A Safe Place

This morning, I went to my local synagogue to help clean up the grounds. We weeded, raked, etc. to beautify the outside of the building now that it is spring.

I enjoy yard work and generally being outside. As a former biologist, I love getting my hands dirty, and it’s mindful to just focus on the weed in front of you. Plus, we were lucky that it was a beautiful morning. I found it peaceful to be working in the garden as Sunday School education went on just inside.

What made it difficult to be mindful was when in the midst of working a police car drove up, and the officer introduced himself. I overheard him explain that he was the officer assigned to the synagogue for the day. I assume this was because of the shooting yesterday at a synagogue in San Diego, and my town is being extra cautious.

After this, it was hard to think of much else. It made what had been very real news stories, but in a way just stories, feel more real. The officer continued sitting parked outside the synagogue, and the reality of what has been happening continued weighing on my mind.

In the last six months, there have been tragedies at places of worship in Pittsburg, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and yesterday, San Diego. This crisis is certainly not limited to Jewish synagogues, though anti-Semitism is still a problem around the world.

Places of worship are supposed to be some of the safest places of them all. Gun violence, especially in the US, is absolutely a crisis.

Seeing the police officer sit outside the synagogue was chilling, but it was not surprising. I grew up seeing officers at my synagogue, especially on important Jewish holidays.

Still, yesterday and today were a chilling reminder that we need more than thoughts and prayers. We need to vote. We need common sense gun reform.

10 policies that will save lives


Attending a Passover Seder alone

This past weekend was the start of the Jewish holiday, Passover. Growing up, we celebrated Passover both at Sunday School with the local Jewish community and by having a long Seder with extended family at my maternal grandparents’ house. After my grandpa passed, however, this dissipated. I also aged out of Sunday School. Still, Passover was a time for being with nuclear family or Jewish friends.

This year is my first truly on my own. I’m done with undergraduate college and am far away from home working my first professional job. I’ve been working actively on getting involved with the local community, including the Jewish community. So, I was excited when I was personally invited by the Rabbi to a community Seder put on by the local university’s Hillel and AEPi in collaboration with the Synagogue.

Still, it was odd to get ready for a big Jewish holiday without my mom or sister. I volunteered to make charoset for the community Seder. That was always something I helped with at home, and it’s my favorite Passover food. Yet, this time I had to text my mom to make sure I was doing it right since I was all on my own.

I drove to the community Seder alone, but I did not feel alone. Immediately, I was met with familiar faces from the synagogue and invited to join them at the table. I met the Rabbi’s family. I sang Dayenu and got it stuck in my head, as I have for the past twenty plus years. I don’t know if it’s my older age and maturity or something about this community, but I felt incredibly connected with those around me. Plus, my charoset received rave reviews. (Phew…)

The following day, the Synagogue’s song leader was spontaneously putting together a Seder for her children at home. She put out an open invitation for a few community members to join. I decided to be spontaneous too and express interest in one of the seats. Once again, I was attending a Seder alone. There would be others there, but no one directly tied with me. Yet, it was a wonderful evening full of tradition, singing, and good food.

Though I attended both Seders technically alone, it was wonderful to never once feel alone. This is one main reason why I stay Jewish: for the community.


Happy Black Friday…

Being Jewish in a primarily Christian country means that at times I have said “stupid” things. I put stupid in quotations because I probably know more about Christianity than the average American knows about Judaism. That’s just part of being a minority religion, and not knowing something about another culture is not the same as stupidity.

Anyway, one of these “incidents” took place in high school English. We were reading a fictional story about Carnival and also learning about the holiday. Though I knew little about Carnival before the class, I had read the assigned story and studied the material. I thought I was prepared.

Well, I get to the test, and it’s going well. I’m a straight A student, after all, so this is my norm. About halfway through though, there is a question where I have no idea. Retrospectively, I think it was asking what the first day of Lent is called. I’m still not sure. All I know is the answer was an adjective and a day of the week.

So, I’m thinking. I know there’s Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday…

Darn, there are a lot of options. How the heck am I supposed to know which one it is? This wasn’t covered in class.

What did I go with?

Black Friday.

I went with Black Friday, not realizing at the time that nope, that’s not a Christian one. That’s the sales after Thanksgiving one. I think I meant Good Friday which would’ve been a little closer. Oops. All I can hope is that my teacher didn’t think I was being cheeky.

