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Author Archives: rachelmankowitz

My Thankful list for Thanksgiving Weekend

I am thankful for my Mom, who makes everything possible.

I am thankful for my dogs, present and past, who fill my life with joy and laughter.

“What do you mean dogs plural?

I am thankful for my blogging friends and my friends-in-real-life who listen and give so much of themselves.

I am thankful for my students, who challenge me and entertain me and teach me and keep me on my toes.

“Like us!!!!”

I am thankful for my family, near and far, who keep me connected to the past and the future.

I am thankful for my Hebrew teachers and fellow students who keep bringing me closer to the dream of seeing and hearing and feeling Israel for myself.

I am thankful for books and TV shows and movies for keeping me informed and entertained and alternately distracted from and attached to the world around me.

I am thankful for good food, especially yummy food like pizza and sushi and chocolate frosting, for making life so rich.

“Did you say pizza?”

I am thankful for my memories, because they make me who I am.

My Dina

I am thankful for rainy days and talkative birds and flowers and leaves of every color and I am thankful for dreams of snow days yet to come.

My Butterfly

And I am thankful for hope, because it has gotten me through so many rotten days when nothing seemed okay, because it allowed me to always, always, imagine something wonderful up ahead.

“I always have hope, Mommy!”

I hope everyone had a wonderful (entertaining, complicated, meaningful, delicious, and peaceful) Thanksgiving.

And a Happy Chanukah to come for those who celebrate!

“Happy Chanukah!”
“I’ll have to think about 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?

Everyday Miracles

            This year at synagogue school we’re focusing on miracles for Hanukah (last year we focused on the lights from the candles), and I’m doing a writing workshop with the kids based on Walt Whitman’s poem Miracles (https://poets.org/poem/miracles), to help them see the everyday miracles in their own lives.

            There have been times in my life when I was able to feel the level of wonder Walt Whitman felt at the miracles all around him, but I haven’t been in that state of mind lately. My first thoughts are of what I don’t have, or what’s wrong, or what I’m failing at. My hope is that by actively pushing myself to think about the daily miraculous things, I might be able to regenerate my sense of wonder: like the miracle of Ellie running through the leaves, or the miracle of Cricket giving a five minute diatribe, in the form of an Aria, about why I shouldn’t be allowed to leave the apartment, or the miracle of packages arriving at my door just because I typed a few things into my phone.

“Where’s MY iPhone?

            I want bigger miracles, though. I want to stop feeling so hungry – for food or love or success or whatever else. I want to feel less pain, physical and emotional. I want all of my hard work to kick in so I can finally feel successful and capable and healthy, and safe. It’s hard to be satisfied with the little miracles when I want so much more.

The fact is, I’m struggling. My psychiatrist upped my dose of antidepressants, because my lows have been more persistent lately, even prior to my father’s death. It feels like exhaustion, but I don’t know if there’s a medical cause or a psychological one, or a mix of both. All of the research being done on Long Covid (which I don’t have, because I never got Covid, thank God) promises to offer some insight for those of us who have other long term pain disorders, but I’m not optimistic, honestly.

            My latest experiments with Intuitive Eating have led me to look into self-care more deeply, to see if there are things I could be doing to help lift my mood that I haven’t tried yet, or haven’t tried enough; things, especially, that would take the place of extra food, because I’ve been relying on food as self-care too much lately. My current project has been about collecting good memories (times when I’ve felt cared for, safe, and accepted as I am), so that when I find myself wanting to eat beyond physical hunger I can fill the space with a good memory instead.

            Some of the memories I’ve been working with are: when I was four years old and my grandfather bought me a stuffed panda that was as tall as me and he walked me and the panda, hand in hand, down the driveway to the car; and the time when my brother and I sat on the lawn during a rainstorm with a towel over our heads; and the time we stayed over at Grandma and Grandpa’s house and they took us to Lickety Split for ice cream (I probably had mint chocolate chip) and then we were allowed to choose whichever candies we wanted, and my brother and I sat in the guest room, next to the cuckoo clock, sharing our candy dots and ingesting enormous amounts of paper along the way.

“Yum, paper!”

            I’ve also been collecting songs and TV shows and movies and books that have relieved anxiety or depression in the past, so that if the sweet memories don’t help enough I can move on to visiting YouTube or Spotify mid-meal, or I could even act out a scene from Harry Potter with the dogs if nothing else works.

            I just want to feel better, but it’s all trial and error and lately I’ve been feeling like I’m treading water. I remember this feeling from summer camp, when we had to do a Buddy Call at free swim in the lake. The water was deep and opaque, so we had to go in as pairs, with each pair given a number, and midway through the session we had to call out our numbers, to make sure we were all still alive. If you weren’t at the dock when the whistles blew then you had to tread water through the whole Buddy Call, which could take a while. Under the water I was kicking my legs furiously, but above the water I had to pay close attention to the numbers being called out, so I wouldn’t miss our turn. It was exhausting, and panic inducing. I worried that I’d forget my number, or forget how to count in Hebrew letters, but most of all I worried that my legs would give out and I’d fall under the water and the lifeguards would have to dive in to search for me and they’d be pissed off at me for the rest of the summer. I didn’t have faith that my buddy would remember our number, or call it out, or save me if I started to drown. I didn’t have much faith in other people, period.

“I would save you, Mommy!”
“Yeah, sure. Me too.”

            So this writing workshop on miracles is coming at the right time, and maybe when the kids tap into their own ideas of what’s miraculous in their lives I will remember my own miracles too. My hope is, always, that if I keep trying, keep working at this process of healing, good things will come. I just wish they’d come a little bit faster.

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?

Part of me

            There’s a part of me that really really wants to be cool; wants to be liked not just by the nice people, or the empathetic people, but by the mean ones, the materialistic ones, the narcissistic ones who couldn’t care less about me or anyone else.

“Wait a minute. Why is my picture here?”

