Petrozavodsk, 1990

Zina was Anya’s mother. When I came down with a cold, she fed me spoonfuls of honey at the small round table by the kitchen windows, morning light streaming in through the thin glass. It was early spring, but still cold in those northern parts, and when we went walking you could see the steam hovering over Lake Onega. The snow melted in April, and by the time I was feeling better, tiny crocuses were pushing their way through the cold ground and children were skipping in the courtyard.

Zina’s hair was a shock of that red-orange dye distinct to Russian women of a certain age. I didn’t  understand why she loved me like a second daughter; maybe because I was inquisitive whereas Anya was sullen.

My questions ran the gamut; I wanted to hear about her childhood, the dacha where her grandmother taught her to grow carrots and berries, the goat she nearly lost during a particularly bad spring flood when she twelve, how she’d met her husband (their families knew each other), and whether she ever dreamed of traveling beyond the city where she’d lived her whole life.

Zhanna, she’d say, I am content. Why should I want to go anywhere else when I have everything I need right here? She’d gesture around the small room, as if her teapot and slippers belonged to royalty. It made it hard to argue, even though as a young woman lusting for life experience, I knew my love of that provincial place hinged on the train that would take me away from it before long.

The forests nearby — miles and miles of birch trees straddling the Finnish border, dense with memory and darkness — and the low-hanging sky that seemed like an inverted bowl holding in the world below, all of this created a kind of vortex effect. At night, I’d lie in my small bed covered with so many blankets, the cold air seeping in from the crack Zina insisted was healthy for sleeping, and imagine I could hear the whispers of those who’d lived in that high-ceilinged room  before Anya’s family moved in. My dreams were a mish-mash of Russian and English and lines of poetry I couldn’t remember come morning, and I felt at once old and young and ageless as the weeks passed.

I also felt Jewish in ways that were beginning to grow more pronounced. The few times I brought this up, an unmistakably displeased expression crept over Zina’s face, and Anya’s lips turned downward even more than usual. Mother and daughter alike would glance in the direction of Anya’s father, who wouldn’t look up from his newspaper. Case closed; religion was not to be discussed.

But I couldn’t help myself. My love of Russia began to bang up against something else: The undeniable truth that Jews had left this place in droves, in search of the religious and cultural freedom of expression. Sure, some small communities had cropped up, particularly in the bigger cities, but here in the north, Jews were an anomaly — suspicious, strange, other.

More and more, I realized I was like those Russian Jews. My grandmother with her Yiddishisms and stories paired with my own lack of knowledge seemed too great of a parallel to ignore. I knew I was Jewish, but had not idea in practice what that meant. I didn’t know where to begin, but knew that begin I must. Zina and Anya indulged me, but the line was clear that this was not a welcome subject. Better to pour another cup of tea and talk about school or the weather. History, identity — why would you open those troublesome topics?

The next time I was there was four years later. Late July, the outer edge of the White Nights that held twilight suspended in a liminal state of waiting until dawn. We pulled the heavy shades at night to induce darkness, then woke to the sound of the kettle screaming in the kitchen. I was very sick; I spent days on or bending over the toilet, and Zina was as attentive as ever even as Anya receded further from sight. The moment had come and gone, the one where I belonged.

When I left, they waved at the train. I could see that Anya was tearful. Was it because she’d miss me, or because I was leaving and she wasn’t? From there, I’d travel to Prague, where the Jewish quarter and Terezín brought me ever closer to the inescapable truth of my heritage. It didn’t matter what I knew or didn’t know of my family’s history; as my grandfather had said while he lay dying, “Once a Jew, always a Jew.”

The Intersection of Jewishness + Whiteness


The discussion of the intersection of Jewishness and whiteness is one I’ve been having for decades in many different contexts, and I imagine it will continue to occupy my mind and heart for the rest of my life.

One thing that has never wavered is the acknowledgement and full recognition and naming of the fact that as a Jew, I can choose whether to conceal or reveal my Jewish identity, just as I can with my sexual orientation. I can gauge a situation, setting, vibe, etc. and determine how safe I feel. People of color of no such option. There is nothing to debate here.

So there is zero question, for me, about white privilege and that being first and foremost the fundamental issue our country is seeing the inevitable outcome of today — the fact that our (and I say OUR, as Americans) collective identity is rooted in genocide, slavery, and white supremacy in ways that continue to go unacknowledged and unchecked, with unquestionably devastating impact on people of color. Antisemitism is also alive and well and that, too, is woven into our country’s history.

Antisemitism is important to raise as a point of awareness and attention if you look at the language and beliefs of white supremacists and the history of a people that has endured and survived thousands of years of expulsions and genocides. As a people, these live not only in memory and history but in the lifetime of our grandparents, genocide at the hands of those whose vile beliefs have been kept alive and revived by the people we’re now seeing empowered to come out of hiding by the current political climate and “leaders.”

I cannot see and hear men — and women, mind you — with burning torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” without feeling alarmed and chilled.

