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Israel Story

            As part of my search for alternative sources of entertainment this summer, I went looking for more podcasts. I loved the Duolingo French and Spanish podcasts so much that I ran through them too quickly, and I was hoping to find something like them, both educational and fun to listen to at the same time. I started by searching for more French and Spanish language learning podcasts, but while most of them offered plenty of opportunities for learning, they weren’t quite as entertaining as the Duolingo stories. I also tried a series of podcasts recommended for people who liked the ones I already listened to, without much success, and then I put in every other search term I could think of that might spark my interest. In among the avalanche of new podcasts to try, I found one in Hebrew called Israel Story but I quickly found myself out of my depth. My Hebrew is improving, but it’s not Israeli level yet. It took only a few seconds of squinting to realize that there was an English version of the podcast, with just enough Hebrew in it to make me feel like I was challenging myself, but not so much that my brain would explode. I found that I could listen in on conversations in Hebrew, while focusing on the almost simultaneous English translations, and meet all kinds of people I would never hear about on the news.

“Any dog stories?”

            I started by listening to the present day episodes, set during the early weeks of the Covid shutdown in Israel. The podcast made a point of interviewing members of the Ultra-orthodox community to try to understand why they didn’t seem to take Covid seriously at first, and to hear about how they had been struggling since then, both from backlash and because they often live in very crowded, multigenerational apartments, without the ability to use Zoom on the Sabbath to join communal prayer services. I found their stories compelling, and irritating, and complicated, and heart breaking. And I was hooked. So I went back to the beginning of the show, four or five seasons earlier, and I’ve been binging ever since. I didn’t know how much I’d been missing that ground level point of view until I started hearing stories that could fill in the empty spaces.

            The original model for Israel Story, unabashedly, was Ira Glass’s This American Life on NPR, and the host of Israel Story, Mishy Harmon, even had a clip of Ira Glass on the first English episode of the show, giving his, sort of, blessing. The Point of view of the podcast is liberal, both religiously and politically, but it has respect for people across the spectrum. They didn’t shy away from telling the story of an Israeli Jew, originally from the Ukraine, in love with a Palestinian from the territories, even following the couple to a tent in the desert, because there was nowhere else where they could live safely together. But the show also takes the time to meet Orthodox and Ultra-orthodox Jews and explore their lives in a way that respects their beliefs and their individual lives. And there’s no attempt to offer answers, or to simplify moral quandaries, even when the host himself is desperate for some hope. He thought that one story they were following would turn out to be a beautiful, generous, multicultural story, but he learned that he had to accept people for who they are, even when it means you won’t get the story you were hoping for. If you follow the real story, you’ll learn instead the truth of someone’s real life and feel richer for it.

“No, I won’t.”

Of course, the host and his fellow producers are Jewish and Israeli, so their choices about which stories to tell, and how to tell them, are inevitably biased towards their own experiences, beliefs, and hopes. Any attempts to suggest otherwise would be silly.

            My long term hope is that once I catch up on all of the English episodes, I’ll be able to go back and try the Hebrew version again. Maybe when I’m more familiar with the stories, I’ll have a better chance of understanding the Hebrew narration. But in the meantime, I feel like my view of Israel is growing in complexity. I’ve listened to serious and not so serious stories of Israeli lives: learning about silly songs sung at the Eurovision competition, and Ultra-orthodox Jews living covertly secular lives, and a random campaign for one man to get his picture on the wall of a tiny Humus restaurant in Jerusalem.

            Maybe, someday, when I can finally get to Israel, I will feel like I’ve been there before; like I’ve been in that restaurant, or heard that voice, or met that tour guide telling stories on the streets of Jerusalem. People say that the best way to travel is to meet the locals, so maybe, for now, I can get the best part of travelling to Israel without having to leave my apartment. That works for me, and it works for Cricket and Ellie too.

I want to wish everyone a Happy and Sweet New Year, Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, human or canine or feline or bird. May we all be healthy and safe and have reasons to celebrate our good fortune in the year to come!

“Shana Tova!!!!!!!!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

I Miss Going to the Library

            I used to go to the library at least once a week, to browse the videos, or check out new books, or pick up a few crossword puzzles from the research librarian’s desk. There was usually a book or two that had to go back to the library, or a book someone told me I had to read, and, once there, I could always find something on the recommended-book cart, or in the seasonal display where they set out books on different themes, like biographies of athletes for the Olympics, or scary stories for Halloween, or beach reads for the summer, or political thrillers for election day.

            But I haven’t been to the library since the world shut down in March. Sometime early in the summer, I think, my local library began to allow pick up and drop off of books: you could order a book online and they’d call when it was ready and schedule a time for you to pick it up. But I haven’t done that. At first I didn’t need any books, because I still had a pile of paperbacks that I had, coincidentally, ordered right before the shutdown (there was a mysteries series I was binging and I couldn’t find the earliest books in our local library system). But when those books ran out, I still didn’t think of browsing for library books online.

            I can’t seem to browse for fiction online. Non-fiction is easier, because I either know which author I want to read, or I’m looking for research books on a specific topic and my expectations for great art or entertainment are limited, especially because I read non-fiction a few pages at a time rather than in a binge, the way I tend to read fiction.

“Is fiction another word for chicken?”

            The other reason I didn’t go looking for books at the library is because I’ve been re-reading a lot of the books on my shelves for a while now, in an attempt to see which ones I don’t really need anymore, so that I can make room for new books. A project I thought would take a few months has turned into years, because to do the project justice, of course, I’ve had to re-read each book from beginning to end before deciding to let it go.

