Taking Chances

The day after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I entered my first sweepstake. I fell into it without much foresight: while sorting through the dense muck of promotions in my inbox, I came across a mailing from Ballard Designs, a furniture company that specialized in animal print chairs. The marketeers of Ballard offered me the opportunity of a lifetime—to win a 2018 Volkswagen Beetle, bedecked in a leopard print, with plush maroon seats. I saw my chance—and I took it. When I opened my email later that afternoon, I discovered that my daily entry had won me the opportunity to have the promotions tab in my Gmail tinseled with brightly-colored newsletters from five other furniture retailers.

Ballard soon let me know I could enter the following day for another shot at glory. And the next day, and on and on. And I did, letting the possibility of winning something so bizarre overwhelm me for the fifteen minutes or so after I hit “Enter Now.” I entered a hazy cloud of fantasy: driving through my neighborhood in a leopard print beetle, shrugging off confused glances from passing cars and pedestrians. I could cruise by the grocery store, wave to my local synagogue, then pick up friends for a jaunt through rural Pennsylvania to pick late-fall apples. I could pose with my foster cat beside my new Bug and use it on my Tinder profile. Sure, it only had a quarter of the storage space of my Subaru Outback, but the engine wouldn’t sputter when the temperature dropped below 30 degrees. Instead, it would purr to life, the plumpest mechanical big cat in the West Philly jungle.

This vision was so, well, silly. But the playfulness of it, the nonsensical possibility of winning the car was a welcome distraction from the seriousness of the weekend’s news. There was safety in the chance to “Catch the Ballard Bug,” as the sweepstakes so generously announced. At different points during the weeks following the Pittsburgh shooting, I was overwhelmed by the sudden urge to lose control of of my carefully crafted stoicism, to make my pain visible, to release my anguish in some form that I still could not fathom, for fear of impacting my work, my relationships, my sense of self-preservation. But for fifteen minutes each day, I was eased away from swirling, anxious thoughts of America’s hot-blooded anti-Semitism and shameless white supremacy, its embrace of police violence and fetishization of gun ownership. The slew of opinion pieces defending Israel as the only safe Jewish home in the wake of the shooting slipped from my mind as I swam through $1,500 Visa giveaways and drawings.

The more I entered the Ballard sweepstakes, the more curious I grew about what else I could win. Most online sweepstakes are predictable: fill out your contact information and have the chance to win a Visa gift card, a vacation for two to Aruba, or a state-of-the-art grill. But did you know you can also win a year’s supply of Cabot cheese? A collection of mystery novels? VIP passes to Mariah Carey’s Christmas show? A tour of the best barbeque spots in Nashville? For one contest sponsor, I had to write 100 words on who my biggest inspiration was; for another, I needed to submit an image that highlighted the intersection of “summer” and “fresh berries.”

I explored online forums, discussion boards, and “how-to” lists devoted to winning online sweepstakes. One site recommended allocating 2 hours a day—minimum—to entering. I cursed my initial rookie mistake as I quickly realized that I should have created a “sweepstakes only” email address or find my inbox inundated with promotional newsletters. I reviewed and then implemented these guidelines to sweepstakes success: enter contests that are limited to one entry per person, feature odd products, and are region-specific or limited to certain states. I discovered that I had a better chance of winning if I entered sweepstakes targeted to men, so I filled out every custom suit and “Men’s Grooming Giveaway” I could find. I used Robo-Fill to quicken the pace and conceded to filling my Twitter feed with corporations in order to receive more entries. For a short time, I was a “sweeper,” and I caught a glimpse of myself in another era, a 1970s housewife filling out stacks of magazine sweepstakes by hand as she drank par-boiled coffee.

Sweepstakes accompanied me on bus rides, morning sips of tea, binge-watched TV shows, the intermission between brushing my teeth and falling asleep. I drowned out headlines with a new digital vista of bookmarked go-to websites, which listed new sweepstakes and instant wins daily. Between vigils and community healing circles, I entered to win Starbucks gift cards, fast cash, food processors, and a lifetime supply of pork rinds. When I informed my therapist about my new “hobby,” she told me that as addictions go, this seemed a relatively non-threatening pursuit.

