North Shore travelers embark on a mission to discover Spain and Portugal’s Jewish past

JCC travelers at the Lisbon memorial to the Jewish massacre of 1506.

by Shelley A. Sackett

MARBLEHEAD – On Sept. 7, most of the 32 North Shore residents leaving on a 13-day trip to Spain and Portugal the next day were doing a last-minute check on their weather apps and adjusting their suitcases accordingly.

Billy Flaxer had other priorities. He had only one item on his “must pack” list – the velvet bag containing his tallis, tefillin, and kippah, items worn by Jews during weekday prayers. The retired pharmacist from Peabody, for whom davening is a daily ritual, decided he would put on his tallis and tefillin and recite the Shema in public locations where practicing Jews had historically prayed.

On this trip organized by the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead, those opportunities would be rare in the countries where the Spanish (1492) and Portuguese (1536) Inquisitions resulted in the expulsion, forced conversion, and death of hundreds of thousands of Iberian Jews. Today, Jewish Heritage Sites in these countries more often refer to places marked by plaques indicating where prosperous Jewish communities used to exist.

Yet Flaxer was able to fulfill his promise two times in Spain. The first was in Girona at the Jewish Museum located in the former Jewish quarter on the site of one of the town’s three synagogues, where he prayed “in remembrance of our fellow Jews who once lived and thrived in this town.” The other was in Toledo at the Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca, an 1190 Moorish synagogue that was converted to a Catholic church in the early 15th century.

“It was important to me that I pay tribute to the thousands of Spanish Jews who flourished in Spain until 1492,” Flaxer said.

The ambitious trip itinerary, which covered over 1,100 miles by bus and – in addition to Girona and Toledo – included stops in Barcelona, Zaragoza, Madrid, Granada, Seville, Evora, Lisbon, and Sintra, was part of the JCCNS’s travel program.

Diane Knopf, group travel leader, helped recruit and organize the trip and planned the three orientation sessions during which travelers had the chance to meet each other and ask questions about the trip. Originally scheduled for September 2020. the trip had been postponed twice due to the pandemic.

“I was awestruck by how quickly people who didn’t know each other before the trip formed a familial bond,” she said, a sentiment confirmed by fellow travelers as one of the highlights of their trip.

For Wendy Zimmer of Marblehead, waking up each day was “like getting a new surprise to open. What would our next hotel look like? What medieval town would we be walking through that day?”

Billy Flaxer prayed at the Toledo Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca.

In Barcelona, the La Sagrada Família Basilica, the largest unfinished Catholic church in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, was a trip favorite of both Alan and Donna Pierce from Beverly. “When I entered, my breath was taken away. I felt as if I had walked into a magical forest with the nature-themed columns that were so tall and bright and unlike other dark, Gothic cathedrals I’ve seen,” said Donna, a retired insurance claims manager.

A more whimsical stop was at the “Windmills of Don Quixote” on the road between Madrid and Granada. Twelve white tower windmills crown Cerro Calderico Mountain, surrounded by the sprawling plains of Castilla-La Mancha and backdropped by a striking medieval castle. These iconic towers are believed to be the windmills described by Miguel de Cervantes in his famous novel, “Don Quixote” (part 1, 1605, and part 2, 1615).

The group toured the historic Lisbon synagogue on the final day of the trip. Called Shaaré Tikvah (Gates of Hope), it was inaugurated in 1904 as the first synagogue built in Portugal since the late 15th century. The historic and functioning house of worship hosts Friday night, Shabbat and holiday services, and follows Sephardic customs. With 900 member families, its 450 seats cannot accommodate all who want to attend High Holiday services.

Sandra Montez, a Lisbon native and local guide, was a wealth of information about the Portuguese city’s past and present. She chronicled the history of the synagogue and described the current social and religious climate in Lisbon.

The Lisbon Synagogue especially moved Jean Guastaferri, who lives in Marblehead and is retired from the Massachusetts Council Against Discrimination. “As a non-Jew, I enjoyed learning more about the deep roots of Jews and Jewish history in Iberia and how the Jews and Moors lived peacefully together for so many centuries,” she said.

“Simply walking through where ‘the Jews used to be’ strained our collective imaginations,” said Salem attorney and historian Alan Pierce. The utter lack of official, public acknowledgment of the contribution that Jews made to Spain and Portugal before the Inquisitions troubled Judy Mishkin of Salem. “We saw a few symbols of where the Jews lived, but I believe there should have been much more recognition,” the senior caregiver consultant said.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of reactions were positive. Everyone experienced that special bolt of wonder travelers crave. For one, it was shock at the heavy traffic in and out of Barcelona and Madrid. Another interacted with locals and improved her Spanish skills. And it was impossible not to marvel at the breathtaking scenery of the Spanish and Portuguese countryside.

Mishkin echoed her fellow travelers when asked about her biggest takeaway: “The absolutely tremendous amount of planning that goes into a trip of this magnitude,” she answered without a moment’s hesitation.

For additional information about the JCCNS’ travel program, contact Adult Program Director Sara Ewing at sewing@jccns.com

Book your ticket to hear eight top authors at the Marblehead JCC’s speaker series

The 28th Annual Jewish Book Month Speaker Series will be held at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore.

by Shelley A. Sackett

MARBLEHEAD – Once again, culture vultures on the North Shore are in luck. From Oct. 12 until Nov. 29, the 28th Annual Jewish Community Center of the North Shore Jewish Book Month Speaker Series in Marblehead will treat locals to in-person conversations with seven authors and a virtual interview with another, and a catered lunch in memory of Susan Steigman, a former JCCNS staff member, longtime JBM committee member, and dedicated JCCNS volunteer.

JBM cochairs Sylvia Belkin and Patti McWeeney and their committee have selected a bang-up roster of eight non-fiction, mystery, memoir, historical fiction, and cookbook authors. Sharon and Howard Rich continue as longstanding cultural benefactors. Discounted ticket packages to all events are available at $165 for members and $180 for non-members.