            Most of the fiction in my life lately comes in the form of movies and television, and that’s been fine, but at some point, I really will need my local library to open back up. I’ll need to wander past the shelves of books and let a cover catch my eye, or trigger my memory of an author I read years ago and lost track of. I’ll need to see a pile of books waiting to be shelved and remember a book I’ve long wanted to read and never got around to. I’ll need to see cover art to give me a hint about what kind of book the author, or her publisher, thinks she’s written. Is it a cozy mystery? An intellectual tome? A romance? A fantasy? Or maybe I’ll just be in a blue mood, and any book with a blue cover will suddenly glow at me and call out for my attention (I’ve found some really good surprises that way over the years, and a lot of crap too. It’s not a perfect system).

“Can I eat your book now?”

            There’s something to be said for having a book with a time limit. A two-week book has to be read right away, even if you have a lot of work to do, which gives the reading more urgency and importance. A pile of three- or four-week books feels like a luxury at first, but then starts to cause anxiety and turns into an emergency by the end of the second week of leisurely meandering through the first book on the pile.

            I wonder, now that I think of it, if it’s only my local library that’s still closed. Maybe in other parts of the country, or other parts of Long Island, they left their libraries open the whole time, or opened them sooner than in my town. I think bookstores must have reopened by now, but I rarely go, because a new hard-cover book is way too expensive for me, unless I’m absolutely sure I will love it.

            Luckily, the dogs haven’t been lacking for “reading” material. They get their stories by sniffing the grass in the backyard, and that local library never closed, even in the early days of the Covid shutdown when people were afraid to go outside. The girls have never had to wear a mask that could block their ability to sniff, and they’ve never had to avoid familiar places in order to practice social distancing. Their lives have been pretty idyllic, actually. The only activity that’s been delayed, for them, is a yearly visit to the vet.

“When I say run, we run!”

            It’s probably a good thing for me that the library is still closed, though. The temptation to wander, and touch all of the books, would be too strong. I would forget about Covid and meander too close to someone without a mask, or, even more dangerous, I’d find a pile of books and fall into a wormhole and forget to come back out in time to teach my students, or walk the dogs. And I know two dogs who just wouldn’t stand for that. They don’t understand why I can’t sniff the grass for stories the way they do, and I have to say, it’s one of the many disappointments of being born human.

“Being a dog IS better, Mommy.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Before and After #MeToo

            I’ve been thinking about the #MeToo movement a lot, especially in the shadow of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, which has led to both protests and intensive discussions over the past months. The parallels in how discrimination functions are so clear, no matter which group is being put down. The literature on microaggressions and systemic racism gives language to what women face too, especially women who have been sexually abused by men and then have to function in a world that is inherently prejudiced against women’s voices. It is incomplete to talk about sexism in the workplace without acknowledging the deeper wounds many women carry with them into adulthood, because they were born female.

Ellie says, “Me too.”

Violence against women and children is part and parcel with a culture that keeps women from advancement in the workplace, and allows the workplace to be hostile to women in a sexual way, as well as in the form of gender discrimination. We talk as if women experience sexism for the first time as adults, in the work place, as if sexism hasn’t been impacting us throughout our development, creating their expectations and self-perceptions and opportunities. Even though we are more aware of the prejudices women face today, we are barely scratching the surface.

            I grew up in the eighties, when women were supposed to be able to accomplish anything men could, while still being held to many of the older expectations of womanhood. My lived experience as a child wasn’t just about my abusive home life, or my religious Jewish education, but was also deeply impacted by the fact that I watched A Lot of television, where it was clear that women could be anything, yes, as long as they were beautiful or skinny or sexy (or all three!) and willing to work at the pleasure of a man.

There was a show called Three’s Company in syndication when I came home from school each day. It was a sex farce (no, really, that’s what they called it), and the local New York station aired it at Five o’clock on weekdays. It was a sitcom about a man who had to pretend to be gay in order to live with two women, because, you know, they might both be having sex with him all the time if he were straight. The innuendo and misunderstandings centered on the man supposedly being gay and also on one of the women’s “blonde moments.” The women were ALWAYS being groped and demeaned, and while I remember that the man was an aspiring chef, I have no memory of what the girls did for a living.

I didn’t feel like I could turn off the television, because when the TV was off I felt the fear and loneliness of my real life too vividly. I kept it on while I did my homework, or played with my dog, or even read through piles of library books. TV was my constant companion, but it was also my teacher. TV was my way of finding out about the world and learning how I was supposed to think and act in order to fit in.

“Who needs to fit in?!”

Out of desperation, I often watched a show called The Honeymooners at eleven o’clock at night, while I waited for Johnny Carson’s monologue to start. I cringed at all of the screaming from Jackie Gleason who played Ralph Kramden, a New York City bus driver living with his long suffering wife in a gritty Brooklyn apartment building. He was always getting into trouble and blaming other people for his problems, especially his wife. He would scream at her, “One of these days, POW!!! Right in the kisser!” He didn’t actually hit her, and he would eventually apologize, saying, “Baby you’re the greatest,” and give her a kiss and a hug. The excuse for his behavior seemed to be that they were working class and struggling to get by. A comment I read online said that there had been arguments about whether or not the show depicted domestic violence, since the threats were always “comical,” and he never followed up. But even back then, for me, the show was very clearly about man’s right to threaten and blame and demean women and call it funny. I’d been trained for The Honeymooners by watching my father’s behavior, which was very similar. He always praised himself for not actually hitting us. I’d actually watched The Flintstones first (basically an animated version of the Honeymooners, set in the Stone Age, appropriately enough), and found that disturbing too.

My other option at eleven o’clock, when The Honeymooners got to be too much, was MASH, a dark comedy about the Korean War, made during the Vietnam and cold war era. It was lauded for its nuance and political commentary, and when I watched it in syndication in the eighties it was only a few years out of date, but for me, MASH was just another show obsessed with women as sex objects and men as the drivers of all action, thought, humor, and pathos.

            I took some, brief, solace in shows like The Facts of life, which, especially early on, showcased a wide range of girls with different body types and personalities and interests. But it was a rarity. Most shows starred men, or boys, and presented women as sex objects, or money hungry, or both.

