153: PASSOVER New Jewish Memoirist Explores Brokenness and Nourishment

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L
isten to this voice!

Here’s the real-life setting: She wrote the following lines just 48 hours ago. Her Passover Seders are done for another year — and Lynne Schreiber’s marriage is nearly done, as well.

Filled with the spiritual and emotional turmoil of that moment, she turns to her keyboard and sends all of us the following words:
    “I’m 36. I’ve lived with an illusion for eight years. Now the illusion, the dream, is dissipating, and I have no idea what I’ll see in its place. I grip the armrests of my desk chair, my knuckles whiten.
    “I am tempted to close my eyes tightly in fear.”

Then — she writes these next words:
    “But I won’t. I have to keep my gaze straight.”

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    This is the voice of a brave and eloquent new spiritual memoirist, Lynne Schreiber. She’s already a successful writer, mainly for national magazines, and she’s also the author of several books, including poetry and nonfiction. (You can click on the cover of her book “Hide and Seek” below and find out more about that book.)
    Now, in addition to her work for print magazines, she has launched an online magazine she calls “Nourish Cafe,” where Lynne is exploring the creative possibilities of spiritual memoir. Live. Online. Real.
    And, from our perspective, she’s got her eyes, her heart and her mind fixed squarely on the true pathway into this genre: She is pursuing Truth, wherever Truth leads her, and she’s inviting us along for the journey.

    This isn’t just David Crumm, Editor of ReadTheSpirit, making these claims.

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    This is the truth from the mouth of the prophet of contemporary spiritual memoir. I’m talking about the writer, who — before Anne Lamott and Rob Bell and Brian McLaren and all the rest had so much as jotted down their first drafts — was out there pioneering this genre and attracting the positive attention of the New York Times Review of Books.
    I’m referring to the great Frederick Buechner, who put it this way in his memoir “Telling Secrets”:
    “I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition — that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”
    When I asked Buechner about this famous comment, in an interview with him some months ago, he even went further in talking about this point. He added this:
    “It’s more powerful than that, in a way: Every life tells the same story, I believe. … Not only do we all have our stories of ups and downs, nightmares and
high hopes in our lives. It’s more than that. We all really have the
same story only with minor variations. That’s the point of being a
memoirist: You’re not only telling your own story; you’re telling
everybody’s story and giving them another handle to hold onto their
lives.”

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    That’s why I love Lynne’s decision to hang a welcoming sign above her new online memoirs, labeling her sacred corner of the online realm: “Nourish Cafe.”
    Her underlying assumption in this unfolding memoir is that, despite life’s strange and sometimes painful turns — there is nourishment waiting for us.
    I’m fascinated by her voice — a smart, strong, observant Jewish woman fearlessly trying to figure out her own pathway — and confidently asking us to come along for the journey.

    “Where did your journey start?” I asked Lynne in a recent interview.
    She said, “When I was growing up, my parents were secular-Jewish. But, somehow, I always had a Pintle Yid — a Jewish spark. I can’t really tell you where that came from because most of the people in my family are pretty anti-tradition. They’ll have matzo-ball soup and a Passover seder and they’ll go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, but it’s obligatory and social — not necessarily scriptural or religious.
    “And here I came along, growing up as this very cerebral person, fascinated by how people prayed and how people thought about the world spiritually. When I was a sophomore in high school I had to write my first term paper. I chose to write about birth control and the Catholic church. At that point, I knew nothing about either subject. I had never been to a Catholic church. I didn’t know a thing about birth control. But I decided this was my topic for the paper.

    “That was an important point in my life,” she continued, “because I’ve always had this interest in how people find meaning in their lives and what values systems drive the way they live their lives. And I set out to research the Catholic church and how Catholic values were shaped.
    “By the time I got to college, I had a Catholic boyfriend. I would ask him questions about the Catholic church and he had lots of interesting answers. Then, he would ask me about Judaism and I didn’t know many answers. Now, I joke that it was my Catholic boyfriend who turned me into a religious Jew, because I had to go find answers to respond to his questions.
    “Once when I came home from school, I met with a rabbi to ask some questions and I remember that I didn’t get very satisfactory answers from him — at least for me. I met with priests at Catholic churches — and I actually loved going to Catholic churches with my boyfriend.
    “You see, I had never concretely believed in God growing up — really ever. God was never talked about in our house.
    “But one morning after I had gone to church with my boyfriend, I woke up and I just knew that I believed in God.
    “This scared me to death! I’d been to a church! I was a Jewish girl and I went to a church and now I believe in God! So, what did this mean?
    “I went and spoke to a priest at a Catholic church and I expected him to say: ‘Just become Catholic. Go for it.’ I thought to myself: Then, I can marry the Catholic boyfriend and it’ll all work out.
    “But this priest didn’t say that. He said: ‘You’ve got some questions. And, if you keep looking, I know you’ll find some answers.’
    “That wasn’t what I expected him to say.”

