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Monthly Archives: November 2020

Thanksgiving

            Thanksgiving, my birthday, and Ellie’s birthday, all happen around the same time of year, and I’m not sure I’m ready for any of it. I’m not a huge fan of birthdays, especially my own (I keep getting older, even when I’m absolutely sure I pressed the pause button), but also, Ellie will be seven this year and I think that has to be wrong. I think we should count the age of rescue dogs from the date they were rescued, instead of from their actual birth dates. In that case, Ellie would be about two and a half years old, and that sounds much more accurate to me.

“I’m a puppy!”

            And then there’s Thanksgiving. While the idea of a holiday devoted to giving thanks for our good fortune is lovely, it’s hard to look past the origin of the holiday with the Pilgrims taking advantage of the indigenous population of America. As a kid I just drew hand-shaped turkeys and sat through drama-filled family dinners, blissfully unaware of the back story or even the gratitude theme of the holiday. But I’m not sure what to do with it now that I know more.

It’s hard to focus on gratitude when you are busy feeling guilty and ashamed of what your ancestors did to the ancestors of your friends. I much prefer the Jewish holiday of Passover, where we can focus with righteous indignation on the wrongs done to us instead of the wrongs we’ve done to others. Sometimes I try to separate myself out as a more recent immigrant to America (my ancestors started to arrive around the turn of the twentieth century), so maybe I don’t have to own the guilt of those earlier European immigrants to this land. But then I read something like Deborah Fineblum’s article, The attitude of gratitude: Jewish connections to share at the Thanksgiving table published on Jewishworldnews.org, and I find out that the Pilgrims actually modeled their autumn thanksgiving holiday after the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, celebrated just a few weeks earlier, and I feel implicated all over again. The fact is, we are all related in one way or another, and we all come from the predators and the victims at some point in our histories.

So the question is, how can we focus on our gratitude for the good things in our lives, without ignoring the things we’ve done wrong, or things that have been done to hurt us? I’ve had to work hard on this one. I was deeply depressed for a large portion of my life, and found it insulting and simplistic when people tried to tell me to focus on my good fortune instead. They seemed to believe that if I could just whitewash my own history and ignore the pain, the way they were doing in their own lives, I would be happy. But it doesn’t work that way. In reality, telling people to smile when they are depressed, or angry, or sad, or frustrated, is DISRESPECTFUL, because you are not offering them kindness, you are bullying them into smiling in order to make you feel better. My smile has to be my choice, my willing gift to you, or else it’s meaningless.

“Harrumph.”

            So, again, given all of the pain of the past, and the pain of this year in particular, with the numbers of Covid deaths rising precipitously in the United States and around the world, is there any healthy way to celebrate Thanksgiving and express gratitude around a table (or a zoom), with our friends and families? Is it healing to talk about gratitude when we’re still hurting so much?

            My answer is: maybe; if we are careful and kind with each other. I wrote about Thank you, but blessings last year, as part of my first blessings writing workshop at my synagogue. The idea is that saying thank you by rote, because it’s what is expected of you, can be not only meaningless but also self-destructive, but if I can acknowledge both my gratitude and my pain, out loud, maybe I can actually feel the gratitude more fully.

            The number one Thank you, but blessing among my students this year was, Thank you God for knowing that I am still a good Jew even thought I eat bacon.

“Bacon!”

            Ellie’s favorite is, Thank you for giving me chicken, but I want more.

“Did you say chicken?”

            And mine: Thank you for my good fortune in having a Mom who loves and believes in me, and a job I love, but I wish I could have more energy, and more focus, so that I could lose weight, and finish two or three novels over winter break.

            I am grateful that Joe Biden won the election, but I wish that half the country didn’t have to feel so left out after each election. I wish we could all find a way to agree on the facts and then listen to each other’s experience of those facts with more compassion.

            I think that these Thank you, but blessings are a way that I can make gratitude possible, and meaningful, for myself. Because if I just said that I am grateful, it would feel hollow and even untrue, but within the context of the all of it, my gratitude is real and I can celebrate it.

