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You Eat a Honeycake and Call It a Day: Culturally Jewish on Rosh Hashanah is A-okay

Creative output is at full throttle for the High Holidays at Jewcy, when the planets align and all creeds of Jew collectively turn their awareness to heritage and self-reflection. Foods come out on the tables surrounded by families reuniting in kvetchdom, and neuroses reemerge from the swamps of pent up guilt. Amidst apples and honey and challah and tears, there is a goldmine of inspiration for Jews in the creative community: conflict, excess, extremes, boiling points-paradise.

Laurie Gwen Shapiro is one such Lower East Side native whose films and novels draw from that cacophony and examine secular Jews making peace with their dysfunctional families and spiritual selves. She is nominated for a 2010 News and Documentary Emmy for coproducing with her brother David HBO’s Finishing Heaven about a Jewish filmmaker struggling to finish his film for thirty seven years, from back when Martin Scorsese was his T.A. at NYU. She is currently at work on a new novel, The O’Leary Bat Mitzvah.

Shapiro and I chatted up the secular High Holiday season experience at the nexus of New York and Jew, Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop in the city’s Flatiron District. Best known for her chick lit bestseller, The Matzo Ball Heiress, Shapiro’s work convincingly reasons that cultural Judaism is a valid form of Judaism.

"One tradition we do keep is, you know, food," she laughed. With her father, Australian husband, and their daughter, family congregates over Katz’s pastrami, Dr. Brown’s cream soda, and Russ and Daughters’ nova lox. The very act of eating delicious food together as family exudes the time-honored core of cultural Judaism. When she was a child, the Shapiro family fasted during the season and attended services on Rosh Hashanah with an underlying respect for her grandmother who preferred it. After she passed, emphasis was placed on tradition by her mother. And today, her agnostic father Julius would suggest, "You eat a honeycake and call it a day."

When no loved one’s happiness depends on it, what reason is there to force tradition? Now that Shapiro, surprised to find herself in the position, is the family’s matriarch, she is reticent to let the years of Jewish tradition stop at her stoop. "I completely guilted my daughter into going to Hebrew school and I’m proud of that." Plus, as Julius has theorized, if you want to raise Jewish kids who are non-religious, send them to Hebrew school.

"I figure if I’m going to make my daughter go to Hebrew school I might as well set foot inside a temple once a year." An urge for a regular schlep is trumped by circumstances like her wheelchair-bound father and her eight-year-old daughter Violet’s insistence that she prefers Christmas upon entering the holy house. Shapiro’s short piece "Oy, Christmas Tree, Oy Christmas Tree" in A Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt explores the complexity of goy desires in a Jewish mother’s household.

Funny happenings well known to the High Holiday frequenter, as painful as the experience is for a Santa-embracing girl, would fluster even further non-Jewish mates. Shapiro found a keeper in her husband Paul O’Leary when he passed the high-holiday test equivalent of the gefilte fish taste test-if they can make it through these marathon services, you know you’ve got a survivor. Tithe talks persuading the purchase of Israel bonds that conclude all services are clutch, and even better is the classic climax of some services, a list of forbidden relationships in case anyone forgets themselves while wearing their wine-goggles. When studying at Syracuse University, Shapiro encountered an enthusiastic Californian babe who was a virgin to Jewish traditions. Insistent on attending, when told to "dress nice" for service, her interpretation involved a sweater dress tight enough to force the eyeballs from the Hillel rabbi’s cranium. "It gets dicey when you’re getting sexy on the High Holidays," an unspoken understanding among most cultural Jews outside of Brighton Beach.  

Life goes on post-service and honeycake. "I took the Rosh-Hashanah appointment at the eye doctor," boasted Shapiro. Temple in the morning and doctor in the afternoon, who’s looking?

When there was still judgment to avoid, Shapiro’s mother would forbid her from going to the laundry room on the High Holidays in their Lower East Side former ladies’ garment worker co-op building that was teeming with watchful Orthodox neighbors. Now, as one half of an intermarriage and if in the face of the sanctimonious, Shapiro remarks, "There’s a loophole in Judaism for people like me, which is that I’m a mother. My husband doesn’t need to do anything but show up the day of our daughter’s bat mitzvah. It’s in the religion."

Independent women doing their thing with Judaism in the arts were also vividly portrayed on PBS this week in the re-airing of the strange 2003 documentary, A Cantor’s Tale. It featured, among the various zealous characters, several female cantors who broke through traditional restrictions to offer a higher spirituality for the community with their craft. On loyalty to tradition versus standing by the people she serves, Cantor Debbie Friedman said, "We need to turn to the people to see what the people want and what the people need. I think god would have wanted it that way." Another cantor argued, "It can’t be something that’s esoteric-it has to be something that’s visceral and germane to their lives." Meanwhile, some rabbis analyzing floundering temple service on the holy interface of YouTube conclude, "We’re losing Jews by the second." Like a second wind of the Enlightenment Period among Eastern European Jews in the late 18th century who opened up to outside society, these cantors along with the culturally Jewish like Shapiro chose instead of abandoning a system that could not gel with their contemporary needs to adapt it in the name of familial, spiritual, and communal harmony.

Regardless of the fight against stifling traditions, the experience of the cultural Jew does not necessarily exist outside of traditions. "My husband went to Catholic school and doesn’t call himself a Christian," observed Shapiro, "but after Hebrew school, I don’t not call myself a Jew."

As she put the bread of her tuna fish sandwich to the side for the sake of the Emmy dress, she examined, "So what am I now? I’ve got an agnostic-scientist 90-year-old father, a lapsed Catholic Australian husband, and a daughter who prefers Christmas to Hannukah. This is my Jewish family, and we’re gonna eat honeycake."

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