Being a Jewish American...

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog post.  I am more than halfway through developing Onion Dances for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and have one week remaining in my residency in Blue Hill, Maine.  I feel like I have answers to some questions from the beginning of the process. Equally, I still feel like there is a wealth of material that I have yet to develop and discover before the piece makes its way to the stage.  One of the questions I have had throughout is: what does it mean to be a Jewish American? I did some free writing, and here are some of the answers that I came up with. I would be interested to know whether other Jewish Americans have similar responses to this question, and whether these responses vary on a generational basis. 

Being a Jewish American means using Yiddish words in the same sentences as English words. Words like “oy” and “mensch” and “chutzpah” and “klutz” and “kvetch” and “noodge” and “schlep” and “shtick”. Being a Jewish American means missing a lot of school during September, and having to justify absences with one’s religious identity. Being a Jewish American sometimes means feeling guilty for my beliefs, or feeling the need to hide my Jewish identity in certain settings, like in Morocco or in rural parts of the country where the KKK still fly a flag.

Being a Jewish American means not being Jewish enough in Orthodox communities or in Israel. Being a Jewish American means coming from a melting pot with an equally melted and manipulated and morphed religion. Being a seventh generation Jewish American means feeling a pull to be deeply connected to the Reform movement and my inherited history while also feeling a pull to create or invent my own traditions.

Being a Jewish American means feeling that, in some situations, we are at the higher end of the social hierarchy because of chance and lots of hard work. Being a Jewish American is like salmon in a salmon run, beating themselves bloody, pushing against the current to make it to their destination, Israelites lost in the desert for 40 years looking for the Promised Land. Being  a Jewish American means inheriting the memories and trauma from past generations. It means having bodies that carry stories that aren’t always our own, but become our own through experience and over time.

Being a Jewish American means Manhattan and L.A., movies and Broadway, Woody Allen and Gertrude Stein. Being a Jewish American means feeling distanced from one’s former homeland but also feeling on the fray of one’s current homeland. Being a Jewish American means that talking about death and dying isn’t taboo.  

Being a Jewish American means being a Jewish mother. Being a Jewish American means always being over prepared and overpacked. Being a Jewish American means lingering in the ellipses, the question marks, and the unknown. Being a Jewish American means asking lots of questions and pushing for answers. Being a Jewish American means having good Jew-Dar. Being a Jewish American means never being satisfied with the quality of the bagels.

Being a Jewish American means knowing the Hebrew Alphabet, memorizing your parshas for your bar or bat mitzvah, but not actually understanding any of what you are reading. Being a Jewish American means being politically and socially active and invested in equal rights for all, from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2016. Being a Jewish American means fighting for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. Being a Jewish American means being drawn to the “what if’s” and lingering in ruminating thoughts. Being a Jewish American means being part of a tribe that some people will never understand. Being a Jewish American means feeling stuck in between one’s religion and one’s nationality and never feeling completely grounded in either.

Being a Jewish American means eating steak with mashed potatoes and butter and sour cream and a glass of milk, and never feeling guilty for not keeping kosher. Being a Jewish American means spending one day a year atoning for the last year. Being a Jewish American means lighting candles before there are three stars in the sky, going on a hike instead of going to services, Marx Brothers movies instead of Shabbat dinners.

Being Jewish American means holding community close and field trips to organic farms and Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum.  Being a Jewish American means complaining about having to go to services. Being Jewish American means bagels with lox, capers, and red onion, matzah ball soup, potato latkes, challah, rugelach, babka, potato knishes, schnitzel, sesame seeds and poppy seeds on everything.  

Being a Jewish American means occasionally saying the odd word in Hebrew when it feels right. Being a Jewish American means wearing a hamsa or star of David necklace but hiding it under your shirt. Being a Jewish American means feeling excited when you hear another Israeli first name. Being a Jewish American means feeling like your identity as a Jew is constantly threatened by the violence and prejudice in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Being a Jewish American means worrying that the Holocaust could repeat itself. Being Jewish American means holding your breath every time you see a swastika. Being Jewish American means worrying excessively and second guessing oneself. Being Jewish American means talking about concentration camps and musicals in the same conversation. Being Jewish American means never forgetting and Never Again.




I am sitting in my living room listening to recordings I have taken recently of my family. There are recordings of my grandmother Audray (aka “Maudy”) Rees singing classic folk tunes with her Alzheimer's support group, “Giving Voice”. There are recordings of my cousins Maddy and Sarah impersonating a good Minnesotan; recordings of Maudy driving through her old neighborhoods in Minneapolis + St. Paul narrating as we drive along; recordings of my cousin Jay on the NYC subway and in Union Station in D.C.; recordings of my aunt Carol where she debates whether Judaism and the Jewish holidays are central in her life. All of these recordings whistle through my ears like the dust blowing settlers across the country in the Great Migration.