            I hope that Thank you, but blessings are helpful to other people, but if nothing else works, I suggest skipping the turkey on Thanksgiving and going straight to the ice cream/chocolate cake/chocolate frosting part of the meal. That’s bound to make things better, at least for a little while.

“We have room for dessert, Mommy. Stretching helps.”

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?

Ellie Goes to the Vet

            We put off Ellie’s yearly check-up with the Vet in July, hoping that the Covid restrictions would end soon enough that we wouldn’t have to drop Ellie off from the car window. But, alas, Covid has remained and we finally gave in and made an appointment with the Vet last month. As expected, I still had to hand my baby off to the Vet Tech through the open door of the car, with Cricket screaming in my ear, warning her sister to run for her life and/or bring back treats. The appointment went quickly, and we paid the bill, and had Ellie safely back in the car, when the Vet came to tell us that, oh by the way, Ellie would need a dental cleaning. She’d had one two years ago, soon after we’d first adopted her, and now, he said, it was time for a re-do.

“Run!”
“Why?”

            I nodded my head, closed the window, and took off my mask, trying not to think about it as Mom drove us home. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve heard too many horror stories about dogs dying from anesthesia during regular dental cleanings. But, bad teeth can lead to all kinds of medical issues that I didn’t want Ellie to have to deal with either, and the Vet was insistent that she needed this procedure.

            It took us another few weeks, but we finally made the appointment for Ellie’s dental cleaning and drove back to the Vet’s parking lot. When the Vet Tech came to pick Ellie up from the car, this time without Cricket nearby sending smoke signals, she had me sign a form that said I understood the risks of anesthesia. I had a much harder time letting Ellie go after that.

“Mommy?”

            Mom and I went food shopping right away, just to keep busy, but I still couldn’t block out the endless scenarios filling my brain, including complications from the anesthesia and lost teeth and then progressing to mixed up name tags and accidentally removed limbs. By the time we got home and put away the groceries, I was exhausted, but still too worried to sleep. Eventually, the Vet called to tell us that Ellie was fine, and would be ready for pick up in a few hours, but, by the way, they’d had a hard time getting the tube down her throat, because the scar tissue from her de-barking surgery had grown. It’s possible that Ellie’s attempts to bark along with her sister have been irritating her throat and exacerbating the scar tissue from the surgery done by her breeder long ago (which is unspeakable). That could also explain the proliferation of her snoring habit, which has become operatic of late. The Vet said not to worry about the scar tissue, which of course made me worry about the scar tissue more, but knowing that Ellie had survived this procedure was enough of a relief that I was able to sleep for a while, with only a few nightmares about Ellie losing her voice to an evil wizard.

“Did you say something?”

            We brought Cricket with us to pick up Ellie, because leaving her at home that morning had not gone over well, and as soon as Ellie was brought to the car she was placed on her grandma’s lap, blurry eyed from the drugs. We’d already paid, and the chat with the dental specialist went quickly, and I wanted to race out of there before one of the Vet Techs could decide that Ellie needed to go back inside for some reason, except, Cricket didn’t like the seating arrangements. Cricket believes that Grandma’s lap belongs to her, so she kept trying to push her confused sister off the lap. It took a while to convince Cricket that she could be just as comfortable owning another part of Grandma’s real estate (in this case, behind Grandma’s neck) for the short ride home.

“Stay away from my Grandma!”

            In the meantime, even in her drugged haze and with Cricket’s drama all around her, Ellie managed to find the chicken treats hidden deep in Grandma’s jacket pocket and gobble them down before anyone could stop her. We’d been warned that Ellie’s gut would be a little slow for the next day or so, and that she should eat only half as much as usual, but she clearly didn’t get that message. By the time we got home, Ellie was uninterested in eating her delayed breakfast (either the kibble or the wet stuff), and she was ready for a nap. Cricket generously ate the late breakfast for her, and then took a nap of her own.

Ellie did a lot of heavy raspy breathing for the next day or so, which kept me anxious, but pretty quickly she was back to running around the backyard, visiting with her squirrel friends, eating her meals, and showing off her pearly white teeth.

“Any more treats?”

