Get to Know Your Sisterhood Newsletter Editor: An Interview with Lisa Meng

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Q: Let's start with your life at CBI...how long have you been a member of Beth Israel?

Lisa: 2011 is when I finally joined; I started going to services in 2010 and LJL [Living a Jewish Life class] in early 2011.

Q:  You immediately started going to LJL? That seems atypical.  

Lisa: I don’t know what spurred it exactly.  The thinking was probably along the lines of 

“I’m Jewish; I should probably go find out what that means.”

Q: Did you find that in LJL class?  

Lisa: I actually found out a lot of stuff in LJL; it was really a source of a lot of personal growth.  

Q: Would you care to expand on that? 

Lisa:  Before I took the class, I never realized how much of a Christian culture we live in and how much anti-Judaism there is; what you hear about Judaism has a negative flavor.  One of the eye-opening things [about LJL class] was that it presented Judaism in a very different light, which was very healing to me, because I think I subconsciously carried around a lot of internalized negative cultural beliefs [about being Jewish]. It helped me integrate that part of myself and find peace with it. 

Q: You said the LJL class was eye-opening and that it presented Judaism in a positive, not a negative, light; would you have expected anything else?  

Lisa: I am not sure what I was expecting going into it.

Q: You spoke of healing a part of yourself…

Lisa: I was having a conversation with [former CBI Educator] Rabbi Lippe about this… the word shalom – one definition or interpretation, in addition to peace, is wholeness. Part of [coming to terms with my Jewishness] is [the sense of] becoming my whole self; it turned out to be true.

Q: Tell me a little about your Jewish background growing up, because it sounds like there is a part of you that needed to be healed. 

Lisa: How far back do you want to go?  

Q: How about, start at the part that needed healing.

Lisa: Let’s go back to the anti-religious sentiment that I grew up with.  

Q: Towards Judaism or any religion?  

Lisa: Towards all religions, actually. My father was raised Baptist, and had a lot of negative experiences from that. My mother was halachically Jewish, and grew up with a rabid atheist father and a mother who practiced Judaism on the sly; she was not strictly observant, but she had some religious beliefs that she kept from her spouse. My maternal Grandfather’s mother was born into a Jewish Orthodox family in New York City around the turn of century; she rebelled and married a Greek Orthodox man. As a result of that marriage, she was disowned by her family. So when she was about 56, she turned the gas on, put her head in the oven, and killed herself. So my grandfather, who was probably destined to be a bitter and angry man anyway, blamed religion for that [his mother’s suicide], and he became anti-religious as a result.  At that time, being ethnically Jewish was a lot more important than it is nowadays.  

Q: What do you mean?

Lisa: My mother grew up in New York in the 1940s and 50s in a neighborhood that was 90% Jewish. She went to Jewish summer camp every year as a child. Her parents met at a Jewish resort. [In those days], It was easy to identify as Jewish culturally, even if not practicing. And even if not practicing, it was very taboo to marry out. I think a lot of that was due to anti-Semitism.  

Q: Let’s move forward to your Jewish upbringing and Jewish experiences growing up - or lack thereof…

Lisa: So…[very long pause] let me think about this. There basically wasn’t any…[another very long pause]…I think the closest my parents came [to giving us any religious exposure] was taking us to a Unitarian fellowship when we were kids, but they weren’t very into that…but as far as Jewish experiences, very few; and a lot were things that you would associate with the cultural side...food, yahrtzeit candles, occasional use of Yiddish, cryptic references to religious beliefs. When the topic of hell came up, mom would say “we don’t believe in that.” For the longest time, I had no idea who she meant by “we”.  And the only family prayer I remember ever being exposed to was at holiday meals, when mom would say Ha’Motzi in Hebrew and then English before we ate. That was pretty much the extent of it.

Q: Did you know you had Jewish heritage?

Lisa: Of course; my mother was proud of her Jewish heritage and considered herself Jewish.  

Q: In what way did she demonstrate that pride?  

Lisa: That’s a good question…she certainly didn’t hide that aspect of herself. I don’t know how to describe it.