            This part of me doesn’t much like the rest of me: the chubby, exhausted, sympathetic, empathetic, creative, turtle slow, endlessly curious majority of who I am. She wants me to stop eating, completely, and to stop writing a blog that brings in no money, and to stop thinking about what I want or what feels satisfying and do what will make me rich and famous.

            I was not especially successful in my attempts to be cool as a kid or a teenager (or ever); first and foremost because I couldn’t figure out what “cool” might mean in any given situation. At first I thought it had to do with my clothes, or the music I listened to, or my clunky glasses, but over time I realized that it had a lot more to do with how cool, or cold, a person could be – seemingly indifferent to the opinions of other people while still being able to meet or surpass all expectations.

            I am not good at being indifferent. If I cause someone pain, even accidentally, I feel the guilt for years, not just hours. I don’t “play it cool” very well, or hide my emotions successfully. My eyebrows jump up and my cheeks turn red and I cry easily. I am no one’s idea of impervious.

“That’s one of the things I love about you, Mommy.”

            But I still have this part of me that believes I SHOULD be cool, and believes that I am all wrong the way I am, and believes that if I were cool and indifferent and mean then I’d be successful. And this part of me has always been there in the background yelling at me for being such a loser.

            I know where she learned this: at school, at home, at camp, at my best friend’s house, pretty much everywhere there were loud voices telling me that my problem was that I was too nice and too much of an emotional sponge and if I could just stop reacting to everything then people would stop picking on me. And if I would just do what was expected of me – marry the right man, get the right job, have the right number of children, etc., I’d be fine; if I would just stop being so permeable, and stop trying so hard to be good (which is clearly a waste of time) and learn how to climb the ladder, no matter whose neck is in the way, then everything would be right with the world.

            The reality is that the few times I’ve attempted to let that cool part of me take charge I’ve been unsuccessful, both at stomping out my empathy and at ignoring my shame.

            At a certain point, I tried to put that cool part of me in a box, on a shelf, out of the way, because she was causing me so much pain and because I was so afraid she would act out and the shame would last forever. But lately I’ve been wondering if, maybe, I overestimated the threat she posed, and underestimated the pain and fear behind her belief in the need to be so cool.

            What if what I really need is to open that box and let her out, a little bit at a time, in order to offer her comfort and to hear her stories and to help her figure out what she really needs rather than what she thinks she needs?

“She probably needs chicken treats.”

            But I’m afraid. What if I let her out and she pushes me into self-destructive behavior or behavior I will regret, or what if her pain overwhelms me, drowns me, because it’s so deep. I know that more than just her pain and fear got locked away in that box, that other valuable memories and feelings were locked up too. I’m just not sure I’m strong enough to deal with her yet.

            Therapy allows for growth, but it doesn’t make growth inevitable, or easy. It leaves room for the possibilities in all directions. And I still have a lot of calibrating questions to answer, like: when does a healthy amount of self-doubt (as in, I can’t always be right, and sometimes my assumptions will be wrong) turn into an unhealthy amount of self-doubt (as in, I can never be right and I have to trust what other people say about me, no matter how destructive); When does a healthy amount of self-care (resting when tired, crying when sad, eating chocolate cake when necessary) become selfishness (I should have my every desire met at every moment, no matter what the cost to others); and when is it safe to trust other people to see you clearly, and offer constructive feedback, and when is it as dangerous as offering a loaded gun to an enemy? And how do you know the difference?

            I feel like I’m vaguely moving towards a reckoning with this “cool” part of me, but I’m still tiptoeing around her, worried she’ll explode into a million pieces or take me down into the deep with her, instead of coming up to meet me in the daylight. I want to be able to trust myself, my whole self, but I’m not there yet.

“I trust 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?

My Father Died

            I found out that my father had died by listening to Mom’s side of a phone call. It took a while for me to figure out that she was talking to my brother, and then even longer to figure out that he was telling her my father had died. I had to wait until the call was over to get the details – that my father had been in and out of nursing homes and hospitals for the past three years (which we sort of knew, from clues but not from direct information), that he didn’t have dementia (which is what Mom had assumed), and that there was drama around when and where the funeral would take place.

            I wrote to four people after I found out – two good friends, my therapist, and my rabbi. And my rabbi rushed out of a committee meeting (reluctantly?) to call me and see what I might need from him. He already knew the backstory, about the sexual abuse and the estrangement (I hadn’t seen my father in 23 years), and he said something that really stuck with me. He said that the commandment to Honor your father and mother is often misinterpreted. The word in Hebrew is Kaved, which actually means weight or weigh, not respect or honor. It means that you should weigh the role of your parents in your life when you decide what you owe them in return; you are not required to blindly honor or respect a parent simply because they are your parent, but because they acted as a parent should and raised you with love and respect and guided and protected you. The commandment to Honor your father and mother is not meant to be a get out of jail free card for any parent who abuses or neglects their children.

            I am not orthodox, like my brother and his family, and I don’t believe that my rabbi is the final word on what I can and can’t do as a Jewish woman, but it helped to have validation and support, both from a person I trust and from the tradition of my ancestors.

            I made sure to tell my rabbi not to put out an announcement that my father had died or to add my father’s name to the list for the Mourner’s Kaddish at our synagogue at Friday night services. I didn’t want to receive messages from people who care about me but don’t know my situation, telling me that they are sorry for my loss and may my father’s memory be a blessing. It isn’t a blessing. He wasn’t a blessing in my life.

“Grr.”

            Jewish funerals are required to take place as soon as possible after the death, but I did not go (though Mom watched it on Zoom to support my brother and his children). And I didn’t go to sit Shiva at my brother’s house, though Mom went to visit and to offer support, avoiding discussions about what did and did not happen in the past.

            I stayed home and sought comfort from my friends and my dogs and my therapist, but I was jealous of my brother’s ability to mourn our father, and all of the Jewish rituals that would support him through that process. I found myself feeling jealous of anyone who could find comfort in hearing their lost loved one’s name read out each week before the Mourner’s Kaddish, or who found comfort in saying the Mourner’s Kaddish and praising God in the memory of their lost loved one. I’m jealous of people for whom the traditional rituals work – like giving nostalgic eulogies and having friends and family over to reminisce and tell stories and share food for a week. Those mourning rituals are so beautiful and powerful, but only when thinking about the lost loved one is a comfort.

