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.

This article contains affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something, The Times of Israel may earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

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.

Salem Film Fest celebrates ‘Fiddler’s’ 50th anniversary

Chaim Topol and Norman Jewison on the set of “Fiddler.” Photo: Zeitgeist Films

By Shelley A. Sackett

SALEM — Two Jewish films that run the gamut from life to death – “Fiddler’s Journey to The Big Screen” and “On This Happy Note” – make their way to the Salem Film Fest March 24-April 3. These enjoyable, feel-good movies are the perfect respite from this endless winter.

Salem Film Fest, the all-documentary film festival now in its 15th year, will screen 47 features and shorts during its hybrid 2022 season. From March 24-27, all screenings will be in person only at Cinema Salem, Peabody Essex Museum and The Cabot in Beverly. From March 28-April 3, the fest will be exclusively virtual.

2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the beloved “Fiddler on the Roof,” the film The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called “the most powerful movie musical ever made.” Narrated by Jeff Goldblum, “Fiddler’s Journey” captures the humor and drama of director Norman Jewison’s quest to re-create the lost world of Jewish life in Tsarist Russia and re-envision the stage hit as a wide-screen epic.

Filmmaker Daniel Raim was most interested in the inner lives of the cinema artists making the film. “Ironically, most of the cinema artists making ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ were not Jewish. And that’s what makes this film that much more interesting – because it explores their approach to authentically re-creating Jewish life in Tzarist Russia in 1905,” Raim said in an email.

“I wanted to learn about their exploration of Jewish identity both in front of and behind the camera,” the native Israeli said. Developing these themes into a concise narrative structure was “probably one of the more challenging and rewarding aspects of making this film.”

He remembers his grandparents, who survived the Holocaust, introducing him to “Fiddler” when he was 13 years old. “It was a window into the world my grandparents came from, which no longer exists,” he said.

Anat Gov

“On This Happy Note”

Tamar Tal Anati’s remarkable film, “On This Happy Note,” heralds and honors death by documenting the deliberate and thoughtful way one woman chose to live her last days.

We first meet Anat Gov, one of the most influential playwrights in Israeli theater, as she prepares for her death from cancer just a couple of months away. A chain smoker, she is unafraid of her fate. But when she asks her longtime literary agent, Arik Kneller, to be the executor of her will, he struggles to accept the humor, serenity and grace with which she faces her upcoming end.

Gov believes there is such a thing as a happy ending and that it is possible to die in peace. She wants her death to open doors for others by leaving footprints for them to follow. Gov wishes to leave a spiritual legacy.

As it turned out, she also leaves a cinematic legacy.

“On This Happy Note” was launched when Kneller decided to film his final meeting with Gov. She agreed, and the two longtime colleagues and friends recorded as they talked about her work and hopes for how she will be remembered.

Kneller showed the footage to Israeli-born director Anati, who would work with it to create a film. Two weeks later, Gov died and the project temporarily froze.

In the meantime, Anati dove into Gov’s writings, learning about her creative process. She read Gov’s plays and television scripts and, in the course of doing this research, wrote a new script from the scenes and writings Gov left. The film weaves performances from her plays and footage of her family and political world to create a tapestry that highlights the very thin line between documentary and real life and the stories that connect the two.

For Anati, Gov’s way of thinking and dealing with death was not shocking. “In a way, she gave clear and very accurate words to what I felt. The most important thing to her is that fewer people fear death. She thought that if we talked about death and accepted it as part of life, we would live better,” she said from Florence, Italy, via email.

Like Gov and her writings, the film spotlights black humor to address challenging matters and difficult themes. At the film’s premiere, she was shocked by the number of places where people roared with laughter. “It’s kind of a nice release,” she said.

Gov’s family saw the film, and shared their strong, positive reaction to it. “They said they felt like she had returned to life for an hour,” Anati said.

“Fiddler’s Journey to The Big Screen” will screen in person only at Cinema Salem on March 25, 2:45 p.m. “On This Happy Note” will screen virtually from March 28-April 3. For more information go to salemfilmfest.com

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.”