            Star Wars, one of my mainstays, was also filled with sexism. Princess Leia, who should have been powerful and in charge, always had to be dressed in skimpy clothes. The whole first act of Return of the Jedi was Princess Leia in a push up bra, locked in chains as Jabba the Hut’s sex slave. It didn’t escape me that, of the twins, only the male had the powers of the force.

            And then there was the music, especially the videos on MTV, where Heavy Metal and Hard Rock and Rap videos all featured scantily clad women draped suggestively over cars, for some reason. Madonna was a huge star back then too, in large part because she was willing to exploit her own sexuality instead of leaving it to the men. Neither of those options were going to work for me.

            Things started to change on TV when I was a teenager, I think. Oprah Winfrey revamped her talk show and started to discuss issues like sexual abuse more openly. And China Beach showed that the skinny, sexy, tipsy nurses on shows like MASH had a lot more going on behind the scenes, even if the men refused to see it.

            But change was slow, and inconsistent, and often, like Madonna, moved from the exploitation of women by men to the exploitation of women by women, to show that women could be powerful too. Even now, we still accept an extraordinary amount of misogyny as normal in our movies and on TV, in our books and certainly in our politicians. And we still seem to accept the trope that men can’t be expected to control their desires, but girls as young as ten (no, younger) are held responsible for choosing to wear outfits that men consider provocative, and are assumed to know exactly what impact they are having on men. But girls and women are also judged for being too plain or prudish in the way they dress. A sixteen year old girl who dresses in baggy clothes, or skips makeup, is clearly just not trying to be successful, and she should be ignored, or hated (just take a look at the backlash against Billie Eilish), whereas a sixteen year old boy can wear whatever he had on for soccer practice and become a superstar.

            The backlash against Billie Eilish, by the way, for dressing in baggy clothes, is constant and virulent, as if she’s a thing rather than a person, because she won’t let us judge her breast size. The fact that girls generally hide under so many layers when they have been sexually assaulted barely gets discussed in favor of how freakin’ weird that girl is; so moody.

“I’m moody too. You wanna make something of it?”

Even this past year, post #MeToo, with half a dozen pre-eminently qualified, charming, accomplished, intelligent, and hard working women running in the presidential race, we still ended up with two old white men, in the DEMOCRATIC primary. (And yes, a woman of color has been chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate, but that’s one man’s choice, not the choice of our whole society.)

            And now, during the pandemic, we’re experiencing what media figures are calling a Shecession, because it’s most often women who have had to quit their jobs, or reduce their hours, to take care of the kids. And since women are more likely to work in hospitality and education, where so many of the jobs have been lost due to Covid 19, more women are losing their jobs than men and a decade of employment gains made by women has been eroded. On top of that, the jobs were low paying to begin with, so those women didn’t have the benefit of savings to make it through the recession safely until their jobs can return, if they ever return.

            I’m tired of being told that we solved sexism with #MeToo, just like we solved racism back in 1965, and we should just get over it. The assumption behind both statements is that if women or people of color are still achieving less, or earning less, it must be because they are as inferior as we thought they were, and not because there is still something wrong with the system.

            I’m not sure #MeToo changed much, actually, other than a few men with egregiously long resumes of abusive behavior being fired from their high profile jobs. As a society, we’re not even reading long lists of books exploring systemic prejudice against women, or discussing what it means to try to pull yourself up by bootstraps that don’t exist, because they’ve been ripped off by force.        

            One of the more startling realities of the Black Lives Matter movement is that even though most of the originators of the movement were women, the movement overall barely addresses women’s issues. Women were also at the heart of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and then too the issues specific to black women were barely discussed.

            I don’t have a solution to this. And watching the backlash against Black Lives Matter protests, including the killing of protesters in the streets, is demoralizing. I’m tired of the ways manipulation of reality has continued, and worsened, in our current environment. I’m tired of all of the ways being female makes me less likely to be believed or even heard, than the average white man. Maybe having Kamala Harris on the big stage will have an impact on our society’s willingness to listen to and respect women. I hope so. Get your ballots in early if you can.

“I’m ready!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Choir Videos

            One of the more nerve wracking parts of my summer has been the process of rehearsing for and recording choir videos. Since my synagogue will be all virtual for the high holidays, and singing in a group over zoom is a non-starter, the cantor and the musical director came up with a plan to create ten choir videos to add to the Zooms, cutting together individual videos of all of the singers and musicians. This means that I listen to a guide track on my headphones, and sing at my computer screen, day after day. It is awful.

“Oh God, she’s singing again.”

            I hate looking at myself. I look like Mrs. Potato Head, but when I tried to look just over the computer screen to stare at the wall instead of at my face, the videos came out disturbing. I deleted one attempt after another until I finally decided to ask my mom to help me decide when it was good enough to send in (because left to my own devices it was clearly never going to be good enough).

            The first song took twenty rehearsals and ten to fifteen deleted videos, the second was not that much better, but by the third, maybe because we were finally singing just the Alto part and I could sing along with the head Alto on the guide track, I did the video in one shot. Three days of rehearsal leading up to it, of course, but even with the Mrs. Potato Head thing still going strong, I was happy with my vocal and willing to send it in.

            We’ve been having zoom rehearsals every two weeks, to familiarize us with the two or three pieces we need to perform before the following rehearsal, and to review the technological issues, like accessing the google drive folder where all of the music is hiding, and how to send in the oversized videos. I was so proud of myself after I finished the first batch of videos, and even had two days to go back to ukulele practice before the next rehearsal, but then, of course, the next set of songs were harder than the first.

            My favorite pieces are the ones where I can sing along with the head Alto, both because it’s comforting to hear her voice and because I can focus on the best parts of my vocal range. When we sing along with the cantor I’m usually singing an octave above him, so the notes that are easy for him are tough for me, and it feels more like harmony than unison. There’s something magical about singing the exact same note as someone else, as if there’s a sort of “ding” that goes off in my head that tells me I got it just right.