Happy Black Friday, then! or Good Friday! or Passover! Whatever it is that you celebrate/practice this weekend.


Book Review of Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation

As a young Jew, I was always drawn to the story of Anne Frank. I’ve read the original diary, seen countless film adaptations and documentaries, studied her in depth independently, and even chose to learn Dutch in college because that’s the original language of the diary.

Though I can never know the suffering Anne endured as part of World War II and the Holocaust, I can resonate with her wild emotions and finding solace through writing. I’ve been writing stories or essays in my free time for years and blogging consistently for almost five years. Perhaps like Anne in her later teens, I have a hard time conveying my true self through spoken words. My true self resides buried within me, coming out only when I write.

When I found out there was going to be a graphic novel adaptation of her diary published, I anxiously waited to read it. For the past few years, I’ve been on a graphic novel kick, alternating reading one with regular novels. I’ve read some classics, like Maus and Fun Home, but also some gems like Mooncop and Sheets. I’ve never been much of an artist myself, but I do love how graphic novels can enhance elements of a story in different ways.

This graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary is absolutely breathtaking. It was adapted by Ari Folman and illustrated by David Polonsky. Anne’s story is unlikely to be new to many readers, but the illustrations are exquisite in their ability to generate a new way of looking at Anne’s world and short life.

Throughout the book, Anne’s intense and varied emotions are palpable. Some of my favorites illustrations are pages 54 and 55 when Anne is drawn in the style of famous paintings. On one side she is Munch’s “The Scream,” and on the other this is contrasted with Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele-Bloch Baur.” This is an exceptionally clever way of contrasting moods. I also found page 79 striking when Anne discusses taking medication for depression, but she still has terrible dreams. This is conveyed with dark brown flames bursting from pale, pink flowers.

By far though, my favorite pages were those that included large, uninterrupted pieces of text from Anne’s Diary and large illustrations to accompany them. For example, on page 47 half of the page is taken up by Anne’s writing about the news of Jews on the outside, while she is drawn floating on the bottom. Part of her entry reads, “No matter what I’m doing, I can’t help thinking about those who are gone. I catch myself laughing and remember that it’s a disgrace to be so cheerful. But am I supposed to spend the whole day crying?” Who can’t relate to this sort of survivor’s guilt in some way or another?

Finally, my favorite pages are the spread on 80-81 which shows Anne and the other members of the Annex safe on a cloud but amidst great darkness and with fire below them. “The perfect round spot on which we’re standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter,” she writes. Simply put, the drawing is breathtaking. Yet, it also conveys Anne’s anxiety about the fragile safety of being in hiding that could end any day.

I don’t think this graphic novel adaptation will ever be able to replace the original diary text. Yet, perhaps it can bring Anne’s story to old readers in a new way, like it did for me, or maybe even to a new audience of interested readers.


“Jew” is not a filthy word

I have an easier time saying, “I’m Jewish,” than saying, “I’m a Jew.” They’re both grammatically possible, and they’re both true, but the later can have a sting. It’s often what is used in anti-Semitic remarks, far more often than “Jewish.”

A Jew is a Jew, Italian, Russian, whatever…they will pinch a quarter till the eagle screams!

Something I saw on my newsfeed while scrolling through Facebook. In 2019, people.

Now, I’ve heard anti-Semitic remarks before, and about Jews being cheap or some other dig related to money, but I’ve also been fairly lucky that my experiences with hatred have been minimal. This comment on Facebook, which wasn’t even directed at me, was probably the worst I’ve ever heard.

“A Jew is a Jew.” The sentence hisses into my consciousness, and I grimace. It gets stuck on repeat in my mind. The claim makes “Jew” sound like a filthy word, rather than simply a noun to identify a person who is Jewish.

And this comment does not stand alone. Anti-Semitism is much improved since the 20th century, but it is also very much alive. (And no, I don’t mean all criticism of Israel. It’s possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic.) I mean statements criticizing Jews for being Jews. That’s almost always the noun they used to describe us.

So, that’s why I have trouble saying that “I’m a Jew.” It feels dirty or foul, and I don’t like how it can bite. I want to work on reclaiming the word because “Jew” is inherently not a filthy word, or at least it shouldn’t be. I don’t want “Jew” to become a dirty term only associated with anti-Semitism, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to use.