“Oy.”

            My situation doesn’t fit into the traditional framework. My father sexually abused me, and others. He was a pedophile and a narcissist and a manipulator, and he denied what he’d done and denied the significance of the things he couldn’t dispute having done, and never made any attempt to make amends. If anything, he continued to try to convince important people in my life that I was lying and he was a victim. The fact is, I still live in a world that doesn’t want to reckon with the reality that abuse and neglect are everywhere, and that they destroy lives every day.

            This was brought home to me, vividly, that night, when, after writing my emails and texts and making my phone calls, I tried to distract myself with an episode of New Amsterdam on NBC. It’s a hospital show with an idealistic bent, often too simplistic, but still hopeful about making the world a better place. It’s not my favorite show, but I watch it regularly and often find it comforting and/or interesting. But for whatever reason, that night, out of nowhere, the writers chose to go down a rabbit hole about Recovered Memories.

            Recovered Memories is a somewhat generic term that people often use to describe traumatic memories that have been forgotten at some point and then remembered later. A lot of how you define the term Recovered Memories depends on what your intentions are: if you want to debunk the idea that it’s even possible for memories to return after a period of forgetting, you will probably define Recovered Memories as wholly forgotten and then remembered only with the help of a therapist or a drug; if you believe that trauma can cause memories to fragment or be blocked for some period of time, you’ll probably define Recovered Memories more generally, as partial forgetting and partial remembering over time, often triggered by events in the present that remind you of the past trauma (like your own child reaching the age you were at when you were abused).

            On this episode of New Amsterdam, the writers decided to take the loveable psychiatrist on the show, who is more often than not empathetic and kind, and have him testify in court that all Recovered Memories, of any kind, are unreliable. They even had him quote a study about The Shopping Mall Experiment, where the researchers said they were able to “implant” memories in susceptible adults of having been lost in a mall in childhood. The study has been debunked for any number of reasons, but the biggest reason is that traumatic memory and “normal” memory are not the same, and while being lost in a mall might be scary, it would not qualify as a traumatic memory unless something traumatic happened while you were lost.

            But still, I wanted to believe that the writers on the show were going to handle the issue sensitively, and in the next scene they gave me hope when the psychiatrist’s female colleague confronted him with her own recovered memory (though not of abuse), and with the terrible impact his testimony would have on millions of women and children who had been abused and tried to testify to that in court. But then the psychiatrist doubled down on his belief that not only Recovered Memories, but ALL memories, are unreliable. He went on to specifically attack the legitimacy of his female colleague’s memories, by researching the probable season and location where the memory would have taken place, disputing her memories of the weather on that day in order to prove to her that it could not have happened the way she remembered it. He was relentless and wildly inappropriate, and the writers gave no explanation for why he would feel so strongly about this particular issue or why he would be willing to be so cruel to his friend.

By the end of the episode it seemed to me that the writers’ intention was to use this whole storyline as a way to question the female colleague’s memories of how her father had left her when she was little, so she could reassess her feelings towards her still living mother and therefore change her plans to move to London, which threatened the status quo at the hospital; but they could have found hundreds of other ways to change her mind without invalidating millions of people.

            I was in shock. The violence of the psychiatrist’s attack on his friend seemed to come out of nowhere, and the female colleague’s willingness to forgive him right away was out of character and bizarre. But more than that, the way the writers were misrepresenting the research was horrifying, especially because it is well known in the field that traumatic memories often have missing or distorted nonessential details, like the time of day, or the weather, or the clothes you were wearing, and those mistaken details have no bearing on whether or not the crux of the memory is true.

            The emotions I couldn’t produce in response to the news of my father’s death came roaring up as I watched this show and felt invalidated and manipulated all over again. You can’t prove it and therefore it didn’t happen. You have no pictures and I don’t want to believe you and therefore it didn’t happen. Your memories, your symptoms, your feelings, are nothing in the face of what I want to believe.

            But I’ve done the reading that the writers on New Amsterdam clearly did not bother to do, and I’ve done the listening, to many people who have been abused, and I know that the brain often tries to protect us from knowing things we are not ready to deal with. I just felt so let down that a show that had seemed thoughtful and kind was no longer trustworthy.

“Oh no!”

            I am still processing my father’s death, and trying to figure out how it changes things, if it changes things. I am safer now than I was as a child. I am loved and supported and listened to and believed; and I cherish the people who have brought me comfort and made my world a better place. But the mourning process is still ongoing, for the loss of the childhood and the father I could have had, and for the years spent trying to recover, and I wish there could be established rituals to help me through this kind of mourning. There are so many of us in similar situations, trying to cobble together the support we need to move forward. I can’t be the only one who struggles to create those rituals on my own, and I can’t be the only one who feels let down by a world that refuses to acknowledge the pervasiveness and validity of the need for those rituals.

“Would hugging a puppy help?”

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?

Sodom and Gomorrah

            This year I was asked to teach a few extra classes in the synagogue school, on Saturday mornings, focusing on the week’s Torah portion (the chapter of the Hebrew Bible that is read by Jews around the world at the same time). I was nervous and excited about the opportunity, because it was new to me, but also because I’ve never really had the chance to teach the stories from the first and second books of the Hebrew bible. I usually teach the book of Leviticus, which is full of laws and holiness, but not many plotlines or characters or dramatic scenes. And then I found out which Torah portion I’d be teaching the kids, and I thought, when it rains it pours, because I would be teaching the Torah portion that contains Sodom and Gomorrah, The banishing of Ishmael, and The Binding (and almost sacrificing) of Isaac. You know, the light stuff.

“Eek!”