Millennial brings Talmud to TikTok

Miriam Anzovin

by Shelley A. Sackett

NATICK — It’s not easy to pigeon-hole Miriam Anzovin of Natick.

The middle of three children, Anzovin, 36, was born in Englewood, NJ and grew up in Amherst in a ba’al teshuva family, moving from secular to orthodox Judaism by her 11th birthday. She attended Chabad day school from grades 6-8.

Yet she considers herself an atheist. She chose to home school herself in high school yet works hard to create learning communities so learners don’t feel alone.

She is a millennial yet her interests span millennia. She is “obsessed” with 21st century social sharing media platforms, especially TikTok. So she uses the platform to take deep dives into another of her passions, the 6th century with Daf Yomi, a regimen of learning the Babylonian Talmud by covering each of the 2,711 dafs (double-sided pages) in sequence. Under this schedule, the entire Talmud is completed, one day at a time, one page at a time, in a cycle of approximately 7.5 years.

The first cycle of Daf Yomi commenced on the first day of Rosh Hashana 5684 (September 11, 1923), with tens of thousands of Jews in Europe, America and Israel learning the first daf of the first tractate of the Talmud, Brachot. Today, hundreds of thousands of Jews from all sects and social sectors worldwide take advantage of the free course.

Her chevruta (learning partner) is a former colleague and dear friend. Although the pandemic prevented them from learning in person, they connected over Google Chat.

As they shared responses to the text, Anzovin realized that many of her comments made her partner laugh. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m doing Daf Yomi anyway, and I only share my reactions with my chevruta. What if I made those reactions into short TikTok videos?’” she said, via email. “‘If he laughs, maybe other people will too.’”

Last December, she posted her first “Daf Reactions” on TikTok. The episode opens with Anzovin introducing the tractate she will discuss. She records from her desk in her room at home surrounded by personal items, including a white stuffed doll wearing huge pink headphones. Viewers are invited to share comments and questions, which Anzovin promptly answers.

The response was immediate and positive. “These Daf Reactions are definitely the most Torah I’ve learned in 7 years,” one person wrote. “Forget the Daf! This parody is awesome, we need more like this!” said another.

One look at Anzovin, who describes herself as a “petite blonde makeup aficionado,” and it’s obvious that she is not your typical Talmud commentator. She is saucy, her language is sometimes spicy and her delivery has more in common with Valley Girl speed speak than a Rabbinic sermon. (“This is the daf to end all daf!”) Serious about her Talmud, she sprinkles her posts with slang and humor that make her intellectually challenging topics accessible and unique.

She also knows her way around social media. She spreads “Daf Reaction” content across TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. She says she has tens of thousands of followers and hundreds of thousands of total views.

Occasionally, she departs from her standard Daf Reac­tions, as she did shortly after Ukraine was invaded. “I’ve been busy doomscrolling about Ukraine. It’s too hard to focus on anything else,” she told followers. Then she named organizations working to help those affected.

Miriam Anzovin

The seed for her TikTok channel was planted at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, where Anzovin has worked for five years as a visual artist and content creator/producer, primarily for its site JewishBoston.com. Her introduction to Daf Yomi was through a CJP-sponsored “Lunch and Learn” program. That presentation resonated with her in a powerful way, setting the stage for “Daf Reactions.”

The Talmud’s intensity and challenge appealed to her. “I love Judaism and Jewish learning; it is deeply embedded in my mind and heart,” said Anzovin, who holds a degree in Judaic studies from the University of Massachusetts.

Inspired, she decided to commit to the rigor and discipline of daily Daf Yomi. She had to wait until January 5, 2020 to start, the first day of a new 7.5 year cycle. Around that same time, TikTok also grabbed her attention. Two months later, COVID hit. She credits the social media platform and daily Talmud studies with helping her get through the pandemic.

