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Author Archives: rachelmankowitz

Cricket’s Sweaters

            What with Cricket’s thinning hair, and aging temperature-control-system, and the onset of colder weather, plus a much-needed visit to the groomer, Cricket needed something to cover her up – both for warmth and for modesty. We already had one sweater: a red and black plaid one that came as a gift from our neighbor (when she realized it was too small for her brother’s dog) and that originally went to Ellie, who doesn’t really need or want to wear a sweater. Then I went online and found a white and grey cable knit sweater, so Cricket would have something to wear when the red and black plaid started to smell.

“Harrumph.”

            Strangely, Cricket actually seems to enjoy wearing her sweaters, though getting them pulled on over her head can set off her panic response (aka biting), so we have to be careful not to dilly dally when dressing her.

“Harrumpherrumph.”

            But even now that Cricket really needs to wear sweaters, because you can see all of her age spots and cauliflower bumps and pink skin shivering in the cold, I still can’t really go whole hog into dressing her up, because she wouldn’t put up with it, and because my mom would roll her eyes at me, and because I can’t actually afford it. And, really, Cricket and Ellie would much prefer having any extra money spent on food and treats than on clothes.

“I really don’t like clothes, Mommy.”

            The thing is, I have wanted to dress the dogs up forever, but I felt guilty about it, because Cricket was so resistant to wearing jackets and harnesses, and Ellie and Butterfly, and Dina, all looked like they were being punished when they had to wear anything at all. But recently, Cricket’s friend Kevin, the mini-Golden-Doodle, has been wearing sweaters and sweatshirts all the time, and he looks so cute and cozy and loved! For Halloween he had an adorable hoodie with a skeleton painted on the back, and I felt like such a neglectful dog mommy looking at naked Cricket in comparison.

            I actually hate dressing up myself, because it makes me feel self-conscious, and all of my body shame gets triggered. Instead, I live in a uniform of sweaters and jeans and sneakers, to avoid drawing attention to my body. When I see adult women all dressed up I tend to feel intimidated, and vicariously exhausted, and triggered into body shame just by looking at them. But Cricket and Ellie look perfect to me, and they are unselfconscious about their bodies, and I keep wishing that I could dress them up and live vicariously through them, and they won’t let me.

“No clothes!”

            In the midst of my longing to dress up the dogs, I noticed a series of videos showing up in my Facebook feed starring a dog named Noodles. Noodles wears the most wonderful outfits, with chunky necklaces, and colorful glasses with beaded chains, and frilly shirts, and she has so many different hairstyles, and she just makes my inner little girly-girl swoon. The videos themselves are hilarious too: all about Noodles’ imaginary officemates and office politics, or that time she got drunk for her third (aka 21st) birthday.

            So I scroll through Amazon for sweaters I wish Cricket would wear: sweaters with stripes and plaids and cables and ruffles and lace insets and skirts, and then I watch Noodles giving the camera side eye in her lacy blouses and braided hair, and for a few minutes I get to feel like the little girl I could have been, and maybe still am, deep inside.

There’s a little girl at my synagogue who has her own sense of style. One day she’s dressed like a widow from the 1920’s, with black netting around a small black hat on the back of her head, another day she’s a fluffy bumble bee, another she has pink hair and wings on her back. That’s not the kind of little girl I was, obviously. I was intensely conscious of how people looked at me and judged me, and more often than not I wore hand-me-down clothes from wealthier families, so I didn’t have a choice of what to wear. But when I see this little girl at synagogue, or Noodles on Facebook, or even Kevin in his hoodies, I imagine the joy I might have felt as a little girl, if not for the abuse. And seeing Noodles in her dresses and bows lets the little girl in me play dress up vicariously. And it’s wonderful! So watch out, Cricket. You may have to deal with more clothes sometime soon.

“Protect me, Ellie.”

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 New Hebrew Semester

            I’ve been in the same online Hebrew program from Tel Aviv for more than a year now, but each semester feels like a new experience, with new challenges. For the first session of this semester, back in late October, our new teacher spoke quickly and mostly in Hebrew, only clarifying a few words in English here or there, and yet, I was able to follow most of it. A year ago I would have been lost and intimidated and now I’m not. I’m still not fluent, but I’m much closer.

“Mazel Tov.”

