deborah 0:00 My name is Deborah Greenhut, and my favorite thing is stories that repair reality.
Announcer 0:07 Welcome to the Finding Favorites podcast where we explore your favorite things without using an algorithm. Here's your host, Leah Jones.
Leah Jones 0:20 Hello, and welcome to Finding Favorites. I'm your host, Leah Jones. It is April already -- Sunday, April 3rd. I was missing last week, I was missing in action. Luckily, Shai Korman from "Friday Night Movie" podcast, interviewed his neighbor, Katie Jones, about reality TV. And we snuck that one in; hopefully, you have had a chance to listen to that very fun conversation. It is heavy on '90s/early aughts nostalgia for reality TV and I'm grateful as always for Shai when Shai steps in.
Leah Jones 1:03 Last weekend, I went to L.A. and took my computer and took my microphone and went to see a show -- went to see "How Did This Get Made" live at Largo, and told very few people I was coming. Which was good, because mostly I hung out with my friend Esther and napped, slept, napped some more. Then went to Largo, and called it a day -- called it a weekend, went to the airport. But I never had a moment to pull up my computer and edit the podcast. I interviewed author Deborah Greenhut, the night before I went to L.A.; and so, let's be honest, there was never a chance i was gonna get done. I am continuing my healing journey; I finished radiation two or three weeks ago, and I'm getting my energy back. I still sometimes take naps that are -- I'm just out cold. I'll sleep for a full day, or I will sit down, and then wake up hours later. So, I'm still recovering from radiation and treatment. But I've started physical therapy. I'm working on reconditioning my body, my core muscles, my knees, just trying to get stronger, so that I can do things like walk to the train. My goal is that by May Ist, I am commuting on the train again. Right now, I just can't imagine taking the risk that I wouldn't be able to get a seat on the train, or even walking to the station right now.
Leah Jones 2:57 This week, I've got author Deborah Greenhut. Her first novel comes out on Tuesday, so, it is publication week for her. It's called "The Hoarder's Wife." So if you ordered it today, you'd have it for the week of publication. And we have a really lovely conversation -- wide-ranging -- about her book, about baking challah, Joni Mitchell, jazz music -- we really cover the gambit. Deborah was a really lovely person to have a conversation with. And without further ado, I'm going to let you listen. Enjoy this episode with Deborah Greenhut. Get your boosters, wear your mask, and wash your hands and keep enjoying your favorite things.
Leah Jones 4:00 Hello, and welcome to Finding Favorites. I'm your host, Leah Jones. And this is the podcast where we learn about people's favorite things and we get recommendations without using an algorithm. This week, it's officially spring. And it is with that. chilly and rainy in Chicago. And I am pleased to have with me today Deborah Greenhut. Deborah is an author -- she's not a first-time author, but she is a first-time novelist. Her novel, "The Hoarder's Wife," is coming out April 5th; right around the corner. People can pre-order now, and have it delivered on publication date. Deborah, how are you doing today?
deborah 4:46 I'm very well, thank you. It's nice to be here.
Leah Jones 4:50 Thank you and I like to imagine where people are. Where are you sitting tonight; where are you based?
deborah 5:00 I'm based in New Jersey, about the center of the state. So we call it "the gut." Not near the shore, not near the mountains -- we do have some -- and just right in the middle there.
Leah Jones 5:17 Because New Jersey's near the Poconos? Are those the mount -- or the Catskills, or both?
deborah 5:23 Some of New Jersey is near the Poconos, yes?
Leah Jones 5:28 Are those the mountains you're near?
deborah 5:30 No, I'm actually not near anything, really. I'm not too far from driving to the shore. Actually, it's not too far from anywhere in New Jersey to go, you could drive the whole state in a day easily. It's not that big a deal to drive. But I am in the center near Rutgers University, I guess would be the best way to position it. 'Exit nine', the way we like to say in New Jersey, on the Turnpike, and my town actually has a sign that says, "The center of New Jersey - Welcome to the center of New Jersey."
Leah Jones 6:04 I do find that there's -- I'm Midwestern, grew up in Indiana. I live in Illinois now, but spent three years in Colorado, and have definitely learned that what isconsidered driving distance or close? The further west you go, the longer that distance gets. So in Chicago, people have houses in Michigan that are three to five hours away. And that's like a reasonable to go for a weekend. But it seems like the further east you go, the distances get shorter of what is a comfortable, quick trip.
deborah 6:48 A lot of people don't like to drive into northern or central Vermont, because it's over five hours to get there. So four hours is about the limit for most people.
Leah Jones 6:59 I love how those sorts of things change for people; I think it's so interesting. Especially when I got to Colorado, and came with my Midwestern sensibilities, and then I found out if I was only willing to drive three hours, I wasn't going to get anywhere. Denver was eight hours away from me, Albuquerque was four hours, Phoenix was eight hours, Vegas was eight hours. So I really had to extend what was worth driving for.
deborah 7:34 Absolutely. I had a job where I was on the road all the time. And so every night, I was putting four or five hundred miles on the car, because this company had no mercy. So I know what that feels like, where it's so rural and deserted. You think you've been driving for 10 or 12 hours, because they're not much to look at, not much changes and no lights. It's strange how your perception of distance really changes based on the landscape.