            I could, almost, imagine how to teach the drama of a parent who is willing to risk the life of his child on the say-so of God (kids sort of feel like this is what happens every day of their lives when their parents insist on sending them to school against their will), but Sodom and Gomorrah, with its themes of unforgivable evil and sexual violence, and God turning two whole towns into rubble? Not so much.

            I wrote up my lesson plan, tap dancing and editing and omitting my way to a version of the Torah portion that would be interesting to the kids, without giving them too many nightmares. But I still found myself thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah, and how hard this story is to reckon with, and why.

            The biggest problem, for me, is that the English word “Sodomy,” clearly based on the town of Sodom, has come to refer to homosexual acts, and many religious people have decided that this story is meant to teach us that God will punish you with death and destruction for engaging in homosexual acts, or allowing/supporting others to engage in those acts. Now, I know that the Hebrew Bible is often brutal, and I know that there is a biblical law against homosexual behavior (it’s in Leviticus, so I see it a lot), but it still felt unreasonable that God (and/or my ancestors) would see homosexuality as such a heinous crime that it should earn the destruction of whole towns, whole families, including children. So I decided to re-read the story to see what I was missing.

            In Genesis 18-19, three men come to Abraham in the plains of Mamre, two angels and God in disguise, to tell him that the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah will be judged and punished for their grievous sins (unspecified). Abraham tries to bargain with God, because his nephew Lot lives there, and he says, if there are fifty righteous people, or forty, or thirty, will you save the town? And God agrees to save the town even if there are only ten righteous people, but there aren’t even ten, so God tells Abraham that he will have to destroy the towns after all. But he sends his angels to warn Lot ahead of time, so he can save himself and his family.

            The two angels, in disguise, then go to the main square in the town of Sodom, and Lot invites the strangers into his home, without knowing who they are, and serves them a meal. The men of Sodom then surround Lot’s house and tell Lot to bring the two strangers outside so they can know them (to “know” is sometimes a euphemism for sex in the Hebrew Bible). Lot refuses to hand over his guests and instead offers up his two virgin daughters to the crowd. The men of Sodomrefuse his offer and try to break down Lot’s door.

            The angels then blind the men of Sodom and tell Lot about their mission to destroy the city. They command Lot to gather his family and leave, and not to look back. And then the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed with fire and brimstone, and Lot’s wife looks back at the destruction and becomes a pillar of salt (I could do a whole essay on Lot’s wife, and how looking back at what you’ve lost is natural and not a crime, but I’ll save that for another time).

            Israelite prophets, in later books of the Hebrew Bible, named the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as adultery, pridefulness, and un-charitable behavior. Many Rabbinic commentators have focused mostly on the lack of hospitality to the stranger as the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, hospitality being the one Mitzvah (commandment) that Lot performs in the story, by inviting the strangers into his home.

“Strangers? In my house?!”

            The habit of blaming homosexuality for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is much more recent. No Jewish literature, until the writings of Philo in the first century of the Common Era, actually mentioned same-sex behavior as a possible cause for the destruction of the towns. And the term Sodomy wasn’t coined until the 11th century of the Common Era, and even then it was widely used to refer to all non-procreative sexual acts (including heterosexual acts) rather than specifically to same sex relationships.

            There is a strikingly similar story to Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter 19 of the book of Judges. An unnamed man from the tribe of Levi is traveling with his concubine and his servant. He arrives in the town of Gibeah and plans to spend the night in the town square. A local man, from the tribe of Ephraim and therefore not a native of the town (like Lot wasn’t a native of Sodom), offers the Levite and his concubine and his servant shelter in his home. Soon the men of the city surround the house and demand that the owner send out the Levite “so that we may know him.” The owner, like Lot, offers up his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead, and the crowd rejects the offer, just like the men of Sodom did. Except, in this version there are no angels to intervene, and to save himself the Levite forces his concubine out the door, and the men of Gibeah rape her to death. There is no response from God, no fire and brimstone, instead the Levite carries his dead concubine home and cuts her corpse into twelve pieces, sending one piece to each of the twelve tribes, showing them the results of their baseless hatred of strangers.

            It’s a brutal way to send such a message, and the Levite doesn’t seem like the best messenger, since he offered up his concubine to save his own life, but the message in this version of the story is clear: If you don’t wise up and learn how to treat the strangers in your midst, destruction will come to you. If only because, at some point in your life, you yourself will be the stranger.

“I was a stranger once.”

            The mitzvah of hospitality to strangers was very important in the ancient Middle East, where traveling on arid land was a life or death venture. The conventions of hospitality were created to protect both the traveler, who would die without food and water, and the host, who could easily be killed by a traveler in need. These were basic codes of behavior that were meant to keep everyone safe, so when the Sodomites tried to attack the two men in Lot’s house simply for being strangers, it threatened the moral code of the area, and the safety of everyone.

            Sodom and Gomorrah feels like a lesson we keep having to learn, and a lesson we keep choosing to learn incorrectly. If you recognize rape as a weapon, rather than as a variety of sexual behavior (heterosexual or homosexual), then you can see Sodom and Gomorrah for what it is: a story about how selfishness, and violence, and baseless hatred of the stranger ultimately leads to the destruction of the people who commit these sins. The punishment doesn’t have to come from an outside force, like God, because it is already an inevitable result of making enemies out of everyone around you. If you send your daughters out to be raped by a crowd, they will die, or they will come back to you full of rage; either way you have destroyed the future of your family. If you treat strangers as enemies and abuse them, you will not receive any help from future strangers; in fact, they may strike out at you first, to protect themselves, knowing your reputation.

            If we read Sodom and Gomorrah through the lens of its sister story, the evil here, the “sodomy,” is clearly the baseless hatred of people who are not like us, and has nothing in particular to do with homosexuality. At some point the story was turned inside out, but that doesn’t have to be the last word. We can re-read the story and turn it right side out again to see the power of hospitality and welcoming the stranger to save all of our lives.

