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Author Archives: rachelmankowitz

I Got a Recorder for My Birthday

 

For my birthday, Mom bought me a recorder: the same instrument everyone learns to play in elementary school. Mom has a brown plastic one, like the one I had in fourth grade music class, and she uses it occasionally to soothe Cricket’s savage breast, but she wanted me to have a better one, with more resonance, so mine is a blond wood.

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Ellie likes the recorder.

I was kind of hoping for a new iPhone, or a new President, for my birthday. This present, instead, required me to work.

I hadn’t played recorder, or any other wind instrument, since fourth grade. I used to play the Melodica at my grandparents’ house (a tiny version of the wind keyboard Jon Batiste plays on the Late Show with Steven Colbert) but that was even longer ago.

So, along with my ukulele lessons on Yousician, and occasional choir practices, and daily breathing exercises, I took on the task of relearning how to play the recorder. My new recorder came with a book to teach me which holes to cover to play which notes, and exercises to practice for each new note. It was a pretty basic book and I assumed I’d get through it quickly; three months later I’ve finally made it through one octave. The breathless feeling I had at the beginning, even half-way through a four measure exercise, shocked me. I skimped on whole notes, pretending they were only half or quarter notes, just to get through a single page. I felt like my lungs were, at best, two tiny desiccated walnuts.

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“You should breathe like me, Mommy.”

I had started doing regular breathing exercises in the fall, after listening to the opera singer in the choir at my synagogue, who stood behind me when we sang for the high holidays. His voice sounded like it was supported by a huge reservoir of oxygen, and mine sounded like I was sucking oxygen through a tiny straw, so I looked up some breathing exercises for singers and started to do a set of them every day. But not much was changing, and I continued to feel like I was suffocating each time I tried to extend the counts on my breathing exercises. That’s when Mom decided to buy me a wind instrument for my birthday, thinking it could help me train myself to breathe better.

When I learned how to play the low C on the recorder, a few weeks ago, I realized that I was finally giving four counts to each whole note, but it didn’t feel like much of a success. It’s possible that I keep moving the goal posts, so that instead of recognizing the progress I’ve made, I’m much more aware of how far behind I still am. That sounds like me.

When the choir got together to rehearse for another performance this winter (Shabbat Shira at our synagogue, to celebrate the crossing of the Sea of Reeds when it comes up in the yearly cycle of Torah readings), I worked very hard to learn all of the songs and find the right places to breathe, but I still couldn’t hold the longer notes as long as I was supposed to (four counts, yes, six counts, no).

At the last rehearsal, our opera singer came in and learned the music by sight and held the notes for what felt like hours at a time. To be fair, he’s been working at this for his whole professional life, so comparing my five to ten minutes every other day with his lifetime of practice is pretty silly, but I do it anyway.

I want to feel the way he sounds – as if I could sing for hours without any friction or effort, as if the sound is just floating on a pillow of air. There’s something so reassuring about hearing that voice behind me, but it also makes me feel like a mouse, with barely a squeak to my name.

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“Sing like me, Mommy!”

The opera singer actually brought his whole company to perform at the synagogue the next day, as a fundraiser to support immigrants at the border. They did an hour of songs in English and Italian and German, from operas and musicals, in solos, duets, and group numbers. They, of course, didn’t need microphones. I had a sneaking suspicion that they all had lungs the size of hot air balloons hidden somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t prove it. (They’re called the New Camerata Opera Company, by the way, and you should look them up if you have a chance.)

I’m not sure if all of my sporadic efforts to improve my breathing are leading anywhere, and I still feel like a ne’er do well, but I’m realizing, more and more, how much I love music. Even when I’m exhausted, and driving to choir rehearsal feels like torture, I still love to sing; even when I struggle to understand how harmony works, or can’t hold the note long enough, I still want to try. And I’m enjoying learning how to play the ukulele, and the recorder; and I like the possibility that I might get up the nerve to write my own songs again someday, and sing them out loud, where people can hear me. But in the meantime, even though it makes me feel lazy and incompetent and silly, I keep practicing. And maybe someday I’ll be proud of myself for that.