Leah Jones 8:04 Yeah, it's so true. I'm curious, tell me a little bit about your novel and how it came to be.
deborah 8:14 Okay, well, it's "The Hoarders Wife." And it's about a woman who has left a 35-year marriage and what is going to happen. And the reason I wrote it is because I did indeed leave a 35-year marriage to a hoarder. So it's not a memoir, but I felt I wanted to look at well, the big question that people always asked me during that time, when I would complain about the situation was, "Why do you stay?" And I never had a completely satisfactory answer to that question I could come up with -- well, the children, well, this will that. I knew I loved my husband, but I knew it was becoming very difficult. So I wanted to look at a character in that same situation.
Leah Jones 9:02 Wow. And how long after your divorce did you start working on the book?
deborah 9:12 Well, I think I started working on the book probably about 30, 25 years ago. Always making notes and thinking about it, but I didn't think I would ever actually write it or publish it. Unfortunately -- well, we were divorced in 2012 -- unfortunately, in 2016, my husband chose to take his own life. And that opened the door for me that probably wouldn't have existed as far as actually writing the book.
Leah Jones 9:44 Because he died by suicide, he wasn't there to read the book or add his comments to it. Yes, yeah.
deborah 9:54 Yes. Yes.
Leah Jones 10:00 When did -- one of the things I've really enjoyed talking to writers about -- is when in this pandemic, where did the pandemic hit in your writing process for this novel? Had you sketchee the whole book out pre-pandemic, or did the pandemic give you really a chance to sit down and write? Kind of what was the timeline once you really put pen to paper?
deborah 10:27 I had mostly finished the memoir that I thought I was going to write before the pandemic. So the pandemic was the opportunity to go back and say, "Well, I'm not sure I want this to be a memoir, as much as I want to address the question." So there were certain liberties I got from making it a memoir that made it more literary and made the story make that kind of sense that I enjoyed. So during the pandemic, I really spent the time revising to make it a novel.
Leah Jones 11:02 People love to ask novelists, "Is it based on real life?" So the question that the clear answer for you is, yes. Did you go chapter by chapter, and you there were certain times where you were like, "I wish I had done XYZ," and you were able to give your character that freedom to do things you hadn't been able to do in your own life? Or was it the ability to go further or bigger, with different scenes?
deborah 11:38 Well, that was an interesting process. Because when I wrote the memoir, it needed to start at a certain place. Then when I started revising, I realized, "No, that's not the right beginning for this." And it took me a long time to come up with a narrative frame for it, because what I wanted to do in the novel was to base it on the few days following the husband's death, and structure it according to what happened with the family on each of those days.
deborah 12:11 While the character, whose name is Grace Berg, was re-reading a journal that she had written during the 35 years she had been married, which she had been forced to leave behind. So it was discovered on the table by a policeman because they had to go through the house after this happened. Each night, -- during the day, she was working with her kids to try to sort out how they were going to do this funeral, which got complicated. And each night, she would go home and read. And at some point, she was skimming, so not reading the whole thing, but just reviewing her entire life and reflecting on it. So that's the narrative frame that I came up with, which I wouldn't have done with a memoir, it would have been a long, straight story.
Leah Jones 13:06 That's also a framework that gives you -- the items in the house can have have memories attached to them, or the rooms in the house and the journal. So that's a really that's a really interesting framework.
deborah 13:21 Thank you. It was enjoyable to do it, then I think the first question I had about the revision were, "How am I going to make this into a novel?" Once I started looking at it as a journal, it wasn't my story anymore, which seems like a paradox at first. But it wasn't the memoir that I was writing anymore, it was a literary work that I had to create different characters for. It gave me some liberties about who the characters were, which I wouldn't have had in the memoir, so it was kind of very freeing, finally. The memoir was very painful, but the novel was almost like a puzzle to figure out.
Leah Jones 14:00 Wow. And what are some of your launch plans?
deborah 14:06 Well, COVID has interfered every time I've tried to set up a launch. So I'm having a series of readings among groups that I know and have worked with nearby, so we're doing some Zoom and some in-person. I live in a retirement community, and I'm doing a reading there on Monday night. Then I belong to a group of independent scholars who are also writers, and I'll be doing a reading there in about a week, just a day before the actual publication. So beyond that, I'm not planning yet. I'm thinking, but it's been very difficult to get all my friends together to try to do something in this. I've seen a few Zoom launches and I'm not entirely satisfied with that reading online. It's not, for me, the same kind of experience. Maybe delayed launch *party* anyway.
Leah Jones 15:08 Did they push the pub date out, too?
deborah 15:12 Well, originally it was going to be October and then I hit some snags in the writing, so we decided to postpone it till April. Actually, I would say, my publisher, Woodhall, was very on top of things, because as those supply-chain shortages started to come up, they went ahead and printed, so the book is available already. And I think they've started to ship it. So iif you order it, you should be able to get it, which is nice. So there shouldn't be any delays from that.
Leah Jones 15:46 Oh, that's good. Yeah, that hit us at work. We were just trying to order -- I work in in marketing at a financial services company -- we were just trying to order like the navy blue backs to our, when we bind a presentation. And our paper guy was like, "You can either order this much and get it now, or I don't know when." There we go. There went Cowboy as promised.
deborah 16:21 That was rough for a lot of different kinds of things. Parts and not just paper, but everything.