“Ding!”

            We won’t be doing much communal singing this year at my synagogue. During a normal year we would have a choir rehearsal every other week, just to hang out and learn new music, but with the average age of the choir members in the seventies, and the extra danger of passing Covid while singing, we’ll be staying on Zoom for the foreseeable future, which means we can learn a song, but we can’t sing it together. So I’m trying to make the most of the singing I get to do this summer. There’s some small sense of community from the Zoom rehearsals, but the real power comes from singing along with one other singer and the piano on the guide tracks, and knowing that, eventually, all of the voices will come together, somewhere in the cloud. And if that means I have to sit in front of a computer and stare at my potato head for minutes at a time, so be it.

            Cricket and Ellie have been kind enough not to laugh.

“It’s hard work.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Goodbye, My Friend

Teddy

            A good friend of mine died recently. He was a black-haired, gentle-souled miniature poodle named Teddy and I miss him very much. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but just knowing that he was still there, still climbing through his doggy door and sleeping on his Mommy’s lap, was reassuring and made the world feel whole.

            He was fifteen and a half, I think, two and a half years older than Cricket, my cocker spaniel/miniature poodle mix, who adored him from the get-go. He was long-legged and skinny, with hair that quickly covered his eyes between grooming session. He could leap like a ballet dancer, pointed toes and all, or just race full steam ahead to play with a toy. He was full of joy, and love, and seriousness. He was a gentleman, in the way he held himself and in the boundaries he set around himself. If he could have spoken, he would have had a faint French accent, nothing too broad, more like the head waiter at a high-end restaurant.

Gentleman Pose

            Over the past few years he grew blind and deaf, relying on his younger sister to alert him to noises he needed to respond to, and by the end, to alert him to meal time as well. He had been slowing down for a while, but took great joy in his resurgence on CBD oil, it gave him a zest for life and an appetite and the energy to be his athletic self once again. But his final illness came on quickly, shutting down his kidneys. Treatment only relieved his symptoms temporarily, and when the symptoms inevitably returned he was even more confused than before, and unable to feel like his true self. When he stopped eating, his sister stopped eating too, to keep him company, to express her grief at what she instinctively knew was coming, and because when your loved ones are in pain, you feel the pain too.

            He died with dignity, in a way we don’t often allow our human loved ones to do, surrounded by love and by the knowledge that he had lived a full life, a generous life, and a satisfying life. I imagine that when he crossed the rainbow bridge he did a few leaps and arabesques and then raced towards his two golden sisters who were waiting for him on the other side. He would have had so much to tell them about the world they’d left behind, and they would have had so much to tell him about what comes after.

            We tend to think that our role models and teachers will be human, but Teddy was one of my best teachers, and he was truly, and fully, a dog, in the best possible way.

            Teddy was my therapy dog. Not only because he was my therapist’s dog, but because he offered his own version of therapy: a nonverbal, relationship-based therapeutic technique that they don’t teach in school. He modeled for me how to respect your own emotions and your own boundaries even while reaching out to others. He modeled how to be fully yourself and respectful of others at the same time. He, like Cricket, taught me that there is no shame in speaking up when you feel strongly about something. And that there is honor and strength in accepting your own limitations and not forcing yourself into situations where you don’t feel safe.

“I want out!”

            He was a picky little man, with specific tastes in food and people and dog friends, and he chose me. He trusted me, and I felt the honor of that deeply. Teddy taught me that it’s not arrogant or selfish to hold your own views, or to love only who you love. He showed me that you can have those preferences, and know yourself, while still being respectful and polite to those who don’t fit for you – unless they scare you or piss you off, and then you can scream.

“Let’s get ready to rumble!”

            He showed me that you can express your fear and pain, and if you express it fully and truthfully, there is then room for other feelings to come in. He taught me that there is no shame in asking for affection when you need it, and he taught me that there are people, and dogs, who will be honored that you’ve asked for their affection.

            His acceptance of me, his love for me, and his trust of me, was healing on a very deep level. He reflected me back to myself as I really am. He told me that I am kind, I am trustworthy, and I am loveable. And I believed it, from him. I think the fact that he could never communicate in words, which are my stock in trade, also played a role. He reached the parts of me that can’t speak and they heard him and felt comforted by him.

            I know there were times when it wasn’t easy being Teddy. There were a limited number of people that made him feel comfortable, and when he couldn’t be with those people he suffered. I can relate to that, completely.

            He stayed with me a couple of times, in the period after Butterfly died and before Ellie arrived, and after a short period of vocal grief and longing for his Mom, he settled in with us. He set his boundaries with Cricket early on, and she respected those boundaries, and appreciated his respect for her space too. They went on walks together, and ate dinner together and took naps together peacefully, as long as I was there to referee. By the time he had to leave Cricket was forlorn, sleeping in his makeshift bed until the scent of him dissipated.

Teddy on his bed

            The most important lesson I learned from Teddy is that love is a gift. His love for me was a gift. And the love I felt for him in return made me feel strong enough to raise Cricket with love, and then Butterfly, and now Ellie. He taught me that having enough of what you need makes you feel like you are enough.

            Dogs, maybe because they live such short lives, focus in on the most important things: love, food, joy, and safety. They don’t get distracted by appearances or wear the masks we humans wear to get through our days.

Cricket and Teddy napping with Grandma

            I will miss Teddy, but I will also keep Teddy with me, as part of me, for the rest of my life, as a guide, and as a source of energy for the lessons I still want and need to learn.