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“Don’t bet on it.”

 

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?

 

Mindfulness Practice

 

A few weeks ago, when I ran out of monthly views on my Kanopy and Hoopla accounts (free streaming programs through my local library), I noticed that the Kanopy account allowed unlimited views of the Great Courses programs, beyond my five-views-a-month limit. I needed something to watch while I pushed through my daily thirty to forty-five minutes on the semi-recumbent bike, so I tried to watch a program about Diet and Nutrition, and then something else about Mystery Writing, and a third thing about Art Appreciation. I almost gave up at that point, because I was bored out of my mind, but then I saw that there was a course on Mindfulness. Mindfulness had been described to me as a Western form of meditation (A.K.A less difficult), and a way to help me feel more present in my body, and since one of my forever issues has been a feeling of separateness from my body, I thought I’d give it a try.

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“How could you be separate from your body, Mommy. That’s weird.”

Sometimes I feel like I’m on the ceiling watching my life from above, or I’m hiding in a tiny corner of my body, hunkered down. It’s one in a long line of dissociative trauma responses that I tend to take for granted. It’s a way of saying, so what, my body was attacked, but the real me is fine. But dissociation from the body can become habitual, because the body continues to hold the feelings and memories I’m trying so hard to avoid, and that feeling of separateness can become overwhelming.

I had just started a (very) small yoga practice again, one that carefully avoids over flexibility (because I have Ehlers Danlos – a connective tissue disorder – and can injure myself easily). I could only hold each pose for thirty seconds (at most), but I noticed that this short practice was helping me tolerate being present in my body for short periods of time, especially if I didn’t try to do all of the poses in a row. I thought the mindfulness exercises might be able to help me tolerate the Yoga poses a little bit longer, because I knew I wasn’t up to sitting still for traditional meditation for long periods of time. So I decided to start watching the Mindfulness program. I still felt tense and grumpy, though, and expected to bail out of the course at any moment and just surf YouTube for cartoons in Hebrew, or songs to teach my students.

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“You couldn’t find a video about dogs?”

I do my physical therapy exercises while I’m on the exercise bike, to stretch and strengthen my neck and shoulders, so I was able to focus half of my attention on my physical therapy exercises and only half on what the lady on the screen was saying. Blah blah blah mindfulness, blah blah blah, breathing. I don’t know what finally caught my attention and allowed me to keep watching, even after my physical therapy and breathing exercises were done and there was nothing else to distract me. Maybe it was the way she acknowledged that mindfulness doesn’t solve everything. Or that it’s hard to do and we are all imperfect. Maybe something she said made me remember how I’d felt standing in Mountain Pose for thirty seconds that morning, both antsy that I wasn’t accomplishing anything, and also sort of relieved to be able to stand and balance on my own two feet and not feel like I was about to fall over.

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“Eight feet make it much easier to balance.”

Not every episode of the Mindfulness course was great. I got annoyed when some of the instructors repeated old mantras like, “Always return to the present moment,” or “focus on the now,” as if there’s no legitimacy to focusing on the past, or planning for the future. And that’s nonsense. There’s so much to learn from the past – in fact, the past is where all of the information is. And there’s great value in planning for the future and having a clear idea of what you want and how you hope to behave, because then you can practice and prepare and not just react to what comes at you. And, really, sometimes the present moment just sucks, and there’s no shame in escaping from it in order to focus on something happier, or more productive.

But other instructors were better. And even if I didn’t exactly look forward to my daily half-hour or forty-five minutes with the mindfulness experts, I stuck with it (counting down the days to the end of the month when I would get to start over with five videos on Kanopy and five on Hoopla and not be stuck watching educational crap while I did my daily stint on the exercise bike). Learning how to be kind to myself is freaking hard, and even someone gently offering me the option of spending time with myself, without judging myself, can be healing in itself, but still hard to do.