Leah Jones 16:30 Yeah, I was happy with my choice to buy -- I bought a used car in August of 2020. And that seemed like it was the right time to do that, as well. And then I was also looking so in addition to the novel, you also have a series of children's books. Were those -- I don't want to make assumptions that you are a grandparent, but they were kind of -- did you write those for kids in your life? How did those come to be?
deborah 17:06 Well, it started out being for my grandchildren at the time I had -- I had three at that point. I have three, and they were allaround. No, I'm sorry, I take that back. There were two; another one has since come along. But I I knew I would put them up on Kindle, but they were my first test readers. So it was in a way for them, and I hoped that they would enjoy, and I wasn't so worried about whether they would sell or not. That wasn't the important thing. What actually happened was after I was divorced, I figured my dream of being a writer probably wasn't going to come about because I had to work and I wasn't able to find any time with all that driving to to make that work out.
deborah 17:54 So I thought photography would be a good thing for me. And I do enjoy that, and I do find it very therapeutic. Then, I discovered a watercolor app because I'm not a visual artist, as a painter or anything like that. And I discovered a watercolor app, and that was just so enchanting. And the kids that I showed the books to were all enjoying them so much. So it was a nice combination of things that I like to do. And of course, there's they're a little bit shorter than the type of writing I do as an adult. They were doable.
Leah Jones 18:28 For example, the "Bonjour, Paris" book. So these are photographs that you took in Paris, and then you used the watercolor app to change them into illustrations?
deborah 18:40 Yes, I did.
Leah Jones 18:41 Oh, that's wonderful.
deborah 18:43 It was a lovely trip. I was actually taking a course in doing travel videos, which happened to me in Paris, which was a very nice coincidence. So I had lots of advice about how to take the pictures and that. Unfortunately, during the same time, I was developing cataracts, and I noticed a lot of my photos were more blurry than I thought they were when I was looking through the lens. So, watercolor is actually a great forgiveness thing because it prefers the blurry photo, you actually get more interesting effects from that. It was a funny discovery, but it actually worked well for me.
Leah Jones 19:28 Great, and those are available on Kindle. They're also they're on Amazon, "The Hoarder's Wife" comes out April 5th.
Leah Jones 19:45 So when I ask people to think about what they want to talk about, you said something in your reply that I've never seen before. And so I wanted to talk about it, which is that you wrote, We can talk about why collections of things terrify me." Now that we've talked a little bit about your book, I feel like I might have an idea of the answer. But tell me more about why -- why do did collections terrify you?
deborah 20:19 Well, it does have a lot to do with hoarding. Let's see, where to start? Well, there were many examples of hoarding, not to the extent that my husband became a hoarder, but in my own family. Before I met my husband, my mother, for example, saved every single scrap of paper in my dad's 50 year medical practice.
Leah Jones 20:46 Oh, my goodness.
deborah 20:48 And that was not all she saved. When I opened the attic door, as I was the one who had to clean out the house after my parents passed away, and when I opened the attic door, there were 200 brown shopping bags in the attic. And I thanked her, but I thought, "This is the strangest thing. Did she do this to help me or was she just saving those bags?"
Leah Jones 21:15 So 200 bags empty waiting for you to fill and carry things out with.
deborah 21:20 Exactly. Which was was a little strange to me. But I knew I also had just a ton of paper and, and possessions. They saved everything, my parents. I don't know if my dad actually had anything besides a closet full of clothes and a dresser. I don't think there was anything in the house that was really his, but my mother collected reproductions of antiques, my mother collected antiques, she collected just about everything that she coveted. She had come from a family where she didn't have any money, was very poor. So I suspect some of it was that these things, she said her things always comforted her. Which is a thing I think that many hoarders say.
Leah Jones 22:05 Had she been alive for during the Great Depression?
deborah 22:08 Yes. She was also -- I don't know if you want this long story, but her mother died giving birth to her. And she was unfortunately given away to another family. Because her father had three older children, and he didn't think he could manage. Now, the other family was quite good to her. And she was an only child, very generous, but then her foster father passed away when she was 10. And that was not a good thing for the family -- they lost everything at that point. So my mother grew up taking care of her mother.
deborah 22:46 So the sense of deprivation, my mother sold flowers on a street corner. And this just boggles my mind when I think about it, because that's not the woman I remember from my childhood. Not that she seemed fabulously wealthy or anything like that, but she just didn't seem like the insecure person who was coming out of that situation. And yet, underneath it all she was. So, there was there was that example. I was thinking about -- also, my mother's brother, whom she did reconnect with her siblings later on and developed a relationship with them. But my mother's brother was in World War Two -- was a part of the liberating force. And I believe it was Dachau, he went there. And the first person he met, there was a woman lying on the ground, trying to offer him some water, I believe. And this woman named Paula became his wife.
Leah Jones 23:47 Wow.
deborah 23:48 So he brought her back, but she never -- I only have sketchy details, but she never recovered from the experience. Never. And at the end of her life, and this was spoken about in very hushed tones, so I pieced together some information. She would always save papers and things and no one could convince her to throw them out. But she would take the little pieces of paper and stuff them into any possible opening to the outside world. So she had shut down the house as much as she could. And I guess in the last few weeks of her life, my uncle was afraid to go out because he was afraid she would finally seal it, and he wouldn't be able to get back in. So this was a story from when I was fairly young, that I knew about hoarding. So it was rolling around in the back of my consciousness. I'm forgetting your original question. Specifically, but those are two places where it came up early for me.