            One of the obstacles to overcome each semester is the renewed feeling that I’m the worst student in the class and have the least interesting life and the least impressive resume. My teachers keep telling me that I’m underestimating my fluency, but I’m the one inside my head, grasping around in the dark even for the words I thought I knew well. I do fine with homework and conjugations and vocabulary, but making conversation is hard enough for me in English, with all of my social anxiety, it’s that much harder in Hebrew, with the words endlessly trying to escape from my brain. Generally it takes me a few weeks to remember that everyone in the class is a flawed human being, just like me. I wish I could have mastered this lesson by now, but I guess I should be grateful that it eventually kicks in at all.

I’m still not sure what my goal is in studying Hebrew. Is it about going to Israel for a visit? Or just wanting to learn about Israel in more depth? Is the next step in my journey secular or religious, an activity, or more studying? I just don’t know.

“Don’t go anywhere without me, Mommy.”

This semester we’ve started to read Facebook posts in Hebrew, and other instances of natural Hebrew existing in the wild, to build our reading comprehension, but it has the effect of making me feel like an alien and uncool, now in two different languages.

            One of the new things we’re doing this semester is that instead of watching one TV show from beginning to end, we’re watching single episodes of reality shows (not like “Married at First Sight,” which we watched in a previous class and that I keep trying to wash out of my brain), getting to hear different accents and different vocabularies with each show.

            The first thing we watched was an episode of a show called “Makers,” where a team of creative craftspeople made new hearing aids for a hard of hearing singer, so she wouldn’t have to deal with so much static when she put her headphones on in the studio, and then they created a smart house set up for a pair of born-deaf adult twins who needed help knowing when someone rang the doorbell or when the alarm clock went off. They put light strips in every room, even in the bathroom, and programmed the lights in different colors for each alert: like the phone, or the door, or the sirens telling them to find shelter when rockets came from Gaza. And for one of the sisters who struggled with getting up on time, they attached a light fixture to her alarm clock that gradually grew brighter the longer she ignored it, and then if she was still sleeping, a fan would go on and blow in her face to finally wake her up.

Makers

We also watched an episode of a show called “On the Napkin,” about Israeli chefs, and the episode we watched was about a Japanese cook in Israel, married to an Israeli man for forty years with three adult children, and now she’s serving homestyle Japanese dinners in their dining room/restaurant every night, sourcing tofu and mushrooms and greens from nearby farms.

But the story that really got to me was from a show called “The Recording Studio.” The episode we watched was about a twelve-year-old autistic boy who wanted to record a song for his longtime teacher’s aide. His parents came with him to the studio, but he explained everything himself, telling the host of the show that his aide was so special to him because she’d spent years teaching him how to relate to his non-autistic classmates, teaching him how to speak their language so that he could live in their world and make friends. He said that it would take a degree in psychology to learn the autistic language, so he had to be the one to learn how to understand them. During rehearsals, he not only played piano and sang, he also made sure to communicate as clearly as possible with the host and musicians about what he wanted, and confronted them when they were making assumptions about what he could and couldn’t do, or which truths he could and couldn’t handle.

When his aide finally came into the studio, he hugged her and introduced her to all of the musicians, and then he sang the song with the band, and his teacher and his parents were in tears. It was so clear that she really had set him free from a lonely place, and that she had taught him how to relate to other people and feel connected to them, while still being himself.

Sometimes, out in the real world, I feel like that autistic boy, trying to translate all of my thoughts and feelings into a language other people can understand, and wishing they could speak my language instead, whatever that is. So maybe that’s why I am so drawn to learning languages in the first place, and why I’m working so hard to learn Hebrew in classes full of other people with their own internal languages and stories to share. Hearing about the countries they live in (Israel, Holland, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, America, Croatia) and the reasons why they want to learn Hebrew (planning to move to Israel, already living in Israel but wanting to speak the language, discovering a Jewish identity, trying to make peace with a Jewish childhood, wanting to talk to Israeli grandchildren, joining an Israeli dance company, or, very often, marrying an Israeli), helps me to feel hopeful that one day I will find the words to say what I mean and, in the meantime, other people will work hard to understand me, just like I work hard to understand them. And the hard work feels worth it, whether I become fluent in Hebrew or not, because the process itself is helping me create connections all over the world, and in my own brain, to help me understand myself.

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?

On Boredom

            One of the most painful things I can hear from my students is “I’m bored.” I can work with “I don’t understand,” or “I don’t like to draw/read/write/sing/play.” But “I’m bored” feels like a condemnation of my ability to be the fun teacher.

            And I hear it all the time.

“That means you’re boring.”

