On March 9th, we usher in the holiday of Purim. It's another great example of that ancient wisdom, "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat."
That makes this an opportune time to look back on what we've been doing the past few months and give it a high five. What have I been up to? Traveling around North America telling jokes. I'm not a stand-up comedian. I just play one on book tour.
Truth is, my agenda is much bigger than merely making Jews laugh. I'm celebrating how cool it is to be Jewish and sharing thoughts on what I call the "Jewish Cultural Revival." You might call it, "Showing Judaism a good time."
My book, Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe (Andrews McMeel, September 2008), is a comprehensive, loving and irreverent look at Jewish life. It covers everything from identity, Jewish diversity, cuisine, gear and language to lifecycle events, holidays, and spirituality--what I call "Kabba Lah Lah for Non-Dummies." It's been said Cool Jew does for gefilte fish and matzah balls what The Official Preppy Handbook did for plaid and polo, only with much more chutzpah.
We've had a few events to celebrate. Forty-four to be exact. Soon after Sukkot, I left my home in California for a whirlwind tour that continued through much of January. I could write another book about all that happened. Here are some highlights...
In New York, an unprecedented line-up of talented Heebsters (my term for cool Jews) came out to celebrate the launch of my book at an "Extreme Book Signing" with an artists showcase at the JCC of Manhattan. On the bill: stand-up comedian Yisrael Campbell, performance poet Matthue Roth, Ladino chanteuse Sarah Aroeste, actor Franny Silverman of Storahtelling, singer/songwriters Michelle Citrin, Naomi Less of Jewish Chicks Rock, Dov Rosenblatt and Avi Hoffman of Blue Fringe, Chana Rothman and Rav Shmuel. Two hundred people packed a lobby filled with authentic, vintage Jewish signage collected by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld. It was, as my father would say, a grosse mechaiyah.
And who knew Torontonians were so menschlich? Helpful strangers gave me a subway token, carried my things through the turnstile, and even walked me through the Yorkdale Mall to the door of Indigo bookstore. There, another stranger introduced herself to me as "Lisa Klug" -- her real name. The next evening, the Koffler Centre of the Arts served adorable blue and white "Cool Jew" cookies and gingerbread Yidden with tallit stripes of white icing at the first ever "Cool Jew Cabaret." (The good folks at the Koffler have since instituted the event, so has music impressario Craig Taubman of Los Angeles.) And the local Costco stocked Cool Jew, reportedly next to a stack of Art Scroll prayerbooks, which my book jacket spoofs. Now that's divine providence!
Because I keep kosher, friends had warned me, "You're going to starve." Are you kidding me? This was a Jewish book tour. With a dessert bar that kept appearing nearly everywhere I did. I ate gingerbread in Toronto, brownies in Kansas City, chocolate fondue in Scottsdale and cotton candy in San Francisco. I gained 10 pounds. (The curse of the "Book Tour Ten.")
When I wasn't busy snacking, people asked me all kinds of questions like, "Do you have a day job?" Yes, of course. I'm a stay at home mom. But without the husband and kids. Actually, I'm a freelance journalist. In other words, my day job requires another day job. Do you need any one-liners in your office?
Being on tour is its own "Twilight Zone." You visit so many places (and eat so much sugar) in such a short period of time that some days you wake up forgetting you're in foreign country. You know how it goes. You're walking down the street and things feel familiar but suddenly you're really tripping because those red hexagonal signs you've read all your life as S-T-O-P suddenly say "Arret."
Once I realized I was in that one part of North America known as "Kabeck," I figured I'd play along. I started reading all the signs as if I were Lumiere. You know, that talking candelabra from "Beauty and the Beast?" It was fun. "Park Olympique. Jardin Botanique. Irrigation Colonique." Those French know how to make anything sound good.
As the tour continued, people started calling me cool Jew. It's been kind of uncomfortable. I'm not that cool. I'm the dork who wrote the book. But that hasn't stopped people from asking me to evaluate their coolness. They say things like, "Lisa, my name is Mordechai Lefkowitz. Does that make me a cool Jew? Lisa, I'm Morrocan and I speak Yiddish. Am I a cool Jew? Lisa, I'm a shiksa and I love knishes. Does that count?"
Eventually, the questions turned to theology. During a live interview on an Alabama radio station, the middle-aged host asked me to resolve a question he'd been struggling with since college: "Do Jews believe in heaven and hell?" Then he announced, "We'll be right back for Lisa's answer after this traffic report." I had 30 seconds to come up with an intelligible answer.
When we were back on air, I told him the truth. "Jews do believe in heaven and hell. Heaven is a Sabbath dinner Friday night with family and friends. Heaven is falafel in a lafa on the streets of Jerusalem. Heaven is lox and bagels Sunday morning with all the fixings. And hell is a diet."