            Goodbye, my friend. May you feel all of the love you have inspired throughout your short life, and find peace and community on the other side.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

A Writing Workshop for Tashlich

Last year, I ran two writing workshops at my synagogue, to help empower people to write their own blessings, and to validate more of their real emotions and experiences on a daily basis. I only had a small group of writers with me each time, but the work they did was revelatory and worth the effort. So, with the very unusual world we are living in today, and with High Holiday services scheduled to take place entirely on line, my rabbi asked me to come up with another workshop, on Zoom this time, to prepare for the ceremony of Tashlich, which usually takes place on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, outdoors. This will be our only chance to connect in person at a safe distance as a community during the holidays, and the rabbi wanted to give people a chance to prepare for it more fully, and also a way to include the people who, for reasons of health or age, would still not be able to participate in person.

The word Tashlich means “casting off,” and it is a ceremony where we gather together at a body of water to cast off our sins from the past year. This is when my congregation usually goes to a nearby pond, to hop over goose poop, meet everyone’s dogs, sing with the cantor, and toss our sins out to the ducks, in the form of birdseed or anything else that won’t kill them.

“Are we going to shul with you?”

It is one more avenue for doing Teshuvah (Repentance, or Return), which is the goal for the whole month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on through Yom Kippur. It’s sort of like a six-week version of the twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, including making amends for past bad actions. There is a heavy emphasis on sin and guilt, and the implication is that we’ve all got big garbage bags full of sins from the past year that we need to empty out.

I’m not a huge fan of the emphasis on Sin and Repentance, but I do see the value in looking back on the year to see how we’ve inevitably veered off track, or gotten preoccupied by too much external noise. And I like the idea of making the process of casting things off more concrete, creating a safe container for our more difficult realizations about ourselves, and the emotions connected to them, and then physically throwing them away.

Despite all of my experiences of Tashlich occurring at duck ponds, it turns out that the preference of the rabbis was that the body of water would have fish in it, because fish can’t close their eyes and therefore they remind us of God’s constant protective watch over the Jewish people. But, if you can’t get to a body of water, you can also toss your sins into a bucket of standing water, or into running water from the kitchen sink, or you can even flush them down the toilet. You can write your sins on paper towels, or tissues, or rice paper, or you can even write them in sidewalk chalk and wash them away with a hose, or water balloons!

“Don’t be silly.”

But the words Repentance and Sin were still holding me back, until Jon Batiste, the bandleader of The Late Show with Steven Colbert, said something I found really helpful. Colbert had asked him his thoughts about the late Congressman John Lewis’ influence on the world, and Jon Batiste said that he saw John Lewis’ legacy as an invitation to growth and change, as opposed to Steven Colbert’s feelings of guilt and shame as motivation for change.For me, an invitation implies that there’s a party to go to, and a pool of energy to tap into that doesn’t have to rely solely on what I can bring with me. That’s what I love about community (and about this blog community especially), that whatever I bring with me takes me to a place where there is so much more of what I need. I’m invited, with all of my questions and doubts and confusion, to join a party that will energize me for the next step in the journey.

At its best, that’s what a writing workshop can do (though if your experiences of writing workshops took place in graduate school, with strict deadlines and competitive classmates, you are probably scoffing right now). My goal with each writing workshop is to respond with a “yes, and” to everyone; to let their ideas lead all of us to more of our own thoughts and feelings, so that we walk away with more gifts than we could have created on our own.

This period of Teshuvah, which starts in mid-August this year, is also coming along at a good time, given the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence, and the time for reflection offered by the Covid 19 shut down, with its inevitable emphasis on mortality. In preparing for the writing workshop, I had to think about what I might want to cast out of my life this year, and the first thing on my list would be the time spent beating myself up for the passage of time, and for my turtle slow pace. If I can stop looking at the clock, and the calendar, and the competition, and just focus on my own next step, next year will be a lot more productive, and a lot more fun than this one.

“We need more fun.”

            May we all live kinder, happier, and more fulfilling lives in the year to come. And let us be there for one another on the journey, if only to answer: Amen.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Down Prednisone Way

            A few weeks ago, I finally gave in and went for my first doctor visit since the Covid-19 shutdown. I was hoping to do a telehealth thing, by phone or computer, because the oral specialist I needed to see is located in a hospital, but his booker said uh, no. I was offered an appointment, in person, for a month or so in the future, and I said maybe and hung up. Then I called my primary care doctor, hoping she could treat the inflammation in my mouth herself, at least temporarily. I made a telehealth appointment with her, and downloaded the necessary app and watched the training video (really), but then she called and said she needed to see me in person. So I put on my mask and gloves, and drove to her office, where she proceeded to lecture me on getting over my Covid fears and agreeing to see the specialist at the hospital because she couldn’t treat such a thing herself, damn it. She also took blood, so at least that was productive. She also did a Covid antibodies test and I was, predictably, negative.

“As if I’d let you get close enough to other humans to catch their respiratory droplets. So silly.

So, after the talking-to from my primary care doctor, and getting the blood test results, I reluctantly called the oral specialist’s office again and humbly asked for the appointment in person for a month in the future. And then, after a few deep sighs of relief that I wouldn’t have to go to the hospital for another month, the office called back and gave me a new appointment, at the end of the following day.

Walking into an actual hospital, after months of watching the Covid news, was not a calming experience, but they did have some protective measures in place. I went through a special entrance for people with doctor’s appointments, and had my picture taken, with the mask on, and walked through a sensor that read my ID badge, but then I wandered through half of the hospital by myself, passing doctors with their masks half off and other wandering patients, until I reached the dental department. Then I sat in the doctor’s waiting room for forty five minutes, socially distanced from the other two patients, listening to the secretaries kibitz over their masks.

I tried to distract myself with languages practice on my phone, but I kept noticing all of the staff members walking by with their masks on their chins or dangling from their ears, and then there were all of the surfaces they touched without gloves on. I was afraid I would either get Covid, or go bonkers, if I had to sit there much longer, when a nurse came in, wearing a mask, a face guard, latex gloves and booties. Just seeing her all dressed up lowered my heart rate considerably, especially when it turned out she was there for me.