            So, okay, that’s clearly one of my own issues. I want to be loved. I want to be the favorite. I want to be the teacher everyone thinks back on as the best, most insightful, blah blah blah. And I do need to work on that.

            But there might also be something going on with the students, something I need to help them work on. Because, first of all, walking into the class and saying “I’m bored,” as if the teacher is supposed to keep you entertained from the word go, with never a blank moment, is just not possible, let alone good for you.

            Some people say that kids have become more entitled, more used to having things done for them and given to them, and more used to having access to passive entertainment and whole worlds of TV and video to keep them from being bored. But I’m wondering if there’s more to it.

            I wonder if, for some of the kids, “I’m bored” means, I really need to be distracted from the low grade depression and anxiety that I live with on a daily basis, because I don’t see it letting up anytime soon. Or, I need you to keep me entertained because I feel under-loved and I equate your constant attention and energy with love. Or, what I really am is tired, overwhelmed, hungry, sad, or lonely – but no one responds when I say those things.

I remember being bored as a kid. I remember sitting in my bedroom on the weekends and not knowing how to fill my time when I didn’t have homework or a play date or something to read or something to watch on TV. We didn’t have smartphones and 24 hour TV and internet back then, so I really was left to my own devices if Mom was busy (and she was always busy keeping those plates spinning).

“Is plate spinning fun?

            But looking back, I was a kid with a lot of internal resources and interests, so it’s unlikely that I was legitimately bored. I was much more likely to be depressed, lonely, sad, angry, frightened, hurt, etc. I just assumed that the name for my problem was boredom. I would gladly do math homework or read social studies or do chores around the house, just to avoid having to sit with my own feelings for long enough to feel bad.

            And then, when I first started going to a commuter school for college, my classes were all packed into two days a week, because I couldn’t drive so I had to be dropped off in the morning and picked up at night, and I had classes starting at nine in the morning and ending at five or six at night, except, there was an hour and a half break in the afternoon with nothing to do and nowhere to go. If I’d been at home during that hour and a half it would have been fine; I could read, or exercise, or watch TV, or do my homework, or go for a walk, or whatever. But trapped on campus, in full view of other people, I could barely concentrate and I felt like there was a video camera on me at all times, judging my use of time, my personality, my outfit, my food intake, and on and on and on. That’s what I think of when I think of boredom: that overwhelmed state where I think I need to be accomplishing everything at once, and yet I can’t concentrate for five seconds at a time. But I don’t know if that’s what the kids are feeling.

Sometimes when my students say they’re bored, I think what they mean is that they resent having to be at synagogue school, and I know this because when I ask what they’d rather be doing they say, sitting in front of the TV at home, with the dog, eating pizza. And I wonder if what they’re actually saying is that they feel overstimulated and need a break from being productive and social. School, by its very nature, requires them to be both.

            Or maybe some of my students are bored because they really do need more of a challenge, or because they need activities that are better tailored to their specific abilities and interests, or because they need more structure and guidance from me. I don’t want to assume that I’m not at fault. But sometimes I have to accept that the task we are working on in class may be less exciting than they want it to be, but is still necessary. There are certain prayers they need to learn, and lessons from the Hebrew Bible, and that just may not be something they value at this point in their lives.

“I’m shocked.”

            I keep reminding myself that just because boredom was a sign of toxic things in my own childhood, that’s not necessarily true for my students. A little bit of boredom can be a spur to creativity, or at the very least be a manageable annoyance. But I feel bad when they seem bored, or distracted, or annoyed by what we’re doing in class, and it doesn’t feel safe to just let it go and assume it’s healthy or manageable boredom when it could be a sign that they are in pain or that I am failing them as a teacher.

            I remember, years ago, when my cousin’s son came to visit from France with his grandmother. He was five years old and learning English but still very French. We were sitting at a table full of adults and even though there was another child there, he was barely two years old and sitting at the other end of the table. And then there was me. I was twenty-three years old and not sure where I fit in. The five year old was sitting next to me and at one point he mumbled something under his breath in French that I couldn’t quite hear and I asked him to repeat it, because I was curious, and because I wanted to see if I could understand his French, but then he told me, louder, and in English, that he was bored. Immediately, his grandmother, sitting across form us, corrected him, saying that in French the term is reflexive, which is more correct, because you make yourself bored. And I got really annoyed and said, no, he’s bored because he’s five years old and sitting at a table full of adults speaking in a foreign language, talking about things he doesn’t understand or care about, and he needs something age-appropriate to do so he can feel engaged. I hope I said it a little less aggressively than that, but I was remembering so many times when my needs had been ignored, and it just pressed my buttons. And then, of course, I was volunteered to take him, and the toddler, into the living room to find toys to play with. The five year old, of course, complained that what he really wanted was to watch TV, and not to play with some baby, but at least he was smiling when he said it, and he wasn’t complaining about being bored anymore.