Opening night features two-time Peabody Award-winning writer and CBS News “60 Minutes” producer Ira Rosen, who will talk about his revealing tell-tale memoir, “Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes.” The book – dubbed “a 60 Minutes story on 60 Minutes itself” – details the intimate and untold stories of Rosen’s decades at America’s most iconic news show, including war room scenes of clashing producers, anchors, and correspondents like the legendary Mike Wallace. The Oct. 12 event at 7 p.m. at the JCCNS is $30 and includes a reception.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, journalist, lecturer, social activist, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, and the author of 12 books, will speak about her latest, “Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy.” Fears of shanda (shame or disgrace in Yiddish) and public humiliation and an overarching desire to fit in drove three generations of her immigrant family to lie and cover up long suppressed secrets. Pogrebin unmasks their hidden lives – including her own long suppressed secret – and showcases her family’s talent for reinvention in an engrossing and illuminating narrative. This writer will interview her on Zoom on Oct. 19, which can be seen by a live audience and also at home – both for $20.

Marblehead resident and best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin will speak about his latest book, “Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution” on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. at the JCCNS ($20 includes a reception). Dolin contends that privateers (aka pirates), thousands of whom tormented British ships, were critical to the war’s outcome. Abounding with tales of daring maneuvers and deadly encounters, Dolin’s book reveals the history of this critical period in the nation’s founding in a way rarely documented.

Two historical novels, set against the backdrop of World War II, bring life and romance to very different stories. Based on the true account of Coco Chanel’s war-time romance with a German spy and how that affair led to her arrest for treason following the liberation of Paris, author Gioia Diliberto, who will be interviewed by JCCNS past president Izzi Abrams, takes a closer look at Chanel, her powerful personality, and her activities during the occupation of France in “Coco at the Ritz.” (Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. at the Boston Yacht Club for $30.

Weina Randel’s “The Last Rose of Shanghai,” set in 1940 when the city was occupied by Japan, brings to life Shanghai’s history as a haven for Jewish refugees as well as its dynamic jazz scene, all through a heart-rending and timeless love story. (Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. at the JCCNS. $20 includes reception)

In partnership with the Consulate General of Israel to New England, chef and restaurateur Avi Shemtov will talk about “The Simcha Cookbook,” which celebrates the traditions of Shemtov’s Turkish-Israeli heritage and recreates the delectable dishes those familiar with his Sharon restaurant have come to cherish. The event, in memory of Susan Steigman, is on Nov. 13 at 11 a.m. at the JCCNS. $30 includes lunch.

Beloved bestselling writer B.A. Shapiro will speak about her masterful novel of psychological suspense, “Metropolis,” on Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. at the JCCNS ($20 includes a reception). In her latest, Shapiro follows a cast of six intriguing characters with no obvious ties to each other except they all store goods at the same warehouse in Cambridge. After a fatal accident, their precariously balanced lives are torn apart in this page-turning mystery.

Closing the series is “The Imposter’s War,” a riveting narrative about intrigue and espionage by Mark Arsenault. Arsenault has covered national politics, gambling, and worked on Spotlight Team investigations as a staff reporter for the Boston Globe, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. In his first nonfiction book, he tells the stranger-than-fiction story of the efforts of John Rathom, the Australian-born editor of the scrappy Providence Journal, to shift American attitudes toward involvement in World War I after Germany spent the modern equivalent of $1 billion to infiltrate American media, industry, and government in the hopes of undermining the supply chain of Allied forces. Without the ceaseless activity of this editor, America may have remained committed to its position of neutrality. Yet, Rathom was not even his real name! Arsenault asks and answers the question: who was this great, beloved, and ultimately tragic imposter? (Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. at the JCCNS. $20 includes a reception.)

The Jewish Community Center of the North Shore is located at 4 Community Road, Marblehead. For more information and to buy tickets, go to
jccns.org/jewish-book-month

All books can be purchased through Copperdog Books in Beverly at copperdogbooks.com/jewish-book-month

Swampscott mother connecting hungry babies with donated formula

Keiko Zoll singlehandedly launched a nationwide site to match those needing baby formula with donors. Photo: Steven A. Rosenberg/Journal Staff

By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT — Until her mom, who lives in New Jersey, casually mentioned the nationwide baby formula shortage to Keiko Zoll, news of the crisis was not on her radar. While Zoll was aware of the Abbott formula recall in February, as the mother of a 9-year-old son she hadn’t given it a second thought. “Recalls happen all the time,” she told the Journal, “and I’m a bit removed from the early parenting space.”

Sitting in her car, the nonprofit communications professional tuned into a podcast, “The Baby Formula Crisis,” to learn more. What she heard left her shaken and sobbing in her Swampscott driveway.

Story after story of mothers going to desperate lengths just to feed their babies unleashed memories of what it was like for her when her son was born six weeks prematurely and she had to locate a specialty formula that was critical to his survival and hard to find. She couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to deal with the added stress of a nationwide shortage at the same time.

An interview with a mother ready to pay hundreds of dollars for a single can of formula was Zoll’s tipping point. “As a mother, as a human being, how could anyone not empathize with these women?” she said. “For me, knowing there are babies who may die if they don’t receive the formula they need to survive – it was just too much.”

She knew she had to do something. That night, after her work as director of communications for the Boston Schools Fund, she started building a website to connect families who need formula with those able to donate it.

Just before midnight on Friday, May 13, the Free Formula Exchange website went live. Zoll emailed 300 personal and professional contacts in her network announcing its launch. By the end of the first week, there were 10,000 requests and 1,000 donors from all over the country.

“While this platform doesn’t increase the supply of formula, it does leverage existing supply that most people don’t realize they have access to,” she said.

Zoll and her son in 2013. The baby was born six weeks premature.

Zoll said she was outraged and disgusted by reports of people price-gouging formula online. She emphasized that freeformula.exchange is 100 percent free. Users must create an account to access its database, but no money exchanges hands.