She said she recognized my eyes from last time, but I couldn’t say the same. I wanted to complement her on her outfit, and ask where I could find a face shield and booties for myself, but I thought that might sound weird, so I just followed her through the hallway to a set of open cubicles separated by curtains, possibly used instead of the doctor’s office I’d been in in the past which was closed-in like a box with no airflow. My doctor was busy reading my chart, or cartoons, on the computer when I arrived so I chatted with his student (it’s a teaching hospital), also wearing mask, gloves, face shield and booties, about my history of symptoms.

I wore my mask until the last possible second, and then felt like a criminal when I had to take the mask off to let them look in my mouth. But they were too busy staring into my mouth and speaking in incomprehensible medical jargon to notice that I was breathing at them. I have no idea what they were actually saying, but I think it translated mostly to, “Ooh, it’s really red over there!”

The result of the visit was that the doctor put me on a short course of Prednisone, something my doctors have been avoiding (like the plague?) for more than ten years, for fear of triggering my family history of Type-two Diabetes. But the other option was a long term immunosuppressant that would just be reaching an active dose in September, when I’m hoping to be in a classroom with a group of loosely masked children. When I said that to the doctor, he sort of shrugged, like, I guess it could be a problem to take away your immune system in the face of a highly contagious virus, but, eh, it’s up to you. I chose to go with the Prednisone because it would be short term, and I could take it now while I’m still mostly isolated at home.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

            Also, Cricket told me that I would love Prednisone. She’s been on short courses a few times for a slipped disk in her back and she found the experience exhilarating – Food! Running! Pooping! Food! Other humans have also been touting the benefits of Prednisone for years, and telling me that I would feel like I could conquer the world. That is not a familiar experience for me, so I thought it might be worth a try.

“I run the world, Mommy. Not you.”

            But that was me being overly optimistic, and temporarily amnestic about my history of paradoxical reactions to medication. Within an hour of my first dose, I was exhausted and collapsed back into bed. I took two three-hour naps the first day, and then a full night’s sleep that didn’t end until noon the next day, plus another nap a few hours later. The big sleep lasted about three days overall, and then tapered off into my usual full night’s sleep and one nap a day. Except that I also felt nauseous and dizzy and strangely fragile, as if five different muscle groups were getting ready to tear at any moment.

“Oy.”

            By day five, the pattern had switched, and I couldn’t fall asleep at night, and then I was exhausted for two days, and then I couldn’t fall asleep again. The doctor had told me to call him at the two week mark, after reducing the dose by half at the ten day mark, so that he could decide what to do next, and I didn’t feel like I could call early to tell him about the sleep disturbance. I’ve reported weird side effects to my doctors before and they have made their eye rolls clear, even over the phone. They either don’t believe that I’m experiencing what I am experiencing, or they assume I’m just exaggerating, or they couldn’t care less. So I decided to wait and suffer.

            It’s humiliating and exhausting to keep going to doctors and trying medications and being disbelieved when I report what actually happens, but I have to keep trying, because the symptoms keep interfering with my ability to live my life the way I want to. If there’s a diet/treatment/medication/supplement/exercise that would make it possible for me to work more hours at the things that matter to me, or even have some fun, I have to try it. Right?

“Did you say fun?”

            When I called the doctor at the two week mark he said to go down to one dose every other day, to see if that reduced the side effects while  giving the drug a little more time to work. It took me a few minutes, after hanging up, to realize that he had actually listened to me. I decided that, since there had been some small improvement, and the doctor was actually taking me seriously, I might as well keep following his plan. We’ll see how it goes.

            Cricket is pretty sure that I should eat kibble (she would, of course, generously eat my human food instead), and do Downward Dog fifty times a day, and sniff as much grass as possible as my next experimental treatment. And when none of that works for me, she will just shrug and roll her eyes and tell me to take her out for a long walk anyway, because she needs her sniffies and I’m just gonna have to buck up and do my job because at least I’m not dead.

“Harrumph.”

            I think she’s ready for medical school!

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

The Mumble Grumble Prayers

            One of my jobs as a synagogue school teacher is to teach my students how to pray, but sometimes I worry that I’m the wrong person for the job. I grew up going to a Conservative Jewish day school, where half of each school day was spent on Hebrew language, and Jewish history and customs, and prayers. But I don’t remember actively learning the why behind the prayers. I learned how to sing the prayers, and which prayers and blessings to say when, but the Kavanah, the intention, was most often left for last, or for never.

The assumption, I think, was that little kids couldn’t understand the deeper meaning yet, but by seventh grade I’d switched over to an Orthodox school where there was a sudden descent into the mumble grumble form of prayer. We didn’t focus on the music of the prayers much anymore, instead we gave value to the words of the prayers, with a requirement to read or say every single word. The problem was that the girls were given very little time to say the morning prayers, and it was mumble grumble, or nothing. Even at my most fluent, I couldn’t have even skimmed the Hebrew of the prayers in the short time allotted to us, though many of my classmates were able to do it, and even seemed to feel something. In orthodoxy, our teachers told us, the belief was that if we did the right things, and read the right things, and said the right things, we would become good Jews, even if we never understood the why of any of it. But for me, that method didn’t work.

“Harrumph.”

 I’m only responsible for teaching the kids a few prayers each year in synagogue school, which gives us time to learn the tunes, and the words (often in transliteration), but most of all the intention behind each prayer, which meant that I needed to know what those were; and in some ways I had to start from scratch. I did my research and reading, but most of my learning came from going to services myself. At my synagogue we learn a lot of different versions of the prayers, to emphasize different ways of looking at the words and meaning, but even when we use the same version over and over, we often stop to read a poem or hear a story first, to shed new light on the purpose of the particular prayer. And that has given me a lot of material to share with the kids, but, more often than not, I ask the kids if they can explain it to me.

“Huh?”