            That experience taught me that sometimes boredom is about not feeling heard, and not feeling like you are being taken into account, and I try to keep that in mind with my students. But it’s hard to balance everyone’s feelings at once, especially when most of them start out angry that they have to be at synagogue school in the first place, and nothing I say can convince them that learning Hebrew is more fun than watching TV and playing with their dog while eating pizza. Weird.

“We want pizza too.”

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?

Asking For Help

            This past summer was very difficult, with Mom’s two surgeries and one of my own, and it became clear to me that my reluctance to ask for help when I needed it – or even to accept it when it was offered – made things much harder than they had to be. I know that there are people in my life who would be happy to help me, and who have offered to help many times, but I always say something like, no, I’m fine, thanks anyway.

“Sure you are.”

I knew some of the reasons why it was hard for me to ask for help: it’s embarrassing to try to explain what I need versus what other people expect me to need; I’m afraid of being judged for the things I can’t do; I don’t believe I deserve help; I’m afraid of what I will owe in return; I often have no idea of what kind of help would help me; and, often, what I really need is so much bigger than what people can give me: I want to feel safe and loved; I want to pay off all of my debts; I want to be healthy and have the energy to go to work more often; I want to be published by a major publisher; I want a house with a yard, and ten dogs, and a horse; I want children. And if I can’t have what I really want, whatever I get instead ends up feeling disappointing, no matter how kindly and generously it is given.

            So, I said no to the offers of help this summer, whether they were offers to make meals, or give rides, or just be a supportive listener; even though I was terrified while Mom was in the hospital, and for the first few weeks after she came home. I worried that she would die, and then I worried that something would go wrong and I wouldn’t know how to help her, and then I worried that something would break in the apartment and I wouldn’t know how to fix it. Through all of it, I just kept saying, No, I’m fine, thanks anyway.

I’ve been practicing my asking-for-help skills with Mom for years, because she always wants to help me and never judges me for being needy. And I’ve learned that when what I ask for is impossible (aka, take out your magic wand and fix everything, Mommy), she will search for ways that she can help that I couldn’t have thought of myself. And more often than not, that help is what gets me to the solid ground I need in order to take the next small step by myself. But that practice hasn’t translated very well into asking for help from other people, maybe because I don’t trust them to help without judging me.

“I will always judge you.”

When I told my therapist about this essay, she told me that I was conflating two kinds of help: practical help and emotional support. But for me, those two things have to come together or else neither one really works. Emotional support feels empty without some kind of practical help that gets me over the void in my own abilities, and practical help feels unsafe and alienating if it’s not accompanied by emotional understanding and sympathy for why I need help in the first place.

To be fair, to me, I’ve gotten better at asking for help than I used to be, and to be fair to other people, there have been plenty of times when I have received meaningful help, without being talked down to or treated like a lesser being. But I never expect it to go that way.

I was reading a scene in a Rhys Bowen novel recently, where the protagonist had injured her collarbone and needed help carrying her bag up the stairs (needless to say, this was not the dramatic peak of the novel), and she wasn’t embarrassed, or feeling guilty, or trying to muscle through it. She just asked for the help she knew she needed and moved on. And I was gobsmacked! This otherwise unimportant scene stayed with me, because I kept asking myself how it was possible that she didn’t feel embarrassed, and didn’t imagine that she was exaggerating her injury, and didn’t see herself as a failure for needing support. I take all of those feelings for granted, as the cost of living, but wouldn’t it be amazing not to feel that way?

“I always trust you to help me, Mommy.”

