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Monthly Archives: July 2021

Israeli Music

(Note: I was originally planning to post this essay back in the spring but decided to pull it when the violence broke out in Gaza and Israel, because it felt like the wrong time to share my lighthearted adventures in Israeli music. Since then I have had a lot of time to think about my silence, and the value of silence and expression at different times. I still don’t have a clear mathematical equation to tell me what to say when, so I have to trust that my readers will take this essay for the love letter it was meant to be, with the understanding that love doesn’t mean perfect acceptance of the loved one’s behavior.

Israel is imperfect and Israeli governments have made problematic decisions that are at odds with world opinion. Israel is also the ancient homeland of my people and the modern miracle that gave many Jews a place to thrive after the Holocaust. Should that miracle have come at the cost of Palestinian peoplehood? No. Were there ways to allow for both peoples to live peacefully in their homelands? Possibly, possibly not. Can things change going forward? I hope so.

Israel is a complicated place, with conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Jews of Ashkenazi and Mizrachi or Sephardi descent, and between secular and religious Jews. It’s a place where emotions run high and violence and spirituality and hope are all deeply ingrained. Sometimes the only thing that can make it all bearable, for me, is to listen to the music and sing along – expressing all of the hope and bitterness and love and anger at full voice.)

My Israeli Music Mixtape

            My best friend in Seventh Grade was Israeli. She had come to the States with her family a year or so earlier, and we became friends because I was new to our orthodox Jewish school and willing to help her with her English homework. I also understood more Hebrew than most of my classmates, and we shared a love of music. She made me a mix tape of the Israeli songs she thought I should know, to fill out the list of Israeli songs I’d learned in school and camp (she was also a big Billy Joel fan, so I learned his songs too). Eventually she switched to public school and we drifted apart, but I heard years later that she’d become a DJ in Israel, which seemed appropriate.

            Last summer, the Cantor at my synagogue did a Zoom session on Jewish music (of the Non-liturgical kind), and one of the songs he played was an Israeli song, and it was like a time capsule, sending me back to junior high and afternoons singing along with my mix tape. As soon as the Zoom was over I went searching for that old mix tape, and found it. When I tried to play it in my old tape deck from college, though, the tape crumbled in the machine. Not to be deterred, I went to YouTube to re-find some of those songs, and found a bunch of other familiar Israeli songs as well. I made a short playlist, and searched out the lyrics, in Hebrew and English, thinking I could use them in synagogue school in some way, and then filed them away.

            Then, a few months later, I came across an American podcast called Israel Hour Radio: one hour a week filled with Israeli music, both the classics and the modern stuff. I started listening to the archives, with theme episodes on classic songs of the seventies and eighties, and Eurovision hits, and countdowns of the best songs of each year.

On Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day) this past year, I played some of the Israeli music videos for my synagogue school students. Unfortunately, the sound from my computer diffused quickly in the cavernous social hall that we’d been using as a classroom during Covid, and, more importantly, most of the songs were in Hebrew, which turned out to be the real deal breaker.

            But I’d had such high hopes! I wanted the kids to love the music as much as I did at their age! I wanted them to hear Ofra Haza singing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and be knocked out by the clarity of her voice and the way it soared and how her technique seemed so transparent that you could hear her soul right through it.

Ofra Haza

And I wanted them to know that Israel has won the Eurovision song contest a bunch of times, with Hebrew songs, on a world stage! Most of all, I wanted them to know that Hebrew is more than just a language to pray in; that you can even dance to it!

“I can dance!”

            Growing up, so much of my education about Israel was focused on politics and religion, and not on the daily lives of the people who live there. It didn’t even occur to me that they had their own radio stations, let alone that they’d gone way beyond folk music and Israeli dancing into Rap and Hip Hop and Rock and Techno and Pop and Reggae. There’s also a deep strain of humor, silliness, and protest music, as well as a lot of love songs.

            My favorites are still mostly in the category of Shirei Eretz Yisrael (Songs of the Land of Israel), because they are like love songs, filled with longing for a better world, acknowledgement of the bitter and the sweet, and hope for the future. My dream is that, with time, my synagogue school students will like these songs as much as they like Netta (the Israeli Eurovision winner from 2018 who became famous singing a song in English, with lots of clucking noises and chicken-like dance moves – no, really).