For example, the Mishaberach is a prayer for wishing someone healing from physical or emotional pain, so we spend some time talking about how a prayer might be able to comfort us, or give us strength, even if we don’t believe that God is answering our wishes directly. And when we look at the words of the Ve’shamru, a prayer we say on Friday nights to remind us of the obligation to celebrate Shabbat, I’ll ask them why we might need, or want, a reminder in the form of a prayer every week, especially one that we say after the Sabbath has already started. And then we can look at the Modeh Ani, one of the weekday morning prayers, in which we thank God for letting us wake up in the morning, returning our souls to us after a night in God’s safe keeping (go ahead, try to teach that concept to children without accidentally referencing zombies, I dare you).

“Zombies?!”

A lot of this focus on creating meaning is due to the fact that most progressive Jews (Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Conservative, etc.) don’t feel obligated to pray. In orthodoxy, you are supposed to accept the burden of obligation, in rituals, and daily behaviors, long before you ever learn the why behind the what, which is what makes mumble grumble prayer a help to them. In progressive Judaism the why always comes first, because many of the obligations have been made voluntary, which has its own risks.

Sometimes I worry that my synagogue school students are missing out by spending so little time on their Jewish education each week. I wouldn’t have been able to fill my brain with so much of the how of Judaism, and the history of Judaism, without half of each day of my childhood being set aside for learning how to be Jewish. And I feel lucky to have the background I have, and the wealth of information to tap into. My hope is that, in the time my students and I have together, they will learn to see the obligations of their religious community as more than worth the gifts they will get in return, especially because there are so many fewer obligations in Progressive Jewish life. And maybe this lighter touch will keep them from falling into the mumble grumble form of religion, where the obligations drown out the inspirations.

            In my ongoing search for ways help the kids to feel connected to the prayers, I went to a Zoom presentation by the founders of a musical group called the Nigunim Ensemble, based in Israel. They have created new versions of old prayers, incorporating chants and new rhythms from Arab, Persian, and popular Israeli music. Their message to our Zoom class was that the Jewish world can, and should, widen its ideas of prayer music, not only to include more people in our community, but to add more layers of emotion to the experience of prayer. And I was excited by all of the new sounds they were introducing to us, but for me, the message that came through most strongly was the sense of joy I heard in their voices. And I realized that not only singing good music, but singing in community, allows me to feel heard and accepted, as I am. And, when I feel heard by my community, I start to think that maybe God can hear me too.

“We can hear you, Mommy.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Cricket and Ellie’s Extraordinary Playlist

My favorite television show this Spring was Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, where Zoey, a computer programmer in her twenties, discovers that she can hear people’s innermost thoughts and feelings in song and dance numbers (after an accident in an MRI during an earthquake). I’m a sucker for a musical to begin with, but this show made the connection between music and emotional honesty even more explicit. And I loved it!

            And watching the show made me wonder what I might be singing, out walking the dogs, or on Zooms, or at the supermarket, if someone could hear my “heart songs” (this is what Zoey’s friend called the song and dance numbers only Zoey could see and hear on the show). Would my heart songs express the feelings I already feel safe sharing? Or the things I consciously choose to keep to myself? Or feelings I don’t even know I have?

“Ooh, a mystery!”

            I’m a little bit afraid of this question; on the one hand, I don’t think my emotions are much of a mystery. I may not sing them at the top of my lungs to every stranger on the street, but I imagine that most of my feelings are kind of obvious. Except, what if there were surprises? What if the emotions I haven’t yet wrestled into compliance just started to let themselves out? That worries me. I think I’d rather be Zoey than be heard by Zoey.

            Some of the “heart songs” Zoey heard on the show didn’t express people’s deepest secrets, but rather things that Zoey, when she wasn’t hearing the songs, wasn’t able to figure out for herself. Before the accident in the MRI gave her this special power, Zoey was kind of dense about her own emotions, and anyone else’s, and it was keeping her stuck and lonely. The heart songs were her awakening to the world around her and the world inside of her.

            I can imagine some of the songs I’d hear other people singing, though: like my rabbi singing Sondheim on every occasion (which he kind of does already); or long litanies of anger and complaint from my fellow shoppers in line at the supermarket (some singer/songwriter laments, but mostly in the Headbanger genre). My synagogue school students often did break into song at random moments, to let me know how bored they were by my chosen lesson plans. My preference would be to listen to a playlist of ballads about people’s secret longings and disappointments, but I’m not sure I’d be that lucky.

“Oy.”

            And, what if in my version of the disorder, all of the singing and dancing people would be tone deaf and have two left feet? I’d be cringing all the time, and dodging falling bodies. I don’t do well with cacophony, and long stretches of listening to off key music might actually kill me. But at least I wouldn’t have to spend as much time guessing at what people are thinking, reading body language and tone of voice and worrying that I’m guessing wrong. Instead, I could feel confident that I really did know what people were thinking, and then I could move on to feeling guilty about all of the ways I would inevitably fail to help them.

            Given that, I still love the idea of my day being filled with music. And I love the idea of all of my thoughts and feelings being intertwined with music, instead of just standing there, like stick figures, marching through my brain.

“There’s music in my head? Can you get it out?”

            But I do worry that if I could hear and see these musical numbers as vividly as Zoey does, then I’d become so overwhelmed with external noise that I wouldn’t have any room left to hear my own thoughts. I’d have to hide away in my room just to get any writing done – which, come to think of it, describes my regular life pretty well.

            The only people I know who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by a sudden outpouring of song and dance numbers, expressing our most secret feelings, would be dogs. For Cricket and Ellie, and all of their compatriots, humans are vividly expressing their deepest secrets, through tone of voice, and body language, and especially smell, all the time. Dogs know everything! And yet they still love us. It’s pretty much the dream of every human being, that even at our most vulnerable and imperfect, with all of our embarrassing smells and shameful secrets hanging out, we could still be deeply loved. And yet to dogs, that’s a given. And, more often than not, we do this for our dogs in return (those lovely creatures who lick themselves in public, and breathe stinky breath in our faces, and expect us to pick up their poop while they bark their heads off at all of our neighbors). It’s other humans we struggle to accept as they are, and other humans who we think will reject us if they knew everything.