Also imperative to note: NOT ALL JEWS ARE WHITE.

As a white, Jewish woman, do I benefit from the systems of oppression? Yes. Do I feel the need to protect myself as a Jew, as well? Yes. Do I feel the need to use the privilege I have as a white person to further the work of anti-racism? Also, yes — and not only as an individual need or choice but as an obligation and embodiment of living Jewish values. So many things are true at the same time, and personally, my Jewishness serves to strengthen my commitment to racial justice, not in any way diminish, dilute, or whitewash it.

My Jewish identity is inseparable for me from my voice as a writer, an activist, a mother, and an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. This probably goes without saying, but feels important to articulate tonight.

As Rabbi Hillel said in the 1st century: “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”


One thing that keeps going through my head is that we have no leader. No single person to whom we can turn for reassurance or guidance or instructions or context. There’s no sitting around the radio, listening with heads bowed. No single steady voice. (Maybe this has never been the way and is simply a warped form of false nostalgia? Or actual nostalgia for #44.)

What we do have may be what we’ve always had: Communities large and small around the country, organizing. The voices of those who’ve been talking, writing, studying, facilitating, and educating about racism for decades, standing on the shoulders of the ones before them.

And there is us. Us includes you. We all have to step into leadership here, in whatever ways we can. What this looks in our real lives is something those of us who have any semblance of privilege need to be addressing. Don’t think big. Think concrete. Think today. Think one thing at a time.

I know many of you have been doing this your whole lives. Many of you have devoted your careers to this work and risked your livelihoods, relationships, and bodies every singe day by speaking out. For many Americans, every single day is an act of resistance, just leaving the house. Thank you. I see you and my respect runs deep.

I’m addressing those of us who have looked to someone else to do it. Now would be a good time to be that someone else — yourself.

Too Cold for Ice Cream, Just Right for Writing

flavors

I saw this the other night while getting ice cream with Aviva, and it captures *exactly* how I feel about my website menu. Not all the groups are offered all the time!

So what IS currently on the menu?

If you’re itching to write and could use the encouragement and camaraderie of a supportive space to both hush your inner critic and keep you accountable to showing up, here are what scoops are available in the next two months. It might be getting chilly for ice cream, but it’s a perfect time of year to get your writing on.

1. Between the Sheets: Write Your Stories of Desire, Intimacy, and Pleasure
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Delicious choice.

This is a 2-week group I’m co-leading with my Inky Path partner, Cigdem Kobu. The theme has to do with stories of desire, intimacy, and pleasure — but like all prompts, they will take people in many directions. This group starts (and registration ends) TODAY! As in ALL of my groups: The writing is completely confidential, and the vibe is supportive and completely judgement-free. It’s $99.

inkypath.com/between-the-sheets-guided

2. On the Corner: Writing at the Intersection(s)
A new, experimental flavor, combining the tried-and-true tradition of writing prompts with swirls of exploring our identities, inside and out.

This group starts Monday, September 19 and ends Monday, October 10. Prompts will be 3 days/week, and all relate in some way to the many “parts” of ourselves, how the world sees us, what we’ve abandoned and what we want to reclaim or change. I’m super excited about it and would be so so thrilled for you all to join me. There are 3 payment “tiers” — $63, $126, and $189 — on a kind of honor system.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/on-the-corner-writing-at-the-intersections

4. What If You Knew?
A classic flavor that will whet your appetite for more. Writing, that is.

My next 2-week group, with the original 10 prompts I ever wrote. I’m offering this one again as a kind of 2-year anniversary of promptressing and doing this work in the world. If you’re looking to begin, deepen, or expand a writing practice, please join me October 10-21. The cost is $99, though I’m often told it’s priceless.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/2-week-writing-practice

3. Dive Into Poetry: October 1-31
If you’re like me, and want to sample everything, this might be the group for you.

A month-long poetry celebration, with 3x/week poems & images from me, to use as springboards + inspiration for your own poems! This group is straight-up great fun. No previous poetry-writing experience is required; in fact, the whole idea is to get to play. And it’s only $28.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/national-poetry-month

**

Writing together and freewriting are ways to blast through the toxicity of comparing ourselves to each other. To show up to yourself, to what’s true, to back then and to right now and to someday. To practice being good to yourself. To quiet the voices telling you “too much” and “not enough.” To see what happens when you don’t have to be good.

We’re all 32 flavors and then some.

Come have a taste. 

And how could I possibly resist wrapping this up without some Ani?

On the Corner: Writing at the Intersection(s) (NEW GROUP!)

I live on the corner of
gay pride and white privilege
Shabbat Shalom and Hear Me Roar
cheerleader and saboteur
working mama, entrepreneur

I live on the corner of
prolific and bone dry
passionate and tongue-tied
of please and no, thank you
of bite and I’ll spank you…

I live on the corner of
pogrom and protest
straight As, nuclear families
of divorced and remarried
polite and contrary

I live on the corner of
tightly wound and free spirit
of fear and Just Do It
petite and dysmorphic
Soul Sister, Third Daughter

I live on the corner of
so many streets
traffic’s nonstop but nobody beeps
there’s no one to tell me to stop or to go
and that’s why I write, ’cause how else will I know?

