It’s Not Where You Start: If I Could’ve Been

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was in the first grade, I had a really spectacular teacher named Mary Caiza. She exemplified everything you could ever want in a teacher. She was kind and caring and made every student feel like a superstar. She encouraged creativity and imagination, and modeled these traits by telling us stories of her playful dogs (named Jack and Jill) and bringing in photographs of her neighbor’s duck-shaped mailbox that changed outfits as often as Barbie.

One day, she gave us an assignment to write and illustrate a poem. I still remember my first-grade thought process. “Everyone else is going to write a rhyming poem, but I know that poems don’t have to rhyme. I’ll write a poem that doesn’t rhyme so that mine will stand out. I don’t know what to write a poem about, but I really like Where the Sidewalk Ends, so maybe I can rip that off.” Please note, I was envisioning pastiche, not plagiarism.

So I wrote a poem called “Where the Sea Ends” (oh, the cleverness of me!), and I drew a beach with some seagulls, and handed it in. I (thankfully) can’t remember the actual content of the poem (although I do still have it, in a box that will get unpacked as soon as I remember to borrow my parents’ scanner so I can preserve its contents). But I do remember Mrs. Caiza’s reaction. She enthused about my effort and encouraged me to keep writing. It was that moment that I decided I wanted to grow up to be a writer.

Of course, being me, I wouldn’t be happy unless I grew up to eclipse Shakespeare. In fact, my Harvard application essay was about this very notion. If you’re going to do something, why not aim to be the best at it?

When I was in high school, I got very involved in Judaism via USY, the youth group of the Conservative Movement which, contrary to its name, is one of the liberal streams of Judaism. My time as a USY leader shaped the man I grew up to be, probably more than any other experience in my youth. And one thing became clear to me as a teenager: when I grew up, I wanted to be an involved Jewish layperson. But I definitely did not want to be a Jewish communal professional.

Oops.

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It’s Not Where You Start: Angry Inch

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

Did I ever tell you about the zine my friend Jennifer and I published in high school?

Don’t get too excited. We only produced two issues. We were freshmen and saw ourselves as outsiders, so it felt like producing a zine was the right thing to do. Plus, my parents owned a xerox machine (to facilitate my dad’s small tax-accounting practice) so it was super easy.

The only issue was that neither of us had ever actually seen a zine. We had read about them in Newsweek and had a general idea of what they were (edgy, xeroxed… um… creative?). So we recruited a bunch of our friends to write, pseudonymously, fired up Print Shop, and had a go.

We named our zine “Monty’s Monthly Cycle.” We came up with a really contrived framing story about a transsexual person whose sex change operation got botched, resulting in a monthly bleeding… to cope with which, he produced a zine. Or something like that. I don’t have a copy handy.

Imagine my surprise when, a half-dozen years later, I saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch!

Anyway, our plan to create the zine had a few flaws. One, we didn’t know how to distribute it, especially if we wanted to stay anonymous. We left a few copies around school and stuck inside our favorite books in the public library. Of course, this was before any of us had internet email accounts, so we didn’t really have a way to get feedback from readers, assuming anyone read it. And besides our friends who were already contributing… was there anyone who wanted to read our stuff?

So it wasn’t really a surprise to any of us that we lost interest after the second issue. Instead, I went on to take over the real school newspaper, and eventually find my way onto the internet.

But the zine established a pattern in my life that still persists. I get interested in something that’s kind of cool or edgy. But I’m not really cool or edgy enough to do it right. But I can kind of act the part. But when I get inside of whatever it is, I realize that it’s not necessarily all that cool in and of itself anyway. So then I figure out how to do the thing I actually want to be doing instead of the cool, edgy version.

And this, my friends, is how I came to be the editor of JewishBoston.com. :)

Jewschool.com When Worlds Collide

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

Last November, I posted about the formation of a Jewish Young Adult Writers’ Forum in the greater Boston area. Last night was the last official meeting of the first cohort, and the guest author was Jewschool’s own Danya Ruttenberg. (We have one more “unofficial” meeting coming up with Anita Diamant, but that’s more of a dinner discussion than formal workshop.)

The way the workshop has worked, each month our guest author sends out a writing assignment for the participants to complete in advance. Our workshop evening begins with dinner, which flows into our guest telling us a bit about her or his career. Next there’s some “in class” writing. Each evening culminates with participants paring up to share the work they did on the assignment, often reconsidering it in light of what’s happened during the first hour of the workshop.

Since you read Jewschool, I don’t have to tell you how wonderful Danya was as our guest leader. The assignment she sent us was this:

Pick a story from the Bible, or a midrash, or a myth or legend from anywhere (Greek mythology, say, or classic literature) whose themes have a particular resonance for you (eg the story of crossing the Red Sea as jumping into something scary and trusting it will work out), and write a story from your life with that myth/legend in mind.

I’ve included my response to this prompt below the cut. Maybe some of you out there in Jewschool-land will add yours, as well.

Incidentally, several of us in the first cohort are meeting in the near future to talk about what might be next for the Writers’ Forum. If you’re a young Jewish adult in the greater Boston area and interested in taking part in writing-related stuff, leave some comments about what you’d like to see and do.

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