When the new month started, of course, I went looking for less educational, more fun, shows to watch while I did my daily bike ride, but I found myself wandering back to the unfinished Mindfulness course, watching ten minutes here and fifteen minutes there. I still get tense and grumpy sometimes when I watch an episode, and my yoga practice is still very short, but maybe just the fact that I can stand in Mountain Pose and tolerate a few minutes of feeling present in my body, is a good step forward. And maybe, for now, that’s enough.

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“Probably not.”

 

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?

 

Shabbat Morning

 

Shabbat is the weekly Jewish holiday of rest. It starts at sundown on Friday and ends after sundown on Saturday. The theoretical, biblical, reason for a day of rest is, of course, that God created the world in six days and therefore took a well-earned break on day seven. But really we all need a day of rest each week, even if we didn’t create a whole world by ourselves. (I’m pretty sure I need more than one day of rest in seven, but this isn’t the time to quibble).

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Cricket believes in resting seven days out of seven.

I grew up going to synagogue every Saturday morning, first for junior congregation with the other kids, and later to the adult services, which lasted two and a half hours and ended with Slivovitz (plum brandy) and gefilte fish. But it’s been a long time since I went to synagogue regularly on Saturday mornings. Instead, I go on Friday nights, because my synagogue is more of a Friday night kind of place. We only have Saturday morning services when there’s a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to celebrate, or a holiday that falls on Shabbat. So, for a long time now, I’ve treated Saturday like, well, any other day. A day to do chores, make appointments, get my work done, etc. I took the time out for Friday night services as my weekly celebration of Shabbat and felt like that was enough.

I didn’t realize that I was really missing those Saturday mornings until I started to teach Synagogue school on Saturday mornings at my synagogue and was able to sit in on the children’s service. We all sat together in the first few rows in the sanctuary, with the Rabbi sitting right in front of us and leading us through the short service in a very relaxed, informal sort of way. When we read the morning blessings, the Rabbi asked everyone to share a recent accomplishment, or an exciting event coming up, or a difficult problem we needed support with, and the kids raised their hands. They shared about their new braces, and trips to Disneyworld, or New Jersey, and injured wrists, and newborn siblings. I didn’t have the nerve to speak up, but their openness inspired me. It was prayer as a chance to check in with our community and ourselves, and take a deep breath (or ten) and feel the natural holiness that we bring with us into the room.

And then we drank grape juice and tore through Challahs (really, these kids can do some real damage to a very large loaf of bread), and went to class. The mood of Saturday morning class is so different from the after-school rowdiness of synagogue school earlier in the week. We can meander through a discussion and hear from everyone more fully, and share our outside interests in music and Lego and animals and bring them into the discussion of the Torah lesson for the day, knitting together the ordinary and the holy.

Shabbat was hard for me growing up, because Shabbat was one of the battlegrounds my father chose to fight over. He made us walk six miles to the orthodox synagogue, and he stopped us from watching television or doing homework. The day became a wasteland, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, because we didn’t live in a Jewish community with other people in the same situation. And it wasn’t restful at all. It didn’t feel holy or sacred to replace the toilet paper in the bathroom with tissues, just to avoid ripping paper on Shabbat, or to cover the light switches with plastic to keep from turning the lights on and off; it felt more like prison.

For years now, I’ve had therapy on Saturday mornings – either group or individual – and I accepted that I couldn’t go to Saturday morning services at a synagogue, because I knew that therapy was more important. But I realized that I liked this Shabbat School version of Saturday morning prayers. I liked that it didn’t take hours, and we didn’t have to dress up, and we did get to talk, a lot, about our actual lives. This past week the cantor ran the children’s service, and we all sat in a circle-like clump on the floor to sing along with him and his guitar, and then to breathe together, and then dance together, and I thought, yeah, I could do this every week. If only my dogs could be invited.

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“I wanna go!”