“It was important to me to design a solution that removed the marketplace from the transaction. Cost shouldn’t be a barrier to feeding children.”

Zoll is no stranger to rolling up her sleeves when it comes to helping others. She is a founding member of the Swampscott Antiracism Caucus and helped organize March Like a Mother for Black Lives in Boston in June, 2020, in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. She has volunteered extensively for and served on the board of RESOLVE New England, a nonprofit supporting those struggling with infertility.

She is also a member of the Tzedek LaKol: Justice for All committee at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, where she sits on the temple’s board of directors.

Zoll emphasizes that her experiences as a biracial woman have informed her activism throughout her adult life. “I know what it feels like to be unseen and unheard,” she said, referencing the bias, discrimination, and marginalization she has encountered

In addition, her personal values, which “exist at the intersection of Jewish belief and Japanese tradition,” have strongly influenced her volunteerism. She credits the Jewish emphasis on tikkun olam (repair the world) and the Japanese cultural belief known as wabi-sabi (an acceptance of the imperfection of life) as major guiding forces.

“My worldview settles into a comfortable space between these two beliefs: one that accepts our human flaws and also fights for just causes.”

Zoll knows firsthand how draining and overwhelming the onslaught of negative news can be. “It’s especially hard to be a parent in America right now. There are so few systemic supports and inequities abound,” she said.

She urges everyone who can to help out with the nationwide baby formula shortage, whether by scouring stores for formula to donate or simply providing a compassionate ear or shoulder or hug to support those parents who are totally stressed out.

“There are many ways we can all practice chesed (acts of loving-kindness) to our fellow humans in their time of need,” she said.

For more information and to request or donate formula, visit freeformulaexchange.com or follow @FormulaExchange on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Marblehead teen runs the Zoom camera at Shirat Hayam

Lucas Rosen at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott

By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT — Although formal Hebrew School technically ends after grade 7 and a bar or bat mitzvah at Congregation Shirat Hayam, many teens still want to remain involved in synagogue life. One way is through the Center for Jewish Education Madrichim (counselor or leader) Program. By helping out in the Shirat religious school lower grades, these teens serve as role models for the younger students as they continue to learn and grow.

Marblehead eighth-grader Lucas Rosen, however, has found his own way to combine staying connected with his love for video editing, and it is a win-win for both Lucas and CSH. Every Friday night and Saturday morning, he runs the Zoom that allows congregants to enjoy services from the comfort of their homes. His is also the friendly face that sits at the front doors, greeting those coming to services in-person, and checking their Covid vaccination cards.

Lucas, whose parents are Amanda French and Noah Rosen, says he started video editing when he was younger because he wanted to make “really good” YouTube videos and realized he lacked the editing skills and experience to make that happen. The problem was, he didn’t have anything to practice with because he lacked motivation to record his own videos. Then, the pandemic struck in 2020 and for Lucas, its silver lining was the desktop computer he received.

With more powerful and sophisticated programs now at his fingertips, his love for video editing suddenly flourished when people who needed edited videos asked him for help. Soon, he had a cache of material to work on.

He also “really got into gaming” and started doing observation for a video league he played in, essentially becoming the cameraman for video game matches. “I really enjoyed the virtual camera work. Doing it in real life seemed like the next step,” he said.

That opportunity arose when CSH President Ruth Estrich suggested that Perry Hallinan, whose team livestreamed Shirat’s High Holy Day services in 2000 and 2001, ask Lucas if he wanted to help his crew film this year’s Purim Spiel.

Although Lucas had plenty of video experience, he had never gotten behind a real camera until Purim. Hallinan spent an hour teaching him how to operate the 70-200mm lens camera, which easily slips out of focus. “It was nerve wracking. I was stressed I was going to mess something up and ruin it,” he said. Over 150 people packed the synagogue and Lucas says he kept thinking about how many more would watch the finished product.

Rabbi Michael Ragozin (left) and Lucas Rosen (rear wearing a red mask) during Shirat Hayam’s Purim Spiel

His camera station was at the back of the sanctuary, where he recorded the wide establishing shot to capture the action on stage. After 15 minutes or so, he felt like he had the hang of it. “Perry was very nice and trusted me to do things correctly. He didn’t control my every move,” Lucas said.

Hallinan, who has mentored many high school students throughout his career, was impressed by Lucas. “It was great to see Lucas be very present while recording the Purim celebration. He was able to engage with the community through filmmaking, and that was very cool to witness,” he said.

Hallinan has worked as a documentary filmmaker since graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 1998, primarily with independent teams of filmmakers. His recent projects have included educational films about the importance of watershed systems in Salem and Manchester-by-the-Sea; training films for regional municipalities, and short films about telehealth medicine for the Veterans Administration and American Legions.

He also created the Salem Sketches Program with filmmaking colleague Joe Cultrera for the all-documentary Salem Film Fest, and teaches film production classes at the Phoenix School and Peabody Essex Museum. He is a series editor for PEM’s podcast and an independent editor on a series of films for the Basketball Hall of Fame for Boston-based Northern Light Productions (NLP).

“I’m always looking for new areas to explore where I can bring my talents as a storyteller to make an impact,” Hallinan said.

His first boss in the business was Shirat congregant and Swampscott resident Lenny Rotman, who is senior producer at NLP and recommended Hallinan for the High Holy Day jobs. “The introduction to the Shirat Hayam community opened up an unexpected area for me – to live broadcast a spiritual community into people’s homes. Who would have thought that a pandemic could create a meaningful bridge like this?” Hallinan said.

Hallinan looks forward to working with Lucas during the Purim editing process. With footage from three cameras, there will be plenty of material to choose from to tell the story. “The editing stage takes a lot of patience and focus, and Lucas has that,” he said.

Lucas hopes to take an editing-related elective next year at Marblehead High School. “This was a good next step in my filming/editing journey,” he said, adding that he hopes more opportunities with Hallinan await him at Shirat.