Homeschooling in Amherst left her with a residual feeling of isolation, which she struggles with still. When it became clear that COVID was not going away quickly, she felt the rumblings of the internal panic she has worked so hard to overcome.

“For all the negative aspects of social media, it has also been an absolute balm in calming that fear of feeling shut away, and it allowed me to get to know so many people I would never have met otherwise. My thinking expanded,” she said.

Her three-minute “Daf Reactions,” which she posts every few days or whenever she feels what she calls “The Daf Muse,” take her hours to prepare. She first fully studies and wrestles with the page so she can distill it into a video that is short, funny and didactic. She learns, records and edits the episode in one day. The pace is punishing, but the rewards are worth it, especially when she gets messages from other people like herself who left Orthodoxy but still have deep and abiding love for Judaism and its heritage.

Anzovin’s path to atheism began when she was 21 and could no longer accept the explanations for some of the ways Orthodox Judaism treated women. Not being counted for minyan, the agunot crisis, where women were trapped in marriages because their husbands wouldn’t give them a divorce, and hearing men recite the morning prayer thanking God for not making them women “burned my soul every day. Believing in a God who would appoint only men as the arbiters of acceptable religious practice was too painful,” she said.

Although Anzovin agrees that today she could be considered an unaffiliated Jew, she openly identifies as an atheist because she wants Jews “who might have moments when they look inside themselves and no longer find Hashem” to know there are options to cutting themselves off completely from Judaism, that they can still learn, connect with Jewish thinking, and participate in Jewish cultural life.

“Discovering one’s internal beliefs have changed can be a source of shame and fear. I don’t want these people to feel alone,” she said. “I believe the Talmud is the cultural and intellectual heritage of all Jews, regardless of gender identity or level of personal observance. I do not believe in gatekeeping.”

She has been overwhelmed with positive messages from people who are delighted to engage in traditional Jewish learning that doesn’t bore, judge or hurt them. Messages from teenage girls who send their own daf reaction videos matter the most to Anzovin, making her “sob with joy,” she said.

“They are powerful, smart, witty and brilliantly savvy. They understand the Gemara and talk about it on their own terms. They make the future seem brighter to me,” she said.

Her posts have also become a lightning rod for those who believe she is desecrating something holy and object to her “Daf Reactions” based on her millennial language, her status as a nonreligious Jew and the belief that women shouldn’t be allowed to learn — let alone teach — Talmud at all. Anzovin takes these “truly horrific” negative reactions in stride.

“The misogyny and hatred of my detractors, their fears? It only serves to fuel me more, because it means I’m doing something right,” she said.

An Interview: Meet the Star and Director of MRT’s ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’

Karen MacDonald stars as Erma Bombeck in “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End. / Photo: Megpix/Meghan Moore

by Shelley A. Sackett

LOWELL — It may surprise many to learn that Erma Bombeck, the celebrated humorist, was not Jewish. With lines like, “If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I doing in the Pits?” the big-hearted mother of three had the wit, wisdom, and chutzpah that are hallmarks of a classic Jewish mother. Her nationally syndicated column, “At Wit’s End,” ran in 900 newspapers and championed the undervalued everyday lives of millions of stay-at-home suburban moms, offering them a cathartic lifeline of truth, daring, and laughter. She boosted their spirits by poking fun at herself and her life’s ups and downs in an original, comic voice that was both sassy and satiric.

Born in small-town Bellbrook, Ohio, to a working-class family in 1927, she wrote her first humorous column for her junior high school newspaper and went on to write for the Dayton Herald. She wrote a series of columns while at home with her young children and resumed her writing career in 1965 with biweekly humor columns. Within three weeks of the first articles’ publication, she was picked up for national syndication, appearing three times a week in 36 papers under the title “At Wit’s End.”

By the time of her death in 1969, she had written 15 books and appeared regularly on “Good Morning America.”
As a timely antidote to a bleak January’s cold, snow, and COVID, Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell is serving up a sunny dose of Bombeck’s humor in its one-woman show, “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” from Feb. 24 through March 13.