Cricket and Ellie know all about rest and holy time, and they don’t need as many memory aides as humans do to help them get to that peaceful, connected place. They just need the birds singing to them in the morning, and the air filled with smells from near and far, and a few chicken treats and cuddles. Though I really would love to see Ellie dancing along with the kids at Shabbat school, and she would love to share their Challah. Cricket would probably steal the whole challah and hide it under the ark, where only she and the rabbi could find it. But they’d probably enjoy that too, hunkering down in the sanctuary to share bread.

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“Did you say Challah?!”

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“I could eat.”

What’s a community for, really, if not to take time out to share good food, and sing, and maybe even dance?

 

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?

 

 

My Inner Critics

 

I have a lot of internal critics, and they are loud. Some of the internal noise is just me disagreeing with myself about what I should be doing at any given time, but the critics are distinct and somewhat separate from “the real me.” The three most obvious voices are the snake, the crow, and the mouse.

The snake tells me that I am evil, and the cause of all evil, and that everything I do is suspect, and nothing I do is on the level or even passably okay. The snake isn’t some common garden snake, or even an eight-foot python or a boa constrictor. This snake is more like the Basilisk in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. It is huge, and deadly, and I can’t get rid of it.

Basilisk face

(not my picture)

The crow, on the other hand, is more like an obnoxious teenager. He tells me that I am a drama queen, and always exaggerating and being melodramatic. The crow minimizes my pain and my achievements, and tells me that I’m annoying and overbearing, and mostly tells me to get over myself, the way my brother used to do. This voice is almost impossible to argue against, because it sounds so true to me, which leaves me feeling hopeless and helpless and unimportant.

Then there’s the mouse. She isn’t so much a critic as a misguided ally. The mouse tells me to make myself small, and to hide, because that’s the only way to be safe. She tells me that I shouldn’t be so open or so loud or so visible, not because I’m doing something wrong but because it will bring danger to both of us. The mouse also doubts my chances for success or support out in the world, because she doesn’t trust the world to be a safe place.

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“You don’t mean me, right? ‘Cause, I’m not a mouse.”

There’s a theory in mental health circles that even your introjects (the critics, “old tapes,” or voices of your earliest relationships that live on in your mind) always have your best interests at heart, at least from their own points of view. And the crow and the mouse fit within that description; they both think they are right about how the world will treat me if I act in certain ways, and they mean well. They are, really, giving me their version of the best possible advice.

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“I always give you the best advice, and you never take it.”

But the snake is different. The snake has no interest in what’s best for me. The snake is only interested in the snake, and in creating pain and destruction. So maybe what the mental health community is forgetting is that if you have been abused as a child, by someone very close to you who actively meant you harm, then you will have an introject that means to abuse you continually. For some reason, despite the presence of evil in so many people’s lives, the mental health community prefers to believe that most people don’t experience evil. I don’t know why they believe something that is so patently untrue.

The snake is my version of “fake news,” and its message is broadcast at me twenty-four hours a day. I make the best possible arguments against the fake news, collecting my facts and logic and arguing fiercely, but it’s exhausting. And sometimes, after the crow and the mouse have worn me out with their warnings of danger, I don’t have the energy to fight off the fake news, and the snake takes that moment to shoot venom through my entire body and mind.

I wonder what Ellie would think if she could hear what the snake says to me every day. She’d probably cover her ears with her paws and hide in her bed. Cricket would growl and bark and threaten bodily harm. Which is why I’m grateful that the snake stays inside my head, and not outside. If I can’t protect myself, at least I can protect my puppies.

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I keep trying to create safe containers for each of the introjected critics; to gently remind them that they are relics of the past and not needed in the present moment. But they keep coming back, louder, more articulate, and more convinced of their own beliefs. That’s not what I was told to expect. I was told that therapy would help me to at least mute the critics. I was told that I could, over time, rewire my brain to work around the old messages. Instead, I’ve found that while I can add more than I ever thought possible to my brain: new information, new pathways, new connections, I can’t remove anything. I don’t have a knife sharp enough to accomplish that task. Or a medication either.

