Jodi Samuels’ memoir: ‘Chutzpah, Wisdom and Wine
As it appeared in San Diego Jewish World
SAN DIEGO — Three themes dominate this enjoyable and informative memoir by a South African-born author who lived in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States before settling with her husband and three children in Israel.
*Love of fellow Jews — Jodi and Gavin Samuels devoted considerable time and energy to providing kosher meals for Jews with no other place to go for Shabbat. Over the years, the Samuels hosted thousands of Jews in the several countries where they lived — many of them, like the Samuels, having come from somewhere else and having yet to establish a social network. Visitors to their home often numbered as many as 40 to 70 per meal, for which the Samuels charged a nominal fee to cover the cost of groceries. The networking expanded from Shabbat meals to celebrations of the Hagim and various social activities.
*Inclusion for people with disabilities. After their daughter, Caila, was born with Down’s Syndrome, the Samuels wanted to mainstream her in the same Orthodox day school that her two older children attended. However the school’s principal refused to consider enrolling Caila, offering a variety of excuses why admission was impossible. The school, which author Jodi Samuels courteously did not name, even refused to permit the child to come in for a personal evaluation. Incensed, Jodi became an advocate for children with Down’s Syndrome. The school-in-question didn’t budge, but the publicity the case attracted prompted other schools to offer to enroll Caila. The joys and challenges of raising a child with Down’s Syndrome occupy a major portion of this memoir.
*Budget travel — The Samuels family were inveterate world travelers, their taste whetted by having lived “down under” and in the U.S. The parents and children became observers of how cultures differed in various parts of the world. More likely to camp out than to stay in hotels, the Samuels enjoyed numerous experiences with indigenous peoples which — combined with the discussions they had with the thousands of visitors to their Shabbat table –resulted in the Samuels children having a very sophisticated and knowledgeable understanding of the world. An interesting aspect of their travel was that as observant Jews, keeping kosher and observing the Shabbat frequently provided complex challenges. The author’s acute observations about Israeli customs and lifestyles are particularly witty.
All in all, this is a fast-moving book in which author Samuels also shares some of her own perceived shortcomings. For example, though the mother of three children, she could never bear to change a diaper. As an organizer of many Jewish events, she fed her stress with junk food, leading to unwanted weight gain. Additionally, as the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome, she often fretted — apparently unnecessarily — that she wasn’t giving enough attention to her two older children.
The net result of this memoir is that a reader gains considerable insight into Jodi Samuels, and I, for one, was happy to get to know her.
* Donald H. Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org