Boston based actor, director, and teacher Karen MacDonald will bring Erma’s larger than life personality to the stage. She remembers Bombeck as part of her family’s life from a young age. Her mother, a big fan, would laugh out loud as she read the column every morning, often posting her favorites on the refrigerator.

“You couldn’t bother Mom until she finished ‘reading her Erma,’” MacDonald said by email.

In preparation for the role, MacDonald, who loves doing research, read many of her books, a biography, and revisited “The Feminine Mystique,” a book by Betty Friedan that Bombeck credited as her personal wake-up call.

In the course of her research, MacDonald discovered that Bombeck was complex, funny, and an astute observer of ordinary life. She also discovered much to admire: Bombeck’s diligence in writing three columns a week; her deep respect for the work women do; her devotion to her family; and her commitment to the Equal Rights Amendment.

“There is a rich amount of material for an actor to work with,” said MacDonald.

While pointing out that no one could really “play” Erma but Erma herself, “You want to gather as much as you can to bring to life such a fascinating woman, MacDonald said. “Then, you synthesize all that information and, hopefully, come up with your own Erma, true to her and true to yourself.”

Director Terry Berliner is also no stranger to Bombeck’s writing. “Erma Bombeck has always been part of my life. I do not know a world without her. Her stories showed me the importance of perspective, the power of a good story, and the significance of capturing the truth,” she said by email.

Although Bombeck was the epitome of a woman’s voice being heard across America at her time, she was written off by many for that very reason – because she was a woman in a man’s world. Playwright twin sisters Allison and Margaret Engel, who primarily work as reporters, co-wrote “At Wit’s End” to amplify that voice and garner the acclaim they believe she deserves.

“She was the most widely read columnist in the history of the country, yet she never won the Pulitzer Prize and is rarely mentioned in journalism schools,” the Engels said in an interview. “Most likely, her subject matter – families and children – was not considered as important as the thoughts of political pundits. Yet she chronicled a very important transformation in the lives of ordinary women in this country.”

MacDonald hopes the play will be “just the tip of Iceberg Erma” and that audiences will leave with a curiosity to reread her work, to learn more about her life, and to reconsider her place in American humor.

On a more visceral level, she also hopes “folks will find some relief, in these strange days, with laughter. It feels good to laugh.”

The play will be available virtually throughout its run. For access or in-house tickets, visit mrt.org/ERMA. The Merrimack Repertory Theatre, located at 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell, is requiring all guests to show proof of COVID vaccination or a recent negative test and to wear masks at all times in the building. To learn more about the COVID policy, visit mrt.org/covid.

Shirat Hayam intern investigates where spiritual practice and mindfulness converge

Benjamin “Beni” Summers

By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT – Rabbi Michael Ragozin was thrilled when Benjamin “Beni” Summers indicated an interest in joining Congregation Shirat Hayam as its rabbinic intern from October 2021 until June 2022.

“This is an opportunity for CSH to be inspired by a rabbinical student, while providing greater service to our traditional minyan,” said Rabbi Ragozin.

Currently a Shanah Bet Rabbinical student at Hebrew College, Beni worked for the last eight years in the Jewish professional space. He is also about to begin an internship with SHEFA: Jewish Psychedelic Support. “My dream is to become a thought leader in the field of spiritual care for the emerging Jewish psychedelic movement,” he said.

Beni will lead the traditional Shabbat minyan (9 a.m.) and Nosh & Drash (10 a.m.) on Jan. 8, Feb. 12, March 12, April 7, and May 7.

Beni answered some questions to help introduce himself to the North Shore community.

What was your childhood like? What part did Judaism play in your family?

I was born in Salem and started my school journey at the JCCNS preschool. My mother, Leah Summers, worked at Cohen Hillel Academy for decades and we were deeply connected to the Jewish community of the area. We attended Temple Sinai when I was young. Some of my beloved ancestors were devout Chassids and members of the Yiddish intelligentsia of early 20th century Poland, and I grew up on stories of their wisdom, intellect and devotion to the Jewish people.

