What I Learned from Writing a Memoir


I am writing this post late in the evening before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. This is a day when, among other responsibilities, we are meant to ask forgiveness from people whom we may have hurt, even inadvertently. I know that even my biggest fans manage to live full lives even without my columns, but I still do ask your forgiveness for having dropped out of sight for so many months, with nary a mirthful or meaningful post or any explanation.

A few of you even contacted me, wondering whether they accidentally got dropped from the email list, or asking why I’d gone all quiet on the Western front. Why wasn’t I writing?

Well, I had been writing. . . and writing. . . and writing. For a few years, in fits and starts, I had been working on a memoir about my unexpected, bumpy journey to Jewish Orthodox practice. (“Practicing” is the right word here, because there are still may things I have yet to get right.)

There are loads of myths about Orthodox Jews, how we live, why we do some of the things we do. Many people (including many Jews) just think that we are nuts, or simply hopelessly out of date. I used to think these things, too. One of my goals in writing my story was to try to share some of the beauty and meaning that I found, while also admitting some of the awkwardness, conflicts and funny stories I have encountered along the way. I wanted to tell a story about a serious topic in an entertaining, funny way, without compromising my message.

I hadn’t a clue when I started just how daunting a task this would be. Even after a tenth or fifteenth draft of the first chapters, which I was sure I had finally gotten right, one of my few trusted readers would hand the chapters back to me and essentially said, “Curb your enthusiasm. This isn’t your best work.” I ripped out the stitches I had laboriously woven and began again.

Over the period of about a year, I realized what was wrong: I had unconsciously used a different voice in my memoir than the voice my readers are used to seeing, the voice I have cultivated over a period of so many years. I was taking myself too seriously, and the writing paid the price.

When I began to trust my real voice, my writing improved. When I hired a series of book editors to help guide me, my pace quickened. But the book was still taking too long, especially since I am still a busy mom and now hands-on Nana to my two granddaughters, so several months ago I decided to stop nearly all other writing and editing projects and finish my book before my book finished me.

A few weeks ago, I really finished it, and I have sent it out into the world, seeking a publisher. Say a little prayer for me that The Skeptic and the Rabbi will have a smooth ride to a publishing date. You bet I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

It’s funny, but I now realize that my experience working on this book has a lot in common with how I experience Yom Kippur. Both demanded a great deal of introspection, sometimes, more than was comfortable. Both brought me to tears on a regular basis. I got so involved in writing that sometimes I even forgot to eat. Both have made prayer more natural, because there were times when I felt so stuck on how to write certain chapters that I was sure that only an act of God would help me get to the finish line. After a good Yom Kippur, when I felt connected to the prayers and the divine presence around me, I end up feeling transformed. And having wrestled with this project for these last few years, I also feel somehow transformed. It was hard work, but it has also been exhilarating to learn so much more about my craft, and work in a new genre.

So while you didn’t hear from me for a long time, I had a good excuse, don’t you think? But I missed writing to you and hearing from you. Thanks for being patient — and forgiving!

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life this year, and inscribed as well for health, prosperity and peace.

Faith Takes Time

thank-you-prayerYesterday I went to hear a speaker at synagogue, the wife of a prominent rabbi visiting from Jerusalem. She spoke about faith, and the rewards of keeping faith uppermost in our hearts, even in dark times. She spoke about prayer and its power, and shared a few miracle stories attesting to it.

Here’s one of them. An Israeli man had to rush one of his twin infants to the emergency room because the infant had displayed frightening symptoms. Alone in the waiting area, the man caught sight of a volume of Psalms, Tehillim in Hebrew.  Based on the old adage that there are no atheists in a foxhole, the man, who was secular, spent the night reading through the entire book of Psalms, crying over his sick infant and praying for the child’s recovery.

By the morning, the doctor told him that every test they had run was negative. The child appeared completely healthy. In a “happily ever after” ending, the man became religious.

I have very mixed feelings about stories like this. On one hand, I know they are probably true, but I also suspect some of these stories get exaggerated in the process of retelling. It’s not that I doubt that God performs miracles. In fact, I believe we are surrounded by miracles each and every day, and I have experienced many “small miracles” in my life that have deepened my own faith. I’m sure that one reason we Jews are obligated to pray three times a day is to remind us of all that is actually going right in our lives, when it is so easy to focus on what we lack. And after giving thanks for our blessings, we can pour on the requests for help and redemption.

For the man in this story, true faith may well have sprouted overnight as he had been touched by a divine miracle. But most people need to develop faith over time, and I don’t like it when the quality of having such faith is presented as something that’s as easy as whipping up a pot of chicken soup. It isn’t! I grew up feeling very connected emotionally to my Jewish identity, but I lacked a substantial Jewish education, and had zero education in the art of prayer. It has been the work of my entire adult life to develop the kind of steadfast faith that I admire in others, to really believe that somehow, some way, everything that happens is for the good, even the inexplicably sad and tragic. There are many things we will never be able to understand in this lifetime.

