Literary Gems to Read in 2016


Last year I offered a list of 10 wonderful fiction titles to recommend. The books weren’t new from 2014, just memorable and worthwhile books, some written by lesser known authors who deserved greater visibility. I was happy to share these recommendations, especially when one fan told me that my recommendation of Marjorie Morningstar made her go back to that classic and provided her with many hours of reading pleasure again.

This year, my list includes both fiction and non-fiction, classics and lighter, several winners of the Pulitzer Prize, and two laugh-out-loud books from some of England’s most talented humorists. Like last year, they are both new and not so new, but all worth checking out. Let’s get reading!

  1. Gilead — Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, this title by Marilynne Robinson is one to savor slowly, both the quiet wisdom infused throughout its pages as well as its meditations on the relationships between fathers and sons as well as on faith. Written as a lasting testimony to the young son he will leave behind after his death, Minister John Ames, elderly and frail, writes about living a life of faith and family. He recalls stories about his relationship growing up with his father and eccentric grandfather, both of them ministers also, and about his hopes for the future for this son, an expected gift of his old age.
  2. All Who Go Do Not Return — This 2015 memoir by Shulem Deen, who was raised as a Hasid in New York’s Skverer community, is poignant, often funny, and written with deft intelligence. As he rebels more and more against the narrow strictures of his religious community, which forbids engagement with the secular world and most secular education, Deen’s conflicts become more intense, and the double life he begins to live becomes untenable. Deen’s love for his children is palpable, which makes their growing estrangement from him over time the more painful to read about. Having lost his faith in a community of fervent faith, he was in an unwinnable situation, and it is heartbreaking.
  3. Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders — Fans of John Mortimer’s always delightful Rumpole series won’t be disappointed in this essential volume. The Penge Bungalow Murders were the case through which our intrepid and ironically funny barrister made his name. In this book we also meet She Who Must Be Obeyed, Rumpole’s wife Hilda. As a young woman she set her eye on the inexperienced barrister, and urged the law chambers run by her father, C.H. Wystan, to give the novice a chance to prove himself. As is typical in a Rumpole novel, the case that appears “hopeless” may not be at all, and readers will delight in seeing how Rumpole’s determination to see that justice is done will turn the tables, taking him from understudy barrister to the star of the trial. A quick page-turning, frequently funny and clever tale.
  4. Carry On, Jeeves — Also in the British humor category, “Carry On, Jeeves” is the first in the classic series by P.G. Wodehouse. Here we meet the inimitable Jeeves, the “gentleman’s personal gentleman” who “shimmers” and “oozes” in and out of rooms. Jeeves’ vastly superior intellect is regularly pressed into service to help his employer, young, rich, idle Bertie Wooster, to get “out of the boullion,” where he has a habit of landing. Bertie Wooster expresses his understanding of Jeeves’ value this way: “The man’s a genius. From the collar upward he stands alone.”
    The series of stories share the theme of the idle rich (often intellectually challenged) get into trouble, from which Jeeves helps rescue them. But the language is so inventive and so consistently funny, and the predicaments are also very amusing, that the other “sameness” doesn’t detract one bit.
  5. Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language — My friends and teachers, Rabbi Daniel Lapin and his wife, Susan, wrote this amazing book to show the deep and surprising insights of the Hebrew language and its application to our lives. For example. in Hebrew, the word for friend is “ya-deed,” which breaks down into the word “yad-yad,” or, hand in hand. The word for face in Hebrew is “paneem,” which is a plural construction, because people have more than one face — the face they show to a prospective employer may not be the one they show to a loved one at home. These are two examples that reveal fundamental psychological truths about human nature as expressed through the Lord’s language. This book is engaging and enlightening, while also sharing essential Jewish concepts through the brilliance and succinctness of Hebrew. A helpful section at the beginning introduces the Hebrew alphabet and explanations on how to view each letter as a “tool” when reading each chapter.
  6. Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table — I loved this memoir by food writer and editor Ruth Reichl. Her story about growing up with an increasingly oddball mother (who would later be diagnosed with a mental disorder), loving but rather hapless father, and a few other dear close relatives, is always captivating. Reichl manages to weave her story, which covers her life from a young girl to a young woman, around her growing love of cooking, and as she discovers her life’s mission in the culinary arts, introduceing us to many memorable characters along the way.
  7. Roman Fever and Other Stories– This collection includes some of Edith Wharton’s finest short stories, and I had to reread it immediately after the first reading, because her insights and writing are so sharp, the endings sometimes so unexpected. The stories include familiar Wharton themes, such as an individual’s sense of identity in society, and social acceptance (or not) in the wealthy New York society of the early 20th century. Based on her own unhappy marriage, Wharton also wrote about divorce and other aspects of marital strife, including adultery. An outstanding collection of writing that I believe will stay with the reader for a long time after the last page is turned.
  8. People of the Book — Hanna Heath is an expert in rare books who unexpectedly digs into the mysterious past of the Sarajevo Hagaddah, a jewel among rare books and notable for its astonishingly fine illustrations, all but unknown in Hagaddahs in the 15th Century. In this fine novel, author Geraldine Brooks does a masterful job of intertwining Heath’s modern-day study of the hagaddah and her personal relationships with a former teacher, the colleague who becomes a love interest, and her cold and aloof mother, a successful surgeon who has hidden the truth to Hanna about the identity of her own father, a mystery that also slowly becomes solved during the course of the book. Brooks’ own knowledge of research of Jewish history, and the fascinating world of rare book examinations and forensics, adds to the reading delight.
  9. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II — This Pulitzer-winning book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is fascinating throughout, despite the plethora of detailed dates, names, and places that can sometimes make history reading become tedious. Goodwin paints a sometimes gripping portrait of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during WWII, their complex relationship, how America dealt with the war effort, and Eleanor’s astonishing growth as a public leader in her own right.
  10. Main Street — I’ll finish off this year’s list with this classic by Sinclair Lewis. Like Lewis’ other books, Arrowsmith, Dodsworth, and Babbitt, this novel is a character study of an individual caught in the parochialism of small town, Midwest America. Lewis has a brilliant ear for dialogue as he skewers the men who say “You bet!” and “Genuwine, honest-to-God homo Americanibus.” This book’s study is of Carol Kennicott, the young wife of Dr. Will Kennicott, from the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Carol wants to “improve” the town and everyone in it, but her idealism is quickly crushed by the realization that she is considered a city snob with condescending attitudes toward the locals. She is portrayed as both a heroine for her sympathies toward people who don’t fit the mold of Gopher Prairie and are run out of town, toward socialism, and toward cultural sophistication. Yet she is also shown as a naive woman whose conceit in her superiority undermines many of her own efforts. The town’s most famous native son, Percy Bresnahan, now a successful auto executive in Detroit, understands Carol completely and tells her, “My Lord, to hear you tell it, a fellow’d think that all the denizens, as you impolitely call ’em, are so confoundedly unhappy that it’s a wonder they don’t all up and commit suicide! But they seem to struggle along somehow!”