Netta

            There was always a strong tradition of public singalongs in pre-State and Modern Israel, as a way to build a national identity from the patchwork of Jews from Eastern Europe and America and Asia and the Middle East. That tradition landed in my American life, in summer camp and synagogue and school, so that I could sing more in Hebrew than I could speak. In my endless YouTube searches this past year, I discovered a relatively recent phenomenon called Koolulam, an Israeli group that creates public sing along videos. They choose a song and prepare the lyrics in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and then they bring together people from all across the country – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, single and with families, young and old – and they teach them the song and make a video of the final version. They call themselves a “social musical initiative” dedicated to bringing disparate groups together. In a way, Koolulam is an extension of the original Israeli imperative of nation building through singalongs – but now the goal is to bring everyone in the country together, not just the Jews. And the resulting videos really are inspiring.

            So, maybe next year, when we can sing together again, I’ll be able to teach my students some of my favorite Israeli songs, even if they are in Hebrew, and no one is clucking. Though I’m sure we could find an excuse to add in the clucking.

“Really?”

            In case you’re interested, I’m adding links to a few of the songs on my Israeli music playlist, but for a deeper education I recommend listening to back episodes of podcast.

NettaToy (the chicken song) - https://youtu.be/CziHrYYSyPc

Ofra HazaYerushalayim shel zahavwith English subtitles https://youtu.be/72QC8EGnxTw

David Broza Yihieh Tov with English subtitles https://youtu.be/qtI7h5A9eEQ

Nina Simone - Eretz Zavat Chalav (A land flowing with milk and honey) - https://youtu.be/YBAAkJyEhlA

Koolulam – Al Kol Eleh for Israel Independence Day https://youtu.be/oxzR9Z-kG6Q

Koolulam One Day (3000 people Muslim, Christian, Jewish) https://youtu.be/RjPpMXMjIj0

Ishay Ribo and Nathan Goshen - Nechakeh Lecha https://youtu.be/ryTO71_eMO4

English translation for Nechakeh Lecha https://lyricstranslate.com/en/%D7%A0%D7%97%D7%9B%D7%94-%D7%9C%D7%9A-nechake-lecha-we-shall-await-thee.html

Amir Dadon and Shuli Rand – Bein Kodesh lechol https://youtu.be/sCJh9YcrL3k

English translation for Bein Kodesh lechol https://lyricstranslate.com/en/%D7%91%D7%99%D7%9F-%D7%A7%D7%95%D7%93%D7%A9-%D7%9C%D7%97%D7%95%D7%9C-bein-kodesh-lechol-between-sacred-and-profane.html)

“We need more music, 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?

The Choir is Back

            I recently found out that my synagogue’s choir will be singing in-person at High Holiday services in September. Up through most of June, we thought we’d be recording one or two more videos (to add to the collection we made last year) and using them for services – both online and on screens in the sanctuary. But with the changes to the protocols in New York, our plans have changed.

“Am I singing?”

            In-person choir performances mean rehearsals all summer, starting right away, and also early morning services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – which I’m really not looking forward to. Instead of waking up late and eating breakfast and leisurely strolling with the dogs and then getting to synagogue for the 11:30 AM service, the way Mom and I used to do before I joined the choir, I will have to be up and dressed and ready to sing by 8:45 in the morning.

            I’d actually gotten pretty comfortable with the distance singing – making the videos and singing along to a voice in my ear – and now I will have to re-acclimate to four-part harmonies, and ignoring what someone else is singing (loudly, next to me).

“Grr.”

            I’m also anxious about what to wear for services, and which shoes to wear for all of the standing; and I’m worried that I won’t have enough time to get all of my planned writing done this summer, with my Hebrew classes and choir rehearsals and doctors’ appointments and on and on.

            Before the first choir rehearsal could take place, though, a former choir member (whose wife still sings with the choir) died, at age 95. It wasn’t unexpected, given his age and overall health, but it was still a shock. He was full of life, and jokes and opinions, and participated in all of our study sessions and services over zoom during Covid. Almost as soon as the congregational email went out, letting us know of his death, the Cantor wrote to the choir members to ask if we’d want to reschedule our first choir rehearsal and instead go as a group to the first night of Shiva, to sing for our friend. And we all agreed.

