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?

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.