Jenna Zark’s New Book ‘Crooked Lines’ Began Life at TC Jewfolk

TC Jewfolk is pleased to share some news about former columnist (now guest columnist) Jenna Zark. Jenna was one of the earliest writers at TC Jewfolk, sharing stories about Jewish holidays from the viewpoint of a newly single mom.

When the pandemic started, Jenna decided to develop her columns into a book that received a traditional publishing contract from Koehler Books. The book is called Crooked Lines: A Single Mom’s Jewish Journey. The launch date is planned for Aug. 31 (give or take a few days, because, you know, publishing).

We asked Jenna to sum up her book for us, and here’s what she wrote:

When her marriage ends, a single mom has to leave the security of a life defined by Jewish observance. Rediscovering the holidays and rituals of her childhood leads her on a surprising, crooked path to the places and people she was meant to find—and a whole new way of looking at life and living it.

“I wrote Crooked Lines because I know there are a lot of single parents out there who feel alone sometimes,” Jenna says. “And because I learned divorce doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. I also want people who are intermarried or dealing with the death of parents or who are just not in traditional families to know Jewish holidays are for you, as much as anyone.”

Next month, Jenna will share a new column that has never been published before in TC Jewfolk or anywhere else.

As Passover approaches, though, we thought it would be a good time to share one of Jenna’s original columns about one of her first holidays as a single parent.

A Hole in the Floor

I was in Lunds, an upscale grocery store which I am never in because it costs more than I can usually pay. I was combing the shelves for the whole-wheat matzoh (unleavened bread) I can’t live without at Passover. I also needed dessert to bring to my hostess’s Passover dinner celebration, which we call a seder. Whatever they had was not where it was last year.

Spying a smallish, older woman who appeared to be milling around the grape juice, I smiled hopefully. She returned the smile, and I took the plunge.

“Do you know where the Passover matzahs are?”

With a sweeping gesture, she indicated the aisle where everything was stored. They seemed to be expanding their stash of Passover goods, and that suited me fine.

Turned out the woman I was talking to was from Russia. We ended up chatting for fifteen minutes between the chocolate seder plates and the Kedem grape juices. She asked me if I prepared for the holiday ‘in the traditional way.’ I told her I did, though I wasn’t raised in an Orthodox home.

In the early days of our marriage, my former spouse and I bought a few boxes of matzoh, gave away our bread and pasta and called it a day. When we moved to the Midwest and he became a cantor, we had to scrub countertops and cabinets and exchange dishes, pots, and everything else that came in contact with what the rabbis call hametz or leavening. When a congregant said, “Passover is when you learn the meaning of slavery,” I laughed. But I knew exactly what he meant.

Post-divorce, I had a choice. I could go back to my old ways, or, for consistency and son’s sake, I could wash, scrub, boil, change dishes, wash, scrub and boil some more. With only two days to make up my mind, I was still on the fence. Should I turn my house upside down to make sure we are really observing Passover, or could I get away with less? I looked at the Russian woman.

“I think I will probably start cleaning soon,” I said, “though I’m not exactly sure why.”

She told me the answer without knowing it. “My mother,” she said, in her thick Russian accent, “used to bake her matzahs in secret, in the middle of the night, and stored them in a hole in our kitchen floor.”

I could guess at the reason, but she told me anyway. “In Russia, we were not allowed to practice religion, and for Jews it was extremely bad. My mother would never eat any bread during the holiday, but we – her children – ate it in school. She used to ask us to save some of the matzoh, but what do children know? We ate most of it. If she didn’t have enough for the whole eight days, she went without. Now when I think of it, I want to cry.”

She looked at me, as only tiny old ladies with crinkly blue eyes and Russian accents can. “Zo, my dear. Happy Passover. May you enjoy in good health.”

We went on, she and I, to our separate ways, two days before the holiday. I knew that if I decided to continue the tradition, I would have to come home after working all day and start cleaning pretty soon. My son would say he’d help but more likely, that won’t happen, and I will be up very late—scrubbing and grumbling.

I knew that in two days my breaded days would be over.

And my mouth started watering for the bread I wouldn’t have.

I was doing this, why? Because my mother, and her mother, and all the generations I can possibly imagine and can’t imagine centuries before they were born did it.

Because as a friend once said when I sat at his seder table, Jewish people have survived centuries of oppression since no matter what they say or do to us, we keep our traditions.

Because eating matzoh for eight days wasn’t enough; I needed to clear the room, clear my head, clear a space for it.

Because when all is said and done, preparing the house for Passover gives me a new way to talk to God.

It doesn’t involve prayer, which is traditionally how we are “supposed” to connect with God. It involves an action I can take, a taste in my mouth, a change in the way I eat, drink, use my dishes. It says I am here, I am present, I am living the holiday in a very particular way and space and time. I am listening to it, and in doing so, giving God a way to listen to me, and to all of us, who are trying to be Jewish — in hiding or in the light.

Because when I sit down for the first seder, every single year since I’ve been a child I get a feeling of being lifted up, and it stays with me all night through; because Judaism is not so much about language or prayers or ideas as it is about the sanctification of small things, the things we do in our homes, when we are eating, getting ready for bed or work, and telling the stories of people we never met but who did the very same things we are doing. Because Passover encompasses all these things in a single week.

Because this Russian lady had to hide her matzoh in a hole in the floor and her mother wouldn’t eat if she ran out of it. And I can eat matzoh in the office where I work, and my son Josh can eat it at school.

Because if Josh didn’t have the experience of matzahs and seders I would be guilty of a kind of child abuse.

Because of all these things, I will go and scrub and wipe and lift and haul and get ready for Passover.

And my heart, like the hearts of others might be when it is two days before Christmas or Easter, will be light. At least after the dishes are done. And the cabinets. And the stove.