Hallinan sees the work he does with students as a way to give back to the community and share tools and basic skills with young people. “With all these projects, the commonality for success is in building relationships,” he said.

Sex and serious journalism co-mingle in an intimate memoir on kink and polyamory

Rachel Krantz’s new book ‘Open’ breaks the glass wall of taboo while serving as a guide for self-liberation and avoiding gaslighting in any relationship

Rachel Krantz, author of the new memoir, ‘OPEN.’ (Courtesy/ Malika Danae Photography)

By Shelley A. Sackett

Nine years ago, at age 27, award-winning journalist Rachel Krantz was on a second date with Adam, a 38-year-old professor and author. His academic research focused mainly on the psychology of romantic and sexual desire, specifically regarding “triangulation,” more commonly known as the “love triangle.”

Krantz was not just intrigued; she was aroused intellectually, emotionally and sexually — and that was before Adam told her he was interested in their sharing a non-monogamous relationship, with her as his primary partner.

Within months, Krantz was dipping a toe into unchartered waters, exploring Brooklyn sex parties and the wider swinger and polyamorous communities.

From 2015 to 2019, Krantz documented her first journey into non-monogamy and the world of dominance and submission with the seriousness and professionalism a travel journalist would bring to a trek to the North Pole. She interviewed scientists, psychologists and practitioners of various forms of non-monogamy. She plowed through dozens of scholarly and anecdotal articles and books. She kept a journal and taped her therapy sessions. She documented her thoughts and experiences in explicit, frank detail — the good, the bad and the ugly.

The result is her recently published début memoir, “Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation and Non-Monogamy,” a unique blend of open journalism, highly personal memoir and heavily reported nonfiction.

‘Open,’ by Rachel Krantz. (Courtesy/ Harmony House)

Krantz leaves no stone unturned as she chronicles her deep dive into polyamory with page-turning stories and scholarly research. She fearlessly shares her experiences with open relationships, from the highs of heart-opening connections with the men and women she dates to the lows of her battles with jealousy, gaslighting and coercion.

“This book is different from a lot of books about non-monogamy in that it’s not arguing for or against or providing a ‘how-to’ guide,” says Krantz. “It’s really about the messy parts, with a lot of depiction about how things go wrong a lot of the time. But it’s not an agenda either way. It’s just telling a story.”

The Times of Israel spoke to Krantz by phone from her apartment in Sacramento, California, where she was happily curled up in her pajamas.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Times of Israel: Polyamorous relationships as an alternative to monogamy seem to have burst out of the closet lately, with many studies and articles on the subject. Why do you think that is?

Rachel Krantz: Mainly because monogamy isn’t working for most people. Despite the stereotype that men are more likely to cheat, women report cheating at equal or higher rates to men, and are more likely to lose interest sexually in long-term live-in relationships. Most people who are “dating” have practiced non-monogamy, in that there is often some unspoken overlap between partners. Serial monogamy is of course common, and half of marriages end in divorce. I think people are looking for ways to have long-term committed partnerships without giving up all future romantic and sexual novelty.

You were a journalist before penning “Open.” Were those reporting pieces as personal as your book?

Not quite as personal, because “Open” is about as personal a book as you can get. But, often I’ve gravitated to first-person journalism. I wrote personal essays about my experience with anti-depressants, the [birth control] pill and marijuana, for example.

What made you decide to write “Open” when you did?

After years of being gaslit in my primary relationship, and having recorded so much of that emotional abuse as it was happening, I wanted to help others in that situation by retracing how that had unfolded for me. I also wanted to come back to a sense of trust in my own mind and reality after so many years of being told my perceptions weren’t true, or that I wasn’t capable.

In addition, I wanted to challenge the Madonna-Whore binary that says either a woman writes explicitly about her psychosexual reality, or she is respectable. As I say in the book, why is a man climbing Mt. Everest considered award-winning journalism, while a woman writing about her sex life and plumbing her most extreme psychosexual depths is considered sexual erotica? It’s a big part of the political statement of my book: No, I am both a sexual being and an intellectual force to be respected. The Madonna-Whore binary is false.

I did over five years’ of reporting and research and immersion journalism living this story, including dozens and dozens and dozens of interviews. It’s also a sexy ride, and both those things are not contradictions. I felt better positioned than most women to make that statement, in that I wouldn’t lose my family, job or children. So I wanted to push the limits of what a woman is “allowed” to admit to.

What were your parents’ reactions when you told them you were polyamorous?

It was lucky and unusual in that my parents are very open-minded. They didn’t ask for a lot of details about how it worked. It was just part of the reality of things. I remember it not being a big deal and feeling grateful for that, but I also didn’t feel so comfortable that I wasn’t really talking about any details in the same way with my mom that I might talk about the primary relationship with Adam. They hadn’t heard too much about other people I was dating, I also wasn’t really talking much about being bisexual. Again, I knew they would accept it; it was just my own kind of internalized shame or feeling like I didn’t want to “make a big deal out of it” that kept me from talking about it.

Was your lifestyle accepted to a degree where you were invited or asked to bring both your primary and polyamorous partners to family events?

I think on the outside, we presented as pretty traditional, even if they knew I was non-monogamous. I was part of his family and he was part of mine. We would attend family events together, but we weren’t bringing our other partners with us. So, from the outside, it all seemed pretty conventional.

Growing up, did religion and synagogue play a role in your family?

I grew up in the Bay Area of California. My parents are New Yorkers, first-generation Americans, making me second generation. My grandparents were from Poland and Lithuania. My parents were raised pretty religiously and maintained a love of Judaism in their identity, although with less strictness than how they were raised. I went to a Conservative instead of Orthodox synagogue and attended a Jewish Day School through 8th grade, but in the Bay Area, these schools were more liberal.

For example, in one class we’d study Torah, but there was a real emphasis on social justice and feminism. So, I guess I grew up on a pretty liberal brand of Judaism. It was important for me, to be sure.