Cricket is my most consistent external critic. She lets me know, right away, when my behavior is not up to her standards: when I’ve slept too late, spent too much time at the computer, eaten too much of my own dinner, etc. But it’s easier to recognize her self-interest when she criticizes me, than to recognize it in the introjected critics, because Cricket is physically separate and not inside my head (though she’d really like to have the technology to make that possible). There’s something about hearing messages about all of your flaws and mistakes broadcast in your own voice, inside of your own head, that makes them harder to push away.

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“You make me sound awesome!!!!”

But every once in a while, I remember the Wizard of Oz, and how the Great Oz was really a little, ordinary man behind a curtain. And I think, maybe that snake is just an illusion; powerful and effective, but an illusion just the same.

 

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 Children Inside

 

Generally when I write in my blog, or anywhere else, I’m writing from the point of view of my most grown up, most presentable self, because that’s what people do. When I leave the house to interact with other people I generally dress up in a certain way and use certain words and facial expressions, and I pay close attention to how I present myself. Am I being nice enough? Mature enough? Responsible enough?

But when I’m at home, watching TV, doing puzzles, or playing with the dogs, other parts of me are allowed to surface and have their say. There’s a lot of arguing about food (Why can’t I have the whole container of ice cream right now?) and clothes (I want to wear pajamas all the time!) and entertainment (Cartoons! No, wait, mysteries! No, episodes of Law & Order on an endless loop!). Most of this doesn’t fit my image of who I’m supposed to be at my current age, and therefore I try to keep it at home where no one can see and judge.

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The girls don’t seem to care what we watch, as long as everyone’s together.

Or I bring it to therapy. Though it’s still hard for me to bring my whole self to therapy, even after twenty-five years. Generally, I report the hard stuff from my notes, or I keep it to myself.

Over winter break, I watched the HBO miniseries version of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and it reminded me all over again of the thing I loved about the first book when I read it a few years ago (someone said to me, if you like Harry Potter, you’ll love this): each character, in this alternative universe, has an animal dæmon; not just an animal companion, but a part of their soul that exists outside of their body and takes an animal form. Up until puberty the dæmon is able to take many different forms (ferret, mouse, bird, turtle, cat, etc.), to meet many different needs, and then at puberty the dæmon takes the shape of one specific animal for the rest of the character’s life. That last part was the only thing that didn’t ring true for me when I read the first book. Only ONE animal companion? Only one aspect of the soul? Unlikely. My dæmon has never settled. My self has never come together into one definite and unchanging thing. I still flit and switch and change.

I would say that, for my most grown up self, the part of me that goes out into the world, my dæmon would be a Yellow Labrador Retriever – not quite as trusting and fluffy as a Golden Retriever, but playful and loyal and gentle, and smart, rather than clever.

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“A yellow Lab. Really?”

My writing self is more like an eagle, soaring above it all and observing, feeling the wind in her feathers and finding her way; mostly isolated, but able to be part of a congregation, when necessary.

But the little ones, the ones who live in pajamas and think chocolate covered pretzels make a great breakfast, they’re different; both from the adult version of me and from each other. After watching the HBO miniseries, I tried to come up with a list of animal familiars, to help me recognize each internal child part more clearly, but that just set off a lot of internal noise and a sort of buzzing that sounded like a table saw, so I had to stop for a while and rest before trying again.

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“It was so loud I could hear it too, Mommy.”

I think there must be a porcupine, and a fluffy brown rabbit, and a black Lab puppy, and a Starling or a Sparrow, and a bee (though nobody likes the bee).

I don’t have anything like a tiger or a bear or a lion in there, and I feel the lack of that protection.

This feels like a project I should take on: get out a huge animal encyclopedia and see which ones resonate with me and which ones don’t. I should draw pictures and write stories and figure out everyone’s favorite foods and colors and music. But just the thought of it exhausts me.

Like Walt Whitman said: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” I’m just too tired to count them right now.