My maternal family came to the United States around the Civil War, first settling in Virginia and then Detroit, Michigan and eventually taking permanent root in Duluth and then Minneapolis. My grandfather’s family helped to found Temple Israel in 1878. It was the first Jewish congregation in Minneapolis and was originally named Shaarai Tov, “The Gates of Goodness.” Gustave Rees, Ralph Rees, and Baszion Weinschenk Rees were some of the founding members of Shaarai Tov. Baszion was Gustave and Ralph’s mother. In my brief preliminary visit to Temple Israel, I was able to cull some information on Gustave, Ralph and Baszion.

According to Temple Israel, “Mr. Gustave Rees came to Minneapolis in 1871 and joined his brother Ralph in the clothing business. Besides being president of the Cemetery Association, Mr. Rees is a charter member of the congregation Shaarai Tov, and one of the president trustees, also a trustee of the B’nai Brith. Mr. Rees has taken an active part of the community affairs and done his share in bettering conditions in the community. In 1880 Mr. Rees married Ella, the daughter of Isaac Milius, of Memphis, Tenn., and they have three daughters: Mrs. Meta Rosenstein, and Miss Eva and Inez.”  

Ralph Rees was the older of the two brothers, and according to Temple Israel, “Mr. Rees has probably been more helpful in a general and individual way than any other Jewish citizen. He was a charter member of every Jewish organization, and until his health gave way a few years ago, he retained an office in each of these associations. For twenty years no man was better known on the North side than Ralph Rees. He gave his entire time to the amelioration of the emigrants. A charter member of the Montefiore Burial Association, Mr. Rees was its president from the time of its inauguration until last year. He was a charter member of the B’nai Brith, first belonging to the St. Paul lodge and served the Minneapolis organization as its first presiding officer and for four years afterward, and 10 years at secretary. An organizer of the congregation Shaarai Tov, he served one term as president and 17 years as secretary. One of the Minneapolis initiators of the Free Sons of Israel, Mr. Rees has been its president as well as holding several other offices in association. In 1894 Mr. Rees married Mrs. Sophie Heilpern of Minneapolis.”

Lastly, “Mrs. Baszion Rees was the founder of and first president of the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society. She recognized that the time had arrived for the women of Minneapolis, few though they were, to band together and furnish assistance when the occasion demanded women’s help. She called the group of fifteen women together in her home, and inspired them to lay the foundation for a principle and service, which has been so varied and helpful that the vast sphere of its accomplishments can never be fully known. She died in 1895 survived by four sons and one daughter: Mrs. Celia Sulzberger, Ralph, Gustave, Theodore and Julius Rees.”

Stumbling across familiar faces along the walls of Temple Israel made my heart turn inward. As a perpetual question asker, I focused my energy on gathering an oral history from my grandmother over the course of six days. It was the little things, though, that stuck with me--memories of things I had long forgotten (the cherry trees in their backyard of 64 years with deliciously juicy cherries), details I never knew (that my aunt was a cheerleader in high school, that my grandmother and her mother were supposed to move to California not Minneapolis originally, that my great great great grandparents were charter members of the synagogue, and more).

I still feel like I am uncovering details about Rose Rees (Julius Rees’ mother) and all the good that she did for Minneapolis/St. Paul. I have stumbled upon a family of good samaritans, of humans looking to help their Jewish communities, of women who were in the forefront of political movements, (whether that was votes for women, or making sure that women had an equal voice in the workforce). Rose and Baszion are examples of that; Rose was a past president of the National Council for Jewish Women-Greater Minneapolis Section. Her passion for “world peace was a guiding principle of NCJW, as well as at the World Affairs Council of Minneapolis, which she founded.” Her and Baszion were incredible ladies that I hope to learn more about in the months to come.

I have had images of dyeing Rose’s novel in onion peel water, yellowing the pages and drying them like farm women dried laundry in the prairies. Her words, my words, woven together like the quilts my maternal great-grandmother Ethel patch-worked together with coarse yarn.

As I learn more about Audy and Bob’s families, and the immense and deep lineage that I have to the Jewish community, I feel drawn to old songs, to folk music, and to digging further into the core of what drives the Rees family: hard work, diligence, a commitment to change and activism, and striving for peace in a world where glimmers of hope are all we can grasp.

My grandfather in 1930 with his best friend Roland Minda (the Rabbi's son).

My grandfather in 1930 with his best friend Roland Minda (the Rabbi's son).

My six days with my 86-year old grandmother reminded me what a force of nature the Zack-Rees’ were/are. My grandmother does more in her days than I do in a week, and she is truly living fully.  She is a living, breathing example of Midwestern stoicism, from the songs Giving Voice sings to her walks around Lake of the Isles in -30 degree weather.  We’ve got the same build, a similar sense of humor, and she, like me, loves to look at old family photos and heirlooms. She doesn’t fain talking about the past; she relishes it, just as I do, and as she sings in her rehearsal for Giving Voice, she smiles at me, eyes twinkling,... "So kiss me and smile for me/Tell me that you'll wait for me/Hold me like you'll never let me go/"Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane/Don't know when I'll be back again/Oh Babe, I hate to let you go"..."Happy Trails, to you...we'll meet again, some day..." and I can't help to think about the look her mother gave her, my grandfather gave my mother, and so on.