Leah Jones 24:49 Yeah. Well, it was being terrified of collections.
deborah 24:53 Oh, yes. Yeah. So after I cleaned up my parents' house, and it was more than -- they had a lot of properties, so there was more than one house to clean out. I became so repulsed by collections of things that I just wanted to throw out everything I had and be free of that. And unfortunately, my husband had escalated his own hoarding at that point; it was around the same time that he began to hoard furiously. And so every time I would try to take, even before that, if I tried to put something out in the trash, he would bring it back in. And we just fought about this continuously, and neither of us really understood what was happening or why it was happening.
deborah 25:40 He eventually learned he had ADHD, and I understood that there was a connection there. But we could never get it addressed so that something could change. So I don't like being around a lot, having a lot of things around me anymore. It` seems to create some anxiety for me that the walls are gonna cave in, because our walls literally fell in some in some places. I want to know, there's light and air. Behind me some windows, I have big windows where I live now and nothing sitting in front of them anymore.
Leah Jones 26:17 Wow. That makes sense to me, that it makes a complete, I totally understand that reaction of wanting, especially after having to help clean multiple spaces and houses of people that you love dearly, some of the closest people in your life, that I also think there's some of not wanting to then put that on someone else.
deborah 26:43 Exactly. I told my husband, I could not do that to my children. And he just didn't go along with that. He wanted his things around him.
Leah Jones 26:54 My mom calls it, I believe it's "Swedish death cleaning." She's like, It's not Kon Mari hat I'm doing, it's Swedish death cleaning. It's getting the house ready for you kids, so that it's easier for you."
deborah 27:17 That is a great kindness, I think, when a parent can think about that far in advance for a child.
Leah Jones 27:25 What are the things to save? What are the things that we'll want that my nephews will want to take onto into their houses? And what are the things that can find new lives today? All those questions.
deborah 27:44 Someone told me when I was in the thick of cleaning out that people always think that their things are more valuable than they actually are. And they think they're saving something a real treasure for their kids. And there's certain things that are keepsakes, and certainly you want to pass those along. But basically, I've discovered your kids don't want your stuff.
Leah Jones 28:12 It's true. The thing I'm looking for right now is -- somewhere in Chicago, I know that someone's kid doesn't want their heavy, o,ak 1980s, early-90s dining room table with a lot of leaves in it, but that gets pretty small. That's the dining room table I'm hoping that somebody's kid my age doesn't want that I can find.
deborah 28:40 You may get lucky.
Leah Jones 28:43 That's I keep going on line looking for dining room tables. And I'm like, "But where are the dining room tables that we grew up with that could get -- really you take all the leaves out, they get really small. But then you can have a big dinner but they don't -- " I currently have a conference room table for my dining room table. And it's just too big.
deborah 29:04 It's nice to be able to fold that up, I get that.
Leah Jones 29:08 During two years of not being able to have people over for dinner, having a giant dining room table became more and more ridiculous.
deborah 29:16 Or you didn't spread out all your projects on the table.
Leah Jones 29:20 It is covered in candy. I have a second podcast about candy called "Candy Chat Chicago," and my dining room table is covered in candy. Just bowls -- I can't bake anymore because all of my the bowls I would use for mixing dough are currently full of candy. Thank you for elaborating on that.
Leah Jones 29:58 What is something that you think would be fun to dive into? I think any one of these would be great to dive into. But what is something that you would have fun talking about this evening?
deborah 30:11 Well, maybe since we're talking about food, we'll start with challah. So good, so delicious. When I was a little girl, I always loved it, of course, but someone else was always baking it and my mother was a good cook, but she never learned how to bake bread. She had a lot of "I Love Lucy" moments with yeast. So she gave it up. And when I got married, I wanted to learn to do it, I really love the idea of a Shabbat dinner and trying to preserve at least some of those customs in our house.
deborah 30:50 My mother-in-law was a great baker, and she did bake challah. And she would always say to me, "One day, I'm going to show you how to do it." This was the first few months of our marriage, and I could never get her pin her down to make that happen. And I noticed that when she gave me other recipes, she would leave something out, so I'd have to figure it out. Which you know, is just an apocryphal story in many families. But one day -- I had gotten a lot of cookbooks, when I got married, they gave me a cookbook shower. And I finally had a chance to look through them.
deborah 31:28 And all of a sudden, I found this cookbook called "The Settlement Cookbook," which is all German-Jewish cooking. And it was from the settlement house where many immigrants learned to do their things. And I think my mother-in-law actually went there to learn how to become a chef and a caterer. But that aside, I found the cookbook and I'm looking through it and all of the cakes seem to be like the ones that she made. Those seem to be the recipes, and I started trying them, and I was able to do it. My father-in -aw made the greatest sin of all of course, and told me that my pancake was better than his wife's pancake. Which started a war.
Leah Jones 32:10 One, because you finally were able to make it using *all* of the ingredients, instead of all but one ingredient probably helped.
deborah 32:19 Exactly, exactly. That was great. I didn't want to gloat, but it was kind of a vindication -- "Now I know what's wrong. It's not me, it's the recipe." And then one day, I got really brave and I decided to make a challah. It was Jewish New Year, and I said, "I'm doing it this year." And I had visions with my mother and stuff spilling -- yeast going all over the place -- but I did it. And it was the most transformative cooking experience I've ever had. While I was kneading the dough and watching it become what it was supposed to become, I just thought, "If everyone would bake bread, there couldn't be any war in the world, because this is the most whole fulfilling thing I have ever done. "
deborah 33:07 I didn't have any children yet, but I felt the dough and the consistency of it and having it on your hands and then it the way it morphed and changed into the dough it was supposed to be. From then on, making the challah every year was a real treat for me. I haven't made any in a few years, but I made a point of doing it and my kids loved it and helped me with the poppy seeds, and it was such a lovely thing to have in my life. So those memories and the bread itself is one of my favorite things.