Need more light and funny books to enjoy? Don’t forget my own laugh-inducing works, Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping, The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement, and Carpool Tunnel Syndrome — a modern-day classic!

Thanksgiving Blessings

Five orange pumpkins sit in a row in front of a distressed, wooden background.


by Judy Gruen

Listen . . . do you hear that? Those annoying squawking sounds are the desperate cries of the nation’s turkeys, sensing doom. They know that they are about to peck their last bits of corn before they are sent cruising at an altitude of 350 degrees for four hours before landing on oversized platters for Thanksgiving dinner.

I admit that I have had mixed feelings about Thanksgiving over the years. As a purely American holiday, it’s a beaut. Once you are psychologically prepared to sit around with relatives for six hours and try not to talk about one another’s abhorrent political views, it is great to tuck into a multi-course feast and loll about on the couches afterward, secure in the knowledge that Black Friday is just hours away, and that what got eaten at the Thanksgiving dinner table stays at the table. Your personal trainer at the gym need never find out.

On the other hand, as a woman who prepares multi-course Sabbath meals each and every week, often for guests, part of me has felt I needed another holiday to cook for like I needed my kid to lose her $450.00 retainer. Again. Shabbat is our sanctuary in time from the demands of work, the lure of shopping, the challenge of finding parking in a crowded metropolis, the call of emails and texts. To step back this way each week to recalibrate our inner lives takes planning, fortitude and commitment. With all the blessings we already make in gratitude to God as part of my life, Thanksgiving could feel like a burden, quite frankly.

But this year, there was no question about it: I am making Thanksgiving and looking forward to it. In an age of growing terror attacks, we are traumatized, whipsawed by events that are out of control. We are afraid to check the news — where, who, has been struck now? Where mature, insightful and educated leaders should be we have dithering eogtists who refuse to name our enemies, refuse to take decisive action to protect us.

So I plan to make this Thanksgiving as lovely and delicious as possible. With family gathered around, now including two little grandchildren, we need this opportunity to express our thanks for every blessing we have. Primarily, for one another and the love that we share. And of course, gratitude for living in what is still a great country, where most people are kind, hard-working, and peace-loving. This country, for all its faults, provided refuge to our ancestors who fled oppression and tyranny, enabling us to live openly and freely as Jews. I have observed in recent years that as the world grows more unhinged, friends and family who are not ritually observant as we are grow in their appreciation of the Jewish ideals of family and holiday structure. They offer guidance and safe harbor in a frightening world.

This year, I’m even doing something rather unnatural for me and checking out Pinterest for ideas on how to make the table even more festive. I’ve got my eye on some mini pumpkin place cards, harvest-themed napkins and plates for sure, and perhaps I’ll even try to cut out oversized colorful paper leafs on which guests can write something they are thankful for and pin them to a corkboard. (If my more craft-conscious daughter will help me, that is.)

This year, the more thankful we are for all we do have, the better.

May all of you have a blessed Thanksgiving.


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Drilling Down in the Dentist’s Chair

by Judy Gruen


“You might feel a little discomfort here.”