Can you tell us about your mindfulness training and how that fits into your life and your decision to become a rabbi?

The seeds of my relationship to the theory and practice of Jewish Mindfulness were first planted in 2015, when I was working at Temple Emunah in Lexington. Our rabbi mentioned at a staff meeting that he was working with a few congregants to start a new initiative within the community that would focus on offering contemplative experiences and programs centered around Torah and tefillah (prayer). Something deep within me welled up with intense excitement at the thought of investigating what Jewish spiritual practice and mindfulness might offer one another.

Turns out, it’s quite a lot! I spent the next several years building a routine meditation practice into my daily life, which eventually led me to attend several multi-day silent meditation retreats and to take advanced courses at Lesley University in their Mindfulness Studies master’s program to familiarize myself with the intricacies of neuroscience and predominant theories of Western mindfulness as sourced from Therevaden Buddhist roots. In 2018, I began hosting weekly meditation gatherings in my home in Somerville called “Sit & Sing,” where folks would gather together to sit in silence for 30 minutes followed by 30 minutes of singing niggunim, zemirot and other forms of devotional tunes.

In terms of how my practice interacted with my path to the rabbinate, I can say that the deliberation process was significantly aided by the spaciousness and quietude of the retreat setting. I also believe that as a society we would benefit from installing more methods for slowing down and practicing “radical amazement,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel coined it, into our daily lives. My hope is that as a spiritual leader, I can guide others in discovering how practices like mindfulness can be both personally healing and Jewishly enriching.

What do you plan to talk about in your monthly drashes (Torah discussions)?

I am thrilled to share my practice of contemplative and embodied Torah study with the community. Learning Torah is more than just an intellectual exercise. It can be a laboratory for spiritual experience and personal meaning-making that taps into realms of mind and heart beneath surface level. There is a teaching in the Talmud which beautifully refers to Torah learning for its own sake (Torah Li’shma) as a Sam Chayyim (A Drug Of Life), which can be likened to the other kinds of drugs out in the world which are sourced from nature, are medicinal, and help us to locate the Divine in our lives for the betterment of all.

This is just one of a growing number of ideas that I have been collecting from our tradition that will hopefully aid psychedelic journeyers, grousnding their experiences of expanded awareness back into the roots of their Jewish journey, which for me is crucial as we move into a new age of legal and regulated psychedelics being utilized for healing and for spiritual transformation in society at large.

Shabbat services at Congregation Shirat Hayam are both online and live. Visit shirathayam.org/spiritual/ for more information.

Samuel Bak, who paints the past so we will never forget it, to be on display in Beverly

Samuel Bak in his Weston studio. Photo: Pucker Gallery, Boston

by Shelley A. Sackett

BEVERLY – Samuel Bak, the renowned international artist, speaks in a language of images, dreamscapes, and colors. A child prodigy and Holocaust survivor, Bak tells his life’s stories through canvases rich in symbol, metaphor and reorientation. Recognizable objects and figures appear shattered and reglued; a pear sports a smoke stack, broken teacups become surrealist landscapes, and a ruined house sits atop a mound of books.

Bak’s rich, thought-provoking works will soon be on view in Beverly. “Samuel Bak and the Art of Remembrance,“ an exhibition at Montserrat College of Art Gallery presented in cooperation with Pucker Gallery of Boston, brings together 37 paintings and works on paper created between the 1990s and today. The show runs Jan. 18 to March 4, with an opening reception to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.

Persistence of Memory by Samuel Bak

His canvases tell the story of a world destroyed, a destruction he witnessed and survived. His work references Jewish and Holocaust history, challenging historical amnesia with difficult images of those times.

Yet, he does not consider himself a “Holocaust painter,” as he is often described, and despite the fact that what he witnessed during those times is the subject of many of his paintings. “I felt I have a story to tell and I wanted to touch other people. I refer to the Holocaust because it is something I know, but it goes beyond that,” he said over Zoom from his Weston home.