This was our first communal funeral since Covid began – the first time we could fill up the sanctuary and sit side by side to mourn one of our own. And it was very sweet. We were able to hear from the children and grandchildren of our lost friend, and share their memories and jokes and tears. And then at Shiva that night, the choir members gathered around his wife, arm in arm, to sing Oseh Shalom (a prayer for peace), which we sing together at the end of every choir rehearsal.

I’d forgotten the power of this, I think, in my fear of the social obligations that come with returning to an in-person world. And maybe I hadn’t even realized what a big part the choir played in these connections – these physical, in-person connections, where we sing to each other and come together.

Sometimes I worry that my social anxiety, and the holes in my social skills, mean that I can’t be a real part of a community, and can’t be a good friend. I worry that I don’t have the gregariousness or the generous instincts other people have by nature. But these are the times when I feel the power of ritual, of having a scaffolding to hold me up as I figure out how to be of use.

It shocks me every once in a while that I’ve found this community, and that I can find a place in it for myself, despite my fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. I’ve learned, slowly, over a long period of time, that everyone says or does the wrong thing sometimes, maybe even all the time, and the world doesn’t end as a result. I still keep a mental list of all of my gaffs and awkward encounters and missed opportunities, but I’ve also collected enough memories of others doing the same things that I’ve learned that it’s okay. We’ve survived a bad joke, or a social misstep, or an inappropriate story, or a missed connection thousands of times, and we are still here.

“How bad are these bad jokes?”

Community can be a fragile thing and requires a lot of work and commitment, and a willingness to speak up when you feel hurt, and to apologize when you are the one who hurts others; but I’ve learned that communities are the safety nets that keep us afloat when our jobs and families and friendship groups can’t quite catch us.

“I will always love you, Mommy!”

When Mom and I first joined the synagogue, nine years ago, I felt the power of going to Friday night services every week and hearing the list of people who had died over the past year, even though I didn’t recognize any of the names. I felt the sanctity in the idea that we mourn together; that these deaths matter to all of us and not just to the close relatives and friends. Over time, more of the names have become familiar, as people I knew, or the loved ones of people I knew, or people I’ve heard stories about from way-back-when have been added to the list. In a way, it feels like an honor to be able to help create a container for the grief, to be able to take on a small part of the weight of memory for someone else, knowing they will do the same for me.

So, I will listen for my friend’s name every week for the next year, and remember how much he valued this community and would want it to survive after his death, if only so we can continue to tell his stories to the next generation. And, as long as the current vaccinations can keep the Delta variant at bay, I will try to embrace the shorter than usual choir rehearsal period, and the earlier-than-heck morning services, because being an active part of this community means that I can help create a safe container for so many different feelings, including joy.

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?

Pawpaw Fruit

Big Bird the Pawpaw Tree

            In May, after reading my pawpaw essay out loud in a zoom, and then posting it on the blog, I continued to check on my pawpaw trees, as usual. I watched my pawpaw grove starting to leaf, the skinny little trees swarmed the area; their trunks ranged from a fingernail wide to the size of a dime, but they were there.

One tiny pawpaw tree starting to leaf

            And then I went over to the big, fourteen-year-old pawpaw tree that looms over the back yard, searching for sun and attention. It kind of reminds me of a Sesame Street creature, like a shaggy green version of Big Bird that prefers to stay in one place. As the big tree was starting to leaf, I noticed that there were some green clumps that weren’t growing into leaves; instead they looked suspiciously like tiny pawpaw fruits. That seemed so unlikely though, since we did nothing special to fertilize the pawpaw flowers this year, like moving the sticky pollen from one flower to another with a Q-tip, now that we only had one mature tree to work with.

Pawpaw fruit?

            But I kept watching, and at one point I counted eight clumps, some with only one green bump, and some with six or seven protrusions. As the pawpaw leaves grew bigger, the little fruit clumps became harder to see, but I could still count maybe five, and then maybe three; and I could still see that one big clump with what looked, now, like four or five green protrusions on it.

Pawpaw fruit or bird foot?