            I can still feel the worry, though, as if every time she goes to sleep there’s a chance that her scar tissue will expand and start to choke her. It’s probably an unreasonable fear, and I will likely forget how harrowing the whole thing was, until next time.

For now, the next thing on our to-do list is to schedule Cricket’s yearly check-up. I’m not sure how that’s going to work, though. She may have to be sedated BEFORE we get to the Vet’s parking lot, because the prospect of handing Cricket through a car window, to an unsuspecting Vet Tech wearing only a fabric mask and plastic gloves, instead of full armor, does not bode well for any of us. I’m sure Cricket would vote to send Ellie in again in her stead, but the vaccinations and ear cleaning that Cricket needs can’t be done by proxy, and at thirteen and a half she really can’t be skipping her regular checkups, Covid or no Covid. It’s a good thing we have a month or so before she has to go in, though, because we really need to build up our strength for the ordeal.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

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?

Be a Mensch

            This past week in the United States has been stressful, for everyone, and because my synagogue school students are part of that everyone, I wanted to focus on teaching a lesson that would reassure them, somewhat, that there are areas of their lives where they really do have some control. And, because I love teaching Yiddish words, the lesson for this week was: what does it mean to be a mensch?

Mensch is a Yiddish word, from German, meaning “human being,” or a person of integrity and honor. The opposite of a mensch is an unmensch, a person treating others cruelly and without compassion, as opposed to the word ubermensch (Nietzsche alert) which is usually translated as “the superman,” someone who is superior to other humans. The word Mensch has gathered a lot of associations in American culture (bearded, male, Jewish) but it really means a person who is striving to be good every day, and doing what is right, even when it’s hard. We already have Yiddish words for the most righteous among us (a Tzaddik), or the smartest (a Chacham or a Maven) or the most powerful (a Macher). But being a mensch isn’t about being the best or the most, it’s about being human.

“I’ll take Maven and Macher.”

            There’s something wonderful about a compliment that can be given to everyone, instead of just to an elite few. Someone with a physical or intellectual disability has just as good a chance of being a mensch as someone who is born privileged in every way, because it’s not about your talents or your circumstances or your luck, it’s about how you choose to navigate the world you happen to live in. Oh, and mensch is not a gendered word, and it’s not limited to Jewish people, so it really can apply to anyone.

“Can I be a Mensch?

            We are so often looking for ways to be better than others, or to be the best, or to earn our place, and it’s exhausting, but the opportunity to be a mensch is always there, and there’s always something you can do that will fit you and your skills and interests.

            You can still have your foibles and be a mensch. You can fail a test, or lose your job, or struggle with substance abuse, or struggle to finish a Sunday crossword puzzle and still be a mensch. What you can’t do, is intentionally cause harm to other people. You can’t be a liar, or a bully, or be arrogant, or prejudiced and still be a mensch.

“I always tell the truth, whether you like it or not.”

            I’m a big fan of menschlichkeit, or mensch-iness. It’s like a pass fail course, where as long as you do the work, you’re golden. And we need things like that in a world that is so driven by competition and achievement and striving to be in the top one percent of everything.

            Being a mensch is about valuing other human beings for themselves, instead of for what they can do for you. And this, more than anything, is what I want to encourage in my students. Yes, I will be thrilled for them when they learn to write Hebrew words, or lead the prayers at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I will cheer them on when they swim or dance or act in a school play, and I will celebrate with them when they get into the college of their dreams, or find a cure for a rare disease, or create calorie-free chocolate frosting that tastes like the real thing (!). But all of that is secondary to how proud I am of them, right now, when they notice that a fellow student is struggling and needs help, or when they realize that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings and they are willing to take the risk of offering an apology that may not be accepted. Each time they re-learn the lesson that it’s more important to be good than to be great, I puff up with happiness, because that’s what’s going to get them through their lives; not being the best at anything, but being a mensch through everything.

            It can be hard, when we are thinking in such enormous terms as national politics and life and death, to remember that our real lives, and our real impact, comes locally – in our towns, communities, schools, and families.

            May we all make it through this election, and the pandemic, with our appreciation for mensch-iness intact.

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?