I looked around the room yesterday and saw that several women who had come to hear this speaker were still rather new to this sort of talk, which assumes a certain level of spiritual background and backbone. When I was still new to Jewish observance, I know this sort of presentation would have left me disheartened. “She makes it sound so easy!” I would have thought. Years and years later, I know that this sort of faith is possible, but that, like most other things of value in life, it is the result of effort, focus, and desire. I wanted to speak up yesterday and say to all the women who might have also been disconcerted by her words, “It’s okay to feel the struggle in all of it. Keep on praying, keep on questioning, keep on trying to make the relationship real. The real faith will come, a little at a time.”

I know: this is a pretty different type of blog post than the sort I usually write, and I didn’t make you laugh! Maybe you are disappointed. But the reason I haven’t posted anything new for such a long time, and the reason this post is such a different tone, is because I’ve been focused very intently on finishing a memoir about my own reluctant path to observance. I’m not done yet, but finally I can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. So because my faith-life is so much on my mind, I’ll probably be adapting my blog to reflect these thoughts. I’ll still share as much humor as I can, and may split the blog into two pages so I don’t confuse or disappoint readers who are looking forward to some light humor and get some kind of heavy column about prayer instead I don’t mean to be heavy; I still plan to offer both mirth and meaning, but they may not be in equal measures for a while.

Also, I have posted a few recent columns on topics more business-oriented, and you can see those on my Linked In page.

Finally, over the past year I have begun to offer writing coaching services, along with my non-fiction editing services. You can see some of my client testimonials here.

I’ll keep you posted on the status of my book, and will try to blog more frequently. If you enjoy this post, please forward to a friend!



My Beef with the Food Pyramid Scheme

Shhh! Don't tell! Beef is really good for us!

Shhh! Don’t tell! Beef is really good for us!


I am a red meat fan. and come from a long line of hardened carnivores. In the early 1960s, when I was a little kid, the nutritional industrial complex convicted red meat of crimes against cholesterol and heart health. Red meat, for eons considered a staple of a healthy diet, was suddenly knocked off its nutritional pedestal. Overnight, if it once mooed, it was booed. My mother ramped up the chicken at the dinner table and tapered down the meat. My dad cried fowl.

I actually went vegetarian for about a dozen years, as part of my idealistic youth. One day, a friend offered me a delicate little chicken drumstick at her apartment. I had an epiphany: I had been a vegetarian fool. I sat down and ate the chicken and nearly chewed through the bone, never to return to the land of exclusively lacto-ovo vegetarianism. Still, I assumed that red meat was like a hunk of Devil’s food chocolate cake: delicious to be sure, but hostile to my health and to be parceled out in small portions on special occasions.

So imagine my joy when I read that red meat has been falsely accused for decades. That it was actually good for me! And for you! The article was from the Wall Street Journal and written by Nina Teicholz, based on her 2014 book, “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.” I had saved the article and came across it again this week, just when I was getting hungry for lunch and thinking, “Where’s the beef?”

Reading the story will probably make you ready to run out for a burger, if not the fries. Teicholz wrote that there was never (You hear that? Never!) solid evidence that animal fats cause the heart disease for which they were cruelly maligned. “We only believe this to be the case because nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias,” she wrote. Imagine that.

True, America suddenly faced a heart disease epidemic in the mid-1950’s. The government and scientists looked for a villain. Teichholz blames, in part, Ancel Benjamin Keys, a scientist at the University of Minnesota, who “relentlessly champion[ed] the idea that saturated fats raise cholesterol and, as a result, cause heart attacks.”

But Dr. Keys had an agenda to put red meat on the grill until it was charred to a crisp. And Keys’ study of nearly 13,000 men in the U.S., Japan and Europe was biased: He didn’t study men in countries where people still ate a lot of fat but had no widespread heart disease, such as France, Switzerland, Sweden and West Germany. He did study peasants from Crete, “islanders who tilled their fields well into old age and who appeared to eat very little meat or cheese.”

Other scientists followed like sheep, designing studies poised to malign animal fats. But the studies didn’t always control for smoking and other factors, which made their results “unreliable at best.”

Now the fix was in, and the mighty and powerful in the worlds of science and politics convinced Americans that red meat and butter were the enemy. This led to the famous government-sponsored food pyramid where carbohydrates were king. As a young mother in the early 1990’s, I served and ate pasta dinners most nights believing it was “healthier” than meat. I then wondered why, despite chasing after four kids and going to the gym, I was still twenty pounds overweight.