“You ought to be totally comfortable now,” my dentist said, aiming a drill into tooth number 20, AKA the second bicuspid. What chutzpah. After all, at that very instant my body was arched in a back flip position in the chair, the blood was rushing to my head, three formidable dental instruments were plunged in my mouth (one of which had a sharp tip), and I was nearly blinded by the harsh light hanging mere inches above my face. Yeah, I was really cozy.

As with everything else in my body, my teeth require more servicing as time goes by. I am vigilant in getting my teeth cleaned twice a year, except for when I forget to be vigilant. That’s when I get another remedial lesson in the art of flossing from the patient dental hygienist. I vow to remain vigilant for the rest of my life, lest I begin to resemble any of the stomach-turning photographs you see on posters in some dentists’ offices. These photos feature people whose teeth have never come in contact with a toothbrush and whose four main food groups are tobacco, sugar, caramel corn and black coffee. If every dentist in the country had that poster up, we’d all run around clinging to our toothbrushes, not our phones.

I focus on breathing through the experience of having little hooks poking around my mouth, drills whirring around in some of my favorite teeth, and being warned, “You might feel a little pinch here.” Notice they never say, “Watch out, this one’s gonna hurt like a bear.” Instead, they use all these euphemisms, such as “pinch,” “tenderness,” or my favorite: “discomfort.” As if avoiding the word can avoid the sensation! I tell myself that the pain of childbirth was much worse, that as a Jew my DNA is tough stuff. But it’s still hard not to freak out each time I’m tilted back in that chair.

I used to go to a really mean dentist. He didn’t care if he hurt you or not. He sounded like Vladimir Putin, only without the warmth. I suspect that when he poked around with that tiny hook, he was actually hacking into my teeth and creating cavities that he claimed to have just “discovered.” Those add up at around $200 a pop. I always wondered: why can’t dentists just stuff little tiny cavities shut with some dental-type Spackle right then and there? What’s up with that business of drilling into the tooth and make the thing bigger?

You may wonder why I ever went to a mean dentist in the first place. Obviously his advertisements didn’t say, “As Seen on TV’s ‘America’s Meanest Dentist!’” I had naive trust in his professional abilities, and was shocked to discover he had the chair-side manner of a KGB agent. By then it was too late. They had stuffed my mouth with cotton so I couldn’t protest. Please don’t accuse me of being anti-Russian. My grandmother was Russian, and some of my best friends’ best friends are Russian. Dr. Vladimir was covered on our insurance plan, and I his hygienist was always gentle and called me “sweetheart.” I figured she evened things out. Sort of.

I told Dr. Vladimir that I needed more Novocain than the average person. He didn’t believe me. After I proved him wrong by issuing a strangled scream and kicking my legs like a 3-year-old having a tantrum, he barked, “I said DON’T MOVE, or it VILL hurt more!” He stopped drilling and waggled my cheek angrily with his hairy, Soviet-made hand while injecting me with the additional dose of Novocain. “You Americans are such babies,” he said. I wanted to cry. The man had no mercy, and had clearly not escaped from the maw of the heartless communist machine early enough. I wasn’t the only one afraid of him, either. I saw staff members cowering behind their masks when he yelled at them for breathing too loudly.

The last straw came when Dr. Vladimir dropped a tiny screw inside my hollowed out molar while fitting me for a crown. (I had cracked that tooth wide open the previous Pesach, chomping down on a hunk of shmura matza.) Instead of fishing it out, he cemented the crown over it, covering up his dastardly crime. Only after I reported chronic pain in the area after that did he tell me about the “accident,” then just shrugged and said I would have to have to live with it for the rest of my life. I called the insurance company to ask if they had any dentists on the plan who weren’t mean, but I was told those dentists no longer took insurance. I decided I would rather sell my grandmother’s diamond jewelry and pay out of pocket just to see a friendly dentist who wouldn’t drop errant bits of hardware in my molars and then seal them shut. Maybe the guy really was a KGB agent and had planted a tiny microphone in my mouth! I fired Dr. Vladimir by never making another appointment with him again. This has been very satisfying, but I do miss the hygienist who called me sweetheart.

My new dentist is everything my mean old dentist was not: professional, kind, concerned about my feeling “discomfort,” and not on any insurance plan. He’s so nice that I try to behave myself when he stuffs my mouth with scary implements, including a tweezer so big it could pry off the dome of the Al Aksa mosque; a drill, and something that looks like a glue gun on steroids. Also, he cares about my teeth, whereas to Dr. Vladimir, my teeth were just numbers, like 7, 23 or 32.

I hope that soon, the dental industrial complex will find a cost-effective, safe way to drug patients completely during any dental procedures. Drugged patients are calm patients, dentists don’t have to also act as therapists, and the assistant can just hold our mouths open with a car hood prop. I’ll be first in line when this breakthrough is announced.

You will not be surprised to learn that the crown slapped on by Dr. Vladimir is so ill-fitting and causes me so much pain that I have to have it removed and pay for a whole new crown. But the good news is that when my new, mensch of a dentist pops off the old crown with the giant tweezers, I’ll see if he can fish out that little “bonus” microphone at the same time.