I was enticed by the chance at a chance. Each time I entered a new contest or giveaway, a window of change slid open for a moment and, win or lose—mostly lose—nothing bad would happen when it shut again. The only thing I lost was space in my inbox. The questions sweepers ask themselves before bed, after long hours hunting through Sweepon for an overlooked giveaway, resemble the questions I tried to muffle in the lingering weeks following the shooting. Why not me? Why not my family, my friends, my co-workers, my neighbors?

But what if it could be me? Tomorrow? Or a week from Friday? A month from today? Maybe in the next five years? A short time from now—or never?

The Duality of Being a Good Jew

My most recent zine, “What Does It Mean to Be A Good Jew?” captures moments that imparted power and frustration to my Jewish identity. These include: bawling as I stood in front of “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” at the Chagall Museum in Nice, France; helping elderly rabbis use video conferencing programs in order to chat across the country about faith and technology; sitting on the train with my father as he informed me that while he didn’t believe in God, he did, in the words of his mother, “believe in the people.” On the cover, an image of a hairy leg and foot allows visual questions to accompany the title. Although hands, eyes, and mouths are body parts most commonly associated with holiness, I ask: why are feet disregarded as divine, when they are the midpoint for the body between heaven and earth? You can read the rest here.

A six-page zine cannot encompass the dual processes I've encountered over the past five years, as I began to examine my Jewishness through a loving yet critical gaze. The question that opens the cover of my zine“What does it mean to be a good Jew?”remains embedded in each hand-drawn memory and the quietest moments of my day. The question emerges when I wake up and decide to scroll absently through my phone, trying to accustom my eyes to light, or when I wake up and whisper, eyes still closed, the hoarse words of the Sh’ma as my sensory entry into morning. The question emerges on Friday nights, when Shabbat provides two alluring choices: Should I invite friends of different faith traditions for a Shabbat dinner imbued with warmth and familiarity? Or should I attend services at the local temple, in which unfamiliar melodies and faces invoke a sense of isolation rather than comfort? When I shop for vegetables at the weekly farmers market on Shabbat after services, I do so with the knowledge that the mundanity of commerce does not outweigh the holiness I find in connecting to the earth through making ethical consumer choices and supporting local farmers. 

The unification of practice and experience in my Jewish world remains elusive at times. Even the zine itself, a folded booklet photocopied then scanned, drawn with care but no particular piety, can be a held as a banal encapsulation of holy experiences. And yet I ask myself, what could be more sacred to Jewish life than a meaningful encounter with text?

The Inside-Out Sukkah

I am lucky: I live on the third-floor apartment in a neighborhood rich with brunch spots, bars, schools, and thrift stores, and I can still see the stars. I can always glimpse at least a few wavering stars between the rooftop of the rowhouse across the street and the overhang of my balcony. This moment usually occurs at dusk, when I like to sit outside and enjoy the warm fall weather, thinking of ways I could climb on top of the roof but knowing I am too cowardly to do so.

When I first moved into my apartment, I lamented the lack of a backyard. The concept that I would not have access to the earth, even the crumbling, gravel ridden soil of West Philly, seemed foreign, especially coming from Florida, where my former one-story home stubbornly squatted in the swampland surrounding it, dirt creeping up its walls and onto the window screens. I liked the idea of having a spot of land I could place a lawn chair on, where I could nestle beneath an elm tree and marvel at the shadows of buildings above me. The balcony sufficed, though the material beneath my feet was slightly corroded and paint chips occasionally floated down from the roof.

I sit on my balcony often, reading, eating, or talking with friends. The open sides keep me cool on warm nights and the roof, with a garland of lights wrapped around its interior frame, keeps the rain and sun at bay. Though the balcony is connected to my apartment, it makes me feel differentiated somehow. I feel more at ease, more pensive, when I sit on my folding chair and look out on the street below.