Q: So would it be fair to say you essentially grew up with no religious home life?  

Lisa: Yes.

Q: So you came to CBI in 2010, when you were past…young adulthood.  

Lisa: I was 44 the first time I set foot in a synagogue.  

Q: The first time you set foot in any synagogue? that was CBI at age 44?

Lisa: yes.  

Q: Going to a synagogue for the first time after 44 years is a dramatic shift in life. Was there some specific impetus that led to this, or a series of events that led to you walking into Beth Israel for the first time?

Lisa: There were several things. One was [long-term boyfriend] Kevin’s [unexpected] death [in a cycling accident in 2009]. For me, his death felt like it left a big hole in the Universe; for the longest time after he died, it was inconceivable to me how the sun could come up every day without him being there to see it. And I realized that I couldn’t live in a world where the life of someone who’d been so special to me had had no meaning. So not long after he died, I resolved to…maybe not believe, all at once…but to keep the door open to the presence of the Divine in my life. Because I realized that by not doing so, the only person I was hurting was myself.

Also, [another factor was that] my mother was doing a lot of genealogical research; that’s her hobby these days. And she was going through Yad Vashem records, and she found a relative who was an Auschwitz survivor who currently lives in Toronto. My mother found pages of testimony this relative had written for Yad Vashem about the deaths of her parents. They were Hungarian, and had been gassed at Auschwitz. My maternal Grandmother had immigrated [to the United States from Hungary] with her family in 1912, and almost none of the family left behind in Europe survived.  One of the survivors, who is named Hedy, is my mom’s second cousin. I remember looking at the page of testimony that Hedy had written and being profoundly moved. I think that’s a big part of why I was finally motivated to come to terms with the Jewish part of my self.

Q: So since 2010, when you first set foot in a synagogue, how have you evolved Jewishly? 

Lisa: As part of the LJL class, I went to [former CBI Assistant] Rabbi Olshein at the end of the class and said, “I want to convert”.  She told me, “you’re halachically Jewish; you don’t need to convert.”  I still felt like I wanted to make some kind of commitment to being religiously Jewish.  So I took Hebrew classes and Melton, and I started adult b’nai mitzvah class the next year, in 2013.

Q: When was your bat mitzvah? 

Lisa: June 7, 2014; the Torah portion was Behaalotecha. It was good; it had Moses in it and one of those great arguments with God.

Q: How have your religious beliefs and practices evolved?  

Lisa: At some point I decided I wanted to incorporate some level of Shabbat observance and some level of kashrut in my life; that was a challenge.  

Q: Previously there was none of either, right? 

Lisa: Correct; and observance of holidays … fasting on Yom Kippur, following dietary restrictions on Passover.  

Q: You had never been to a Passover Seder before? 

Lisa: No, I had not. I have a couple of siblings [who are practicing Jews]; my brother Ian moved to Rhode Island to go to Brown University when he was 18, and met and married a woman who was raised Conservative. So their family is being raised Jewish.  And my youngest sister had kind of a similar situation. She went to the University of Rochester in New York, and met and married someone who was Reform. So when I finally decided to set foot in a synagogue, I called my younger sister and asked her what to do. She said, “Just show up at a service, and if someone asks if you are Jewish, say ‘just the food’ and it will be no big deal.”

Q: You first went to a synagogue at age 44; so for 20 years you have had siblings who are practicing Jews and you never talked about it?  

Lisa: we talked about it, but they were far away, [all living on the East Coast,] so I never spent holidays with them. For most of my adulthood, all of my holidays were spent visiting my non-religious parents and Catholic in-laws on the West Coast. Ex-in-laws, actually, since I divorced my lapsed-Catholic, very anti-religious ex-husband in 2001.

Q: What do you see as your Jewish future?  

Lisa: I’ve been trying to shape that for a while now…and nothing is set in stone.  Do you want my fantasy Jewish future? 

Q: Yes.  