(This article originally appeared in slightly different form on Aish.com.) 

The Knock on my Door

knockby Judy Gruen

I heard the knocking on my front door clearly. Rap-rap-rap-rap! The sound of anticipation. Won’t someone please answer the door? I didn’t want to get the door. I was all but certain it was a meshulach, literally, a messenger, in need of money. They walk the streets of Jewish neighborhoods, men and women both, looking for mezuzahs affixed to the doorpost, a sign that a Jew lives there and won’t turn them away.

I am usually at home with my husband, and sometimes our daughter, in the evenings, and we answer the door for meshulachim every time. But I was alone and decided to ignore all obligations for the next hour. I would leave the dinner cleanup, the ordering of the newspapers and mail, even the knock on the door. I told myself I was not obligated to answer every call of every beggar, especially when I was alone at night. Besides, I was eager to settle in to watch Downton Abbey, a series that has me transfixed.

The twinge of guilt for ignoring the second set of raps on the door barely registered; all my sympathies at the moment were focused on the troubles afflicting the characters in a mythical castle in Edwardian England.

Living in a Jewish neighborhood, the needy knock at our door regularly, sometimes several times a week. Ever since my husband came home with a sign that says “Welcome Shabbat Guests!” which stays on the porch at a poorly hidden angle Sunday through Thursday, we seem to attract even more.

Many of the “messengers” come from Israel, and I can’t help but wonder how they pay for a round-trip ticket to Los Angeles when they are in such dire straits. Sometimes, the meshulachim are collecting for a yeshiva or other academy for Jewish studies. But most are individuals who have hit hard times. The man with nine children, no job, two daughters still to marry off. The divorced woman with no job, in urgent need of dental surgery. Sometimes they come in pairs, but are collecting as individuals, something I learned at modest check-writing expense.

We often invite them in, and sometimes they will sit down and accept food or drink. It can be heartbreaking to see them, not only their profound personal distress but also their struggle to maintain dignity. Our sympathy is genuine; we, who have never known this sort of want, cannot imagine walking the streets in their worn out shoes. When we give them a check, they usually shower us with blessings, sometimes with tears in their eyes. They bless us with health and mazal, for good marriages for our unmarried children, for success and for peace. We return their blessings in full.

I was still drying my eyes from the evening’s episode of Downton Abbey when I heard it again: Rap-rap-rap-rap. Clearly, the Almighty wasn’t going to let me get away with displaying more sympathy for make-believe characters than for His own flesh-and-blood people. I opened the door to a man who appeared to be in his forties, well dressed, with a small black carrying case. He greeted me by name, and I asked him how he knew it. “Joe” explained that he had knocked on our door before, and my husband had helped him with a generous sum, which he specified. Was my husband home now?

No, I said, but I told him I would help with what I could. Joe launched into his story, which involved working for a company that been fingered by the federal government for illegal commercial dealings. Despite his insistence to the feds that his job had been too low-level for him to be culpable for the wrongdoing, he ended up in prison for several years. With a federal record, he works as a delivery guy for a kosher store. Joe said he needed $20,000 for medical treatment and had no insurance. He kept talking, showing me his medication bottles, and papers with doctors’ evaluations. I tried to balance my compassion with reasonable limits on how long I could listen.

When I asked if he had the certificate from a local Jewish communal organization that tries to “vet” the stories of the meshulachim, he fished it out but dismissed its relevance, which I found surprising and off-putting. Don’t those of us who are asked to give have a right to know the stories we are hearing have been verified to some degree?

“I’m so sorry about your troubles,” I said. “I’ll write you a check, but we have many people knocking on the door, so it will be a modest amount.” He seemed surprised, and made a flippant remark questioning how severe other people’s needs were compared to his. Now I was almost angry. Was he that naïve or arrogant? Did he think he was the only one in financial crisis in the Jewish community? What if his story wasn’t entirely true?

As I wrote a check for much more than I usually give, I regretted the amount. How did I know how many more people we’d have the opportunity to help during the rest of the week? And what if he wasn’t for real? Maybe he had fooled the people at the organization that gives the certificate.

Joe took the check and thanked me, but was still angling for more. “Should I come back later when your husband is home?” he asked. He added that he lived far away, and it wasn’t often that he could get to our neighborhood and see us. I was firm in answering “No.” I assumed a friend had loaned him the nice, new car he had parked across the street.

Not two minutes later, my husband came home. I told him about Joe’s visit and why it had rankled me. What if his story wasn’t for real? I asked.

“Who knows? It doesn’t matter. He’s a Jew in some sort of need,” my husband said.

Of course he was right. We are only trustees of the Almighty’s money, as the Mishnah says, “Give to Him what is His because you and yours are His” (Ethics of the Fathers 3:8). Joe was a true meshulach, a messenger reminding me of my immense blessings, as well as my obligations not to harden my heart, even for an hour.

(This essay originally appeared on Aish.com.) 

Young Marriages: Can They Still Work?


by Judy Gruen

A few months ago our youngest son, not quite 23, married a lovely 21-year-old bride. In previous generations, young marriages like theirs would have been completely unremarkable, but today, in marrying young they were bucking trends in nearly all Western cultures.