                               Family photos that hang across from my grandmother's bed. 

                               Family photos that hang across from my grandmother's bed. 

I feel called to make Onion Dances; we have no oral history for our ancestral family, no written documentation, and for me, that means turning parts of our Jewish ancestry into a piece of dance theater that reveals, unveils, and unearths truths, secrets, and mysteries about these shadowed figures of the past.             

To help with Onion Dances, donate here!

Many thanks to Temple Israel for their comprehensive history of the synagogue as well as the National Council for Jewish Women’s Minneapolis chapter for their information on Rose Rees/ the Rose Rees Peace Awards.


“We Build this World from Love”

The saturation of media at the moment has got me feeling drained and in need of a break from over-stimulation. I’ve turned back to what is comfortable: Harry Potter audio books narrated by Jim Dale, TV marathons where I can tune out the outside world, Bob Dylan classics, my go-to musicals (Oklahoma, West Side Story, Grease), greasy salt and vinegar potato chips, memories of my childhood.

As a seventh generation Jewish American, I have been raised to be conscious of my lineage. I feel all the more worried as bigots are peering through nooks and crannies of our country’s fabric and acting out of rage, indifference, and hatred. I haven’t felt unsafe in my skin for some time, but last week’s attacks on the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia left me quaking. I feel so angry, so threatened, so disgusted by this vandalism—the public acts of anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia are growing more and more rapidly. I mourn for the 539 graves desecrated with malice and my heart hurts for those that had to pick up the pieces of their loved ones’ resting places. Community is powerful, though. Many have already helped restore the tombs and put the cemetery back in its place. What shook me more than anything was the fact that three other cemeteries in the same neighborhood were left untouched: all of those were Christian cemeteries. One would think that the resting places of others are sacrosanct, safe, and nestled in a veil of respect. That idea was cataclysmically wrenched apart as I heard of the news.

My tendency as an extroverted introvert would be to isolate and bottle up my rage. Judaism teaches that community can heal, and as my Rabbi, Rabbi Ari Lev suggests, “Though we may be inclined to isolate ourselves in response to hateful actions, we know we are stronger when we are connected to hateful actions, we know we are stronger when we are connected and in community. Our Judaism is inextricably linked with working and fighting for justice in our city and the world. Our liberation is inextricably linked with all others’ liberation. We are safe and free when all are safe and free.”

I have fallen in love with Philadelphia in my almost two years here. It is home, and I will do whatever I can to protect that home. Rabbi Lev suggests “We will build this world from love.” This new world is one where art is at the forefront for me. Art and teaching.  Two things that make sense, even under a Trump presidency.

My experiments inside and outside the studio with “Onion Dances” makes me wonder how the personal narratives I am sharing can inextricably bbbbe in dialogue with what is currently happening to Jews in America right now. How can the past inform and help us through a present that seems troubling and unsteady?

As I prepare to perform at Fringe Arts’ March Scratch Night, those are the questions that will be at the forefront of my mind. Liz Lerman likes to say “How can we turn discomfort into inquiry?” In these moments, I find myself asking how can I turn my discomfort in the world into a place of inquiry where art can be made?

I’m eager to take these conversations out into the wider community, with my Dance Exchange colleagues, with the Kol Tzedek community, and the arts community as a whole in Philadelphia. How can we turn hatred and bigotry into a world where love thrives?

I live in the City of Brotherly Love, but more and more, that feels like a misnomer. I’d love to find that love and allow it to heal the mourners and the community, restore the graves that were overturned, and put us on a path towards mending, towards healing, towards mutual listening and understanding.   




What's new in Onion Land...

Well, after way too long away from Onion Dances, I am back to work! I've been working on a seven-minute version of the piece (both new and old components) for Scratch Night in March! Balancing my full-time teaching job with an arts practice has proved a struggle, but I am slowly finding more time for my art, and more time for this work.

The goal as of now is to produce a solo show for Fringe 2017. The piece will be much more involved than what I produced for SoLowFest 2016. There will be onions chopped on stage, more time devoted to dance, and deep explorations of what Judaism means to me and my family.  I am currently digging through the archives that my family has for family stories--from my great grandmother's novel, as well as my maternal grandmother's stories.

So what questions are hot for me right now? Here are a couple:

-What role does storytelling play in telling a solo narrative?

-How can the feeling of tumbleweeds be reproduced on stage?

-What is too personal to share? Too private? Too intimate?

-How can the stories of my past inform my future and future works?

-Where does this dance live? 

Keep checking back here for updates on the process, developments in the work, and discoveries made in the studio!