My labor of love has done all right. In June, Cool Jew won Honorable Mention in the New York Book Festival. In October/November, I was named Erma Bombeck Humor Writer of the Month. Just weeks ago, Cool Jew was also named a finalist in the 2008 National Jewish Book Awards in the category of Contemporary Jewish Life. It appears to be the first humor/pop culture title honored in the 50-year history of the awards. And in late February, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco debuted an installation I created called "Matzo Ball Disco" that incorporates light, music, and holograms of flying Jewish stars. It's my Heebster interpretation of a seder plate.
Tour has changed me, perhaps forever. I've become... emboldened. One night, after a reading in Baltimore, I used lipgloss to sticker my book logo onto a massive sign and the image of a tranquil reader in lotus position. The first full day of the new U.S. president's in office, I slipped Cool Jew into the hands of an Obama puppet at the Washington Monument. I even risked the reprimands of the Secret Service to sneak a giant semblance of my book onto the White House lawn to snap a photo. That's part of the joy of having written this book. Now, nearly every day has the potential to be a little Purim... with a lot more chutzpah.
©Lisa Alcalay Klug
Lisa Alcalay Klug, the author of Cool Jew: the Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe, fantasizes about posting her book logo on the Space Shuttle. Learn more about her adventures at www.cooljewbook.com .
Be sure to check out Lisa’s interview with Oy!
In 2005, Lisa Alcalay Klug wrote two articles about being Jewish. One for the San Francisco Chronicle about how cool it is to be a Jew in the Bay Area, and another for The Forward about eight nights of Chanukah kitsch. “These two stories had something essential in common: a pride in being Jewish, an embrace of kitsch and a reverent irreverence—an irreverence based on a real love of being Jewish. When I thought of a concept to encapsulate that, the word Heebster lit up in my brain like a neon sign,” Lisa says.
She already had some early ideas for a book mapped out. “But once I came up with the book’s alias, The Heebster Handbook, that idea fueled the project. My non-Jewish editor Christine gets it. She grew up on Long Island.”
Oy! talked with Lisa about cool stuff, Jewish stuff and how her book tour and Barack Obama inspired her new project.
Oy!: What, in your mind, is a cool Jew?
Lisa: There is so much that makes Jews cool. Perhaps the most important is knowing where you come from, celebrating being Jewish and taking pride in your identity. When you're a Heebster, you don't have to work hard to be cool. You just got to be Jew!
You have a diverse Jewish background; how does that impact your writing?
My father is an Ashkenazi Holocaust survivor from a modern Hasidic, German-speaking Jewish family who lived in Danzig. Before World War II, Danzig was an independent city-state between Germany and Poland. My dad grew up speaking German, Yiddish, Polish and studying Hebrew. After the war, my dad recuperated in France. My mother is from Panama and her Israeli parents descend from Ladino-speaking Jews from the Balkans. She spent part of her childhood in Israel.
My parents met and married in California, where I grew up. We followed most of my father’s minhagim (traditions), and ate a lot of my mother’s favorite tropical fruits. Sometimes my school lunches were wacky combinations, like gefilte fish and coconut.
My parents inspired me to experiment with language, culture, travel and sometimes cuisine. And that has influenced the diversity reflected in the pages of my book. Cool Jew isn’t autobiographical but between the lines, you can see how my roots come into play. My parents had very rich Jewish experiences in other countries and cultures. And my book grew out of all the ways I’ve sought to create meaningful Jewish experiences of my own.
What has surprised you about people’s reactions to the book?
The kindness, generosity and heartfelt response of audiences has really surprised me. All around the country, the feedback I receive to my presentations is "inspirational, fun and poignant." Audiences share their own stories with me, in person and in emails, including many converts, and that has been very moving, beautiful and humbling. I've also been delighted to receive several honors. That's been a really fun surprise!
Your new blog, Tolerant Nation , was inspired by what you saw on your book tour. What are some of the things that happened on the tour that made you step back and say, we need this?
I am thrilled by the tremendous support and enthusiastic response to Cool Jew. But I was also dismayed by the ignorance and bigotry I sometimes encountered from "shock jocks," radio show hosts during live radio interviews on my tour.
I reported the most offensive of these to the ADL, which followed up with the station directly, but in the weeks preceding the inauguration of President Obama, I wanted to do more. Watching the first person of color ascend to our country's highest office inspired me to create an online forum for cross-cultural dialogue and to increase awareness of multiculturalism.
Tolerant Nation launched the first Erev Shabbat following the inauguration. And each Friday since, I edit and post a piece from a guest blogger that discusses multiculturalism, cross-cultural dialogue and tolerance. It's been a great eye-opening experience and I've learned a lot. We welcome submissions and comments so please get in touch.
When I was writing my book, it was very important that it reflect that we are a diverse people. As a result, Cool Jew includes tons of information about Jewish multiculturalism, an entire chapter about Jewish languages and another chapter about Jewish diversity. This includes what we share with other people: Japanese, Hawaiians, rappers... Cool Jew highlights various Sephardic customs, foods and other references and it also encourages involvement in Tikkun Olam, social justice. So, in all these ways, Tolerant Nation is an extension of my book.
What's next for you?