I was almost done with this essay, I thought, when another facet of this fear of asking for help came up; one that I hadn’t recognized before: I had to reach out to my dentist, between appointments, because one of my bottom teeth was loose and causing a lot of pain. I’d been putting off calling her, telling myself that I’d just seen her recently, and she knew my situation, and there was no point in being dramatic about it, and the pain wasn’t so bad. But Mom, who knew how hard I’d been working on this essay, told me that I needed to ask for help, and I felt sufficiently scolded to push myself to reach out to the dentist. The dentist called me right back and said she wanted to fit me in for an appointment as soon as possible, because she’d been worried about that tooth since my last visit, and she already had a plan for removing and replacing it. I made the appointment and then grumbled to myself about the unfairness of life, and how annoying it was that she’d called back so quickly and already had a plan in mind. And I realized, that’s why I didn’t want to reach out to her in the first place: I didn’t want to know that my lower teeth were in such bad shape, so soon after the trauma of replacing the upper teeth.

            I keep wanting to believe that asking for and receiving help will be some kind of magical elixir, where the pain disappears and life feels easy; that is often the kind of help I’m craving. But if getting help actually means having to face the harsh realities of life, the ones that I can’t handle on my own, then no wonder I’m reluctant to ask for help. Maybe putting off asking for the help I know I need allows me stay in La La land for a little while longer.

“I like La La Land!”

            I have no idea how to overcome this desire to stay in La La land. Intellectually, I know that I have to, but I also know, deep in my body, that I’m not ready. I think part of my belief that I can’t get the kind of help I want from other people comes from knowing how hard it has been to give myself the compassion and support I need when I’m struggling. I figure, if I can’t give that to help myself, why should I believe that anyone else would be willing or able to give it to me?

“Oy.”

            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?

Small Bites

            I’m trying to get back to exercising, in small bites. For months, each time I tried to get back on track after a particularly bad flare, I would return to my previous exercise routine: forty-five minutes on the recumbent bike, twenty minutes of physical therapy exercises for my neck and upper back, and ten minutes of yoga stretches. And then I’d be exhausted and wouldn’t even think of trying again for another week. And then, when I was recovering from oral surgery, and I knew I didn’t have the energy for any of those things, let alone all of them, I just stopped trying to exercise altogether. But that didn’t work for me either. I started to feel stiffness and pain returning to my neck and upper back in ways I’d thought I was done with, and, even more worrisome, I was often out of breath just from walking the dogs. It became especially obvious when I had to sing for hours at a time with the choir, during the High Holiday services at my synagogue, and I’d have to skip notes here and there just to breathe. I’d noticed the breathlessness months before, too, when I was still able to do my regular exercise routine three days a week, but at least back then I could tell myself that I was doing something to fix it.

“Breathe like me, Mommy!”

            So, I started with breathing exercises, two minutes a day, to gradually build back my breath capacity for singing. And then I went looking for some short exercise videos on YouTube, and I found a bunch of five and ten minute Yoga videos and re-found a five minute Tai Chi series I’d done a few years ago, and started with those.

            The problem is, I get obsessive. I ended up spending hours searching for more videos, and thinking I should try all of them, instead of just sticking with one or two. And then I got overwhelmed by all of the videos that came up on YouTube, promising weight loss/tightened facial muscles/removal of all anxiety/release of all trauma, in minutes. I’m so vulnerable to those promises, because I hate how long it takes to make progress, and I hate how circuitous the route to healing has to be, and I hate how confused I get, and I hate how easily I can get off track until I can’t even remember which track I was on or why. But after watching a bunch of those videos I felt even worse about myself, because they were telling me that the effort I’ve put into healing has been wasted, and I could have done it all in a matter of weeks if I’d just bought into this or that program from the beginning.

“Oh please.”

            And then I was watching an hour-long Yoga video and berating myself for not even trying to do all of the exercises and the noise in my head became extreme, and mean, and persistent, and exhausting.

And the reality is, I can’t do all of those things. And there is no magic cure for trauma or chronic illness. But I can do five minutes of Tai Chi, or five minutes of standing Yoga, and two minutes of breathing exercises, or even four. And I’m doing those things. And if I keep it up, I will be able to do a little bit more and a little bit more. And that is always how it has worked for me, and I know that, even if I hate it. So it’s back to small bites, for me, and one step at a time.

Harrumph.

“We like BIG bites!

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?

Watching the U.S. and the Holocaust, or, Thank You, Ken Burns

        

            Watching the Ken Burns documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, the week before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) was hard. The three night, six-hour documentary was advertised as being about America’s reaction to the treatment of Jews in Germany leading up to and during the Holocaust, and the ways our own prejudices and the resulting immigration restrictions we set up at the time, kept the United States from being a haven for those escaping Hitler. I felt myself shaking with rage and pain and frustration, and I started to yell at the TV (similar to the way I felt when Trump took that first trip down the escalator onto the world stage). But however difficult it was for me to sit with the pain and horror of the documentary, it was even more validating. The timeline of the film, and the clarity it brought to the questions of when people in the United States knew what was happening op the Jews in Germany, and how they chose to respond to that information, was edifying; some failed to act because of their ingrained anti-Semitism, but others were afraid that if they took action to help the Jews of Europe it would set off even more (!!!!!) antisemitism around the world, and especially at home. It’s painful, but important, to remember how prevalent anti-Semitism was at the time.