As Sukkot, my favorite holiday, drew nearer, I began to wonder about the role of my balcony in my Sukkot celebration. It seems counterintuitive to build a Sukkah on the balcony, though it is my only “outdoor space”—stars could be seen only by looking out, not up, as a traditional Sukkah calls for. I could hang boards or sheets from the roof, but then I would have an enclosed space, with no room to look upon the world outside. I decided to leave my balcony be, but decorate it with gourds, garlands of paper, and autumn leaves hung from bits of string. I crisscrossed string lights in the interior of the roof like a pattern of symmetrical stars. I placed chairs and cushions around the edge, a stained picnic blanket in the center as a makeshift tablecloth, and propped open the screen door into my apartment as a symbolic gesture of welcome. (A gesture my roommate Chandler quickly disavowed, as it would let bugs in.)

Sukkot is a holiday to celebrate the harvest, and though I am three stories above the earth, I celebrate my own harvest: a place to live, groceries in my fridge, a job, peaceful neighbors, a laundromat down the street. Sukkot is a time to relish in the joy of community, to invite guests and strangers as a part of the family. I know a total of five people in Philadelphia, only one of them Jewish, so I invite them over via Facebook to a “Sukkot Harvest Dinner,” with the promise that I will cook whatever I can for a small crowd on a limited budget and not enough plates. I tell them all to bring wine, and their own forks.

For a holiday that is already unconventional in many regards—making the comforts of home new again by erecting a temporary shelter and sleeping in it in the unpredictable October weather, celebrating for eight days straight, dipping challah in honey like nobody’s business—my version does not seem too heinous. After all, I live in a bustling city—hardly anyone around me has a backyard with space for a sukkah to spare.

Yet on the night of my Sukkot dinner, I glanced at my neighbor’s yard, an overgrown concrete space with bricks and weeds in a tango around the edges. I look at my balcony-sukkah, at the lights and ornaments, at the passerby staring adamantly at the sidewalk in front of him. My version of Sukkot, my inside-out sukkah, strikes me as a bit pathetic. A Sukkot celebration I am forced to have because there are no other options. Past my neighbor’s roof, there is an early evening star glinting on the horizon. I suddenly think—what if every star I’ve seen from this spot has been a low-flying plane? The thought is laughable, and fills me with relief. Balcony, sukkah, star, plane—what does it matter?

I’m a 21st century Jew—I’ve adapted to customs crafted and altered to circumstance over hundreds and thousands of years. I’m just another blip on the calendar of tradition, a small figure on a balcony-sukkah adorned with lights and soon to be filled with the laughter of friends.



Lunch Project: 5 Filling Meals Under $5

Although I adore budget cookbooks like Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown (PDF available free here), this week has provided me with a new challenge: what happens when you don't have time to cook, but you still need to eat swiftly and cheaply? 

Thus, I have scavenged West Philly for five quick meals for around $5.

1. Fiesta Pizza: Mini Pizza, $3.50

As my great-great-great grandmother used to say, "If you cover it with enough oregano and red pepper flakes, even a mediocre pie can become a masterpiece."

2. Manakeesh Cafe & Bakery: Combo Za'atar and Cheese Manakeesh, $3.95

It's kind of like a pizza, but no pizza I've heard of has za'atar and cheese in such a bountiful configuration. It's the thyme of the season, after all.

3. Fuh-Wah Mini Market: Tofu Bahn Mi, $4.30

The tofu is hot and fried, the daikon is crunchy, the bread is thick and filling. I ate it in a few bites, then accidentally dropped a piece of tofu on the sidewalk and looked at it forlornly for a while.  

4. Lee's Deli: Black Bean Burger, $4.95

It's a hearty burger with all the toppings, though I craved fries and a soda to complete the experience. There's an amazing review on MenuPages that explains how Lee's dishes "prove the existence of God."

5. Mood Cafe: Crazy Chaat, $5.99

It's a dollar more than I promised, I know. But hear me out. When I asked the guy behind the counter what was in "Crazy Chaat," he responded with, "I don't know. It's crazy. It's good. You'll like it." I won't spoil the secret formula, but I certainly did, and it provided me with two meals.