Interviews

Eliza Wexelman


October 19, 2017

Eliza, a graphic designer and co-founder of Girls At Library, a website about women who read for women who read, fell in love with Judaism because of her grandmother, is working on trusting herself more, prefers savory over sweet kugel, didn’t fully understand hiking until she moved to Los Angeles, and owns lots of $1 books.

What’s the story or meaning behind your name?

As a child, I was always asking my parents this. I was the only Eliza around, and I wondered…but, why? The answer was always the same. My mother went to high school with an Eliza, and she loved the name. I definitely looked up that other Eliza several times in my mom’s old yearbook, looking for comparisons, but I never found any.

I was given a more traditional full name, Elizabeth, which I’ve still never been called, besides the first day of each school year from age five and on.

What’s your earliest memory?

The first thing that comes to mind is going to the library with my mom. I remember seeing all the books and feeling this incredible freedom at the sheer volume of choice, which was both exciting and overwhelming.

Also, going to the record stores with my dad. I have a very clear memory of being in a Streetside Records (RIP) and not being able to decide between Madonna’s Like a Virgin or Bedtime Stories, and my dad being like, “Eliza! We’ve got to go! Pick one!” For the record, I went with Bedtime Stories.

I think my life is just a continuous loop of this problem in one form or another. The idea that our decisions make up who we are and how we see the world was and is a big part of what I struggle with.

How did Judaism play into your life growing up?

Definitely through family culture. It was a lot of hanging out with family, through food, and sometimes going to synagogue on the holidays. We would go to family and friends’ bar and bat mitzvahs.

I like Passover. I like the seder. We would always have dinner at my uncle’s house. He had a very long table, and it was nice for everyone to sit around it and talk. I loved Hanukkah as a kid, because you get presents, but it’s almost like we had to have a holiday around that time of year, since everyone else did, so we kept it alive.

I didn’t dig into the religion much as a kid, but I still loved how it was regarded and that the people I respected cared about it, which made it something I respected and cared about.

I think my grandmother is why I fell in love with Judaism.

My grandparents were very caring and fun and unique and filled with sass. My grandmother was the breadwinner, and, of all the stories about her, the one I love the most is the one told to me at her funeral by a classmate’s mother, whom I had no idea knew her. She said, “Your grandmother was the most amazing woman, I hope you know that. She was always there for us and treated everyone with respect and kindness. We used to climb in the kitchen window through the fire escape late at night to talk to her and hear her stories. She was the greatest and will be truly missed.” My grandfather visited her grave everyday after she passed away.

Because of my grandmother, I knew Judaism was a culture where you could live as a woman with a full and interesting life, get respect, and laugh and cry and feel all these emotions, or not. I also always loved that it wasn’t questioned whether or not I believed in the Jewish religion to be accepted in the culture. That was super important.

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

One: buy some bitcoins and remember the password.

Actually, I would say, you should trust yourself more. Know that true, honest kindness pays off.

There is nothing we can do more to change our future than to trust right now.

I’d also give myself a list of books and poets to read, because the reality I was faced with wasn’t the only reality happening in the world, although, as a teen, I so often felt that way.

I suffered a lot as a teen and didn’t know how to find words to describe my pain or who to look to for guidance. I would definitely recommend the words of Toni Morrison to remember we aren’t alone and we all deserve love and to push on, and to look to James Baldwin to understand how one can learn from struggle, and to look to the kind and loving words of Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke for inspiration, and to keep learning despite hardships or disliking school.

How does being Jewish fit into your life now? How has your view about Jewish life and culture changed as you’ve grown older?

I think being Jewish is currently deeply entrenched in my life through food and humor. They are both things that make me feel at home and comfortable. Comfort food and comfort humor. My favorite comfort food is definitely kugel. Savory only. My favorite comfort comedy is very basic: Seinfeld. I also love listening to people talk about being Jewish, because I still think there is a lot it can teach me, even if I’m not practicing.

Do you have a personal mantra or any favorite quotations? Words you live by?

I recently came across a quote I now love from Pina Bausch, “Repetition is not repetition. The same action makes you feel something completely different by the end.” It’s in the context of dance and movement, but I think it can be applied elsewhere.

Biggest insecurity or fear?

I think this definitely goes back to feeling overwhelmed by choices. Decisions! Choosing the wrong thing scares me more than anything, but I’m really focused on learning to trust myself and others.

When do you feel like the best version of yourself?

When I’m reading or hiking. When I’m reading, I can relax and jump into someone else’s world. When I’m hiking, I can relax and enjoy what’s around me. I love hiking. I really don’t think I understood hiking until I lived in Los Angeles.

What do you most value in your friends?

I am always inspired by them and value their curiosity and kindness and creativity. They work incredibly hard, and they are always coming up with creative ways to support each another.

What or who is your biggest inspiration?

Wow. So hard.

In a business sense and thinking of GAL, which I co-founded, I’m inspired by women like Hillary Kerr of Who What Wear and Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs of Food52. In a creative sense, by Paula Scher at Pentagram and Lydia Turner at Studio Scissor. Lydia has guided me with so much kindness through the beginning stages of my graphic design career. Overall, by Michelle Obama. She embodies generosity and determination more than anyone I’ve seen in a position of power. Being famous doesn’t always make you an inspiration, but she’s someone who really moves me with her warmth and meaningful contributions to society.

What’s the best bargain you’ve ever gotten?

I’m pretty sure everything I own was a bargain. Recently, my best bargain would have to be this Persian rug I snagged for $300 at a garage sale. I also love all my $1 books, too.

What’s the cause you care most about?

I really love 826 for building confidence in kids and students through their writing and education. They create spaces all over where kids can explore and grow with support from a creative community. Sometimes, schools can’t afford programs to help with these creative outlets, and it’s great that there is a place that supports and promotes learning, confidence, and education outside of the education system.

Also, Girls Who Code. They are hugely important and create such amazing events and opportunities for girls. I would love it if GAL could work with them.

Photos by Lauren Pisano

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