When I went to a private but not Jewish high school, it was a bit of a rude awakening for me, because it was in a part of the Bay Area where there were a lot of blond people. I remember I started straightening my hair at first, and feeling like I had to look a certain way. I got over that and found my group of people, but it was definitely a different culture.

Is there any “Jewishness” in your life as an adult?

Culturally, I identify with my Jewishness strongly and Yiddish came through when I was writing “Open.” In the footnotes, I included some translations, so people could learn some Yiddish. I do find that the older I get, the less drawn I am to ritual celebrations and holidays. Becoming a vegan, I think it’s become harder to do things like a Passover seder with my family, where eating animals is a big part of it. But, I’m always open to finding a new community that is celebrating in a way I can connect to, and I’m proud to be Jewish.

There are so many ways in which people today define — or don’t define — their relationships and themselves. What do you think about that? How do you identify?

I’m still wary of labels, but increasingly feel there is also power in owning them. I’m comfortable calling myself a bisexual, polyamorous woman. Bisexual means the same to me as pansexual, potentially attracted to all genders. I just know who I like when I meet them! I feel that more than anything, I am “fluid.” I can go through periods of physical monogamy in a relationship (like during the pandemic), but emotionally, I think I will always be non-monogamous.

What do you find most rewarding and most challenging about being in a polyamorous relationship?

Now that I’m in a different primary relationship, with someone I communicate a lot better with and feel a lot safer with, what I like most about being non-monogamous is a sense that my future is not written in the romantic realm. I still have that sense of an open-ended possibility of, “Oh, I might experience another love again,” or I might have meaningful connections with other people, without feeling like I’m cheating on my partner or like I might lose him. I like that I can both have a long-term partnership and not have to give up one of my favorite aspects of life, which is having new romantic experiences and connections with people.

In the book, the most challenging aspect of polyamory was definitely jealousy. At this point, what I struggle with sometimes is learning how to compartmentalize, so even if I am polyamorous and definitely capable of loving more than one person at once, you’re still under the social script that taught you that those people are in competition with each other or that you have to choose primarily one of them. It can be confusing when you’re entering into a new relationship with someone and you have new, novelty-based chemicals flowing, and you’re obsessed with wanting to see them, but you don’t want to neglect in the present moment the partner who’s been there longer. It can be tricky.

As much as it’s actually quite easy for me to love more than one person, it can be harder to figure out how to navigate that in a way that’s practical. But I think I’m learning more all the time about how to do that.

Have readers of your book asked you for advice about whether they should try polyamory? What do you tell them?

Yes! I tell them I think you should go for it — but have lots of support! Read books like “Open,” “The Ethical Slut,” and “Love In Abundance.” Listen to podcasts like “Multiamory,” and try to find a therapist or counselor who either specializes in non-monogamy or is listed as a kink-friendly therapist. It’s also a great idea to join polyamorous and/or swinger Facebook groups and local meetups to have a sense of community norms, and a place to go to ask questions.

Have you had readers reach out to you personally and thanked you for having written this book?

Yes, I am hearing from people directly. Someone told me that she read one of the chapters about gaslighting four times, and she realized she had been unable to understand and forgive herself for going through that experience. She told me she felt free now. I heard from another reader that she was able to leave an unhealthy relationship after reading the book. Those kinds of messages have been incredibly meaningful to me.

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

I hope readers will see that they should be able to write their own “Happily Ever After,” and that there are lots of options in between total monogamy and relationship-anarchy-style polyamory. For example, women with men might be surprised to learn that it is such a common fantasy for many men to see their partner with another man — but that’s rarely talked about! Seems like a win-win, even for women who don’t want to deal with jealousy. There’s swinging, there’s primary/secondary polyamory, there are relationships that are only open on one side. Reading “Open,” you get a taste of what all these options might look like, some of the pros and cons. I also hope my book will show the consequences of not communicating clearly about power dynamics in relationships, and give ideas for how to practice BDSM [an acronym for a variety of sexual practices that involve bondage, dominance, and submission/sadomasochism] more safely.

Your book is very explicit in its sexual descriptions. Have you gotten any pushback on that? Were your editor and publisher on board from the get-go or did you have to persuade them that it was integral to your story?

I was expecting I would have to, but my editor Donna Loffredo never tried to censor me and neither did my publisher [Harmony Books, a division of Penguin Random House]. One publisher, who I didn’t go with, asked me in our meeting, “But what do your parents think?” But, Donna never asked things like that. She was willing to have me go wherever I wanted to go, and so was Harmony, which is to their credit because it was really outside anything they’d published before.

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Was the Gangster Meyer Lansky a Mensch?


Meyer Lansky

Lansky as pictured in Lang’s graphic novel.

Photo Credit: Illustration by Andrea Mutti and Shawn Martinbrough/Courtesy Jonathan Lang

By Shelley Sackett

When Jonathan Lang ’98 set out to write a graphic novel about the notorious Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, he was determined to capture the mobster’s life in all its moral complexity.

The result is 2019’s “Meyer,” for which Lang wrote the story and text (illustrations by Andrea Mutti and Shawn Martinbrough), a fictionalized account of Lansky’s last days hiding out in a Miami nursing home in the 1980s.

In the book, Lansky has one last caper to commit, and while it leads to plenty of murder and mayhem, it also exposes his menschy side – his connection to his Judaism, devotion to his grandfather and support of Israel.

“In my version, Meyer was a businessman and proud Jew,” Lang said. “My Meyer is kind of a Jewish geriatric hero.”

Lansky’s Life

Born Maier Suchowljansky in 1902 in what is now Belarus, Lansky and his family fled antisemitism in 1911, landing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He got involved initially with bootlegging and small-time gambling, but then rose through the ranks to become known as “Mob’s Accountant,” running casinos and nightclubs for organized crime in Las Vegas, Cuba and Florida.

Lang sees Lansky’s career choice as very much the result of antisemitism in America at the time. Lang himself had relatives in Brooklyn in the 1940s who worked as numbers runners.