Falling marriage rates have been much in the news because they are falling in nearly every demographic. In 1960, the year I was born, about 72 percent of all people in the U.S. were married. By 2012, the rate of married households fell to 50.5 percent, according to a recent Pew Research survey based on U.S. Census data. Also in 1960, only one-tenth of adults aged 25 or older had never been married. Now the number of never-marrieds in the same age group has doubled to one in five, or about 42 million people.

During my lifetime I have watched society try to beat much of the respect, stature and allure out of traditional marriage. TV shows, movies and books emphasize the single life as a fun and sexy, if sometimes lonely adventure. Marriage is often portrayed as a stifling and enervating prison, unless it is between a same-sex couple, in which case it is usually seen as a beautiful and happy union. In our ego-driven culture, where the most popular and must-have electronic companions begin with the letter “I,” people have been conditioned to think of their 20s and sometimes even their 30s as decades meant for personal exploration, incompatible with building a life with another person.

Of course, marriage isn’t easy. As Groucho Marx quipped, “I think marriage is a wonderful institution. But who wants to live in an institution?” Apparently, plenty of people. Divorced people usually remarry, often quickly. Marriages are living things and need consistent nurturing. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of both people, the marriage dies. But often, the best efforts of both people yield something beautiful, something transcendent, which enriches not only them but also their children, friends and community. The hard-won emotional intimacy and shared personal achievements are the fruits of happy and enduring marriages.

Outside of religious circles, it seems that young adults don’t want to get serious about marriage much before they’re 30. No one should marry only because they’ve hit a certain age, but on the other hand, young people skeptical of marriage may want to reconsider: there is plenty of hard evidence pointing to its many benefits. For one, married people usually have stronger financial profiles than the unmarried. And with the current focus on income inequality, it’s alarming that people with only a high school education are dropping off the marriage radar screen faster than other groups. A New York Times article from February 6, 2015 quoted researcher Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution in Washington, who observed, “There are relatively few relationships that are more fully documented than those between economic well-being and marriage. . . It’s a plain fact that people who are married have more income, wealth and savings that last into their retirement.”

Money aside, most studies also find that married people are happier and more fulfilled over the long-term than the unmarried. Some ask which came first: a happy and well-adjusted person who was more likely to marry in the first place, or a marriage that made someone happy? According to W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the co-author of “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Twentysomething Marriage,” young marriage and happiness do go together — given the right circumstances. In a recent column he wrote for the Washington Post, Wilcox cited a University of Texas study affirming that the highest-quality unions were forged by couples who married in their mid- to late 20s.

“Marrying in your twenties makes it more likely you’ll marry someone without a complicated romantic or family history,” Wilcox wrote. “It also makes it more likely you’ll marry someone with a similar educational level and religious faith. There is more of a sense of ‘we-ness’ and partnership than ‘me-ness.’ Marrying earlier than the mid-20s is associated with markedly higher divorce rates unless the couple attends religious services together. In that case, they can navigate the challenges of marriage and family with a lot of community support.”

Other benefits of a 20-something marriage include a more active and satisfying intimate life, which is strongly linked to marital happiness; the ability of women to become pregnant more easily; and for men, more stability overall, measured by drinking less, working harder and out-earning their single peers, Wilcox observed.

More young women intuitively understand it can be a mistake to wait too long to marry, despite what their sociology professors say. A TED talk aimed at 20-somethings given by Meg Jay, the author of “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now,” has garnered 6.9 million views. In it she relates the tale of a young woman who said, “The best boyfriend I ever had was in my mid-twenties. I just didn’t think I was supposed to be [married] with someone then.” Wait too long, in other words, and your best potential mate may have married someone else.

My husband and I were filled with joy, love and pride when Ben and Rivka stood under the chuppah and married. We were thrilled that they chose to embrace the Jewish ideal of unwavering commitment to one life partner, understanding that their greatest possible happiness and potential for self-actualization are most likely through the conscious, quiet daily acts of love and giving they have already begun to do for one another as husband and wife. Indeed, we feel very blessed.

(This article originally appeared in slightly different form on Aish.com. If you enjoyed this post, please forward to a friend, and make sure you’re subscribed to get every Mirth & Meaning column, no matter how intermittently they are sent!)

Why Do We Need TVs At the Gas Station?

by Judy Gruen

TVs everywhere gives me gas.

TVs everywhere give me gas.

(This essay was originally published in the  Chicago Tribune on January 29, 2015 and is reprinted with permission.) 


TV broadcasts in public places are nothing new, but in today’s wired society, they are more annoying than ever. The message they send to me is that I’m too stupid or incapable of dealing with a little downtime while I wait for the doctor, my table or my flight. Here … watch the electronic baby sitter instead.

Today, many of us are trying to relearn the ability to be “mindful” because we realize we’ve become addicted to a steady stream of input from our phones or laptops. Wherever we go, we are armed with endless downloadable distractions. We are less likely to spend time just thinking or observing, less likely to greet the person next to us in line or in a waiting room. Who needs the TV?