His paintings are meant to make the viewer wonder what happens when the world rejects equality and focuses on dehumanizing “the Other.” “My paintings ask questions. They don’t necessarily give answers because I personally don’t have any,” he said.

Despite scenes of anguish and despair, Bak also paints survivors, imbuing them with glimmers of muted hope and resilience. Rivers still run; painters still paint. The teddy bears and tea cups and humans are put back together again, but they can never be the same as our first memories of them.

Under the trees of Ponari by Samuel Bak

“I wanted to speak about the survivors, who are people who try to rebuild something that is similar to the reality that existed once, but cannot be totally reconstructed,” he said. “Somehow it is out of the bits and pieces of the horrors of the past that we can construct the sense of our being here and learn to prevent such horrors from happening again as much as it is possible.”

An only child, Bak was born in 1933 to an educated, middle-class family in Wilno, Poland. At age 3, he was a recognized child prodigy painter. At age 7, on the day after his first day of school, he and his family were deported to the old Jewish quarter of the city now called Vilna. At 9, he had his first exhibition, inside the Vilna ghetto. When the Russians liberated Vilna, he and his mother were among its 200 survivors from a pre-war community of between 70,000 and 80,000 Jews.

“The major subject of my paintings is: How was it possible such events happened? How is it I am still alive?” he said.

He and his mother spent from 1945 until 1948 in German displaced person camps, immigrating to Israel in 1948 when Bak was 15. After working and living in Tel Aviv, Paris, Rome and Lausanne, he came to America and settled in Weston in 1993.

During his 85-year career, Bak has produced over 9,000 items. Since the 1960s, remembrance and its nuances has been a major theme.

“Memory is not a folder that is downloaded onto your computer and when you want to look at it, you give a click and the folder reopens exactly as it was before,” the 88-year-old said.

Persistence by Samuel Bak

Unlike a computer folder, Bak sees the human memory as unique and individual because it also contends with our failure to remember. “We are blessed that we have the possibility to forget. This is what keeps us alive,” Bak said. It is also why, when we want to remember, we must recreate that memory.

In his paintings, Bak is “recreating the image that I have of the world in which people live today. Images that somehow seem to belong to another world attract viewers and enable me or others who speak about my work to speak of the times they represent,” he said.

His paintings have been used to educate thousands of teachers and students about the Holocaust since 1978. That year, he exhibited in a national museum in Germany that drew large groups of teachers and young students. “It suddenly opened my eyes. I thought, ‘My goodness. My paintings can do that. That’s absolutely wonderful,’” he said.

Since then, the PBS show “Facing History” has used his art for over 40 years to teach about the Holocaust, reaching millions of students in thousands of classrooms. In 2022, the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg will mount a yearlong exhibit of his paintings to commemorate its 30th anniversary.

Montserrat will sponsor a virtual artist talk with Bak and – COVID permitting – other school groups plan to visit the exhibit. “What is happening with this exhibition at Montserrat College is not something new, but it is something I know works,” Bak said.

Arlekin Players Theatre’s documentary theater piece “Witness” asks “Where do unwanted people go?”

Igor Golyak

By Shelley A. Sackett

When Igor Golyak, founder and artistic director of Arlekin Players Theatre, was doing research for “The Merchant of Venice,” he was smacked in the face by the discovery that the Jews have been on the move throughout the span of their existence as a people. Their constant migration reminded him of his own family, which emigrated in 2004 from the Ukraine .

Then, on July 1, Brighton Rabbi Shlomo Noginski was stabbed. Golyak attended a meeting with other Jewish refugees and he remembers someone asking, “Where do we go now?”

“My family came here to escape anti-Semitism. What I suddenly understood is that there is no escaping anti-Semitism,” Golyak said by phone. That realization was the germ of the bold and complex new virtual documentary theater piece, “Witness,” which bears witness to the migratory experience of Jews throughout history. Based on interviews of Jewish people around the world by the Arlekin company members, along with historical records and documents, this timely piece will tell a multiplicity of stories of migration, displacement, home and identity.