Leah Jones 33:45 When I converted to Judaism, I got really obsessed with the idea of making challah. Did any of my girlfriends make challah? No. They were like, "Leah, we don't bake it ourselves, we go to a bakery." People were really like, "No, we don't, *of course* we don't make it." So nobody really had many tips for me. And I had this really basic book about like making a Jewish home, and it's still the recipe I use to this day. But the first time, first couple of weeks I made challah, I under-kneaded it. I didn't know -- I had never made bread from scratch before; we had a breadmaker machine growing up.
Leah Jones 34:36 So I sort of got it to where it was sticky. And I was like, "I guess I mixed it!" That makes a **huge,** I mean the bowl would be -- like a foot above the bowl rising because there was no -- I hadn't like made any gluten in it, I hadn't activated the proteins, so it would make the huge loaves of challah -- that were delicious, but single living alone, and it was good for French toast, but I was like, "How much -- how are you supposed to make two loaves of this every week?" when I did this huge bread. And then one week, I tried it with wheat flour, and that was a disaster because I didn't understand that wheat flour and white flour are actually very different. So I made like the dense-est challah I'd ever made in my life.
Leah Jones 35:38 Finally, I got a tip from our rabbi's wife, both of blessed memory, Lotte Schaalman who came from Austria when she was in her late teens, so she escaped the war. She and her husband Rabbi Schaalman, lived to be like 100 and 101 and died within days of each other, a few years ago. When she would take the women, when there would be like a camp weekend or something, she was teaching or baking challah -- not just women but with the people of the synagogue who wanted to bake challah -- she said that, "The dough is the right consistency when it feels like a breast. When it feels like a woman's breast, it is the right consistency and that's when you can let it rise." Which I wasn't kneading it to that point. It was just a sticky -- I don't even know what I was making.
Leah Jones 36:47 But I love making challah, I love baking and I guess because I didn't grow up Jewish or grow up seeing people bake challah for Rosh Hashanah, how I make my round challah -- this is a very Chicago answer to making around challah for Rosh Hashanah -- is I have a deep dish pizza pan and I make two braids. And I put it in this deep dish pizza pan so I end up with a large pizza-sized wreath of challah for Rosh Hashanah.
deborah 37:22 That's lovely. Wow, I never thought about it. But that tactile memory's coming back, but that's exactly right.
Leah Jones 37:30 It keeps her memory alive for me. She was just a spitfire who was sent to live with family in Danville, Illinois, from Austria. After she was there for a while, they were like, "Well, we're not gonna get her married off here. We've heard [maybe she was from Germany], but we've heard some single rabbinical students are at HUC [Hebrew Union College] in Cincinnati. So, we'll send her to Cincinnati because there are some single rabbinical students there, and maybe she can marry one of them. And Rabbi Schaalman picked the short straw and got to go on a date with her. And then the day he graduated seminary, he sent out wedding invitations and did not fully have her on board with getting married. But then they were married for 65 years, and truly, deeply in love with each other. So, it was quite the love story.
deborah 38:36 And that's a beautiful story.
Leah Jones 38:39 Did you ever stray from the traditional challah recipe -- you mentioned poppy seeds, you do raisins or chocolate chips? Are you pretty much a poppy seed challah?
deborah 38:54 I don't mind eating the others, but in my own cooking, I'm a purist about it. So, traditional. How about you, what's your favorite?
Leah Jones 39:06 I like poppy seeds and I'll do raisins for Rosh Hashanah. But I feel like I've never mastered kneading the raisins in. I feel like they make the surface break a little bit more.
deborah 39:25 Yeah, probably create some cracks.
Leah Jones 39:31 So I'll certainly do that. But I've never done a Nutella, I've never added dye to it. I'm not very fancy with my challah.
deborah 39:44 I'm always afraid there's gonna be a glob of something like peanut butter or Nutella or something like that. I don't want that taste when I when I eat it. I want the texture to be bread.
Leah Jones 39:56 Yeah, I haven't made it in a few years, in part because my social circle has gotten just a lot of allergies and a number of people who can't do gluten. And I am not a skilled enough baker to do gluten-free challah. I'm afraid it would be very bad and then we'd end up with nothing. What are some of your other -- when you think about -- were there other Jewish traditions that you tried to bring into your house or other holidays?
deborah 40:46 Our children had very conventional Orthodox, almost Orthodox, very high conservative bar mitzvahs. For the first, 13, 14 years of their lives, we did go to the conservative Temple. It was actually a Sephardic temple, we're not, we're Ashkenazi, but when we went there, there was actually an Ashkenazi rabbi who had to sign an oath he wouldn't change any of the rituals. And I don't know how it happened that he was assigned there, but he was, and he was very forgiving of children. So while they separated men and women, it was not even a solid barrier. We're all on one floor in an assembly hall where the sanctuary would open up into this multi-purpose room. And the women would be mostly in the multi-purpose room.
deborah 41:41 But there was lots of going back and forth, because the barrier really didn't keep anybody out, or in, anyway. It started off being a little forgiving and lackadaisical about some of the rules. But then we got an extremely religious rabbi, and he was the one who was responsible for bar mitzvahing my children, and it was a pretty stringent requirement. And we didn't know at that point where to go, we didn't want to shift to -- there were mostly Reform temples otherwise, and we didn't want to go to a super-orthodox one, even if it was Ashkenazi, so we stayed there.