Pets, even dogs as judgmental and harrumph-y as Cricket, love us just the way we are. No wonder we love them so much in return.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Writing Music

            As soon as I admitted to myself that I wanted to write a song, I stopped practicing the ukulele and the recorder. It wasn’t intentional, or even conscious, but when I look back, that’s the timing.

“I’m keeping it warm for you, Mommy.”

            I had been practicing three or four days a week at that point, not every day the way I’d promised myself but not too bad. And I’d been thinking about songwriting for a while, wondering what was stopping me, and wandering around the edges of the idea. And then, I think it was part of Holocaust Remembrance day at my synagogue, the Cantor shared songs with us during his Zoom, and showed us a version of  “Blessed is the Match” in Hebrew and English, based on a poem by Hannah Senesh, and, almost immediately, I wanted to rewrite it.

            Some background, Hannah Senesh was born in Hungary and immigrated to Palestine as a teenager. She joined the Haganah, the precursor to the Israeli army, and in March 1944, at age 23, she and others parachuted into Yugoslavia to assist with the rescue of Hungarian Jews who were being deported to concentration camps. She was caught by the Nazis, tortured and then killed by a firing squad. “Blessed is the Match” was written in Yugoslavia as she prepared for the rescue mission.

            This is the English translation the Cantor taught us:

            Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

Blessed is the heart that knows, for honors sake, to stop its beating.

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

I went looking for other versions of the song, hoping to find something wonderful, so I wouldn’t have to do the work. I found a few versions, one that sounded like a march, and another that sounded like a dirge, and I was still annoyed by the vague and sentimental way the English sounded, as opposed to the original Hebrew, and I hated the saccharine and schmaltzy orchestrations. Don’t get me wrong, I like sentiment and sweetness, but not for this.

“I always like sweet stuff!”

I started working on a new translation that afternoon, looking up possible variations in Google Translate until I came up with a formulation that sounded close to the original Hebrew, at least to me. Except, then I had to match the rhythm and meter of the English to the Hebrew, because I wanted the song to be sung in both languages, and that process helped me understand where the vague and sentimental versions had come from in the first place; matching Hebrew and English rhythms is very hard, because Hebrew is so much more terse than English.

Anyway, this is what I came up with:

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame.

Blessed is the match that burns in the depths of their hearts

Blessed are the hearts that know death is near and go on

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame

“Blessed” isn’t really the right translation for the Hebrew word “Ashrei,” but the more accurate translation, of “grateful” or “happy,” feels misleading, or at least uncomfortable in this context, so I stuck with Blessed.

            I still wasn’t thrilled with my version, but I wanted to start thinking about the music. I wanted a simple, clear, melody. I wanted the melody to do a lot of the work that my translation couldn’t do; I wanted the melody to convey the conflict hiding in the lyrics.

“Ask me. I know about conflict.”

            Hannah Senesh’s poem rides a very thin line between suicidality and heroism; a line that needs to be delineated clearly when you are talking about freedom fighters or soldiers. How do you stand up and say that you are willing to put your life at risk, without also sounding like you want to die? How do you express a desire to save others, without pretending to a kind of complete altruism and selflessness that you don’t feel?

            The central image of the poem is of a match that willingly goes out, or knowingly risks going out, for the sake of others. And that image is both beautiful and horrifying; it’s a sacrifice that no one should have to make, and that no one should be asked to make, but it’s a sacrifice that some people will choose to make anyway, in order to save those they love. This is why I didn’t like the saccharine iterations, where the assumption is that you would feel complete happiness in dying for those you love, or the military march versions, which suggest that your patriotism will make you so single minded that you will lack any regrets. I wanted the darkness, and the fear, and the love, and generosity, to be in the music all at the same time. No pressure, though.

            I’m not sure yet why this poem resonated so deeply for me. I am not selfless, and I don’t dream of being a hero and sacrificing myself for others, but something compelled me to sit down and write music for the first time in forever, just to capture some resonance I couldn’t articulate in words.

“Have you ever tried barks instead of words?”

            But working on the music, and trying different combinations of notes, and trying to count syllables and quarter notes, and trying to remember which keys have which flats and sharps, all opened a wound that seems to have been sitting there, full of puss, for years. I’d managed to tap into a dark morass of feelings of worthlessness and stupidity and guilt and shame that I didn’t know were there.

            As a writer, a long time ago, I was able to find mentors to help me get past the endless rules and criticisms I found in school; I read Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott and others, and I used freewriting to get to what I wanted to say, instead of what other people found acceptable and impressive. It took a lot of work, and I still get stuck, but I found a path to go down. With music, though, I never found that path. I tried listening to classical music, and I studied voice and piano and guitar, and I really tried to understand what people were saying about how to do it all correctly, but the theories and the math and the rules never made sense to me.

            I have a notebook full of songs from my early teens, but at some point I got stuck and I couldn’t write one more measure. All I heard in my head was, You Don’t Understand Music, Your math is wrong, your harmonies are stupid, and you don’t even know what a chorus is.

            I’ve made a tentative return to practicing ukulele and recorder, though. And I even wrote a poem in Hebrew a couple of weeks ago (most of which came to me in a dream), but the unfinished draft of “Blessed is the Match, with its unmoored musical notes scares me too much. I’m afraid it will be awful, and wrong, and explode in my face if I look too closely.

            I asked Cricket and Ellie to look at the draft for me and, though they are not trained bomb sniffing dogs, and they didn’t notice anything explosive on the paper. But I still can’t look at it, or, God forbid, try to sing it, or sound it out on the keyboard on my phone. Instead I’m writing about it, or trying to, and doing my best to build a bridge, one word at a time, to make my way across this dangerous sea.

“Are we going swimming?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?