“I want to make anti-Semitism and hate visible to people so they see that it doesn’t live only with Nazis and in history, but is here today. That’s the first step to trying to identify the problem,” he said.

Golyak enlisted the help of Moscow-based playwright Nana Grinstein to translate his idea into a script. He explained he wanted the play to be “documentary theater” — built out of historical primary sources (letters, journals, telegrams, newspapers, etc.) and interviews describing first-hand experiences— about what makes Jews move around the world.

Grinstein often works on this type of project and did a deep dive into what historical options existed that could be an accurate metaphor for this idea.

She proposed the history of the liner St. Louis, which sailed from Nazi Germany in 1939 shortly after Kristallnacht, but was not accepted by Cuba, the United States or Canada. The 900 Jews on board, who understood that their return to Germany meant certain death, spent several weeks on the ocean.

“The Holocaust is impossible to understand to this day. As one of the St. Louis passengers said, ‘I don’t understand how the world could watch this and nobody did anything about it.’ I hope the audience will find themselves in the shoes of the Jews, who have been, and still are, under the pressure of anti-Semitism, which has many forms — from everyday xenophobia to terror and massacres,” Grinstein said by email.

Golyak loved the St. Louis metaphor for the concept: Where Do People Go? He next contacted dramaturg Blair Cadden, whose job would be to help bring “Witness” to life by learning as much as possible about the play, the medium (virtual, immersive and interactive) and the context of its creation.

The end result will be a blend of pre-recorded and live performances that includes elements of interactivity with the audience. Set on a boat in digital space, actors and audience members will share a live interactive experience as they move together between countries and time periods in a game of life and death set in a virtual world. Previews begin December 10 with the World Premiere scheduled December 13.

“Witness“ brings a lot of theatricality and inventiveness to the way these true stories are presented. “The St. Louis is a vivid microcosm of the larger experience that is shared by so many Jews across the world,” Cadden explained by email. “Documentary theater is an exciting genre because it invites the audience to form a different connection with that history. Things that might feel very distant when we encounter them in the pages of a history book take a new immediacy in live theater.”

The performance, accessible on Zoom to an international audience through Arlekin’s Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab, allows the audience to gather from across geographical locations and time zones. The Arlekin team hopes people will share their own emigration stories for inclusion in the production (to share your or your family’s story, contact story@arlekinplayers.com or visit arlekinplayers.com/witness/)

Golyak hasn’t decided yet if parts of his own story will be included. He was brought up in the Soviet Union, where being Jewish was difficult. He was eight-years-old when his father, one morning while shaving, paused, faced his son, and told him matter-of-factly and out of the blue, “Oh, by the way, you’re Jewish.”

He then turned back to the mirror and continued shaving.

“It was like finding out you are from Mars,” Golyak said without a laugh. There was no context in Russia for what being Jewish entailed. “How does that affect who I am? There’s no language, there’s no land. I’m told I am a Jew, but what does that actually mean?” It is a question he is still trying to answer.

Cadden, who is not Jewish and whose ancestors came to the United States so long ago that no one in family remembers exactly when, hopes the common threads between the experience of the St. Louis passengers and the experiences of more recent Jewish immigrants and refugees will affect Jews and non-Jews alike. For those who share the Jewish heritage and/or immigrant experience, she hopes it will be a moment to feel seen and connected.

For everyone, it should be “an eye-opener to the continued prevalence of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism in our own society and an invitation to empathize with the experiences of immigration and this search for Jewish identity and a sense of belonging,” she said.

Golyak hopes his “Witness” makes the audience aware of the prevalence of anti-Semitism today. “That’s the first step: to identify the problem. And then, hopefully, this will inspire people to think about and acknowledge the fact that this problem exists, so we can somehow try to solve it,” he said.

For more information or to buy tickets, visit arlekinplayers.com/2021-22-season/