And far from being a benign change in our diets, moving to carbs and margarine instead of meat and butter, as we were told to do, was harmful, Teicholz says. Carbohydrates break down into glucose and help store fat. Frankly, I have never needed help with fat-storing, thanks anyway. Worse, carbohydrates in excess can lead to obesity and potentially to Type 2 diabetes. These both contribute to heart disease. All those bowls of Grape-Nuts cereal, that frankly tasted like pulverized pine cone, may have been worse for me than had I eaten nice buttery eggs for breakfast! Who knew? Many scientists did, but wouldn’t tell.

The American Heart Association in 1961 proclaimed that shunning butter and lard for vegetable oil-based margarine and vegetable oil led to healthier hearts, yet Teichholz notes that “In early clinical trials, people on diets high in vegetable oil were found to suffer higher rates not only of cancer but also of gallstones. And, strikingly, they were more likely to die from violent accidents and suicides.” Gosh, could people have been so desperate for a steak that they killed themselves?

It was no pleasure to learn that after having ingested a bargeful of margarine in my life for a “healthier heart” that I may have damaged my liver in the process because of all the trans fats, and even raised my level of “bad” LDL cholesterol. This is “not remotely what Americans bargained for when they gave up butter and lard,” Teichholz wrote.

And who remembers that famous Framingham study on heart disease risk factors from 1971? Well, that study, whose results have never been questioned, revealed that women over 50 with high total cholesterol levels live longer, yet women are the ones who have been assiduously upping their fruit, vegetable and grain consumption, wondering why their “good” HDL cholesterol was dropping. Finally, women have achieved equality with men, at least in matching their death rates from heart disease.

Of course, there are many studies that have proven the health benefits of a nice juicy burger or lean steak, but they don’t get much attention. One study, whose results were published in the January 2012 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that a group with high cholesterol following a mostly fruit, vegetable and whole grain lowered their “bad” LDL cholesterol by about 10 percent after adding up to 5.5 ounces of lean beef a day. What’s more, “bad” fat content—called triglycerides—decreased.

Another study of women in Australia who ate 1 to 2 ounces of beef or lamb a day were half as likely to have major depression or anxiety disorder compared to those who ate less than 1 ounce daily. One researcher guessed this was because the typically grass-fed beef and lamb in Australia is higher is higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which can protect against anxiety and depression. I say the answer is simpler: Most people simply enjoy meat. And frankly, if anyone allowed me only one ounce of meat as a serving, I might get depressed too.

So if cows are not to blame for our heart health woes, what is? After more than $1 billion spent trying to prove that animal fats were to blame, we don’t know. Too many people have built careers and egos on what might be junk science. The real evidence that meat is bad for you remains as slippery as an omelet sliding off a buttery grill and onto a plate with a side of hash browns.

Here’s to a fat, fresh burger, grilled with onions on top, medium rare. I’ll only eat half the bun.


Laughter is also good for you, and has zero cholesterol. Check out my funny books: Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping, The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement, and Carpool Tunnel Syndrome — a modern-day classic! If you enjoyed this Mirth & Meaning, please forward to a friend!

The Myth of the Empty Nest


by Judy Gruen

“So how’s the empty nest?” my neighbor June asked when we nearly bumped shopping carts at the market.

“How would I know?” I shrugged. “The married ones live in the neighborhood and pop over all the time, often when they’re hungry and their wives aren’t around. Our granddaughters are brought over a few times a week to play, riffle through all the cereals in the pantry, play with my bracelet collection, dump toys out on the living room floor, and then go home. Each kid’s room is still filled with so many of their own clothes, books and belongings I’m not sure what they wear or can possibly have in their apartments.”

My neighbor raised her eyebrows. “So I guess you’re not getting much more writing done now than when they were at home?”

I threw my head back and chortled in a manner I hoped was wryly amusing. “Hardly! They also text, email and call, usually during dinner. In desperation I announced that I was turning off my phone during set work hours, but they just emailed or waited at the door. Honestly, I got more done when they were teenagers and totally ignored me. Now they’re adults and realize that I actually know something, and they want in on my hard-won wisdom. The only way I’ll get an empty nest anytime soon is if I run away to a cabin in the mountains.”

“There must be an app for this,” she said. “I guess it’s nice to know that you’re still wanted,” she said.

“Oh, it is,” I answered, tossing a few extra boxes of cereal in the cart for the grandkids to eat and spill. “I don’t mean to complain. . . .it’s just, this so-called empty nest isn’t anything like I thought it would be, namely, empty. Now I understand why the most prolific writers in history were either men or childless women. There’s no retirement from Mom-dom.”

“And your husband probably wants some attention too,” she said, as we headed together amiably toward the produce section.

“Don’t get me started,” I said, demonstrating admirable restraint by not grabbing a box of Entenmann’s Danish but remembering that my husband likes Dijon mustard and we were all out. “I’m grateful to have kids who still need me, and provide so much material to write about. Now if only I could find the time to write it all down!”

If you enjoyed this Mirth & Meaning, please forward to a friend!

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.


If you enjoyed this Mirth & Meaning, please forward to a friend!

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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