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Clearly, everyone’s exhausted.

 

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?

 

 

Teaching Leviticus

 

For the next few months, I will be teaching a synagogue school class on Leviticus (Vayikra, in Hebrew), the third book of the Bible. It’s an odd book for children to study, with its focus on laws that applied in ancient temple times: laws for the Levites (the priests and their helpers) around purity and sacrifices and holiness. There’s also a section on dietary laws.

Cricket and bird

No, Cricket. You can’t eat the Canadian bird, even if she’s kosher.

But the fact is, the class will be based on a pre-set curriculum with very few actual quotes from the text, and much more focus on the ways these issues can be extrapolated into the modern lives of Jewish children. This makes a lot of sense. What’s the point of bogging down children’s minds with long passages, in Hebrew, about rules for priests who no longer exist? Judaism used to be a temple cult, with animal sacrifices, but long ago transformed into a synagogue and prayer-based religion.

Except, when I went to Jewish day school as a kid, we read everything, and we read it in both Hebrew and English, and it had an impact. We learned about “an eye for an eye” and that it should be translated to mean “money for an eye,” because the victim should be adequately compensated for the loss, rather than inflicting a similar loss on the perpetrator. We also learned about who’s responsible if someone’s ox falls into a pit on someone else’s property, and how punishments should vary based on whether a crime was intentional or accidental. It was, a little bit, like law school for ten year olds.

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“That doesn’t sound like fun to me, Mommy.”

We also read the stories of the prophets in Hebrew, like a novel, without even bothering with the commentaries most of the time. Our Hebrew was pretty great, now that I look back on it.

I can’t say whether all of that was better or worse than what we do at the synagogue school; it’s just very different. My students still struggle to sound out words in Hebrew, confusing similar looking letters for one another, and struggling to remember which sound goes with which vowel sign. And the bible classes are meant to be taught in English. But I’d still like to infuse more of the Hebrew text into the process; not because it’s part of the set curriculum, but because I want them to know that there’s a connection between the lessons we’re learning in class and the Torah that we read with such awe during services in the sanctuary. We dress the scroll in velvet and silver, and we read it with a special silver pointer, from a parchment written by hand by a single scribe. I want them to hear the ancient Hebrew, and the strange melody of the chant, and to feel the connection to the past that makes it all feel so sacred and phantasmagorical to me.

I’m a little bit anxious about the transition to something so much more clearly planned out. This will be the only year, at least in synagogue school, that they study the book of Leviticus, so I can’t hop around and choose to teach whatever interests me at the moment as if I’m picking from a vast Chinese food menu, the way I do in the Hebrew class. There are important lessons here that won’t be addressed elsewhere and that will be helpful to them in preparing for their Jewish lives. But I’ve gotten used to the creativity of the Hebrew class, where we can spend fifteen minutes trying to shape the Hebrew letters with our bodies without feeling like we’re wasting time (I have one student who can do a bridge pose that looks exactly like the Hebrew letter Chet – it’s possible she has no spine).

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“What letter am I, Mommy?”

It’s a balancing act, to bring the kids some of the magic that I feel, without overwhelming them with too much that is beyond their abilities for now. I need to make it fun, and relevant, and engaging, and useful to their daily lives, but I also don’t want it to feel so familiar that it loses its spark.

So, I need to study the lesson plans carefully, and study the book of Leviticus itself again, and try my best to teach my kids about holiness and where to find it in their lives, in their communities, and in themselves. And in dogs. There’s got to be room for the dogs in there somewhere.

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“There always has to be room for us.”

Wish me luck!

 

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 Distorted Mirror

 

Very early in our lives, we look to the people around us to tell us who we are. We smile at Mom and Dad, and if they smile back we feel good, and if they are distracted or angry or sad we think that means we did something wrong. Because, we believe, if Mommy isn’t smiling at me, I am not loveable. This is normal. This is how humans create their sense of self.

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“Dogs too!”