            By the way, when I taught my students about the banishing of Ishmael from his home, after the birth of his half-brother Isaac, they said that Ishmael should have been allowed to stay so that he and Isaac could have grown up together. And if Ishmael had been able to stay, then the descendants of Ishmael (commonly seen as today’s Arabs) and the descendants of Isaac (the Jews) would have been one family, one people. We are so quick to see each other as strangers, imagining that our differences are unbridgeable oceans, but maybe we are all half-brothers and sisters, feuding over our birthrights and our parents’ love, fighting over resources that don’t have to be scarce if we can heal the wounds of the past. Maybe, if we re-read our own stories, we can find a way forward that makes all of us safer and better off.

“Harrumph.”

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?

Back to School

            Before we started the new synagogue school year, I had a million ideas for how to improve my teaching – lessons learned from my two years of teaching synagogue school so far, and from reading and googling, and from my online Hebrew classes and virtual tours of Israel. I had too many ideas to fit into the few hours a week that I would get with my students.

            I wanted them to learn more about Jewish history than the Holocaust: like the Babylonian Exile in 587 BCE and how it taught the ancient Israelites that they could bring God with them wherever they went; like the transition to Rabbinic Judaism, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, when all seemed lost without the Temple, and yet the rabbis found a way forward by canonizing the Hebrew Bible and continuing the traditions in study and prayer and laws and customs; like the Spanish Inquisition and the forced conversions and the massacres and endless exiles of the Jews from one European country after another that spread the Jews around the world, where they were able to learn from different cultures and bring the world’s customs into Judaism; to Modern Israel, where Jews from around the world have been able to make a home and attempt to blend different cultures and races and customs and foods into one country; to modern antisemitism, and antizionism, and conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, and conflicts between different branches of Judaism. There’s so much for them to know!

“It’s too much.”

And I wanted them to have a sense of what’s in the Hebrew Bible, and that they have a right to question any and everything in it, and I wanted them to be able to sound out Hebrew words, and begin to understand Hebrew when they heard it, and begin to build a love for the language. I wanted them to be familiar with the prayers, but more than that, I wanted them to feel empowered to create their own prayers and to know that their own thoughts are just as valuable as those of the rabbis who wrote our prayer books. And I wanted them to have fun and make friends and be silly and feel like part of a community that embraces them as they are.

“We’re perfect!”

My first in-person day of Synagogue School, back in September, was a bit chaotic, but not terrible. We were in a nursery school classroom, because our space was being used for the High Holiday services, so I told myself that any excess difficulty I was having with the kids came from being in a crowded space, with too many toys (there’s something about toys meant for younger kids that makes the older kids lose their minds). I also had thirteen students, with more boys than girls for the first time, and when I told people that I had a boy-heavy class this year they looked horrified and said things like, better you than me. But the boys I had in my class last year were wonderful; they were thoughtful, and creative, and kind, so I thought that if even a few of this year’s boys were anything like last year’s I would be very happy. I wasn’t too worried.

            And during the break from in-person classes we continued to have zoom classes, which went really well. I was a little bit nervous about going back to in-person classes after a three week break, especially because we’d be returning to our regular “classroom” in the social hall, but I still thought everything would be okay.

The kids dribbled in one or two at a time for our second in-person class, in October, so we got a sort of relaxed start to class, but as time passed and more kids showed up I realized I’d forgotten how hard it is to hear in the social hall, and how much space there is for the kids to get into trouble. And I was at sea. The kids were screaming and wandering around and struggling to concentrate on the lesson. But I still wanted to believe that it was the fault of the room, and the long break between in-person classes, and that it would get better on its own.

I had a short break from my class, to teach an elective to my students from last year, and then I walked back into my classroom and I saw my students sitting calmly and listening to the teacher who had been working with them for the past half hour, handling the same exact kids with the same exact problems; and I suddenly realized that the problem was me.

“Uh oh.”

After I got over the humiliation, somewhat, I emailed the teacher who had performed this miracle, and asked for her help. And she was wonderful. She’s been teaching for a long time, both in Synagogue School and before that in regular school, and she said, first and foremost you need to create structure in the classroom so that the kids can feel safe. She said, they need to know what’s expected from them, or else the world feels chaotic and they don’t know what to do. Kids don’t come pre-programmed, they need help building the skills to stay focused and be kind to each other, and to me.

            The master teacher calmed me as successfully as she had calmed my students, setting clear guidelines for what I needed to do, and explaining the reasons for each behavior, and helping me problem solve different situations while firmly sticking to her overall goal: create structure so the kids know what’s expected of them.

            But it’s hard. I tend to take everything the kids say to heart. When they tell me they’d rather be anywhere than in synagogue school, I think it’s my fault, because I’m boring. And when they can’t sit still, I feel like I’m evil for making them sit instead of letting them run around. When they drag their feet through an activity, or want to always do something else, I take that as a sign that I’m teaching the wrong things, rather than that they need some reinforcement that the lesson I’m teaching is worth their time.

            So now I am starting again; not from scratch though. I need to remind myself that I am the adult in the room and I actually do know what to do, even when the kids tell me that I don’t. And I need to remind myself that structure and discipline do not equal abuse or squashing of potential, if done with careful intention and empathy. But most of all, I need to keep reminding myself that I cannot be perfect and it’s not even required. I can make mistakes and learn from them, and I can choose what to teach, based on what matters to me and what I’m good at, and that doesn’t make me a meanie or a bad teacher.

“Mommy’s a meanie!”

            And maybe that’s one of the best lessons I can teach my students; that we don’t have to do everything and be everything and learn everything right away, or ever. We can each be our own imperfect selves and, maybe together, as a whole, we can get where we want to go.

            With all of my hopes at the beginning of the school year for what I could teach the kids, I think if I could teach them that they are enough as they are, that would be enough. But first I have to learn it myself.

“We’ll help you, after our nap.”

            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 First Homegrown Pawpaw Fruit

            The one and only Pawpaw fruit fell from the big Pawpaw tree during a recent rain storm; not even the most vigorous storm, which meant the fruit was almost ready to fall on its own. It was still a little too green and a little too hard to eat, so we waited a few more days to let it ripen. With only one fruit from a whole tree it almost felt too precious to eat, and I worried I’d do something wrong: forget to take pictures, cut it open too soon, eat it all myself!