Redundant as the TV distraction may seem, TVs are on the march and coming to a dentist’s cubicle near you. In the last year, not only have TVs appeared in my dentist’s treatment rooms but also in the checkout lines of a local grocery store and atop pumps at a gas station. There is almost no refuge from the assault of programming you didn’t choose and that further erodes your ability to rub two brain synapses together.

Recently, I had to rush my daughter for emergency care to an oral surgeon. The elegant office was stocked with interesting, current magazines, yet the reception area TV was serving up an endless loop of the reality show “Cake Boss.” Although my daughter was bleeding and in pain, in one sense she was more fortunate than me. At least she was under sedation while I was force-fed back-to-back episodes of the show, featuring a tough-talking Jersey baker named Buddy. He runs the family bakery and must manfully deal with bellicose staff and sometimes sociopathic customers. His charm seems to be an ability to channel a Mafia don persona one minute, yet tear up over the beauty of an exquisite fondant the next.

The first episode was diverting, but I soon tired of Buddy and his confectionary crises. Reading was impossible with the TV’s background noise and distracting peripheral images. When I couldn’t tear myself away from the train-wreck sight of a crazed bridezilla who graffitied her own wedding cake in Buddy’s kitchen, even I realized (naive as I am in the ways of Hollywood) that “reality” TV must be scripted. Right?

My blood pressure rising, I told the office manager as politely as possible that if they didn’t turn off “Cake Boss,” they’d have to sedate me too. She apologized, and I hoped she’d turn it off. Instead, I saw Jamie Lee Curtis on screen, her back against the wall, looking terrified. I gave up and went outside to get some fresh air.

Shortly after my initiation to “Cake Boss,” I went to a local bakery cafe, only to see a newly installed TV there too. I expressed my disappointment to the owner. He said he had resisted for as long as possible, but impatient customers were often rude to the staff while waiting for their orders. Since the TV arrived, he said, they wait quietly.

Running a business is hard work. I sympathize with business owners who feel they have no choice but to offer up TV as a bulwark against an increasingly impatient and rude society. But won’t the people who got crabby because they couldn’t wait 10 minutes for a sandwich be the same ones to soon complain they don’t like what’s on TV? Will our nation’s rallying cry soon become, “Give me entertainment or give me death!”?

Campaigning against TVs in public may be a lost cause, but I ask office staff to turn off the TV or at least turn the volume off when I see that no one else is watching. I believe others would also welcome some quiet white space in public, whenever possible.

As for the local bakery cafe newly rigged with a TV, I no longer suggest it as a place to meet friends for lunch. And I take my croissants to go.

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Digging for What’s Real on Passover

by Judy Gruen

Reposted with permission by

Reprinted with permission by Peter Mesnik of BeyondtheGate.

I once attended a class on Passover preparation taught by a rabbi who told his all-female audience that outside of the kitchen, the entire search for chametz, the leavened products we may not own during Passover, should take no longer than one hour, tops. Mind you, this was a rabbi speaking to women who had been going mano-a-mano with the business side of a scrubbing sponge for days. He was never seen or heard from again, undoubtedly whisked away into the Kosher Witness Protection Program.

Was the rabbi right? Who knows? Who cares? Whatever his bona fides as an expert in Jewish law, his words were sacrilege. Most traditional Jewish women I know are hard-wired to become a little neurotic about scrubbing and polishing their homes to within one matzah’s thickness of their lives until they are satisfied their homes are kosher for Passover. I agree that Passover cleaning often becomes an extreme exercise, yet I confess: I secretly enjoy this Passover clean-a-thon. Honestly, if I don’t give this place a working-over each spring, by the time Yom Kippur rolls around, I’ll strike the left side of my chest several extra times during the confessional, adding, “And for the sin of not giving away those too-tight shoes to Goodwill, and for the sin of allowing the dust bunnies in the closet to multiply like rabbits, spiking allergies in the entire family…”

Even though Passover cleaning is not meant to be a spring cleaning, I say, why not? Passover is about our liberation from slavery to freedom, and don’t professional organizers always preach about how liberating it is to whittle down our material possessions?

This year, I have shipped a dozen pair of ancient prescription glasses to the Lions Club, which recycles them for the needy nearsighted.  I am gathering retired cell phones from all family members to another recycling program that will benefit our enlisted men and women. My daughter and I have donated an almost embarrassing amount of quality clothes and shoes to a group that distributes to the local needy. And when I’m not liberating myself from outdated or excess stuff, or cleaning, I’m thinking about or reading wonderful and profound essays about the true meaning of Passover.

As a kid, I never liked this holiday. I didn’t get the connection between eating hard, dry matzah and the concept of freedom. Wouldn’t freedom signify eating fluffy soft bread instead? Of sitting back and taking it easy? Well, no. What I only began to appreciate as an adult is that true freedom — and true happiness — comes from understanding who you are and what your purpose is. I also began to see that you can’t achieve those goals without accepting what my teacher and friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin calls “God’s blueprint for living.” That blueprint, set down in the Five Books of Moses, articulates a path for a life of morality, spirituality, meaning, possibly even transcendence. True freedom requires discipline. That’s such a foreign concept in today’s society, where following your feelings has made almost everything else subservient. Who agrees with me that the results of this have not been pretty?