“Lansky didn’t accept the terms life offered him. He took what he wanted,” Lang said. “It wasn’t a matter of morality. It was a matter of survival.”

Lang said it remains unknown to what extent Lansky participated in the violence committed by some of his best-known associates such as “Bugsy” Siegel and “Lucky” Luciano.

The FBI portrayed him as the financial brains behind the mob’s operations — “he would have been chairman of the board of General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business,” an agent once said — but even that is uncertain. A 1991 biography portrayed him as a failed businessman who bungled the mob’s casino operations in Cuba.

In 1970, Lansky was indicted for tax evasion. He fled to Israel but was refused the right to settle there. It was a devastating blow to the mobster, who had always hoped to be buried beside his beloved grandfather on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

Lansky was eventually acquitted of some of the charges against him while others were dropped, partly because he was in ill health. He lived quietly in Miami until his death in 1983.

Lang Learns About Lansky

Lang’s fascination with Lansky goes back to his childhood, when his father, a neurosurgeon, saw the gangster in the hallway of a Florida hospital.

Lang’s father described Lansky, who was 5-feet 4-inches tall, as “this well-dressed little pisher” [Yiddish for a presumptuous person]. Lansky had the whole hospital hustling around to help him, radiating a presence that commanded respect. “My father said he never saw anything like it,” Lang said.

Lang said he had his own rebellious streak while growing up. He hung out with troublemakers and nearly got kicked out of Alexander Muss High School in Tel Aviv, which offers American students a year abroad in Israel.

“Kindness toward my bubbie [Yiddish for grandmother], performing tikkun olam [repairing the world] and still cutting class were exactly who I was,” he said. “I straddled the line, at times.”

After getting his master’s in film at the University of Amsterdam in 2000, Lang moved back to Florida, living in his childhood bedroom, surrounded by his baby pictures and bar mitzvah mementos.

Depressed, he sought comfort and refuge at the local library.

It was kismet that he picked up “Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals from the Pilgrims to the Present,” a book he remembered using to write a report about Al Capone in the sixth grade. Thumbing through the book, he found the picture that would launch his novel.

A dapper Meyer, wearing sunglasses, was walking his little dog Bruiser in Miami Beach, looking over his shoulder. The FBI had taken the picture. “When was Lansky in Miami? Who was he watching out for?” Lang wondered.

Lang also thought back to his time at Brandeis when he volunteered as a companion to the elderly at a local retirement home. There, he met Fred Flagg, an amazing 103-year-old member of the first graduating class at Tufts Medical School.

They got together once a week, and Lang would sit and soak up his beguiling stories. “What if my community service was with a gangster?” Lang thought to himself, and that gave him the idea of setting his book in a nursing home.

Lang also read about how Lansky secretly worked with the U.S. Navy during World War II to spot German U-boats along the New York City docks he controlled. “This is a man who was both needed and prosecuted by the same government. How do you reconcile that?” Lang asked.

Lang Meets Lansky II

In another instance of kismet, Lang was busy promoting his book on Instagram last fall. While checking his direct messages, he saw one that stopped him cold. “This is Meyer Lansky. I need to talk to you about your book,” it read.

Terrified, Lang says his first thought was, “Is this his ghost?” After a quick search, he realized it was his grandson, Meyer Lansky II.

Lang called Lansky II, and the two hit it off. Lansky II liked the book so much that he offered to write a blurb endorsing it.

Lang and Lansky II are now discussing a synagogue tour and other appearances.

“What a bizarre turn,” Lang said. “An imaginary biography led to a relationship with walking history.”

Event planner reflects on 40 years of catering the banquets of life

Bruce Silverlieb, The Party Specialist

By Shelley A. Sackett

LYNN — When Bruce Silverlieb, 61, was a 15-year-old growing up in Swampscott, he took a babysitting job to make extra spending money. That job set the trajectory of the rest of his life.

He started making dinner as part of his babysitting duties. Parents hired him whenever they entertained, and word spread. At 16, he printed his first business cards. The Party Specialist was born.

In April 1982, Silverlieb rented the space at 530 Chestnut St. in Lynn and The Party Specialist has called it home ever since.

A lot has changed in the event planning industry over 40 years, Silverlieb said. Small plates and passed hors d’oeuvres have replaced formal sit-down dinners. Production Manager Tammy Choquette of Lynn, Head Chef Richard “Richie” Mintzer of Swampscott, and Silverlieb are all certified in Food Allergy Awareness to accommodate a dramatic increase in special diet requests. Choquette joined the business in 1983 and Mintzer one year later.

Although The Party Specialist is primarily a catering service, clients sometimes request that the team organize the entire event. They have handled events for 3,000 people and tented affairs with a field kitchen lacking access to water or electricity. “Our adaptability allows us to create very special parties even in the most difficult situations,” Silverlieb said.

Silverlieb also works with clients to accommodate unusual requests, such as orchestrating a performance by silk trapeze artists over the guest table in a Boston castle or arranging fireworks displays as a bride and groom depart in a helicopter. “I like being the guy who says ‘yes,’” Silverlieb said with a smile.

He attributes his four decades’ longevity to three things: this “say yes” philosophy, his insistence on quality, and the loyalty and experience of his staff.

“In an industry known for high turnover, we boast an amazing team,” Silverlieb said with pride about the people who feel like family as much as employees. “It’s not unusual to have three generations of staff at a party,” he added.

SIlverlieb, who lives in Marblehead with his husband Dr. Mark Korson, admits that surviving COVID as a small business was the hardest challenge of his career, but is optimistic. “I just want to keep doing exactly what I am doing now,” he said.

CSH, JCCNS partner with theater company to present unique Women’s Seder

CSH, JCCNS partner with theater company to present unique Women’s Seder

Tiffany Moalem (l) and Kimberly Green (r) will perform stories at the Women’s Seder.

By Shelley A. Sackett

Why is this year’s Passover different from other years?

