Listen to the entire radio interview here.
Like most people on planet earth, I’ve known who Howard Stern is for years, though, I’ve never really listened to his show or watched more than an occasional clip of “America’s Got Talent.” Then my friend Mayim Bialik was interviewed on his radio show last year and, of course, I had to hear it. What struck me most about their conversation was Mayim explaining Jewish ideas to Howard – like mikvah and modesty – publicizing these mitzvos to millions of his listeners. Howard challenged Mayim, wanting to know why she covers up so much – unlike most actresses in Hollywood – and Mayim explained that her body belongs to her, not Hollywood. Apparently, Howard was so struck by this idea that the next morning when he started his show he referenced it.
Howard Stern didn’t cross my mind again until a couple months ago, when I stumbled upon a poet whose work is featured in the LA Jewish Journal. A line in one of her poems jumped out at me “Why in the world why in the heavens when God says find a mate, Adam never stops to say, You, God. Us. ” It was so profound, I wanted to hear more. So I started clicking through to read more of her work and as I read, I got to an article which explained who her dad was. I was fascinated! Howard Stern’s daughter became an Orthodox Jew?! I reached out to her, we had a wonderful coffee meeting and told her I’d love to share her story and her art with the world.
Emily grew up Reform and “really did love it.” She sang in the choir, was close with the cantor, and always felt a connection with Judasim. But the ritual element was always missing. In her search to find a community that resonated with her, she stumbled upon Orthodoxy. She started out in the theater community majoring in theater at NYU, then at the age of 23, she randomly walked into a havdalah ceremony, hosted by the organization Romemu, in a yoga studio one Saturday evening. She had never seen a ritual that related to the world in such a grounded way. After that night in the yoga studio she found two ways of expressing her soul in the world authentically: by relating to matter through halacha, and infusing Judaism into her art. Inspired by the language of Torah, and wanting her writing to speak the same language, Emily joined an art fellowship at Drisha Institue (a seminary for Jewish education on the Upper West Side) and wrote a play there. While at Drisha she was lead to study at Nishmat, which is a center for advanced Torah study for women, in Israel.
Growing up on Long Island, Emily did not have much of an impression or interaction with Orthodox Jews. She always recognized a special light in the religious Jews she saw from afar. Seeing something as simple as a man wearing tzitzis always seemed holy to her. While becoming more observant, she thankfully was not met with too much pushback from her family and friends and found that most of them appreciated her journey. Perhaps the one exception was the first time her mother came to Israel and saw her praying; she expressed a fear about losing her daughter. Other than that, Emily says it was such a visible “emergence of her truth,” that her family could appreciate the changes she was making, which she was careful to make slowly.
Emily is passionate about exploring and publicizing Torah to the world through art. Creating art has always been a spiritual experience for her. It began in her childhood, when she found herself praying to calm her nerves before taking to the stage. Nowadays the spirtuality in her art manifests itself in more of a “constant conversation with the world and life itself.” Emily said that she’ll open to a piece of Torah at random and find that it fits with an exact character she’s writing or theme of one of her poems. She has produced several different types of art, including an album called “Birth Day,” which she describes as “the nature of divinity and the divinity of nature.” She has also written “Love Psalms” which are short devotional poems to God. After finding Torah at Drisha and Nishmat she went on to write a children’s song book based on Perek Shira. The book is called The World is a Song So Come and Play, and in it children discover their song like each of the animals and their unique praises of God in Perek Shira. Her latest venture is a photography project called “The Wells of Miriam.”
The name of the project comes from the well that accompanied the Israelites in the desert, and provided them with water in Miriam’s merit. The project started when Emily first saw a water retention landscape (pictured below)– a sustainable form of water management –in Portugal in 2014. Water retention landscapes are created to “reverse desertification” and “look like paradise.” They are ditches dug in intelligent ways to model a pond or lake, and help with altitude and water circulation. They are made entirely of natural materials and when there is rainfall the water fills deeply into the earth and rehydrates the land. New vegetation grows, new animals come and new ecosystems form, in formerly barren wasteland. The final (and most fascinating) step is when the ditch is full to capacity…and becomes a mikvah. The retention landscapes are mikvaot (!) because they are entirely filled with rainwater. When Emily made this connection, she knew she wanted to explore the topic through photography. How apropos that a renewable, sustainable water source, is also a mikvah, the bastion of monthly renewal for Jewish couples. Just as these new waters renew and replenish an arid desert, so too the mikvah gives us a chance to renew our relationships and renews the possibility to bring new life to the world. Emily ended our interview by explaining one of her favorite parts of the Torah was where Hashem is called “Mikvah Yisrael,” the Hope/Renewer of Israel.”