Gradually we start to look at other mirrors nearby. We notice how our siblings and peers and teachers, and even strangers, respond to us. If our siblings are jealous or angry, or indifferent, we believe we’ve done something to cause that reaction. If our teachers tell us that we’re smart or kind, we can, maybe, believe that we are smart and kind, but if they tell us we’re stupid, or selfish, or bad, we might believe that too.

Ideally, our early mirrors will be accurate, and compassionate, giving us the chance to see our strengths and to reassure us that we can work through our weaknesses as we build our self-esteem. Often, though, our mirrors are distorted in one way or another, and we learn to believe things about ourselves that may not be true.

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“Ask me, Mommy. I’ll tell you the truth.”

As we get older, we are expected to have the inner strength to choose the right mirrors for ourselves and to decide what to believe and what to discard. But, in reality, we’re still not sure who is an accurate mirror and who is a distorted one. Even when we start to understand that all humans are distorted mirrors of one kind or another, because everyone has their own stuff going, we still can’t be sure what’s about us and what isn’t. And, really, where are those tools going to come from if they weren’t given to us in childhood?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in my role as a synagogue school teacher, even though I only see the kids for two hours a week, because I know how validating even one compliment or smile from a teacher can be for a child. I do my best to reflect the children back to themselves accurately, and with kindness. They won’t believe me if I say they are well-behaved when they are not, or work hard when they don’t, but if I can recognize their behavior as it is, and still find something in it worth praising, that they can believe.

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Cricket knows she’s loved just the way she is.

The problem is, I still tend to see myself as if I’m looking through a kaleidoscope, with all of these broken pieces of glass reflecting me back to myself in a million different, usually negative, ways.

When I’m teaching the kids, I’m excited and happy, and overwhelmed, and cataloguing all of the moments and interactions for later. And then I go home and the distorted mirrors of my childhood start yelling at me. They tell me that I made this mistake, and that one, and that I’m seconds away from being fired, or I should be, because I’m a terrible teacher, and I missed this hint or that nudge and failed utterly to teach anything useful. The process of unraveling the facts from the distorted reflections in my head is exhausting and painful, but the only other option would be to accept the mountain of guilt as true, and I can’t do that. Often it takes more than twenty-four or forty-eight hours to get to level ground and accept that, while there are some things I’d like to do differently next time, overall I did okay. This process involves a lot of reality checking, and replaying the tapes in my mind to make sure I heard what people actually said to me instead of what I imagined they must have been thinking.

One of the problems, for me, is that I’m still searching for accurate mirrors, wherever I go. And sometimes I look to my students to tell me who I am. If they are bored, I must be boring. If they are frustrated, I must be failing to teach them. And if every child is reflecting something different back at me, then oy vey, I must be all kinds of terrible at once.

There are times when I think Cricket would prefer it if I didn’t reflect her mood or behavior back to her quite so accurately. She’d like me to pretend that she’s a happy go lucky dog, and never bites the hand that feeds her, and never gets lost in the barking of her own mind. But then there are times when she’s relieved that I can read her so well, and be with her in her misery, and not try to cajole her into a better mood, but just accept her as she is in that moment and let her know it’s okay. And that’s what I want to do for my students, if I can. I don’t just want to teach them a little bit of Hebrew, I want to help them breathe more deeply, and see themselves, as they are, with more compassion, and maybe see others with more compassion too.

Jacquelyn Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books are favorites of mine for a lot of reasons, but one of the things I love most is the way Maisie (a psychologist/investigator) mimics people’s body language so that she can feel how they are feeling. When I read about that the first time, I realized that that’s what I do, too, unintentionally. I find myself twisting my body into different shapes in response to the person across from me, feeling their confidence, or fear, or shame, or anger. After a few hours with the kids I feel something like a pretzel, with a lot of emotion to wring out of my body. My goal is to learn how to identify what’s theirs, what’s mine, and what can help me reach them more effectively, without pretzeling myself into complete knots. I expect this to take a while.

 

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“We’ll wait with you.”

 

 

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?