Because this year, the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore and Congregation Shirat Hayam have teamed up to partner with The Braid (formerly the Jewish Women’s Theatre) to put on a hybrid Women’s Seder that will interweave Zoomed professional story performances with the text of the women’s Haggadah the team has created.

“The broad themes of encouraging each of us to free ourselves to be ourselves might seem only individual. But when we see a group of women around us wrestling with the same issues — trying to uncover and accept who each of us is beneath all of our expectations, responsibilities and self-denials — we realize we are more similar than different,” said Janis Knight, Director, Center for Jewish Education at CSH.

It all started when Sara Ewing, JCCNS Director of Adult Programs, reached out to Knight, who has run a CSH Women’s Seder for years, asking if she wanted to partner with the JCCNS. Ewing had received a grant from the Jewish Women’s Endowment Fund. Knight was immediately on board.
“Collaborations are key in getting the word out, sharing resources, and building a sense of community,” Ewing said.

Ewing was introduced to The Braid at a national JCC conference. She liked the company’s creative approach and she and Knight reached out to the California-based group to work together and bring something innovative and different to the North Shore community.

Jodi Marcus, Community Partnership Lead at The Braid, explained how their unique process works. First, she asks if there is a particular theme the organization wants to explore and the number of stories they want presented. To create a unique Haggadah, as they are doing in this case, Ronda Spinak, The Braid Founder and Artistic Director, suggests specific stories that illuminate the theme — some funny, some thought-provoking and some that might elicit a tear.

“We are thought partners,” Marcus explained.
The team selects stories to highlight JCCNS/CSH’s theme of “Journeys to Liberation – Transcendence, Acceptance, and Freedom to Reveal Our True Identities.” They then forward those stories to the JCCNS/CSH team for approval, and determine how they’d like to integrate the stories into the Haggadah, including room for writings, prayers or songs that are meaningful to the community.

The Braid’s virtual partnership will bring a creative and modern twist to an ancient tradition. Their stories, performed live for an online audience, are guaranteed to punctuate and enrich the seder experience.

Cantor Sarah Freudenberger, who is excited to help create and participate in the event, will enhance the morning with her musical talents. “I am excited to see what Passover is like at Shirat Hayam, and to add my own music to the story,” she said.

Before the seder, The Braid and local team will have a technical rehearsal to ensure the event will flow smoothly. Knight, in particular, is thrilled (and relieved) to have been able to hire someone to focus on the timing and production of the Zoom event.

Since 2008, The Braid has pioneered a new theatrical art form called Salon Theatre, a compilation of true stories curated around a theme meant to illuminate the human condition. This unique art form sits at the intersection of theater and storytelling, giving voice to diverse contemporary stories grounded in Jewish culture and experience that can be performed anywhere.

The Braid doesn’t use sets, props or costumes. Rather, the experience is meant to be intimate and engaging, whether on Zoom or in person. “Touching hearts and leaving no Jewish story untold is at the core of what we do,” Marcus said.

The Braid will perform many stories, including: the retooling of Dayeinu (“It would have been enough”) into a rap song; a mother’s trauma when she discovers her son has head lice (one of the 10 plagues), and the true story of Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi of New York’s Central Synagogue, the daughter of a Korean Buddhist mother and a Jewish father.

These stories will be Zoomed in at specific times during the seder, which will be inperson only on Sunday, April 3, at 11 a.m. at Congregation Shirat Hayam. A $5 fee includes a kosher boxed lunch.

Stressing inclusivity, particularly for Jews of Color, LGBTQ+ Jews, Jews of choice and others, Knight is especially hopeful the seder will draw teenage girls and their mothers, in order to expand their awareness of what being a Jewish woman is and can be in this community. “I hope to hear singing, laughter, conversation, and that indefinable humming noise you get when someone hears a story that has touched them,” Knight said.

For more information or to register, go to bit.ly/WomensSederNorthShore

As Shirat Hayam’s cantor is ordained, some wonder, ‘What exactly is ‘Renewal’?

ALEPH Dean of Students Hazzan Diana Brewer participates in the ordination of Cantor Sarah Freudenberger.

by Shelley A. Sackett

Cantor Sarah Freudenberger of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott was ordained in January, culminating more than five years’ training at the ALEPH Ordination Program, a Renewal-style program that promotes global Jewish music.

Candidates study classical Ashkenazi musical motifs as well as other genres, such as Sephardic. Graduates are able to navigate and lead in a wide variety of contexts, blending both traditional and contemporary styles.

Although she worked as a full-time cantor since her college graduation, Cantor Sarah ran into barriers when she discovered that mainstream seminaries didn’t accept students with non-Jewish partners.

“Even though I wanted to learn, I couldn’t,” she said.

Finally, she discovered ALEPH, a program founded by Reb Zalman, who believed that music is the carrier of the Jewish message. She chose ALEPH both because it was welcoming and, more importantly, because of its robust and comprehensive curriculum and respected reputation.

AOP dates its origins back to the mid-1970s, and progressively evolved over the course of four decades to where it is today.

It all started in Somerville in 1968. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – “Reb Zalman” – was instrumental in the founding of Havurat Shalom, a collective egalitarian spiritual community. He was a visionary pioneer in contemporary Jewish life. His ideas and work influenced the birth of the Havurah movement and the international Jewish Renewal movement.

In 2000, he engaged Hazzan Jack Kessler to develop a new kind of program that would train cantors who are grounded in tradition, but who could also keep Jewish music alive, relevant, and growing into the future. The two agreed this training would encompass additional skills that go beyond vocal performance and the knowledge that was once sufficient for someone to be called a cantor.

By 2001, Reb Zalman had ordained three hazzanim. He then turned over the effort to Hazzan Jack, who created a comprehensive program that embraces traditional and contemporary Jewish musical and liturgical creativity.
As of 2022, ALEPH has ordained 30 cantors. Cantor Sarah is the only cantor ordained in the 2022/5782 class.