I can’t begin to imagine what my ancestors endured as literal slaves in Egypt, nor the terror and barbarism that my much more recent ancestors suffered in pogroms and concentration camps of Eastern Europe. The words that we read in the Haggadah every year, that in every generation enemies rise up to try to kill us, unfortunately continue to have special resonance. Thousands of Jews are leaving France, their home for generations, and they will surely be followed by Jews who no longer feel safe in long-established communities in places such as Manchester, England, Brussels, Belgium, and a growing list of cities.

But Jews remain a people of hope and optimism. The last song we sing at the Passover seder is “Next year in Jerusalem.” We keep our vision and prayers directed toward the place that God promised us and where He took us, in a very roundabout way to be sure. We began as a ragtag group of former slaves, only to become the first nation in history whose peoplehood was defined based on a covenant with God.

So I really don’t mind all the cleaning and de-cluttering. It gives me time to remind myself about what truly matters, which is my relationship with God and the enormous gifts I have as a Jew. It gives me time to remind myself that the disciplined path to freedom sometimes starts by wading into an overstuffed closet until it splits like the Red Sea, and tossing out material and egotistical clutter until we reconnect with the essentials.

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Type A Men and the Women Who Love Them

by Judy Gruen


Newlywed wives get ready for a nugget because I am going to teach you a lesson: when men get sick, even the manliest among them morph into sissies. A husband could be a four-star general who has led brave men into battle with guns blazing, but infect that man with a 24-hour virus and he can barely muster the courage to stick out his tongue for the doctor and say “Ah!” He has been known to faint when surrendering a vein for a blood test, even when the syringe is teeny tiny.

My husband, Jeff, is also a bad patient. A very bad patient. He may not be conscious of wanting to be pampered, nor does he fear the sight of a tongue depressor. No, Jeff is a bad patient because he lives in denial that there is anything wrong with him, even when he is white as a freshly bleached sheet. My biceps are strong because I have to practically tie him down to keep him from going to work when he is feverish. But when I block the door and demand that he stay home, he gets his revenge by getting “busy” with various household tasks.

As you have now guessed, he is an unrepentant Type A. He wants to be useful, no matter the cost to his health or my sanity. This is why taking care of him is exhausting – he needs a maximum security environment to prevent him from attempting to wash dishes, check the filter in the heater, and other random acts of productivity. This sense of responsibility is part of what makes Jewish men so desirable as husbands. But when he is an impatient patient, he drives me insane.

More often than not, when he is home sick I am the one who will need a new prescription – for blood pressure or anxiety. Recently, for example, Jeff’s back “went out,” leaving no forwarding address. This forced him into a “stay-cation” of a most painful variety. Part of the problem is that Jeff has enjoyed such good health for so long he doesn’t “do” illness very well. Unlike my husband, though, when I am unwell I have no trouble slipping under the blankets and moaning softly, wondering how long it will be before anyone other than the dog notices my pathetic state and offers me tea and toast.

I wanted to take Jeff to the chiropractor for his wayward back. I have gone to this doctor so often and for so many years that he should have ordered a vanity plate for his BMW that reads, “Thx, Judy.” Naturally, my suggestion was rebuffed.

“No need to go out,” Jeff said. “I’ll be fine in no time. Can you reach that glass of water? Who put it six inches away from me?” Mind you, this was said as he was lying down on a heating pad, working with his iPad held aloft, his face a study in grimaces.

“Let’s go. Look how much pain you’re in!”

“It’s not so bad if I lay totally still,” he said. “When do I get another Ibuprofen?”

I made the mistake of leaving him unattended for about twenty minutes and then caught him in the act of trying to be industrious. He had marshaled all his manly stubbornness and was hobbling down the hall, his posture like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, clutching a box of light bulbs.

“Just where do you think you’re going with those?” I demanded.

“Front porch light went out. Didn’t you notice? Can you just bring me the ladder?”

“Hand over the light bulbs and no one gets hurt,” I said. “Now, I’ll help you to the front porch, and from there to the car. We’re going to the doctor. If you cooperate, I’ll let you get on a ladder by the end of the week, and you can even hang some pictures if you want.”

He grumbled, grimaced and griped, but he had ventured too far from the heating pad to get anywhere without my help. Over the next few days, I was worn out from trying to keep my good man out of mischief. At the first hint of mobility, he would attempt stealth missions involving the hauling of trash, watering the yard, and examining the cause of a slow-draining sink. Thankfully, even he knew better than to try to lift my mega-sized roasting pan filled with enough chicken and rice to feed the lost Ten Tribes and bring it to the table. This is a feat suitable only for professional athletes and Jewish mothers with strong biceps (like me).

I am happy to report that Jeff’s back has mostly returned, and he has gone back to work where he belongs. I have removed the ankle tracking device from his leg, and am enjoying my freedom from my stint as a nurse-warden. Now I can get back to my own work and to running this joint the way I see fit, without any meddling from my well-meaning, but sometimes maddening man.