On the Corner: Writing at the Intersection(s)

On-the-Corner-lg

Photo: Molly Porter

We all stand at the corner of so many identities. “Parts” of ourselves — some embraced and some off-limits, some seen and some invisible, some conditioned and some chosen.

Join me this fall for a brand new four-week writing group.

Who we feel ourselves to be, how the world see us, and ultimately what we choose to bring (and have no choice about bringing) with us into our daily lives — these have a huge impact not only on our own experience of segmentation and/or wholeness, but on those around us, be they family, coworkers, community members, or the world at large.

In a cultural and political climate that has us contend daily with questions of authenticity, bias and prejudice — our own and others’ — and how to cultivate kindness and acceptance while acknowledging and respecting our wildly different selves, I believe that writing has the power to help us get to know ourselves, and thus each other, better.

What Will We Write About? 

Through a combination of guided freewriting and other creative exercises on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we’ll explore our many identities in a safe, secret space where nobody gets to be wrong.

Week One

On the Corner :: Naming all the cross-streets
* We’ve Lost Touch :: Reconnecting with what was never lost
Forbidden Fruit :: Getting cozy with what you cast out

Week Two

* The Surface of Things :: How the world sees you
In the Mirror :: How you see yourself
I Am From :: Naming and claiming your sources

Week Three

* True or False :: Early messages you believed or doubted
* Shake It Up :: Exploring the change you want to see
* Be the Change :: Moving towards action and embodiment

Week Four

* Completion and Staying Connected

Dates:

Monday, September 19 — Friday, October 14

Cost:

With the intention of this group being widely inclusive, I’m offering three different (confidential) payment tiers, based completely on the honor system. Please choose according to an honest self-assessment:

  • Tier 1: Folks who have to scrimp, squirrel, and save to participate in this kind of group.
  • Tier 2: Anyone who’s moderately comfortable and has some disposable income.
  • Tier 3: Those of you who have the ability and desire to pay it forward.

:: $63 ::
btn_buynow_lg

:: $126 ::
btn_buynow_lg

:: $189 ::
btn_buynow_lg

Summer Reading :: In Memory of Elie Wiesel

Auschwitz-Birkenau-Börner

I placed a copy of Night on my teenager’s desk.
Summer reading, I said.
You mean I have to read it?

Quick parenting decision – split-second judgment call.
No, I told her, not wanting to be the hand
that forces eyes open. But.

It’s a hard book but an important book. 
Back to the kitchen to finish cooking us dinner.
It will change your life, I called back.

Will she read it? Fourteen in a few months.
Also a Libra like she is, Elie Wiesel was fifteen
when he arrived at Auschwitz.

I was fifteen the summer I spent
in Spain. Only a few photos remain from that trip,
including a swastika on a brick wall in Toledo.

Sixteen when I first read Night.
Mark Gerstein’s Holocaust class, the one when
I dreamed of basements and lost babies.

In every generation, may there be movement.
“I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people…
No other people has such an obsession with memory.”

And so I see myself
placing this paperback on her desk.
Resilience. Obsession. Memory. My people. Her people.

We all have to find our people
in this world. Maybe this is what I’m trying to say
to her without telling her a thing,

without sliding into parental lecture,
the kind she’s come to expect from me.
All that time I thought she was glazing over

until she did her final seventh-grade project
about why she’s a feminist.
That’s when I realized

she’s paying attention.
The book might sit there untouched
for months, or she may crack it open

and come to us in tears some July night,
scared or sad or both, asking why and how.
I worry sometimes that so many Buzzfeed headlines

without substance, click click click,
one awful story after another, kids growing up
with a Trump presidency an actual real thing

will have the opposite effect
and instead of galvanizing will numb
and dilute the impact of so much death and hatred.

Where is the balance between providing comfort
and not cocooning our children
inside privilege that perpetuates injustice?

I placed the book on her desk, then came here
to write a poem. To listen into the night,
the night with its millions of voices,

the voices that began climbing out my mouth
was I was her age, his age, this age,
in the age of awakening, the age of rage

and poetry and never forget and never again,
the age when I began choking on the voices
and losing my own,

the age of doing what I can as a Jewish mother
to make sure she knows that her voice
is both the most and least important,

both her sword and her mother line,
hers to toss back in time and throw to the night
to see what ghosts catch and return it

in the call and response that’s been
singing itself to sleep for centuries
and will keep doing so, unresting

until we’ve circled back to all the lives,
all the lives that couldn’t be saved the first time.
Waiting and waiting, in the world to come, for the living.

::

In Memory of Elie Wiesel, ז״ל
September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016