            I checked every few days, but especially after a storm or a visit from the gardeners, and by late June I could only find one fruit, not even a clump, just a single green bump on one of the lower branches of the tree. Mom reassured me that there were probably more on the higher branches, hidden by the now-enormous leaves, but I wasn’t convinced.

            Instead, I checked on my one pawpaw fruit every day – despite the old adage, revised a bit, that a watched pawpaw never grows. I watched it just to make sure it was still there, worried that a heavy rain, or a bird, or a visit from the gardeners would knock it down. And it kept growing – like a long thin balloon gradually filling up with air, growing a belly almost like a fat green banana.

Fat Green Banana Pawpaw

            And then, one day, when I went out to visit my one pawpaw fruit and take a picture to mark its growth – like a proud parent marking a child’s height against the kitchen door – I looked up and saw another pawpaw fruit. It was high up and half hidden by the leaves, but it was much, much bigger than the one on the lower branch, and instead of one pregnant belly it had two bellies, like a big green peanut. Even zooming in as close as my camera could get, every picture of the newly found pawpaw fruit was blurry and unconvincing, and I worried that it was just a trick of the light, but each day I found it again, with wonder.

Big Green Peanut Pawpaw hiding

            I’m sure I give too much metaphorical weight to these pawpaws – and therefore give them too much power to disappoint me – but the hope I feel when I see the new trees sprouting up, or now when I look at these slow growing pawpaw fruit, I think: good things are possible. I think: patience will be rewarded. I think: maybe the good stuff is just around the corner, and if I keep putting one foot in front of the other I will get there.

            The danger of the metaphor is that these two lone pawpaw fruits will die prematurely, or taste disgusting, or some other catastrophe will come along and convince me that my hope was misplaced and I should relax into my natural cynicism and just raise my dose of antidepressants and get on with survival. But the fact that I make these metaphors at all tells me something about my deeply ingrained hope – it’s there, and it will be there. My instincts will always lead me on a search for signs of possibility, for something to hope for. And if I can’t find it in the pawpaws, I’ll find it somewhere else.

After another storm, I went out to check on the pawpaw fruit, and the smaller one, the fat green banana, was gone. It was probably knocked loose by the rain and then carried off by one of the many animals that make our backyard their home (squirrels, birds, raccoons, voles, cats, and of course, Cricket and Ellie). But the big green peanut was still there, and, who knows, maybe there will be more pawpaw fruits hiding in the upper branches. Or maybe not. Either way, I’ll find my hope wherever I can get it.

“We didn’t eat the pawpaw. We prefer chicken.”

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 Tokyo Olympics

            I’m sort of dreading the Tokyo Olympics, because watching the events on TV tends to bring up all of the old I’m-not-good-enough crap from my childhood. It’s two weeks of comparisons and competitions and unreachable goals, and storylines about people who have “overcome everything” in order to succeed, without much acknowledgement of their support systems, good fortune, and natural genetic gifts, or the deep prices they’ve had to pay to pursue what is, for most, an unmeetable goal. Everyone who doesn’t succeed is left to feel like they didn’t try hard enough, or worse, that they were just unlucky, despite unimaginable effort.

“That sounds exhausting.”

            But this year there’s more to my dread. There’s Covid, for one, which is still raging out of control in Japan. Tokyo and other major Japanese cities are still under a state of emergency, and they are only now starting to vaccinate people under 65. More than 80% of the population wants the games cancelled or postponed, and Japanese scientists have warned that allowing spectators in the stands at the Olympics will help the virus spread domestically and internationally. Tourists from other countries have already been banned from entering Japan for the Olympics, and yet, Japan’s government and the International Olympic committee are going forward anyway, because the costs of cancelling would be prohibitive.

            And then there’s something else. Gymnastics is one of the marquee sports of the Summer Olympics – like figure skating is at the Winter Olympics – and going into this games we have been awash in stories about the sexual abuse of hundreds of female athletes, both by a doctor working for USA Gymnastics, and by coaches across the country. Complaints against all of them were ignored by USA Gymnastics, for years, leaving a generation of young girls unprotected.