Lisa: I want to be able to walk to shul [for services] every Friday night [and] every Saturday morning, and turn off the cell phone and not turn it on [again] until Saturday night; I want to have a real Shabbat. I’ve been experimenting with trying to find meaningful Jewish practice for a while…it comes down to wanting to be more fully observant of Shabbat and Kashrut. I kind of have this goal of reading the Torah portion every week and doing that for at least one full cycle. I’d like to do mikveh on Erev Yom Kippur. I just find a lot of meaning in that.  

Q: Have you ever been to a mikveh? 

Lisa: Nope. I talked to Rabbi Epstein about that.  

Q: What did she say? 

Lisa: She was fully supportive. I told her that I wanted to do it to mark menopause - to mark that life transition - and she was really supportive.  She said, “You know you can go to Chabad and do Mikveh, but the ritual part of it you will have to do on your own.”  She said she would help me put something together for the ritual part.  

Q: Let’s talk about your current involvement at CBI; you have been very involved with CBI sisterhood; how did that particular role arise? 

Lisa: It was right after that stupid election last year; I had been a Sisterhood member off and on, but didn’t feel like [it was] something that…I don’t know how to put it…

Q: Let me ask it this way.  What’s meaningful for you now about Sisterhood?  

Lisa: A lot of women were pissed off and upset by that election. CBI Sisterhood put out a note [an article in the Sisterhood newsletter] that they were going to be attending the Women’s March last January.  I read that and I said, “I am so there!  Sisterhood is doing something I really believe in.”

Before that, my perception was that Sisterhood was doing stuff that I didn’t feel was having a significant impact in the world; that benefitted only our group [CBI members], and only particular subsets within our group [children’s camp scholarships, for example].  It just didn’t feel meaningful putting my energy into that at the time. I was looking for something that affected the [greater] community, and had a meaning and purpose I could get behind. On top of that, at the time, I had a sense of feeling very alone and a sense of wanting to join forces or find comfort in the company of people who felt the same way – which is exactly what happened, because I met several members of Sisterhood who I found a sense of solidarity with – a sense of like purpose.  

The NPR radio show, dinner party download, always closes their celebrity interviews with the same standard questions.  We are closing with the same questions.

Q: What question are you tired of being asked?

Lisa: This is not something that’s been asked of me a lot, but asked enough to be annoying… “What makes you think you’re Jewish?” especially when I was asked that by someone [who was] raised Jewish and had two Jewish parents, and hadn’t set foot in a synagogue in 20 years, while I was going through studying to become a bat mitzvah.  I mean, how Jewish are you if you were raised Jewish but don’t have your son circumcised, or you marry a non-Jew and raise your child in that religion, or you do not observe holidays or have any kind of Jewish observance on a personal level?

In contrast to that, I have enormous respect for people like [CBI members] Gretchen [Johnson] and Shari [Nichols], who were not raised Jewish, but live it every day.

Q: Tell us something we don’t know. And this can be either a personal thing that you haven’t shared with others before or it could be an interesting piece of trivia about the world.

Lisa: I have no unique knowledge.

Q: That’s not an acceptable answer.  

Lisa: Okay. I once rode my bike from Vancouver, British Columbia to San Francisco on a solo trip.

Q: you are into Harleys?

Lisa: No. It was human powered…a bicycle.  I am into bicycle touring; it’s a really nerdy hobby.  

Q: So let’s close with some more personal things about you, since we talked quite a bit about your Jewish life.  Do you want to share anything about work? other hobbies? your hot sex life?

Lisa: Here’s something…I swore I’d never get married again.

Q:  So you are divorced? 

Lisa: Yeah.

Q: Do you have any children?

Lisa: Nope. I’ve been divorced since 2001; so a long time.

Q: And you are never getting married again…

Lisa: That [marriage] was such a miserable experience. I swore I would never do it again. I’ve met so many women who feel the same way.

Q: Well, we will see if you ever get talked out of that.

Lisa: It would take a pretty special person to do that; I can say I am more open to that possibility now than I ever have been before – since getting divorced.

Q: Good luck in your non-marriage future, both personally and professionally, as well as your continuing Jewish evolution. Thank you for taking the time to sit down with your readers and share about yourself in this interview.

- Matt Levitt