deborah 42:21 It was hard on the kids, I think. They were good about it, but there were so many rules, and the greater hypocrisy of religious observance became very apparent. They would go religiously, I'm gonna put that in quotes, "religiously," to their Hebrew lessons and show up and so on. And there was a president of the congregation who had promised an award to the person who did that. And my kids always were the ones who did it, and they never got the award that was supposed to happen. There's supposed to be a baseball tickets, Yankees tickets, one year, and these things never happened. So my kids got a little distorted view of some of these things, and I'm not sure why they offered a reward when the reward probably should have been the feelings themselves, the spiritual feelings that we develop. We didn't even know why they started a reward thing; it just seemed like something you're supposed to do.
deborah 43:24 My husband and I were both very good doobies most of our earlier lives, anyway. We never got rewarded for learning our own Hebrew lessons. But I actually I did not have a bat mitzvah, because my parents, my grandfather founded an orthodox congregation in Yonkers, New York, where I'm from, and my mother and father secured Hebrew lessons for me with a tutor. And when I was 13, my mother said, "Well, when are we going to start learning her Haftorah?" And the Hebrew teacher looked shocked, and he said, "Girls don't have a bat mitzvah. Orthodox people don't do that." That's not true anymore, but it was true at the time, and my mother was heartbroken. I was flabbergasted because I was being prepared; I was looking forward to it, and so I didn't do it. I might do it; I guess it at 84, men are allowed to be re-bar mitzvah-ed or something. I don't know if I'll wait that long, but I might actually do it at some point.
Leah Jones 44:27 It's such a wonderful experience, because we had -- so I converted in my late 20s. And so I became bat mitzvah when I was 30, was first time I read from Torah. And a few years prior, we had done a number of group bat mitzvahs at my synagogue for women who had been denied the experience. Sometimes they would do it all on their own. My friend Shifra had her own when she was maybe turning 60, she did one. So it's never too late to read from Torah and Haftorah for the first time, publicly. And, it's so meaningful.
deborah 45:18 My temple has it -- I've seen a few women go through and a couple of relatives -- they've decided to do it. And my temple actually has a program for that, so, I'm thinking.
Leah Jones 45:32 I had invitations printed, almost as if I was 13. They were pink and purple, and they folded up. And they were Hebrew on this side and English on this side. I mean, I was 30. I'm 45, now, I've still never been married. But at 30 I like really felt it, so I was like, "There's going to be these nice paper invitations, and this is just going to be the biggest party, and there was a really nice fish platter for the Kiddush. Friends had the party at their house; it was just super fun.
deborah 46:09 Very meaningful. Did you get lot of fountain pens, though? I have to ask.
Leah Jones 46:14 No, I did just get a fountain pen, though. This year, I interviewed -- I've got a really nice episode about fountain pens. I told my sister to listen to the episode and that I wanted a beginner fountain pen. So I got one this year.
deborah 46:35 I'm sorry, I interrupted you, you were saying how meaningful it was to you; tat's an important thing to say.
Leah Jones 46:41 It was very meaningful. I really appreciated being able to give honors during the service and ask the people at your synagogue that are -- for me, it was a lot of our stalwart elders who I didn't know, but who were there every Shabbat -- and asking them to open the Ark or light the candles and do different blessings and to be able to say thank you for supporting this congregation and making a community for me to come into when I converted. So, that was really meaningful to me. And it was a great opportunity to share what Shabbat was like with my family who's not Jewish.
deborah 47:33 That is lovely. And being part of a community is most of what this is about.
Leah Jones 47:43 I wrapped -- well, now a year ago -- I was president of my synagogue for two years for the first two years of the pandemic, which was a hard time to be a president of a synagogue. I don't suggest it.
deborah 47:57 I don't think I would take the job.
Leah Jones 48:00 Don't do it! [laughter] All right, now I'm curious -- you have for music Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. I know some Joni Mitchell probably more than I think -- I feel like she's an artist that if I were really to dive in, I'd be like, "Oh, I do know that song. I know that song." But I can't -- suddenly, I have amnesia, and I can't think of a single Joni Mitchell song. Tell me a little bit about Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro and how you heard them for the first time and what they mean to you as as musicians.
deborah 48:54 Okay, I think both of them I heard for the first time in high school. That would be in the mid-to-late 60s, let's say before 1969, and before that. At that point, Laura Nyro's voice was just something out of the blue. Just a powerful, powerful soprano. And the lyrics were stories, which is the same I could say of Joni Mitchell. So in my head -- those melancholy times of high school, where nothing is working out right, these two women sang something to me -- more so Laura Nyro at first, I would say, because she started off, you probably know, "Wedding Bell Blues" or "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession," maybe. I guess Joni Mitchell might be more familiar.
deborah 49:50 She started more in the folk singer realm like Judy Collins and a few other women singers, but at certain point her voice was very interesting. She also used 12-string guitar, so her guitar tunings were unlike anyone else; no one else was that sophisticated a player. And eventually she became a jazz composer and jazz musician, as well. But I think the period that sticks with me, it was a couple of years after that, when I was in college, the so-called "Blue" album, not-so-called, it was the "Blue" album, came out. The narrative in that album, it captured -- you know the song, "Woodstock," I would imagine, which is also one of hers.
deborah 50:40 This story of a woman with a man who *never* quite responds to the image in her heart of what she wants to have in a lover, but she must be with him. That encapsulated everything about college years, and those times. I'm 70, so we're thinking about the era of free-love and hippies. And the idea of wandering through life with someone and not tying it down. Now she had a song, "my old man is a singer in the park/we don't need a piece of paper from the City Hall keeping us tried and true/my old man singing away the blues." And that was the ideal a lot of people were striving for -- that we didn't need any paper, we were independent. And it wasn't just the lyric, though the story that she was telling, but the way the music emulated all the feelings that she was expressing. She just had the capacity to weave her voice around these words in ways that no one else really was doing at the time.
