Off the Shelf: Different life paths by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Both intermarried, but only one’s spouse converted. Both struggled with the religious aspects of Judaism, yet one felt strong enough about Zionism to make aliyah. Each became a writer, although their paths to being published greatly differed. Courtney Zoffness, who has won awards for her fiction and nonfiction, uses the essay format to explore her life in “Spilt Milk” (McSweeney’s), while Aaron Leibel, who won two Rockower Awards for Excellence (2018 and 2019) from the American Jewish Press Association, offers a more traditional memoir format in “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s” (Chickadee Prince Books).

Zoffness’ work is the more literary of the two, which makes sense since she’s taught writing at nearly a dozen institutions. Her focus is family – what is passed down from parents to children – and her search to find a way to feel comfortable in her own skin. The essay “The Only Thing We Have to Fear” talks about her parents’ irrational fears and how she so absorbed them that she suffered from panic attacks as a child. However, Zoffness also learns that fears can be real when she tells of a writing student who was “Hot for Teacher,” reading out loud an essay that was completely inappropriate and which left her feeling vulnerable and unprotected. 

In “Black Forest,” Zoffness notes how she felt so at home during a stay in Germany that she contemplates raising a family there – that is until she sees a stark reminder of that country’s past. Her young children take a major role in several essays, including “Boy in Blue,” in which her son so identifies with police officers that he “arrests” members of the family. “Ultrasound” looks at the author’s attempt to learn more of her mother’s life as a professional singer/songwriter – a time her mother refuses to discuss. 

Several essays center on Zoffness’ mixed feelings about Judaism. In “Daughter of the Commandment,” she focuses more on what did – and didn’t – happen at the party than at the bat mitzvah ceremony. A lost world is noted in “It May All End in Aleppo” when the author tries to imagine the Jewish Alleppo that existed before she was born. My favorite essay, though, is “Holy Body,” the longest one in the book and the only one in which Zoffness does not speak in the first person. Instead, she refers to herself in the second person “you” and talks herself through immersion in a mikvah. But this complex essay not only discusses how the author views her body, but what we are willing to give of ourselves physically to help others. The mikvah also gives Zoffness time to pause and think more deeply about her life. 

In “Spilt Milk,” Zoffness reveals her hopes and fears – allowing the reader to see the insecurities most people hide. She also notes her wish to believe in something beyond herself, even as she finds it nearly impossible to do so. These well-done essays left me curious about her fiction, which has yet to be published in book format. But if these essays are any example, Zoffness is a writer to watch.

While Zoffness is at the beginning of her career, Leibel, chief copy editor of the Washington Jewish Week, is near the completion of his. He looks back at his life, particularly the years he and his family lived in Israel. Although his wife, Bonnie, was not Jewish when they married, she converted after the Six-Day War. In fact, it was Bonnie who first suggested they move to Israel as Leibel was nearing the end of his Ph.D. program. They made aliyah with their two children (a third was born in Israel) and no job prospects. After a short time in Jerusalem, they moved to a kibbutz, but four years later realized it didn’t make financial sense to remain. With job opportunities limited, they moved back to Jerusalem. Bonnie quickly found work as a nurse, but Leibel learned that his Ph.D. left him overqualified for some jobs and with no skills for others. He worked at a hotel before deciding to be a journalist. 

After 16 years, Leibel and his wife decided to return to the U.S. The decision was based on financial considerations: if they remained in Israel, they would spend the rest of their lives in poverty and have no funds for retirement. So, Leibel, his wife and their two youngest daughters (the oldest one, who had already done her army service, remained in Israel) returned to the U.S. Their career paths were more successful in this country, but two of their children and many of their grandchildren now live in Israel.

“Figs and Alligators” (the title refers to how easy it is to confuse those two words in Hebrew) is an amiable look at the author’s time in Israel, including his yearly service in the army reserve. Leibel stays close to the surface in his discussions of everyday life and work in the country, although he does note some controversial political issues, for example, the fact that most ultra-Orthodox are exempt from army service. One ironic thing about his move back to the U.S.: Leibel was a secular Jew in Israel, but after his return became more involved in Judaism, now attending his synagogue daily.