I really miss Israel so hopefully a good long stay in Jerusalem. Before that can happen, I have speaking gigs at colleges, shuls and Hillels around the country. I'm continuing writing freelance pieces and helping others with their projects as a writing coach. And I'm working on my next book, a sequel of sorts. Stay tuned!
Check out Lisa’s tales from the road in Living Jewishly!
My day starts at 5:30 a.m., sipping a much-needed cup of coffee while putting on my hand wraps and waiting for my personal trainer to arrive for my daily kickboxing lesson. After an hour workout, I watch the news over a leisurely breakfast, take a hot shower and get ready for work. After a short walk in the blazing sun, I greet the security guard, turn on the computers, make some more coffee and read the paper for an hour before the others arrive. Another perfect morning in Uganda, unlike any back home in Chicago, yet completely different from what I had anticipated when I prepared for my volunteer posting in Africa.
I made the decision to volunteer overseas with American Jewish World Service (AJWS) last June. AJWS Volunteer Corps places professional Jewish men and women on volunteer assignments for two to 12 months with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in developing countries. I knew I would be going through a career transition and decided to take advantage of this window of time to pursue my passion for economic development. When I found out three weeks before my scheduled departure that I would be heading to Uganda, and realized that everything I knew about the country was based on the movies Operation Thunderbolt and The Last King of Scotland, I admit I got a little nervous.
What struck me the most during my first week in Kampala, the capital city, was just how much I stood out. There were many other white people living in Kampala, but at any given moment I seemed to be the only one. It was disconcerting to be the minority—stared at, and laughed at, losing my individual identity and being called Muzungu, “white person.” I never did get used to that, but after a while, the things that seemed so strange in the beginning—boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) speeding down the bumpy roads, carrying mothers riding sideways with babies on their backs; the smell of burning garbage; hunched women sweeping dust-covered streets; complete chaos in the markets, “short calls” (quick stops to pee out in the open beside the bus); and flashing (calling and hanging up on the recipient so they call back and pay the charges)—all these became merely part of everyday life.
Having traveled through South Africa and other developing countries, I was excited to experience Uganda as a resident rather than a tourist, immerse myself in a new culture and learn about the trials of living in a poor country. I had gone to Uganda expecting to learn from these differences, but I had never put any real thought into what I would take away from the similarities. Living in Kampala, there were many similarities to America—fancy restaurants, hotels and bars, a mall and movie theater, fitness clubs, golf courses, and many others. I learned just how easy it is to make new, lifelong friends and how quickly one can change every aspect of her life if she chooses. I learned that I like being able to more fully participate in Jewish services and I reveled in being called to the Torah for the first time on Rosh Hashanah at the Abayudaya (a unique and welcoming Jewish community of approximately 800 Ugandans in the eastern part of the country).
From Thanksgiving and U.S. election night to Uganda Independence Day and Eid (the festival that marks the end of Ramadan), every event brought my new mix of Ugandan, European and American friends together to celebrate. I was truly inspired by the many volunteers, expatriates and locals I met overseas. Most of my favorite people I met completely by chance. At home they would have simply come in and out of my life without further thought, as I would have been too busy to give the relationships time to develop. My fellow AJWS volunteers Laurie and Dan were newlyweds who decided to start out their life together by giving back and sharing a unique adventure. Myriam, a doctor from New York, finished residency and gave up a full-time offer to volunteer in a rural hospital for six months. Becca, an expat from Wisconsin, is working through “MBAs Without Borders” to effect positive change in East Africa. Tony, a Ugandan entrepreneur with a small but successful tour company, rescued me when I got stranded in the middle of nowhere and became a good friend, encouraging me to start my own company upon return to the States.
Before I went to Uganda, I was unsure of how much of an impact I could have in a few short months. Looking back, I implemented a financial system for an NGO that otherwise would have continued operating without one, and that is now in a position to raise larger funds more quickly to support its cause and country. I also developed strong relationships and presented myself as an American and a Jew in hopes of leaving a positive impression. At my farewell team lunch, Prossy, my good friend and counterpart, gave the most remarkable speech about what I had given to her and to the organization. In that instant, I knew that volunteering had been the right choice and that I would return to the developing world to work on sustainable economic development.
As I think about my time in Uganda and share stories of my life there, I may not mention using pit latrines, tearing my hair out on long, uncomfortable bus rides, having to look down as I walked so I wouldn’t fall into an enormous pothole, and seeing malnourished kids begging in the streets daily. It’s not that I have simply forgotten or that these things weren’t part of my reality or experience in Uganda, but mostly because that is what people expect to hear about life in Africa, and it is not the complete picture. The images that we see of Africa in the news inspire me to want to work in the global arena, but it was both the similarities and the differences that led to my own transformations. One of my first journal entries in Uganda included my frustration with how slowly people seemed to move. Walking to work on my last day, it struck me that I was the one being passed up by others taking the same route.
Rivka Kompel is a graduate of the Kellogg School of Management MBA program and the President of Verity Solutions Group, a services company focused on providing management, back office operations, and due diligence support for small to mid-sized companies. The company specializes in the real estate and non-profit industries.
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