easy. I would just write about my transformation from a weight of 453 pounds down to 196 pounds and the resurrection of my old life from before the weight gain. Then, it dawned on me that the “Art of Return” signifies much more than my physical transformation. It is about losing myself along my life’s journey and then finding myself again. It isn’t just a physical transformation (which was pretty wild), but an overall transformation of body, mind, and soul. I thought losing 221 pounds on the national TV show “Extreme Weight Loss” would be enough of a compelling story. I thought losing a total of 257 pounds in and out of the show would solve all my problems. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was only the beginning of my new journey to find my “new normal,” and I’m still working on it.
I never thought my faith would play a big role because I don’t consider myself very religious. However, it was through my faith that I was able to break through barriers and handle the curve balls thrown at me that at any moment could have ended my turn on the show. It was all about faith – faith in myself, faith in my family, faith in my religion and my Jewish identity. It was about believing in myself, never giving up, finding my purpose and passion in life, sharing it with others by paying it forward, and teaching others how to find their “Inner Hero.” It came from learning throughout life what it is to be a good person, and it was grounded in my parents, their parents, and generations of Epsteins that taught me how important it is to be of service to others and to constantly educate myself. That’s what the “Art of Return” means to me.
Mike Epstein owns Conversion Technologies International and participated in ABC’s “Extreme Weight Loss,” losing 221 pounds. www.pickthepounds.com
My coming of age story became the title song from my first album, Daddy’s Pockets. The lyrics are sparse and intense. People often ask me what the words mean. I usually respond, “They mean whatever they mean to you.”
When I was a child in Boro Park, Brooklyn, every Shabbos my father and I would walk hand in hand, singing in harmony to shul. In the winter I’d hook my arm into the deep cavernous pockets of his pea coat.
One Shabbos he said, “You can’t put your hand in my pockets anymore. You are too old for that.” That is the moment I came of age and became aware of the effect of “aging” as a girl: it quickly accelerates the process of leaving a “religious man’s world.” This process also severed my relationship with my father.
From that day on, for reasons I will never understand, there was little affection and almost no emotional connection with him. I pretended to be fine, but something about that experience cut off the special “daddy’s girl” bond we had been cultivating. I became suspicious of him and started to feel rejected. I could never find my way back to the connection that existed when I was able to put my hand in “daddy’s pockets.”
The person I am now would return back to that moment and argue the point fiercely, or find something funny and undermining to make him see how ridiculous it all was. I would fill his pockets with my snotty tissues. I would stubbornly fight for my right to his pocket. Today, I try to address emotional pain as it happens.
Back then I was too young to learn that lesson. Instead, I stopped going to shul altogether, choosing to stay home and cut lettuce.
Basya Schechter is a singer, composer, and Musical Director of Romemu School. www.pharaohsdaughter.com
Read blogger Stacey Zisook Robinson’s response to Basya Schechter’s Jewel HERE.
In the book of Judges, we meet Samson. The ultimate Jewish man. His long flowing hair provided him with supernatural strength and turned him into a Jewish Superman. And let’s face it, the Jews don’t have many Supermen. My Samson was my father. Everyone’s is. But every Superman has a kryptonite. My kryptonite was shame. And California. I was born between two worlds. All year I lived as a secular kid in Oakland and in the summer I’d fly back to New York to join up with my father in Seagate, the Satmar community he’d adopted. My dad tried his best to imbue me with a love for Judaism, but much more active than that love was my own sense of shame that I wasn’t Jewish enough. Though I wore the costume, I always had the feeling I had a bright neon sign above me flashing, “DOES NOT KNOW YIDDISH!”
Then the unthinkable happened. In February of my twentieth year, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He died in May. My Samson was broken. His hair was gone. My anger was, too. It just seemed useless. A year later, I flew back to Seagate to say kaddish for my father on his yahrzeit. There was one problem. I’d grown my hair out, long. The prospect of going back into synagogue like this sent bolts of fear into my scalp. I melted into a twelve year old again. I ran around the house, frantic, trying to stuff my hair into a comically undersized fedora. Shame was swirling around me a thousand turns a second. I became twelve again, painfully aware that I wasn’t, that I never would be, right.
Then I took a breath.
Realized I wasn’t twelve.
Realized I wasn’t ruled by those demons from my past.
Realized I was a grown-up.
Realized it didn’t matter if they knew I was different.
Hell, I was different.
I took off my hat.
My hair spilled down onto my shoulders like Samson.
I got my strength back.
I knocked down the walls of my past with my bare hands.
I walked to shul.
I became a man.
Moshe Kasher: Comedian. Child Genius. Jew. Jew Comedian. Good tipper. Guiding light. Beefcake. www.moshekasher.com
Growing up, my family didn’t have any coming of age traditions. No bar mitzvahs, no crownings, no sacrifice of a chicken’s head, nothing. There was, however, one incident in college when I became a man.
My dad was very generous to us. A self-made millionaire back in Iran, he was able to bring a lot of money with him to the U.S. and spoil us. Like Vito Corleone from The Godfather, he was a larger than life character, always helping people out.
Whenever I’d ask for movie money, he would reach in his pocket, pull out a wad of cash, and break me off a piece.
I became used to this until I went to college and felt it was time to stop accepting money and become a man – except for one last time. Early on at the university, my father gave me a couple of hundred dollars. A few weeks later, I paid him back with a check. He was shocked and asked in a thick Persian accent, “Vhat eez dees?”