Cantor Sarah Freudenberger

Conservative synagogues like Shirat Hayam are bringing in Renewal melodies, percussion, meditative prayer experiences, healing prayers, and an array of Renewal-style approaches to making communal prayer dynamic and participatory, Hazzan Jack explained.

“We believe that synagogues can once again become magnets for Jewish spiritual seekers, Jewish families, and anyone who cares about the continuity of Jewish life, where we can find prayer experiences that elevate our souls and activate our best selves. This is our commitment,” he said.

Cantor Sarah and Hazzan Jack at her ALEPH ordination

ALEPH Executive Director SooJi Min-Maranda reported an uptick in younger applicants who transfer from a more traditional seminary where they didn’t feel their approach to spirituality quite fit. “Most say they are excited about the way ALEPH brings emotional relevance to Jewish life,” she said.

Yet, for many lay people, two huge questions still remain unanswered: What exactly is meant by “Renewal?” And how can a synagogue be both Reform/Conservative/Orthodox and part of the Renewal movement?

Shaul Magid, the Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and author of the seminal book, “American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society,” spoke with the Journal.

From the beginning, according to Magid, Reb Zalman did not envision Renewal as a new Jewish denomination, but rather as a new vision that could revive late 20th-century Judaism. “He wanted different communities to adopt pieces of that vision as it suited its own inclinations,” he said. “Renewal offers a different template and assumes we are living in a new global [and not only Jewish] era that demands a more radical reevaluation of how we engage and encounter Jewish life.”

At Shirat Hayam, the Renewal approach informs services and life-cycle rituals. “The synagogue experience, particularly prayer, must be accessible, meaningful, and leave people feeling transformed,” said Rabbi Michael Ragozin.

“Perfunctory ritual has failed to maintain the vibrancy of Jewish life. Renewal Judaism offers an approach to revitalizing Jewish practice.”

Holocaust Symposium prompts Danvers students and adults to become “Upstanders”

Tenth grader Nora Hass and her father Mike Hass attended the symposium.

by Shelley A. Sackett

DANVERS — When Danvers High School Principal Adam Federico decided to partner with Lappin Foundation to host a six-week Intergenerational Holocaust Symposium on Zoom, his hope was that the students and adults who attended would feel empowered to call out and fight against biased and hateful language and actions.

He more than got his wish. Based on comments during the final session on February 17, Danvers now has a community of activists ready and willing to confront hatred and ignorance.
“This is unique and special,” Deborah Coltin, Lappin Foundation’s Executive Director, told the 73 participants. “There was a call to action and you showed up. I hope you’ll rely on each other and respond,” said Lappin, who ran the symposium.

The event was created in response to antisemitism, swastikas and racist graffiti appearing more frequently in schools and community settings. Last fall, Danvers was victim to a rash of such incidents. Students who attended all sessions will receive a Certificate of Completion and credit for nine hours’ community service.

The curriculum included curated materials, primary sources, films, survivor testimony, a book read and discussion, and a closing lecture by Dr. Chris Mauriello, Salem State University history professor and Director of its Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “Be an upstander, not a bystander,” he told the group. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I taking away from this?’”

Danvers tenth grader Norah Hass and her dad, Mike Hass, both attended and talked with each other after class, discussing the Holocaust and what is happening in Danvers and society as a whole. “Norah is forming her politics and thoughts on the world now, and I love seeing her think critically about history as well as current events,” Mike said.

“We don’t normally have conversations like that, so it was cool to see a new side of him. He would sometimes ask me how the meeting made me feel, and asked what I thought about it,” Norah added.

Listening to and interacting with survivors rendered the Holocaust and its horrors more real and left the deepest impact on most participants.

“Actually hearing survivors recount where they were during the Holocaust and how it affected their life is so much different from reading about it. These stories made me more aware of how it felt to be a Jew during the Holocaust. They need to be heard by more students, and the world,” said tenth grader Isha Patel.

“It takes the Holocaust from being a crime of epic proportions and personalizes it, a reminder that every person killed or who survived had a prior life, interacted with people in the town, and struggled through each day to get to the next,” said Mike Hass.

Coltin will expand this program to other communities. A community wide six-session online course begins March 2 and is open to any high school student, regardless of faith or town, who is interested in learning about the Holocaust. Newton South High School plans to host its own symposium this spring.

Also, she is working with Marblehead Village School to develop a professional development program for teachers and is assembling a team to train Salem High School to facilitate its own symposium. “The plan is to make it widely available to high schools and middle schools beginning in the fall of 2022,” she said.

In Danvers, all participants expressed both hopes for their community and a personal action plan to make that happen.

Danvers Chief of Police James Lovell, the father of two middle school students in Danvers, attended the symposium and said he was surprised to learn how much hate in our society is still rooted in the thoughts and beliefs of the Nazi party. He plans to engage community members in conversation about the difficult national and local issues facing them.

Principal Federico plans to expand experiences like the symposium to the greater community, with Danvers High School leading the way for more understanding and kindness.

To that end, he and Tess Wallerstein, a Jewish tenth grader, are already in the process of planning a project to help bring the lessons of the symposium to more students and adults. “It’s imperative for everyone to understand major historical events so they don’t repeat themselves,” she said. “I hope that residents of Danvers will continue to educate themselves and others about these important lessons in history.”

Dave McKenna, co-founder of the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee and Superintendent of Jewish Cemeteries of the North Shore, plans to continue speaking out when he sees division. “I am continually amazed at just how close beneath the surface is our ability to be divided and encouraged to hate someone else over the slightest difference of opinion, appearance, religion, belief or lifestyle,” he said.

Students Patel and Hass will stand up and encourage their peers to do the same.

“Now that I know how far racism can go, I want to make sure some of the students at my school don’t continue with their racist behavior,” Patel said. “They need to learn how harmful it is.”

“I have a job to bring awareness and act as a representative for the Jewish community at Danvers High School, especially since there are so few Jewish students,” Hass said. “I want to tell the students they aren’t alone in this fight.”