I worry that by avoiding calling myself “a Jew” I’m agreeing with and internalizing the anti-Semitism out there. Does this mean I’m ashamed of being “a Jew” and what that means to some people? I don’t think I’m ashamed. I’m all for unity and finding commonalities, and I quite like my Jewish identity. It’s our differences that make life interesting, and we are also drawn to people like ourselves. Both can be true.

See, I did it again. I said “my Jewish identity,” rather than “my identity as a Jew.” It must be fairly automatic after years of semantic practice. Perhaps, for now, being “Jewish” rather than “a Jew” is okay. It may be a way of protecting from pain I would feel otherwise.

Hopefully, in the future, I can just as easily say, “I’m a Jew.”


More on this topic: ‘Jew.’ Why does the word for a person of my religion sound like a slur?

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other word would smell as sweet

-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

My last name does not sound Jewish, and that’s because it’s not. Rondinelli is purely Italian. It means “little bird.” Sure, there were and are Italian Jews, but probably not with the last name “Rondinelli.” That makes me a rare specimen. My mother’s side is Jewish, and I was raised Jewish. So, I’m Jewish by all accounts, just not with a traditionally Jewish last name.

When I meet new people or fill out paperwork, I get asked a lot, “Are you Italian?” I nod and sometimes joke, “Yes. What gave it away?” since my last name makes it obvious that I’m Italian. But I’ve never been asked, “Are you Jewish?” off first impression alone. I don’t think people know I’m Jewish until I mention it outright. And that’s not to say that you can pick out who is Jewish by how they look or what their name sounds like, but a lot of us do share a lineage.

This lack of a Jewish-sounding name and immediate identifier bothers me sometimes. Even though I’ve barely practiced Judaism for the past five plus years, I still identify and will always identify as Jewish. Judaism is more than a religion for so many people, myself included. It’s part of my cultural identity. Some would even argue it’s my ethnicity. Being Jewish can never be taken away from me.

In contrast, I don’t feel very Italian and probably never will. I don’t have contact with any of those relatives on that side of the family, and I don’t engage with the culture besides eating lots of carbs. I can at least recite the prayers in Hebrew, but I can’t say a sentence in Italian. So, being Italian will never feel the same to me as being Jewish.

Because of this, I have seriously considered changing my last name. I’ve toyed with just chopping off a few syllables and having it be “Rondin,” or going with “Rondein” spelled like the classic, very Jewish “Stein.” The hassle and inconveniences though of legally changing my name have always beat out this urge.

Maybe one day I will change my name, but in the meantime, perhaps, it’s more important to question why I want a Jewish-sounding name so badly. If being Jewish can never be taken away from my identity, why does this identity need external validation. Why does it feel so fragile? I’m not sure.


The Role of a Rabbi?

Today, I went to Torah study for the first time in…well, ever.

I went because I’m working on getting more involved and making connections in my new community (I just moved). I went to Shabbat services last week, so I figured I would try out Torah study this week. Plus, I really like the Rabbi. She (yes, she) is incredibly warm and welcoming, so I’m inspired to go back each time.

We talked about why people study the Torah, and how for some it is because it is a commandment. For most Reform Jews though, we settled on it because because we want to, and specifically because we want the social connection.

Honestly, a lot of the conversation went over my head. It’s been over seven years since I was last in Sunday School, so my knowledge base is hazy at best. It’s in there somewhere, but it needs some digging out. Plus, I’ve never specifically read the Torah before with studying it as my intention.

My main takeaway from the conversation (and I’m not sure how we even got to this from Leviticus passages about performing sacrifices) was the role of the Rabbi in Judaism. Rabbi literally means “teacher” in Hebrew. How did I not know that until today? Yet, without knowing this translation, I still knew that was their role from experience, even if I didn’t contextualize it until now.

As our teacher, the Rabbi has taken on responsibility to lead the community. So yes, she is different from the congregation in a way. However, there is no hierarchy in Judaism, and she is not above us. Sure, some people put her on a pedestal, but as the Rabbi said, “I should climb down.” In contrast, in some faiths (pardon my oversimplification), the religious leaders are the intermediate between G-d and the congregation. Yet, in Judaism, the Rabbi does not pray for us; she prays with us.

I’m not trying to say one of these is “better” than the other, merely that I found this interesting. I learned something new.

So, I think I will go to Torah study again in the future, if not because it’s a commandment, to experience connection and to be taught.