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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Lilit Marcus

The travel writer on whether or not deaf people count in Jewish law, the allure of feminist cat-sitters, and why she always keeps a copy of Tefilat HaDerech in her purse

Periel Aschenbrand
July 27, 2017
Olga Povarchuk
Olga Povarchuk
Olga Povarchuk
Olga Povarchuk

Lilit Marcus is a travel writer, author, journalist, and editor for CNN Travel. She is also a contributing writer for Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue, The Guardian, Elle, and, well, the list goes on. Her first book, Save The Assistants, was published by Hyperion. She is obsessed with her cat. And tea. She is fluent in American Sign Language. She is a fourteenth generation North Carolinian. She grew up surrounded by Evangelical Christians. She is childfree by choice. Lilit is the name she chose for herself. In other words, how could I not interview her?

I planned to talk about her job gallivanting around the world, but things took an unexpected turn—which is kind of like what happens when you travel, so it seemed apropos.

Periel Aschenbrand: Can you tell me a little bit about how you wound up in travel writing? Was that always the plan?

Lilit Marcus: No. I didn’t know it was a job. I didn’t know it existed. I grew up in Raleigh and every magazine I read, it seemed like, ‘Oh, life is happening elsewhere and you’re not invited.’ This was before the Internet. You used to think you were the only person interested in something. In a way I liked that and in other way, I had no idea how to get from A to B. Like, do you just go to New York? Do you just show up? Do you go to journalism school? How does this work? I knew I wanted to be a writer. And I knew I wanted to be a reporter. But I just didn’t know how one went about doing that.

PA: And where are your parents from?

LM: I am a 14th generation North Carolinian on my mother’s side—obviously they’re not Jewish. And then my dad’s family is from LA.

PA: Fourteenth?

LM: 1630. Here’s the other thing. I don’t know if you know this, but my parents are deaf.

PA: I didn’t know that.

LM: Do you know what Halacha says about deaf people?

PA: I absolutely do not.

LM: Halachlically—don’t quote me on this. . .

PA: I’m totally quoting you on this.

LM: Well I just want to make sure I’m getting it right especially since I don’t speak Ivrit, but it says that deaf people are exempt from mitzvot. So basically they don’t count.

PA: Why?

LM: My best guess from talking to rabbis about it is that at the time the Torah was written, sign language didn’t exist. There wasn’t a great way for deaf people to be involved in a tradition that was mostly oral. We didn’t have prayer books, we didn’t have translations, we didn’t even have writing for some people. So I think it was a way of saying, we know you can’t participate by reciting all this and memorizing it, but we’re not going to hold it against you.

PA: So it’s not that they weren’t considered people, it’s that. . .

LM: It depends how you interpret it because, frankly, having a law that says a deaf person can’t testify in a Jewish court, to me, that says they’re not people.

PA: Fair enough.

LM: There’s a line in Kol Nidre that says ‘I will not put stumbling blocks before the blind, I will not insult the deaf.’ So in a way, my father not marrying someone Jewish was an extremely Jewish thing to do. He is observing the Halachic rule that he does not have to observe mitzvot.

PA: Word.

LM: They met at an all-deaf university in Washington D.C. called Gallaudet. It’s the only one in the world. My first language is ASL. When I was growing up teachers and people often told me that ASL wasn’t a language or that ASL was just English with your hands. I was really lucky, I was of the generation when there was a deaf lady on Sesame Street, but my parents were not. Most deaf people of my parents’ generation, their families did not even attempt to learn sign language. And that’s after going to doctors. Experts told them not to at the time. They said if your kid learns sign language before English, they’ll be stupid, they’ll never fully understand English or they’ll be retarded. I have a really good CoDA Jewish friend—we’re called CoDAs, children of deaf adults—who is maybe my parents age, and he wrote an amazing book that I read in college. His parents were institutionalized.

PA: That’s psychotic.

LM: Yeah! To see how quickly things have changed in just a few generations. . .to see my hearing friends with hearing children be like, “Let’s do baby sign language, I hear it makes them geniuses,” well, it blows my fucking mind. People in my parents generation couldn’t get their own mothers and fathers to learn sign language to talk to them. And now it’s fashionable in expensive pre-schools.

PA: This is all so astonishing.

LM: And people are always asking me to teach them or to teach their kids.

PA: And you’re like, ‘Uh, NO.’

LM: I have two rules. One I don’t teach the alphabet because it’s boring and you can learn it from a youtube video. And the other rule is that I only teach for fluency. Like I’m not just going to teach people swear words to use at a party.

PA: Right.

LM: I learned a little bit of ISL from a friend who knows both and the only sign I can remember is yalla (Hebrew/ Arabic slang for ‘let’s go’). To me, that’s like peak Israeli.

PA: Definitely. So the best way to learn sign, I’d imagine, is the same way you learn any other language?

LM: Yep, exactly.

PA: Okay. So your mom is a thirteenth generation North Carolinian and your dad is a Jewish guy from LA?

LM: Yeah. His people are from Romania. His grandparents came from Iasi to the Lower East Side. They met in an English class for immigrants. Which is funny because years later my parents met in Spanish class at Gallaudet. My dad was my mom’s Spanish tutor.

PA: That’s kinda sexy.

LM: Yeah, it’s sweet. So Ukranian and Romanian.

PA: Lilit is a pretty hardcore Hebrew name.

LM: I changed it.

PA: From?

LM: Something else.

PA: Fair enough.

LM: It was Jewish, it just wasn’t Hebrew and I wanted something that meant more to me.

PA: It’s a beautiful name.

LM: Thank you. I’m pretty fond of it.

PA: And may I ask, how many Jews are there in North Carolina, where you grew up?

LM: There are some. Enough for two congregations in Raleigh. Because those are the rules.

PA: And are your parents observant?

LM: Not really. But it’s kind of nice because I think that a lot of my friends have guilt or issues related to growing up Jewish, whether they’re rebelling against their parents or embracing their parents or deciding whether or not to continue the traditions they grew up with and I didn’t really have that problem. For me, it’s all things I’ve developed for myself as an adult.

PA: And also, you are the mother to a cat whose name is Brisket?

LM: Yes. I met her at backyard barbeque in Bushwick. She was like a little sad, stray ragamuffin who smelled like Brisket and we’ve been best friends ever since.

PA: And what do you do with her when you travel?

LM: I have the world’s best catsitter who is also Jewish. Her name is Chanel Dubofsky.

PA: That’s the best name, maybe ever.

LM: She runs a feminist cat sitting agency.

PA: Excuse me?

LM: She only sits for feminist cats.

PA: I’m officially obsessed.

LM: I don’t know how no one has written about her.

PA: That may change very soon. Anyway, a few last questions: What’s your favorite drink?

LM: Tea. I drink like four or five cups a day.

PA: How do you like your eggs?

LM: Unfertilized.

PA: Touché. How do you drink your coffee?

LM: I don’t.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

LM: Probably Pesach. Although sometimes my birthday is on Rosh Hashana and I really love that because I think it’s beautiful and symbolic.

PA: Did you have a Bat Mitzvah?

LM: No.

PA: No?

LM: My parents weren’t religious. Who would have gone to it? My non-Jewish friends?

PA: All the Evangelicals, maybe. What shampoo do you use?

LM: Matrix Biolage.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

LM: Lox

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

LM: I always have at least three kinds of lip balm, a tide stick, because I’m a mess and a copy of Tefilat HaDerech in my purse all the time because I never know when I’m going to be traveling.

PA: I love that. Favorite pair of shoes?

LM: I have a pair of ASOS rose gold brogues that I love.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.