This column originally appeared in slightly different form on Aish.com. 

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Everybody Loved Phyllis

Phyllis Cohen, 1938-2015

by Judy Gruen

She had a personality as vibrant as her flaming red hair. She was full of life, full of love, and very, very funny. She offered common sense to the sense-challenged and blunt assessments of everyone and everything. She never met a poker game she didn’t like. Her accent was pure, unadulterated Brooklyn. She said “bee-you-tee-ful” and “Oh my gawd.” Her greatest pleasure was her family.  Small-time gambling was a close second. Even when watching TV with her grandkids each Thursday, she bet a dollar with the kids about who would win the final round of “Jeopardy.”

She was Aunt Phyllis, and everybody loved her. She was my aunt through marriage – the younger (and only) sister of my husband’s late mother, Laura. Aunt Phyllis was a lifelong New Yorker, and we have never left L.A., yet we managed many visits over the years. She flew out to help celebrate bar mitzvahs, once with her eldest daughter Barbara, and came to our eldest son’s wedding. Sometimes, she came just to get out of the cold. You knew that a visit with Aunt Phyllis would keep you smiling and laughing. You just felt good being around her.

The snow had started falling hard and fast as the funeral began on Monday on Long Island. The rabbi who officiated said that this was the most laughter-filled funeral he had ever attended. He correctly observed that this was not disrespectful, but in fact a tribute to Aunt Phyllis for the laughter and smiles that were her special gift to her family and friends.

Aunt Phyl fought off cancer several times. As her daughters Barbara and Allison said, she never let it stop her; she just scheduled chemo around Mahjong, visiting her grandkids, and shopping.  When Allison’s husband, Bill, invited Phyllis to accompany the family on a trip to Greece a few years back, Allison was afraid the travel would be too much for her. “I took Mom to her oncologist to get his opinion,” Allison said. “He said she should absolutely go and he’d reschedule her chemo. Mom just laughed at me as she went out of the room. She was planning to go no matter what I said. We had a great time.”

Aunt Phyllis had a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. She laughed at the pretentions of others and just as easily laughed at her own embarrassing moments, including the time she tried to eat the earplugs at a bar mitzvah, thinking they were mints. Years ago, she had us all laughing till we had to hold our sides as she retold a story about a long-ago summer trip when her husband, Victor, struggled to dock their little boat.

“I was yelling, Viktah, the boat is starting to move! Get off the dock! And he said, ‘I know what I’m doing, Phyl!’ He had one leg on the dock and the other in the boat, and I thought he was going to split in half! Of course he ended up falling into the lake. Oh my gawd it was so funny!”

In our small family, Aunt Phyllis was the last of her generation. She was treasured not only for this special status, but because while every family has its thorny relationships and its members who tussle, argue and grate, Aunt Phyllis was one person everyone loved, indisputably. Phyllis would tell you off if she felt you needed it, without drama, emotional blackmail or resorting to a punishing decibel level. She’d let you know you had been a jerk in her plain-spoken way. You never resented her for it because you knew she was right.  She was her daughter Barbara’s best friend, and Barbara wrote about their special relationship in a column that was published in a local paper.

She had the wisdom that comes with age and that is increasingly in scarce supply. She never griped about difficulties or setbacks, always looking forward, never back. Her cancer began to spread in June 2013, and the prognosis wasn’t good. We had heard that even Aunt Phyllis was a bit depressed, and we called, hoping to cheer her up. She sounded a bit down, but still steadfastly refused to worry. “What good is it going to do, right? I’m just going to live my life, trust my doctor, stay as active as I can. I don’t waste time worrying.”

That is a form of greatness.

Phyllis’ proudest role was as a grandmother to Joshua, Natalie, Faith, Rafi and Leora. She babysat weekly for more than sixteen years, played with them, read to them, watched TV with them, cooked with them, and of course, taught them how to play Casino and Rummy 500. Every game was played for money. Natalie, 13, made a special “girl power” fist bump handshake to use with Grandma, just one more thing that strengthened an already incredible bond. Every year Phyllis went on the Autism Speaks walk with Barbara and her family. Even with cancer, Phyllis walked most of the mile each year. This was one thing she could do for her grandson Rafi, and she wouldn’t be sidelined. True to form, on New Year’s Eve, just weeks before she passed away, Phyllis danced with Barbara at a New Year’s Eve party at a local Jewish community center.

Thank you, Aunt Phyl, for all the love. For showing us how to live without blame or worry. And of course, for all the laughter. We miss you.

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8 New Year’s Resolutions You’ll Mostly Like

Research has shown that worldwide, more than 3 billion people make New Year’s resolutions, but who really keeps them? My guess: about 16 people. Most vows to eat more fiber, hire a personal trainer and open a retirement account get dropped faster than cell reception in an elevator. Maybe we’re just aiming too high.

I say, make resolutions, but keep them reasonable. Make the kind of resolutions you will want to keep. Here are some that have worked for me:

Read on …