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    Lynne graduated from college in 1993 and headed into her career as a writer, starting in New York City as a reporter for a trade newspaper. Her Catholic connections continued.
    “I became friends with a guy who was trying to decide if he was going to go to the seminary and become a priest, or not.” But, one night, she and her friend decided to go see a new film by Steven Spielberg. “We went to see ‘Schindler’s List’ together. I went with this friend of mine and just cried and cried and I felt like: I can’t really not be Jewish.
    “What that moment crystallized in my life was a realization that I couldn’t betray my ancestry. I didn’t yet find real meaning in Judaism, but I couldn’t find what I needed in Christianity. Christianity is beautiful and full of wonderful spiritual metaphor. I loved going to church. I loved the way that church launches people into their week with inspiration. But I didn’t get the whole trinity idea. That didn’t resonate with me.
    “Eventually, I began to realize that what resonated with me in the church was the Judaism behind Christianity. I realized that if I wanted to explore that, I could find it in my own back yard.”

    I laughed when Lynne said that. “Dorothy Gale comes home!” I said.
    “Exactly! Exactly!” she laughed. “And, no, I didn’t marry the Catholic boyfriend.”

    Eventually, her work took her to Washington D.C., where she wrote for publications including the Washington Jewish Week newspaper.
    “That was another defining experience in my life. My beat as a reporter was Judaism. You know that to cover a beat, you’ve got to know it backwards and forwards.
    “One of my colleagues there was someone who returned to the faith and became religious. She’s a little younger than my mother and we were of different generations, but we became friends — and she would bait me about different things. She knew my family background as Reform and she’d ask me, ‘So what do the Reform say about this?’ Or, ‘What does Reform say about that?’ And she knew the answers already, but I had to go find the answers.
    “She kept inviting me to spend shabbat at her house. I kept putting her off and putting her off. Frankly, it terrified me to think of going. I had all these crazy ideas about what an Orthodox home would be like. I thought they didn’t flush toilets on the sabbath — I thought it was really old world and maybe disgusting. But finally, I agreed to go.
    “I was really nervous and that Thursday night I called my Dad who was secular and I thought he’d give me some kind of ‘out’ to avoid this. But he didn’t. He said, ‘You know, she’s already cooking for you, so you need to go and find out what it’s like.’
    “Then, I went and I fell in love with it! And, yes, they did flush toilets.”

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    Eventually, Lynne moved to Michigan. She was living as a religiously observant Jew, at that point, part of the Orthodox community.
    “This life is so wonderful. It’s the idea of setting aside a day every week. And having these two family meals — dinner and lunch — every week. And coming together as a community. And the silence of the day. And the smells of the day. It’s such a sensory-rich day. You turn off the TV. You don’t answer the phone. You don’t cook on shabbat. As busy as we are in our lives, the sabbath is completely a different world.
    “It’s because I fell in love with the sabbath that I started this quest to become observant as a Jew. I loved the sabbath and wanted the sabbath and all that comes with it — but you can’t have that in isolation. It’s all about experiencing it in a community. I have found in 10 or 13 years of being religious that you cannot go down this road alone. It becomes very lonely and you start questioning everything you’re doing, if you’re all alone.”

    She married a man she had known only a few months. All too soon, she was a married woman, wearing hats to cover her hair. She and her husband had three children. And, after about a decade in these new roles, Lynne was spiritually restless once again.
    “I have three amazing, wonderful children, but I began to realize that my wardrobe was very bland in color. I had become this woman who was covering her hair whenever I went out. I wasn’t writing as much, either. I began to realize that I didn’t really feel like ‘me’ anymore. I was not so happy.
    “The best way to describe it is that I literally began to feel that I had put a lid down over my personality — that I was trying to fulfill somebody else’s definition of what it means to be a religiously observant Jewish woman.
    “I was living with a rigidity that didn’t sit well with me.”

    That all culminated in a search you can read more about in Nourish Cafe — and some extremely difficult spiritual choices, including the divorce that she’s completing now.
    “I have come to the point where I have to start defining more things for myself,” Lynne said. “Now, I’m giving myself permission to ask — and to answer — questions about how I want to live as an observant Jew.
    “I have a lot of choices to make. I’ve decided that I want to keep Kosher as far as not eating non-Kosher foods or mixing dairy and meat — I want to keep Kosher in these ways. I do want to stay somewhere in the fabric of the observant community. But day by day, I’m making choices.
    “I don’t let my children turn on the TV or the CD player on the sabbath. But, I want my children to grow up knowing that there are a lot of ways of being authentically Jewish.”

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    Where did she come up with the name: Nourish Cafe?
    “Well, I thought of starting a business for a while. I wanted to launch a Kosher cafe called Nourish Cafe, a Kosher brunch place from like 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. with great baked goods and breakfasts and brunches and, at night, there would be speakers and poetry readings and so on. I thought of it as a place where we could bridge from Orthodox to Reform. We could bring lots of people together in one place to form community.
    “Except I came to realize that I know nothing about running a restaurant. As much as I love to cook — and I write about food and cooking for magazines — but I don’t know about running a business like that.
    “Then, I began to think about what was behind the concept. Behind it was my desire to create a place for people who might be looking for community and connection — some kind of bridge. It’s for people who aren’t finding it in traditional places. So, I thought: Why not use my real skills as a writer and design a web site that will become a virtual Nourish Cafe?”

    To all of that we say: Bravo! May Nourish Cafe welcome many readers into a warm new community. Today, we certainly welcome both Nourish Cafe, and Lynne Schreiber, as good friends of ReadTheSpirit.

    TELL US WHAT YOU THINK, PLEASE? You can click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online version of our story. Or, you can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.

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