My first homegrown pawpaw fruit (tissue box shown for size reference)

            I waited, impatiently, touching it once a day to see if it had gotten softer, but mostly waiting until I could smell it; that was the real test. At first only the dogs could smell that distinct pawpaw aroma coming from the fruit, but then, if I put my nose almost against the green, mottled skin, I could start to smell it too. When I could finally smell the pawpaw from a few feet steps away, I knew it was ready. Or at least I hoped.

Cricket sniffing the pawpaw

            I dithered, though, because I was afraid that I’d exaggerated the memory of the pawpaw fruit in my mind. It had been fifteen years since my last bite and I worried that I had distorted the reality of it into something better than it could possibly be.

            But I didn’t want to let it sit there so long that it would rot, so I finally brought it into the kitchen and placed it on a cutting board, and, of course, took a picture. I tried to cut it in half, because I wanted to share it equally with Mom, but the seeds made it impossible to cut straight through. I had to accept that there is no fairness in the splitting of pawpaws, and, also, I was impatient, so I cut around the seeds and gave a small piece to Mom, and took a small piece for myself, and finally got to taste a pawpaw again.

Cut pawpaw, in bad lighting
Pawpaw seeds

            And it was delicious! The sweetness was more gentle and complex than I’d remembered, and the texture was perfect, soft but firm, and not slimy or mealy at all. It was perfect.

            The only problem was that in such a small pawpaw there were more seeds than fruit, or so it seemed, and after I’d removed the five almond-sized seeds and peeled the skin and shared half with Mom, there were only a few bites left. And then there was a wave of sadness, that the experience was over and that I’d have to wait another year, at least, to try it again. But after fifteen years of waiting for this one piece of fruit, and realizing that it was worth the wait, and knowing now that my tree could produce fruit, I decided that I could wait another year for my next bite.

            In the meantime, I cleaned the seeds and packed them in a Ziploc bag in the fridge (the article Mom found online said that we needed to add moss, not too damp and not too dry, to create the perfect pawpaw seed environment in the bag, but I left that part to her). So now the seeds are sitting in their bag in the fridge, waiting until they’re ready to be planted. And my wild pawpaw grove is building its strength as the saplings learn to stand straighter and taller every day. And the big pawpaw tree is readying for winter, its leaves starting to turn light green with a little bit of yellow here and there. Soon the leaves will all turn yellow, and then fall to the ground, and the tree will shiver through winter and start to leaf again in the spring.

Pawpaw Tree Fall 2021

And maybe next year we will have more than one fruit, so we can share the pawpaws with our friends, which is, really, the whole point.

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 Day Without Water

            It wasn’t quite that bad; just a day without hot or cold running water in our co-op while the workmen dealt with the pipes. We’ve had days without hot water before, often, because of repairs needed to the old pipes, but all that meant was that I had to delay taking a shower for a few hours, and therefore delay exercising, so I wouldn’t have to sit around feeling sweaty and gross waiting for  the hot water to come back on. But no cold water meant that we have to keep buckets of water in the bathtub in order to flush the toilets, and wash our hands (I made sure to wake up before the water was turned off so I could brush my teeth without resorting to the buckets).

“You could use my wee wee pads, Mommy.”

            It’s really just an inconvenience, a nothing, compared to what most people deal with on a daily basis, but it was enough of an interruption to give me anxiety, and nightmares, and something to think about.

I don’t like to suffer. I’m sure that’s true of most people (though there are some weirdos who think suffering is good for us). I also, though, feel guilty for my resistance to suffering. I feel guilty for wanting to be comfortable. I feel guilty for wanting to avoid pain. I even feel guilty for saying that I feel inconvenienced, as if it should matter.

But this is who I am, and I am annoyed at not being able to press a lever to flush the toilet, and turn a faucet to wash my hands, even if it’s just for one day, or less than a whole day. I’m annoyed, and I’m uncomfortable and I have to deal with it. But how?

“Yeah. How?”

The first step was the practical one: planning ahead. We had to make sure that we had the buckets of water waiting in the bathtub, and fresh water in the fridge. And I needed to get exercise and showering done the day before so I wouldn’t feel so guilty if I had to miss a day of exercise, in case the lack of water lasted longer than expected.

That was the easy part. But then came the anger: Why do I have to put up with this? Why can’t there be some way to fix the pipes without shutting off the water? Why do they have to replace the pipes and the heating system and raise the cost of monthly maintenance? Why can’t I stay in a hotel until the whole thing is over?

I call this stage the Railing-at-God stage, because all of those decisions were made months, or years, ago and there’s nothing I can do about it now (except go to a hotel, which costs way too much money). But I’m still mad and grumpy and I need to whine and get it all out. Most people feel guilty or out of control during this stage, because, logically, whining is pointless, and if something is pointless why would you do it? But I find that the whining happens anyway, whether you like it or not, so you have to find a way to tolerate yourself while you whine and complain, and try to be compassionate. You don’t get to skip this phase just because you’re a good person, or a smart person, or even the person in charge who’s making all of the decisions. You just have to go through it.

“Harrumph.”

But then, for me, there’s the echoing stage – where experiences from my past that are even slightly resonant with my current uncomfortable experience start to pop up. If it’s an issue I’ve dealt with already, it’ll just pop up a little bit and let me know it’s there and remind me of the lessons I’ve learned. I have to be patient and tolerant while I remember those lessons, even if what I really want to say is – yada yada yada, I’ve heard this a thousand times already.

But then there are the memories, or feelings, or snapshots pieced together in a kaleidoscope, that I haven’t fully dealt with yet, and will now have to feel, against my will, for as long as they need to be felt.

Damn them.

“Yeah. Damn them.”

