Looking back on my years at Tablet
My life is spiced with heavy lies, and the longer I live, the bigger the art of forgery keeps growing inside and the more real. The artificial flowers seem more and more natural and the growing ones seem artificial. Who will be able to tell the difference between a real bank note and a forged one? Even the watermarks imprinted in me can be forged: my heart.
– “Travels of a Latter-Day Benjamin of Tudela” | Yehuda Amichai
Suffice it to say, any blog post that begins with an epigraph is an immediate lost cause. But there’s a snowstorm outside, I’m trapped indoors, and I’m writing what will be my final piece for Tablet. After a few exciting and challenging years here, I’m looking forward to working on some different projects and writing on some new topics. So forgive me, I’m going to be a little indulgent. And a little pedantic.
Looking out my window into the snowy city (alright, alright, I’ll stop), I’m wondering how it is that I ended up on staff at a Jewish magazine of such high caliber. I don’t mean how did I get here? in the immediate sense of the past few years, but in the circuitous, meandering way that history works. Like when one detaches from millennial self-regard and looks at the bigger picture.
For some reason, I’m thinking about it like this. My grandfather was born in 1892 in a Russian shtetl. When he was 22, one hundred years ago this year, he fled to escape conscription in the Csarist army. You know the story: Zeyda hid under a bale of frozen hay all the way to St. Petersburg to take passage on a ship to the New World.
(There are scholars who believe the Csarist army narrative of my zeyda’s generation is an overblown myth. A tall tale like Pecos Bill, Cordwood Pete, or the moon landing. That my grandfather shares the exact same escape story with Morris Bober, the ailing, weathered, hard-nosed New York City grocer from Bernard Malamud’s novel The Assistant, only makes the story feel truer. You’ve seen the person. You’ve been bounced on his worn-out knee. Plus, you always print the legend.)
When he arrived in Boston, my grandfather was told that he needed an American Jewish last name. With the flick of a pen, Tubecandler (Yiddish) became Siegel (American). Zeyda enlisted in the American army to fight, promptly blew off his toe in a training exercise, and never went to war. Instead, he helped lay the cornerstone of the synagogue in Narragansett, Rhode Island. Instead, he stood behind the counter of his Kosher butcher shop and grew a family.
In the 1940s, his nephew Harold wanted to go medical school at Tufts. They weren’t letting in Siegels then. Three months after being rejected, the nephew applied again as Harold Chandler and got in. And so a family decision was made to change all the Siegels into Chandlers, a derivative of Tubecandler, the old Russian name.
Around the same time Zeyda became a New England Chandler, his oldest brother Kalman Tubecandler, who had stayed behind in Russia, was rounded up with the rest of his shtetl and murdered by Einsatzgruppe forces on their savage path to Babi Yar. Zeyda lived to be 96 and, save for two trips to Israel, he never left America.
My other grandfather’s story is a different one altogether. More of a mystery to me. A successful doctor in Germany, he fled Berlin for Brooklyn in the nick of time and never really got his life back.
What’s amazing, of course, is that I used to believe my story was singular. Perhaps in Houston, growing up in neighborhoods with fifth-generation Texans it was. But this is, in part, how I ended up at Tablet. Because of these stories and the mosaic they create. Because, for example, I would get to sit at a desk behind the brilliant son of a famous Israeli bank robber. Or to work with a staff whose creativity and intellectual diversity stuns, impresses, and intimidates me on a daily basis. Or to have an e-mail inbox that was, at one point, full of ideas, comments, and personal stories from (predominantly) thoughtful people from across the world, Jewish and Gentile alike, who wanted to contribute to a conversation.
It’s slightly humiliating to write about the news for a living. Your job is, in essence, to strip stories down to their constituent fibers and to pretend you know what you’re talking about. There are some people out there who certainly do know, some of them can even articulate it. But for the rest of us, we’re groping our way toward understanding. This is what fascinated me about a place like Tablet; the groping–err, so to speak–is welcome (even when it frustrates the commenters).
The same pen flick that made Tubecandler into Siegel could have just as easily turned my grandfather’s Yiddish name into a Sabra one. Instead, by the whims of history, I walk around the world with a surname fashioned by American anti-Semitism after my grandfathers had escaped the European strains. And that name has appeared as a byline for hundreds of entries on a Jewish magazine in the 21st century. I have to remind myself that this isn’t about me, but now that I’m leaving, I want to turn this thing around and ask you a few questions.
I’ve had the honor of writing some things I’m exceptionally proud of over the past few years at Tablet. (I’ve definitely had some clunkers too.) Not because they were clever (I mean, some of them certainly were), or sometimes difficult, and not because they scored some political points (though on occasion that can be important), but because they prompted some serious self-investigation.
One such story was about a study that defined a previously unnamed group of American Jews as The Unaffiliated. The profile went something like this: Under 35, fasts on Yom Kippur, very attached to Israel, and while occasionally attending Shabbat dinners with friends, otherwise not formally attached to the Jewish community. After a decade of feeling displaced from Jewish life, I realized that this was not only me, but also one-in-six American Jews.
It’s true that my professional affiliation with a Jewish magazine has meant that I’m part of a very special Jewish ecosystem, but now that I’m stepping away, ostensibly the most salient manifestation of my Jewishness–namely writing on Jewish topics–will be more limited going forward. I’m now a free agent. More specifically, I am an embodiment of a demographic that Jewish communities are struggling to claim.
Here’s the thought experiment: While I fully intend on marrying a nice Jewish girl someday–believe me, I know it’s expected of me–I have to ask: What would happen if lightning struck and I didn’t? Knowing what you now know about my life, would I be less welcome in the community? Years from now, would someone tell me that my children aren’t really Jewish? What if I married someone who was Jewish, but politically agnostic or disinclined to support Israel? Would there be a place for us then?
I’m asking in part because I don’t know. Immersed as I’ve been in the discourse over the past few years, I never really thought about what would happen when I leave. This is me groping for understanding. This is something that I could only write about for Tablet. And I’ll miss it.
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