There was something inevitable about all of this, given that, for the most part, women’s gymnastics is a misnomer. The athletes are usually very young girls, left under the power of middle-aged men. We have always known about the abuses in gymnastics: the horror stories about anorexia, and bullying from coaches, and athletes forced to compete while injured, but as long as the powers that be were willing to look past those overtly abusive practices, they allowed the covert abuses to proceed unchecked as well.

            The culture of gymnastics is changing, somewhat, with college gymnastics gathering a little more attention, and therefore showing the world that female athletes actually become women at some point, and can still excel at their sport. And USA Gymnastics has gone through a lot of changes, at the urging of the gymnasts who came out as survivors of the abuse, but not enough.

            Simone Biles, at 24, is a unicorn. She is still dominating the sport and becoming better with age, which represents something completely new in women’s gymnastics. She’s been able to speak up, and have her own life, while still being at the top of her sport. The question is whether her success is a sign of new things to come, or just a moment in time that will pass.

            I took gymnastics as a kid, so I have a deep appreciation for the talent and hard work it takes to be even a good gymnast, let alone a great one. It was clear, very early on, that I didn’t have the right body for gymnastics. By the time I was eleven years old, and tried one more time to take gymnastics classes, I was five foot six and surrounded by much smaller girls. My feet were too big for the balance beam, and I didn’t have the faith to throw myself forward over the vault, or backwards into a back handspring, for fear of falling on my head.

“I did that once, but it wasn’t my fault.”

            I wanted to be a good gymnast (and dancer and swimmer and tennis player), but my knees were swollen with Osgood Shlatter’s by the time I was ten years old, and my feet were flat, and my ankles and hips and shoulders were injury prone because of my loose ligaments.

            My childhood was also a time when it was still totally acceptable for teammates and coaches to humiliate the weakest athletes with verbal abuse.

“I’d be good at that, Mommy.”

            When I watch the Olympics it all comes back to me, all of that failure, and not being in the right body, and the name calling and ostracizing. I’ve been working hard lately at trying to respect my body as it is, but there’s so much history behind my self-loathing, and so many voices yelling at me and blaming me for things I could not control, that it’s hard to move forward.

            It’s so much easier for me to respect my dogs and accept their bodies as they are. I can see how differently they are built: Cricket has long legs and Ellie has short ones; Cricket has a long neck and almost no waist, and Ellie is built like a tank. If I tried to starve Ellie down to her sister’s weight, she would die, first of all, and her corpse would still be “too big.” But she is the right weight for the body she has, and she is strong and runs fast and loves her life, and her food. I can accept that about Ellie, and I can accept Cricket’s personality quirks – like her attack reflex whenever she feels likes she’s in danger, which is most of the time. I can accept and celebrate who they are, and I can adapt to each of them differently, but I can’t do the same for myself.

“We’re perfect just the way we are.”

            I’m not sure I understand what draws me to watch the Olympics, given all of this. Maybe it’s just because, traditionally, there’s not much else to watch on TV while the Olympics are on, in the middle of the summer. But there’s also something magical about the athletes and what they can do. The judging of each skill becomes tedious – like having to count the number of rotations in the air, or separate out a field of swimmers by hundredths of a second – but the dedication of the athletes, and the amazing heights they can reach inspires me.

            So maybe this year, when I inevitably do watch the Olympics, I will remind myself to work on self-compassion and tell myself that I can admire the athletes’ efforts without putting myself down. And maybe I can even send compassionate thoughts to all of the athletes who don’t quite reach the top of the mountain, but deserve to be celebrated for their talent and their efforts in getting so close.

            I’m not promising that I can stay positive and constructive through the whole two weeks, but maybe the games will surprise me by protecting the Japanese people from the spread of Covid and honoring the athletes who have been abused, by striving to keep them safe in the future, and by celebrating all of the athletes at the games and what it took for them to get there, especially after a year of lockdown and uncertainty, instead of just celebrating the winners. But even if those things don’t happen, I can remind myself that honoring the athletes and their accomplishments doesn’t mean I support the IOC or the Japanese government for putting their people at risk, or the individual sports federations that put their own financial survival over the wellbeing of their athletes. I can work hard to hold both realities inside of me at the same time without ignoring either one. It’ll just take some practice.

“We’ll wait here.”

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?