This time, as usual, that phase came in the form of dreams. There was the truly horrific nightmare about babies being suffocated at birth by mothers who felt they had no choice; then there were upsetting dreams about being back in elementary school, at my current age, and dealing with girls who didn’t like me and didn’t think I was cool enough and yet wanted me to take care of them anyway; and then there were those those endless bad dreams about not being able to find a usable bathroom and opening one stall after another to find stopped up toilets or no toilets at all.

And then I woke up and I raged at my brain for giving me so much crap to think about when I was already annoyed and inconvenienced with the no-water-drama. Damn it!

“Yeah. Damn it.”

But this stage required my patience and my compassion too, and most of all, my attention, because if I didn’t pay attention this time I would certainly have to deal with the same issues again, and again, and again, because the universe is like that. Or humans are like that.

And what’s the lesson I was being taught here? Don’t suffocate the parts of you that you find annoying. Don’t shut out the voices that want to complain or rant or in any other way make you uncomfortable, and don’t imagine that ignoring yourself will make you go away.

We like to say that time heals all wounds, and that this too shall pass, but we don’t spend enough time talking about the work that takes us from one side of that gulf to the other. Time heals nothing on its own. We have to be willing to use the time to heal, or else time just passes and we don’t heal.

“I’m healing, Mommy.”

It all sucks, and I hate it, and I resent it, and it goes on forever and I want to scream and make it stop. But I still had to live through the inconvenience of the no-water-day, and feel all of the feelings and think all of the thoughts, and maybe, if I’m lucky, by the end of the day, another one of my deep wounds will have started to heal. And if I’m not lucky, I’ll get another chance to do this work in the near future, and then twenty times after that, until I get the lesson. And even then it will still pop up and remind me it’s there, just to check and make sure I’ve got that lesson and can move on to the next one.

“How about this one?”

I so wish it didn’t work this way. I wish there was a pill to take, or a cave to sleep in for twenty-some-odd years while Time Heals All Wounds. But nope. It’s this tedious feel-your-feelings, think-your-thoughts, grieve-your-losses thing, over and over and over again.

But the water did come back on at the end of the day, and I was able to wash my hands as many times as I wanted and flush the toilet extra just because I could. And the next day I was able to get on the exercise bike and do my forty-five minutes while watching a French murder mystery, and take a shower, and imperceptibly, feel a little lighter as I went on with the rest of my life. And over time, each of these obnoxious, uncomfortable, interminable lessons can stack up into real change, and real relief, and real healing. Because, time heals all wounds, just not by itself.

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 Can Play!

            Cricket has changed a lot since she started taking the DES (Diethylstilbestrol – a non-steroidal estrogen medication) last winter. First of all, the incontinence problem disappeared, which was the point of the medication in the first place. She takes her pill – buried in hamburger – every other night, and she hasn’t had an accident in months. But there are other changes too. For some reason, her voice is higher pitched than before. She’s always been loud and barky and anxious about strangers, but now when she screams at them her voice gets even higher. She’s also clingier, if that’s possible. She used to make do with sleeping next to her Grandma, attached like a barnacle, but now she tries to sleep on top of her, like a cat (she’s fourteen pounds, at most, so no bones have been broken in the process). She’s been very attached to Grandma since she was a puppy, but it’s a little more intense now. She even sits on Grandma’s lap at the computer now, instead of just on the couch, where it’s easy.

Cricket, the barnacle.

            The big change, though, came up recently, when a new mini Golden Doodle puppy arrived at our co-op. Well, he arrived a few months ago as a little red ball of fluff, but he had to wait until he had all of his shots and did his potty training before he could meet everyone.

This is not Kevin, or my picture. But Kevin is this cute.

            Then Mom came in one morning a few weeks ago, after taking the girls for their first walk of the day, and she said in wonder – Cricket was playing!

            Cricket is fourteen years old and she has never played with another dog. Dogs have tried to play with her, doing their play bows and zooming around her, but she would just stand still and wait for it to be over, or hide behind one of her people, or just raise an eyebrow in disdain at the strange creature and walk away to sniff someone else’s pee.

“Harrumph.”

            Butterfly and Ellie had both tried to play with Cricket over the years, and learned quickly that she couldn’t be bothered. And when we had other dogs over to visit, or she met dogs at the dog park or in the yard, she’d just sniff and be sniffed and then look off in the distance, bored, or confused about why the dog was still there, staring at her.

This is as close as Butterfly (top) and Cricket (bottom) came to playing.

            The closest she came to playing was with her friend Teddy – a black miniature poodle she’d known since puppyhood – but they tended to play consecutively rather than together. Teddy would throw his toy in the air and zoom around the room and scratch his back on the floor, and then he’d go lie down and watch while Cricket did her own play routine.

Teddy and Cricket, tandem napping.

            But with Kevin, the five month old mini-Golden Doodle, Cricket actually went into her own version of a play bow and hopped around with him. No one watching her could believe she was fourteen years old. Ellie, meanwhile, who’d had more than enough of boy dogs when she was a breeding mama, stayed back and waited for it to be over. She allowed Kevin to sniff her a little bit, but she really really wasn’t interested.

“Ugh. Boys.”

            Kevin is a very social dog, and especially social with other dogs. He’ll tolerate a scratch on the head from a human, but he’s really dog-centric. His humans say that they struggle to train him with treats because he’s not food-motivated, but he’ll do anything for a trip outside. I’m sure Kevin’s playful personality plays a role in how Cricket is reacting to him, but I’m pretty sure the DES has changed something for her.

            The thing is, Cricket had her spaying surgery when she was six months old, so she never had the surge of hormones rushing through her body. Now, the advice would be to wait until a dog is a little older before spaying or neutering, because it’s healthier for the dog to go through a few hormone cycles, but that wasn’t the advice when Cricket was little. So when she started taking the synthetic estrogen (DES) to solve the incontinence problem, that was her body’s first real experience with Estrogen, and one of the side effects, it seems, is that she’s learned how to play.