            Antisemitism has come racing back in the last decade, but it’s still not seen as much of a problem by the wider world, maybe because Jews are perceived as powerful and white and part of the majority, rather than as a very small minority with an outsized place in history. Jews have been blamed for things like the black plague, failed governments, and poverty, whenever a convenient scapegoat has been needed. Maybe the Jews are easy to blame because we are a small enough group that people think we can be easily removed, like a tumor, but even after expelling the Jews, converting the Jews, or killing the Jews, it has always become clear, again and again, that the Jews weren’t the problem in the first place.

            I felt strongly that I needed to watch this documentary as it aired, rather than recording it and watching it later, because I wanted to feel like I was watching it with other people. I needed that feeling of support. So when the second night of the documentary was postponed in favor of a recap of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, for anyone who may have missed more than a week’s coverage of every detail leading up to and through the funeral on multiple channels, I felt minimized and pushed aside. I definitely took it personally.

“Me too.”

            There are around 7.6 million Jews in the United States today (according to Google), less than there were in Europe before World War Two, and we are only about 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, and yet, when the White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville they shouted “Jews will not replace us,” as if we are a threat to their place in the world.

            So when PBS aired the second episode, a day later than expected, I sat down in front of the television with my mom and crossed my fingers, hoping a crowd would be watching with us and that something would come of it.

“We’re watching with you, Mommy.”

            There were times when the documentary seemed to equivocate, trying very hard to soften its criticism of America, and especially of president Roosevelt. And there wasn’t much reference to the way the British actively kept Jewish refugees out of Palestine, leading up to and during the Holocaust, despite knowing full well that they were sending boats full of refugees back to Germany to die. But I appreciated the way the filmmakers bookended the documentary with the Anne Frank story, which is so familiar to the American audience, and then delved deeper into her real life than we usually see in discussions of her edited diary. Her former classmate, who went through very similar circumstances as Anne but survived the Holocaust, talked about the famous line in the diary where Anne says that she still believes people are essentially good, but she pointed out that it was written before the Franks were captured by the Gestapo, and before Anne was taken to Auschwitz, and before she and her mother and her sister died there. The optimism of that line has captured American hearts for generations but it has always bothered me, because many people are NOT essentially good, and Anne Frank’s life and death are proof of that. But the sugar coating of her story is very American, where we don’t just need a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, but a cup, or five.

“I love sweet things!”

            The thing the documentary did best was to address the tendency of majorities to blame their problems on powerless minorities, and it made a clear connection between how the United States dealt with African Americans and Native Americans, and how the Nazis treated the Jews. Hitler is so often portrayed as an outlier in his hatred for Jews, and the disabled, and homosexuals, and the Romany, and on and on and on, but he was following models he’d seen in other countries, including ours, and the fact that most countries in the world refused to take in refugees from Hitler, allowing them no safe place to escape to, was a secondary cause of so many deaths.

            In the film, Freda Kirchway, who wrote for the Nation magazine in 1943, was quoted as saying, “We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it, or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted one cautious hand encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.”

Even after Americans knew what had happened to the Jews in the Holocaust, and saw the concentration camps and their survivors, only 5% of Americans were willing to let in more Jews.

            I don’t know why this documentary aired in September, instead of around Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day, in the spring), but a week later, a far right leader, with direct connections to Mussolini’s fascist party, won the election in Italy, so it turned out to be very timely after all.

            There are people who, endlessly, deny that the Holocaust happened, despite all of the evidence. Right now, we’re watching the Ukrainians fight a war and at the same time have to document the atrocities done to them in granular detail, because they know they will need this evidence to prove what really happened, and even then, the people who don’t want to know will continue to deny it; believing what their minds can tolerate instead of what is demonstrably true.

            This phenomenon of disbelief haunts us. Most Jews had the same trouble believing that such a thing could happen, because no one wants to believe things that make them feel uncomfortable, or frightened, or guilty, or any of the other emotions we hate to sit with. Humans are great at forgetting or minimizing or compartmentalizing the knowledge we can’t deal with.

