Encounters With The Unexpected

When I left my home Monday for Baltimore’s Mercaz Dahan Center for Jewish Life and Learning at Beth Tifloh Congregation, part of my head happily sang, On the Road Again while the other half hummed with a measure of dread. I admit I enjoy presenting my work. Over the last couple years, I’ve crafted a talk that people seem to like quite a lot, so the dread wasn’t performance anxiety. No, I’d none of that.

There were layers and layers to what was plaguing me. I’d been to Baltimore twice before and each time, the security lines for the return trip were endless. I’d wait in a stationary position for half an hour in a line that simply did not move while people around me wailed about missed flights. On top of that, there were rumors of icy rain or snow on the day of my return which filled my head with unwholesome images of spending the night trying to sleep on Gate A5 chairs. But the vagaries of air travel were not my only concerns.

I was paired to present with Sonia Taitz, most lately author of The Watchmaker’s Daughter, universally praised by Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Jerusalem Report, O Magazine, whoever else you want to come up with, whose curriculum vitae includes a law degree from Yale and a M.Phil in 19th Century Literature from Oxford, the Lord Bullock Prize in Writing, etc.etc.etc. You can find the definition of the etc’s at http://www.soniataitz.com. Now, I don’t even know who Lord Bullock is, or more likely was, but I’m intimidated. Her book is a memoir of growing up the conflicted child of Holocaust survivors, one critics laud as both funny and heart-wrenching. Not only that, she writes a regular column for Psychology Today.com.

Oi, I thought. Forget intimidated. This woman plain scares me. Then I note in one of my emails from Sandy Vogel, the savvy Director at Mercaz, and Debbie Liebowitz, her irreplaceable assistant, that Sonia Taitz is the opening act. What???? For me? How am I going to follow all that?

Double Oi.

Well, I get to Baltimore swiftly enough and am picked up at my hotel by Sandy Vogel to have a nice kosher Chinese dinner before the show. I chew a couple of GasX to quiet my stomach if not my nerves and off we go.

There are two women waiting for us at the restaurant. One introduces herself as Lynn, The Driver. The other, a handsome, petite woman with auburn hair and startling eyes, warmly greets me and tells me she’s Sonia. Quickly two other women enter, Debbie Liebowitz, and the brilliant book club facilitator who will be introducing the authors, a woman who’s also created stimulating question guides for readers of the texts, Halaine Steinberg. We settle into a delicious meal and along the way, the penny drops. With suave aplomb, I interrupt somebody to loudly stutter: Oh! You’re THAT Sonia? Sonia Taitz?

Despite my clumsiness, we get along like gangbusters and I learn also that The Driver is Sonia’s old friend who’s offered to squire her about, Lynn Auld Schwartz, a playwright and twice winner of the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, who can be found on her website http://www.writerswordhouse.com, where she offers writing workshops, private coaching, and story development editing. This lady’s remarkably pretty too with strawberry blond hair and a perfect Renaissance face and she’s sweet and self-deprecating and suddenly instead of having new causes of intimidation, I’m beginning to feel quite at home and comfy, one of the girls, so to speak. Quite unexpectedly, I’m flying with eagles.

Eventually we get to the synagogue. I’ve visited smaller college campuses. It’s huge. It’s glorious. Think wide marble hallways and towering glass windows and doors. It’s modern orthodox. I’m accustomed to Brookline, Massachusetts’ orthodox congregations, uniformly in old stately buildings conducive to holiday cramped quarters. At Beth T’filoh, there’s space and beauty enough to imagine how high the soul can soar.

As we settle in to make our presentations, I tell Sonia it’s really not proper for me to be second. I am definitely her warm up act. After all, let’s be real here, you can’t trump the Holocaust. Not even with One More River’s Klu Klux Klan violence and historic 1927 Mississippi flood. Besides, my talk has a lot of laughs and that’d feel unseemly after what I imagine her talk will be like. She demurs. Tells me her talk has laughs, too. But whatever I’d like. I insist.

So it’s settled. I make my speech first and the crowd of 50-60 people seem to love it. Yay. Then Sonia takes the podium. And dang, if she isn’t right! Her story is full of humanity and wit and wisdom and charm and yiddishekeit along with the tragedy of the 6 million. It’s more about resilience than being crushed. I think that’s unexpected encounter number. . .four?

When I get to the airport the next day, nearly two hours early to satisfy my fears, I have another surprise. There’s no one there. I mean there are security agents galore but no passengers. My line is a single other person ahead of me. And the skies are clear and dry.

As I travelled swiftly home on a (thank God) non-stop flight, I had time to replay my last 24 hours of unexpected revelations and I decided the best one was this: Never judge anyone by their C.V. alone. It’s the person that counts.

Now, why didn’t I know that?

Mercaz Dahan Jewish Learning Center

That’s Debbie Liebowitz, moi, and Sandy Vogel. Unfortunately, Sonia and Lynn left before we remembered to take a photo! Dang!

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4 thoughts on “Encounters With The Unexpected

  1. Mary, I was intimidated by YOU! Hope you read THE WATCHMAKER’S DAUGHTER and learn that behind the “brass buttons” (academic or other shiny accolades) my father wanted me to get lies an artist’s tender and oft-bruised heart. Like you, I’ve waited years to reap the fleeting glories of an author’s tour — with a first novel published 25 years after I wrote it (a deal fell through), and many other stumbles and pratfalls on the road.

    So here’s to us both — and never forget that (as your cousin) you’re more talented than you give yourself credit for!

    • I have been reading The Watchmaker’s Daughter, Sonia, and I find all you describe and more. Thank you for the compliment but without my naif personna, I would’t know quite who to be! Intimidated by me! Oh, don’t we make a pair! xx

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