            Cricket has had a full life with her people, and she’s had rich, complicated relationships with her sisters (Butterfly and Ellie), and she’s eaten all kinds of interesting foods and barked in all kinds of different places and sniffed a million different smells, and she chased sticks, and ran like the wind, and rolled in the mud, but I always felt bad that playing with other dogs wasn’t in the cards for her.

            I had some theories: about her being the runt of her litter and therefore under attack from her brothers from day one and therefore not trusting of other dogs; or about her being the runt of her litter and therefore suffering from an unfinished nervous system that caused lifelong neurological issues that made her too hypervigilant and suspicious to play.

            And now she’s fourteen, and she’s discovering how to play. She still has a lot of energy and, despite a number of signs of aging, she’s still young at heart, and my hope is that she’ll have plenty of years left to figure out what else these synthetic hormones can do for her and take them out for a spin.

Cricket practicing her play bow with the grooming brush.

            Every once in a while I notice those signs that she’s aging – the thinning of her hair, the age spots and cauliflower-like growths on her skin, her skinniness despite eating plenty, the missing teeth in her smile – and I feel this void readying to open up, this reminder that Cricket won’t always be here. And then she barks at a leaf and hops across the lawn like a rabbit and then, out of nowhere she learns how to play (!!!!), and, for a few moments, she’s a puppy again, or better, she’s ageless and she seems like she will live forever.

            These are my favorite moments.

Cricket is ready for more!

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?

Egyptology and Hieroglyphics

            I took two Egyptology classes in college, basically because they fulfilled requirements for my philosophy major and for my honor’s scholarship. One class was on Hieroglyphics and learning how to draw them, and the other was on Egyptian philosophy. I hated my teacher, but it turned out that I actually loved the class where we learned how to draw the Hieroglyphics. There was something magical about seeing the origins of the letters in actual objects, like the ground plan of a simple house is the Hieroglyph for “house,” and an outline of a mouth stands for “mouth,” and a pair of legs in motion means “to come.” But there were also Hieroglyphs of animals, like an Egyptian vulture for the letter A, and a horned viper for the letter F, that hinted at even more meaning to be discovered.

Hieroglyphic translation chart from greatscott.com
“Why so many birds and no pictures of me?”

            The Ancient Egyptian language was written in four scripts, over the course of time. First Hieroglyphics, then Hieratic, (meaning “priestly”) which was a simpler cursive form of Hieroglyphics written mainly by priests, and then Demotic (meaning “popular”) which was a more rapidly written form of the Hieratic script, first appearing in the eighth century BCE and used by the common people, and finally Coptic, which was the final version of Egyptian writing, using the Greek alphabet in addition to seven Egyptian letters representing sounds that didn’t appear in Greek.

            Ancient Hebrew would probably have fit in between Demotic and Coptic, because it was a language that could be written quickly and by the common man, but it wasn’t yet filled out with vowels and spaces to allow for easier reading.

            One of the important differences between ancient Egyptian and ancient Hebrew, though, is that Hebrew continued to develop into what is now Modern Hebrew. Hebrew was eventually given vowels, and spaces, and punctuation to help modernize the language and allow people to read it and speak it more widely. Whereas the ancient Egyptian language stayed in Egypt, ancient Hebrew speakers were exiled from Israel, multiple times, and chose to bring their language, and their religion, with them into the diaspora.

            Despite not liking my Egyptology teacher, I still learned a lot from his class, especially about the influence of ancient Egypt on the development of Judaism. Take for example, the Egyptian belief in magic. In the Hebrew Bible, when Moses goes to Pharaoh to ask him to let the Israelites go, he turned his rod into a snake to show God’s power, but then the Egyptian magicians were able to do the same thing, and Moses had to level up, with the plagues. Was Moses using magic? He was raised by Egyptians after all. The Hebrew Bible is full of magical things, like burning bushes and the splitting of a sea. The magical realism of Egyptian religion and literature definitely influenced the stories in the Hebrew Bible, but then, in the minds of the writers of the Hebrew Bible at least, these acts of God took on a deeper meaning, a poetry, that was beyond magic.

“What’s beyond magic? Is it food?!!”

At the high point of Egyptian civilization there were 2500 gods, with different main gods in charge in different eras, and each god had a place to dwell and a personality and a backstory. And while we think of Judaism as absolutely monotheistic, early on, even though Yahweh was the main God of the Jews, other gods were still acknowledged and worshipped by the Israelites. Prophets eventually came along to yell at the people to stop worshipping other gods and only to worship Yahweh. But even then, Yahweh was considered the god of a particular place. It took exile for the Jews to invent the idea of a god who can travel. When they were exiled to Babylon, after the destruction of the first temple, they realized that they could take their religion, and their concept of God, with them. Eventually, this image of a God who can go wherever you go, became a God who can be whenever and whatever you need God to be. And if your god can be everywhere and anywhere, maybe your god is The God. Period.

            But this transition took a long time, and a lot of wrestling with the gods and ideas of other people and places. Many of the values we think of as particularly Jewish, or Judeo-Christian, were already there in Egyptian writings. One of the most obvious borrowings from Egyptian literature shows up in the book of Proverbs, in the Hebrew Bible. Proverbs is a collection of wisdom literature, addressing morality and good behavior, and is made up of six sections. Each section seems to have been composed at different times, but the third section in particular borrows directly from the Instruction of Amenemope (a piece of Egyptian literature composed between 1300 and 1075 BCE). Some lines are taken almost verbatim and others come very close in their messages, for example: give charity to the poor, avoid the “strange” woman, avoid harmful speech, use fair business practices, and tell the truth. These are all values embraced in Proverbs, and in the Hebrew Bible overall, but in no way unique to the ancient Israelites.

            Somehow, knowing some of the influences on the Israelites, and seeing what they chose to keep and what they chose to change, makes the ancient Jews feel more real to me. They didn’t appear out of nowhere; they were a product of their time, and interacted with the ideas around them. I can relate to that process of sifting, and it gives me more confidence in my own right to reassess their ideas, in order to determine what I believe in, and who I want to be going forward.

“We believe in the power of 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?