            People can’t take in a number like six million people killed. And when they can, they often choose to believe that the Jews were to blame for their own killings; that they were complicit, or weak, or evil, and that’s why they were targeted and killed in such large numbers. There were something like nine million Jews in Europe before World War Two, and six million of them were killed. Most of the rest left Europe, to escape Hitler, or to escape their neighbors who didn’t want them around even after the war.

            It’s a painful thing to look at all of that hatred and horror, but it’s necessary, and I’m grateful to Ken Burns and his colleagues for making an attempt to bring this history back to the forefront, and to remind America of the dangers we face when we refuse to believe the evidence in front of us. And in the aftermath of watching the documentary, I hoped to hear that everyone in the world, or at least in America, had been watching with me, but I only saw a few responses, and those mostly from within the Jewish community. I hope that when the documentary airs again, and again, more people will choose to see it. But even with the lack of public response, what I still feel most deeply is gratitude, to Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, Sarah Botstein and the rest of their team, and to all of the people who participated in the documentary, and to the people who chose to air it.

Thank you for being willing to see what really happened. Thank you for making it feel real instead of like it’s a bad dream or an exaggeration or so long in the past as to be irrelevant. Thank you for seeing the parallels in the world today. Thank you for saying that these horrifying things have to be looked at and acknowledged, over and over again, to combat the natural human desire to forget.

To Stream the U.S. and the Holocaust from PBS – https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/us-and-the-holocaust/

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?

Sharing Pawpaws

            Recently there have been a bunch of articles about pawpaws in the national media, notably in the Atlantic and the New Yorker, framing paw paws as the latest gotta-have-it new thing for Brooklyn hipsters, which is weird, because I learned about them from a friend in graduate school, in North Carolina, sixteen years ago. My own pawpaw tree finally gave its first fruit last year, at age fifteen, and this year we had eight or nine pawpaws of various sizes and shapes. It’s possible that everyone else heard about pawpaws around the same time as I did, and only now do they have enough fruit to harvest and sell at random outdoor markets in Brooklyn, but who knows.

            There’s something magical about these awkward, exotic, frail, native American fruit that is made for proselytizing, so I can understand why the people who have tasted them have been whispering and planting and trying to grow the fan club.

Cricket is in the club

            Mom and I ate the first of this year’s pawpaws just before Rosh Hashanah, and the last one to celebrate the end of Yom Kippur ten days later, and in between we shared the rest of the pawpaws with family and friends, with my therapist and rabbi, and possibly with a squirrel or two, because the biggest pawpaw disappeared after the gardeners came one day a few weeks ago; so either they knocked the fruit to the ground and squirrels ran away with it, or one of the gardeners took it home. Either way, I hope whoever found it enjoyed it.

            My hope is that we will get an even bigger harvest of pawpaws next year, and that my younger trees will be ready to fruit sooner rather than later, because there’s real joy in being able to share a pawpaw with someone who’s never tasted one before. I don’t think I’ll ever have enough fruit to start freezing the pulp for cakes and jams and pies and so on, the way the foragers in the magazine articles described, but I only need a few each year to keep the magic going, sharing them with new people and reminding myself of how special they are.

“But I like cakes, jams, and pies!”

            One of the articles talked about scientific research being attempted to make the pawpaws better able to withstand travel and time, so that they can be sold at supermarkets instead of turning to mush before the truck can ever get there, but I’m not sure how I feel about that kind of pawpaw. There’s something about the resonance of pawpaws, the way they seem to encapsulate longing and patience and grief and love and loss, in a sweetness that only lasts a few days, and I’m not sure it would be the same if I could just pick up a pound of pawpaws on the way home from work.

My favorite supermarket.

            In case anyone is interested I’m going to add links to some of the pawpaw articles (though some of my favorites are no longer available online), because sharing an article about pawpaws is almost (but not quite) as satisfying as sharing a pawpaw itself.

            Enjoy!

Move Over Acai – It’s the pawpaw’s time -https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/09/19/move-over-acai-its-the-pawpaws-time

Why is the most American fruit so hard to buy? https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2022/10/pawpaw-fruit-taste-history/671646/

The Promise of Pawpaw – https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/19/dining/pawpaw-climate-change.html

The Mad Scientist of Pawpaws – https://gardenandgun.com/feature/the-mad-scientist-of-pawpaws/

Queen of the Pawpaws – https://www.ourstate.com/queen-of-the-pawpaws/

 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 High Holidays

            I made it through the Jewish high holidays. It was touch and go there for a while, because I couldn’t go to the last few choir rehearsals, and because three of the other synagogue school teachers got Covid at the same time, including the Cantor! So I was relying heavily on my KN95 mask to get me through.