deborah 51:48 It was a very creative time in music. I feel the stories and lyrics were a lot more powerful than we have now, except in some cases. Another song I think about is "A Case of You." Even though there was a certain free-love magnet at the time, and people were very attracted to that idea that you didn't need any any legal ties and so on. There was a sort of fight back to be independent at the same time, which I think you probably also saw in the women's movement at the time, and some other developments. But she had one song that "I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet." Just that sense of equality, which never quite came about.
deborah 52:49 So beautifully idealistic, and in a lot of her music, that we could stand up to each other and still be with each other. That's something -- that was my fantasy that that's the way it was supposed to be. So, that would be more about Joni Mitchell. But Laura Nyro was really tragic, she died too young of cancer. A lot of other people covered her songs and made them more mainstream than she ever could. Her voice was unique, and a lot of people didn't like it. I had some friends who were male, who used to call her "screaming lady," whenever girls put her on the -- I was gonna say, the record player. I have to say record player. But when her voice would come out, lot of 'em would just run out of the room, so it's only girls listening to her. It was hauntingly beautiful, her voice.
deborah 53:50 Three Dog Night did "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession" and a whole different kind of orchestration to it. That was the one that became popular, and the Fifth Dimension sang a lot of her songs. "Soul Picnic" and "Wedding Bell Blues" were a couple. So these two singers and a number of others, but I think these two, really carried me in terms of the the mental journey I was taking at the same time. They're a little bit older than I was, but not much. And their independence was so admirable to me. Little did I know the terrible things that both of them were going through at times, but they also had just mystical, magnificent lives. As far as I was concerned, traveling the world as singers, I thought that was quite romantic and aspirational.
Leah Jones 54:45 It certainly seems that way, especially when you're in college, and you see the singers, the artists that you love and they're traveling -- even more so, pre-social media, when the stories you were getting about them were exactly the stories they wanted you to hear. It was their music and drips of information about their personal lives. But it wasn't so much that we know now, that you were able to fill in the story in a different way based on their music.
deborah 55:24 And they were really troubadours -- they were bringing back news from other places. You got some of your information about what it was like to backpack in Europe from singers who went there before we all started to do it. Not that I did it, but my friends started to do it. I took graduate school over the backpack to Europe trip. So that's my mistake. Not my mistake, but two roads diverged.
Leah Jones 55:52 Were you ever able to see either of them perform live?
deborah 55:56 I saw Joni Mitchell and I did not get to see Laura Nyro, and I so wanted to do that.
Leah Jones 56:04 Joni has -- she's still performing, right? A little bit?
deborah 56:08 No, she's had some sort of -- Judy Collins still performs, occasionally. Although, she went through a terrible crisis with her voice; it's not as powerful as it once was. I think as we get older, the range is going to collapse a little bit, too. But she does still sing. And, Joni Mitchell has had, they were very guarded about what it was exactly, but sort of mental incident, brain incident. So, I'm not sure if she had a stroke. So I apologize to anyone who's listening who might be upset that I'm trying to talk about this, but --
Leah Jones 56:48 -- I will, I'll find an article, and I'll add it to the show notes, so don't worry.
deborah 56:56 So she doesn't perform, they did honor her at the Kennedy Center recently. And she was there and she's able to speak. I think for a while, she wasn't even able to speak. So sounded like a stroke, but I'm not sure. I can't say that I follow it all as much as I used to. Too many distractions on Facebook. But I will never forget that album, I must have worn it down to threads from playing it over and over and over, in the same day over and over and over. It was such a set of anthems for that time period.
Leah Jones 57:42 There's really something special when you find an album that provides the anthems of a chapter of your life.
deborah 57:52 Yes, yes. Do you have one?
Leah Jones 57:58 Natasha Bedingfield has an album called "Unwritten" that I listened to a lot when I was kind of late '20s, and doing a lot of writing. That is one that if I ever need to get into the zone, and just crank out some words like Natasha Battenfeld, that really works for me. And then Alanis Morrisette's "Jagged Little Pill," which is a very, very Gen X answer, but it's such a great angsty college album.
deborah 58:35 Yeah, I love that one, too.
Leah Jones 58:37 So good.
deborah 58:38 Very, very good. Yeah.
Leah Jones 58:42 But now, I don't listen to as much music as I used to. And much more likely to have a podcast on, especially since the first lockdown. Because I was spending so much time alone that I really came to rely on podcasts to provide company like the presence of other people, other voices, human voices. So I walk around with my phone playing a podcast, had my phone shoved in my bra. And pretend like there were people in my house.
deborah 59:21 I walk about four or five miles a day now, and I devote half of it to listening to podcasts and the other half to listening to music. And I have a pretty eclectic collection of things in my head that I like to listen to, so I never run out. But it's more jazz than anything else at this point. I guess because the lyrics are on other songs are not as appealing.