“I’m paying you back.”
“Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha! You pay me back? I keep in my vallet, but I no cash eet. I keep as souvenir!”
Fast forward a few weeks and I needed some money to grab dinner at the local pub on campus. I went to the ATM, put in my card, entered my passcode and was told that I had insufficient funds. “Insufficient funds?” I thought, “How was that possible? I had over two hundred dollars in there.” And then it hit me. My dad had cashed the check! He lied to me! How dare he! I was broke.
From that day forward I took responsibility for myself and my finances. I also learned that the next time I borrowed money from my dad, I would pay him back in cash.
Maz Jobrani is an Iranian-American comedian and actor. www.mazjobrani.com
Foolish, bad decisions I made during a reckless transition out of my adolescence led to my arrest on August 11, 1987. Prison gates slammed and locked me inside cages and walls. For the next 9,500 days, I lived as a prisoner, frequently walking through puddles of blood that spilled from the violence inside.
Yet, during those 26 years I learned a great deal. Stories of the courageous men and women who endured the atrocities of Sobibor, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other indignities inspired me. They convinced me that attitude and perceptions were the keys to emerging stronger than when guards first locked my body in chains and shackles. I learned by reading narratives that showed how men and women empowered themselves through a commitment to make a better world, despite the challenges they faced.
I regret my failure as a young man to learn from great leaders like Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, and Primo Levi. Had I understood more about their philosophy on each individual’s responsibility to build a better society, I would not have engaged in the type of behavior that led to my imprisonment.
It is never too early or too late to receive such messages. When I concluded my obligation to the prison system on August 12, 2013, I knew a lot more than when those gates first slammed me inside and much more than when my descent into the vortex of crime began. I would have liked to know then what I know now.
Michael Santos is a motivational speaker who spent 26 years in federal prison. www.michaelsantos.com
Read Blogger Lia Mandelbaum’s response to Michael Santos’ Jewel HERE.
1978-2014. My younger self awaits me in that old home. He stares at the future that would be me; I ponder the past that was him. We connect on a bridge made of yearning and nostalgia. Hesitantly, we embrace.
We fall to our knees and sob. I ask if he ever told dad about how he bounced the ball that cracked the chandelier in our living room. He asks if I will ever stop doing and start being. I say, “You should have told the satin-haired girl you loved her when you had your hand on her shoulder for the school play.” He says, “Work less, love more.”
I advise, “Be patient and familiar with discomfort and loneliness – in those moments you will burst into expressions that will be me.” He advises, “Don’t judge me so harshly.”
“Don’t let others discourage you from dreaming. Failure is a suitcase full of regrets…I should know.” He urges, “Your gray hairs, your wrinkles, and your scars are signs of battles won.”
I beg, “Never hold tightly to someone who wants to go; never anchor a ship that must sail.” He asks why I came back to visit? I applaud him for not embarrassing the math teacher when she was unable to solve a problem to which he knew the answer. He insists, “Tell your patient her grim prognosis.” I disagree. “You are too young to understand. There comes an age where hope feeds hunger more than food. You have much to learn.” He tells me I have much to unlearn.
I wonder if my younger self was wiser than the older me. I wish to return into innocence, to be born into the freedom afforded only to children, to go back to Eden, and to throw the apple into the lake that echoes my love into eternity.
Afshine Ash Emrani is a cardiologist, Assistant Clinical Professor at U.C.L.A., a writer, and a mystic.
Freud wrote of a repetition compulsion. He thought that we reenact scenes or situations in our lives in an attempt to get a better result. Of course, if we ourselves have not changed, then the outcome will not change. So many of us go on making the same mistakes in new guises, wondering why things never seem to improve.
The essays in this wonderful booklet are about how to repeat the past differently, about how we ourselves can be different. Our souls need not be static. In the Torah, years after a bitter break, Jacob reencounters his brother Esau, and the meeting ends not inrecrimination, but in reconciliation and in tears. It changed
repetition into encounter.
What was your moment? Was there a time that you could revisit and relive as a lodestar for progress When I am tempted to despair, I recall certain moments that remind me I am lucky to be alive — like the moment my daughter was born, and the revisiting of that moment when I see her, eloquent and insightful, writing in this very booklet.
God, the prayers tell us, renews creation every day. We too can be renewed each day. Reach into your past to change your future. These wise meditations will help point the way.
David Wolpe is the Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.
The word for “return” in Hebrew is Teshuva. Teshuva is often translated as “repentance” although it literally means “return.” The sages understood that to achieve real repentance, we must first return to our true or purest selves.
This is a collection of stories about people looking back. What do they know now that they wish they knew then? What has changed? What has remained constant? As we prepare to move forward into the new year, the month of Elul is an opportunity to look back to the collective wisdom of our experiences as a guide for the future. May this book of Jewels be a source of inspiration for you to re-envision, to revise and to reimagine the trajectory of your life during this season of Teshuva.
My sincere gratitude to the contributors who shared their insights with us this year. I am also grateful to our new partners at Reboot and to Ken Blaker for designing and building our new Jewels APP. Finally a special thank you to the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, Sam Rotenberg, and Rick Lupert who have returned to the task of bringing Jewels of Elul to life.
May the coming year be filled with health, joy, and many fulfilling returns.
Craig Taubman is the producer of Jewels of Elul. www.craignco.com