Leah Jones 59:46 What are some of the jazz musicians that you'll walk to?
deborah 59:52 Well, I think I mentioned Miles Davis and that's actually my writing music. There's a song called "So What" But on his "Kind of Blue" album, and it's one of the most exquisite uses of instruments to sound like conversation that I've ever heard. It always gets me thinking in terms of what I'm going to put on the page. If I were scoring or if I were writing lyrics for that song, which is the story of whatever I'm working on now, what would it sound like? And that rhythm of it, which is very syncopated, gets me off of whatever writer's block I came into the room with. So, I often do that.
deborah 1:00:38 I guess I do listen to a lot of anthologies of Paris kind of music, so things like"La Vie en Rose" will keep me going walking for a long time, even though it's not a very bouncy song that keeps you walking, I can just keep going when I hear it. Let's see, in terms of jazz, I'm trying to think. This morning, I didn't listen to any music, which is not usual, so my mind is going blank. But I like Diana Krall and I enjoy -- sorry, sorry, now I can't think of any jazz, I'm thinking -- Norah Jones.
Leah Jones 1:01:21 Amnesia, it happens. I was in high school I was in, basically in a band I was allowed to be in, so I was in marching band. I was in concert band, I was in jazz band. And I went through a few years where I thought good music didn't have words, so I listened to classical and jazz instrumentals constantly. And so Take Five will always stop me in my tracks, no matter what I'm doing. Gustav Holtz, "The Planets,' which is not jazz. But if "The Planets" ever somehow comes on, that's a symphony that really, really works for me. And then I think it's "Take the A Train" -- trains in New York, as they start heading off out of the station, have the first two notes of "Take the A Train." I don't live in New York, but it's something that anytime I go there, "I'm not on an A train, but it still sounds like like the first two notes of it."It's a very hard thing to explain to people that I'm walking like, "Just listen to the what it sounds like when the wheels scrape the track, it's these two notes." I'm ready to go back to New York.
deborah 1:02:56 Yeah, I miss it. I haven't been for two years, which is so unlike me. I grew up just north of the city; I could walk to the Bronx from my house. And I can't believe I didn't go, but I just couldn't.
Leah Jones 1:03:10 Well, Manhattan in particular, was so scary during the pandemic. I mean, we're still in the pandemic, but in the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic.
deborah 1:03:23 Once Broadway shut down. Yes, that was the end of life for me. I got my brain cell back on the jazz question. My dad was a pretty talented piano player, and he made sure I got lessons and I was actually trained to be a concert pianist. Which was never going to succeed -- my hands are too small. So, my repertoire was not going to be very big, and I knew that from a pretty early age, but I did study and I enjoyed it. Although my teacher was really fierce -- too fierce for a child, I think -- but later on, I appreciate it.
deborah 1:04:11 The reason I brought up both my dad and the piano teacher is that we had an electrified player piano in our basement. And the Aeolian company, was the company that used to make the piano rolls. And my dad, the one thing he did collect. was Aeolian piano rolls, and he only wanted originals. Because in many cases, the ones he liked to collect were George Gershwin, and Gershwin himself had done the fingering on the piano for the master cut of those piano rolls. And, my father would sit in the basement -- he didn't take off a lot of time, but sometimes in whatever spare time he had, he would go downstairs and I would see him and his hands would be moving with George Gershwin's finger, in his head over the music and he'd be singing, and it was the most peaceful really that I ever saw him as a physician and very driven person. But, this was how he relaxed. So Gershwin is always rolling around in my head, and I often listen to Gershwin while I'm walking or Cole Porter -- same kind of reason.
Leah Jones 1:05:25 Wow. I never thought much about how player pianos got their movement.
deborah 1:05:34 Yeah, somebody had to play it into a master cylinder, and then they cut all the rolls from that. So it was George Gershwin, who did "Rhapsody in Blue." My dad feeling through the piano somehow. And Gershwin's mother, I think, was a friend of my grandmother's, and they used to play cards together. So, my dad didn't know him because he died before my dad was born, or when he was a little, little boy. But the grave of Gershwin is actually in the same cemetery where my parents were buried. My father would go to visit the grave; it's in the middle of this sort of nondescript place, but people are still leaving flowers and mementos --like, he's Marilyn Monroe -- on the Gershwin mausoleum. It's so remarkable and I remember he just hero-worshipped George Gershwin. That was one of his favorite people.
Leah Jones 1:06:42 Well, Deborah, is there anything about your book, about making challah, about music -- I know that we could go on talking all evening -- that we haven't mentioned that if we hung up, you would regret not talking about?
deborah 1:07:00 I guess a little about the book. I wrote it because I know that a lot of people get stuck, and think that they *can't* retrieve a life or make a life for themselves when they have spent so long trying to make sure the other person was okay. And I didn't think I was going to be okay, I didn't think I could leave. I wrote it to show both in word and deed, that if you can recover some of your old creativity, whatever it was, that brought you to the place where you married this person, or decided to live with this person -- that's still in there, the things that that you loved and the things that you could do. And it's a good starting place for making the motion out, because it is very difficult to leave once the interdependence becomes as as profound as it was for me. So I wanted to tell that story for lots of literary reasons, and I've always been a writer. I also wanted, I hope it will help people to see that it's possible to have have a life anyway.
Leah Jones 1:08:23 Beautiful, beautiful. Well, I look forward to reading it and to your publication date, April 5th, people can pre-order now. Are you active on social media? Do you want people to follow you on the internet?
deborah 1:08:39 Sure. I have a Facebook page. I have an author page now, too, so that's probably the better place to go. The other things might not be interesting to everybody else. I have a website, DeborahGreenhut.com. And let's see, a LinkedIn page. So I look forward to hearing from anyone who wants to correspond.
Leah Jones 1:09:01 Great. Well, congratulations. And thank you for joining me tonight.
deborah 1:09:07 It was a really pleasure. Thank you so very much for inviting me to this interview. Thank you.
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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