            I made sure to wear my sneakers (because there’s a lot of standing at the high holiday services, especially on Yom Kippur), and I practiced the music as much as possible on my own, and I even started to do breathing exercises (there’s an app for that!), to build up my breath capacity after months of not singing much at all.

“I breathe all the time without an app, Mommy.”

            The surprising thing was how much fun it was to sing with the choir again. I’d forgotten that it was more than just work. When, after missing Rosh Hashana with Covid, the Cantor made his triumphant return for Yom Kippur, it was truly joyous to hear him sing again, and to be able to sing along with all of the tunes the choir doesn’t lead, and realize how much of the music that we only hear once a year is actually familiar and comforting and really powerful.

            It was fun to be with a crowd again; to have so many people in one place, at one time, experiencing the same things, hearing the same stories and singing the same songs and laughing at the same jokes, and it was wonderful to see the children of the congregation (many of whom have been my students over the past few years) go up to the bima and take pride in opening the ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept, but even more so at just being seen.

            The high holidays are still a lot of work, don’t get me wrong. And waking up early, and dressing up, and singing and praying and standing and sitting, over and over and over again, was grueling. And the dogs really hated the constant coming and going (mostly the going), especially when we had more than one service to go to in a single day.

“Harrumph.”

            But it was worth it. Beforehand, I was so focused on how hard it would all be, and how much pain I would be in, and how tired I would get, that I forgot how extraordinary it can feel to be surrounded by a community I truly like, and share history with, and can sing with, and even sometimes dance with.

            I’m sure I will forget all of this again by next summer, when it’s time to rehearse with the choir again and build up to the high holiday services again. I’ll probably spend hours, and days, and weeks, dreading the whole thing and resenting the choir rehearsals and worrying about what to wear, but so far, I can still feel the joy, and it’s wonderful. There are so many difficult things in life that really don’t feel worth all of the effort and pain and anxiety; but some things, like this, are totally worth the effort. Thank God!

“Sleep is always worth the effort.”

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 Blessing a Day

            Just before sunset on Erev Rosh Hashanah (the first night of the Jewish New Year), my Mom noticed that one of the pawpaws (from a tree we grew from seeds 15 years ago, that only gave its first fruit last year) was starting to blacken in one spot, and when I got close to it I realized that the distinct pawpaw smell was already filling the air, and the fruit was becoming soft. There were eight or nine pawpaws on the tree this year, but we’d been waiting for a sign that they were ready to be picked, and for this one piece of fruit, this seemed to be the sign. So we plucked it from the tree, and brought it inside, and said the Shehecheyanu blessing (the Jewish blessing for new experiences), before sharing the first new fruit of the year.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.

            It’s not so much that I believe God magically gave me a pawpaw just in time for the New Year, it’s more that I believe in the power of recognizing these moments of wonder in my life, as a way to remind myself that there will be many more of them in the future, in case I’m beginning to lose hope.

“I never lose hope that there will be more chicken treats!”

            One of the new things I’m trying this year with my synagogue school students is a blessing a day – or, really, a blessing a week, because we only have Hebrew class once a week – and we started the year with the Shehecheyanu blessing, because it’s associated with the Jewish New Year, and because it gives us a chance to talk about all of the new things we are starting in our lives, and maybe feeling anxious and excited about at the same time.

            I want the kids to know that there are hundreds of pre-set blessings that they can use, but also that they can create their own blessings, and celebrate things in their lives that are unique to them, or even just use words that have more meaning to them. For example:

            I am so grateful that the new KN95 masks are cheaper and more plentiful than they used to be, so I can wear them all the time instead of relying on less protective masks.

            I am grateful that people not only read my writing but invest in it enough to respond with their own thoughts.

            I feel blessed when Ellie sees that I am in pain and comes over to lick my hand, to let me know she’s there with me and loves me.

            I sense a power bigger than myself when I discover a new food/song/book that fills me with wonder and a sense of connection.

            I feel like the sun is shining down on me when my students smile and laugh and really seem to enjoy being in my class.

            For some reason, the girls in the class took to the Shehecheyanu blessing immediately and began fighting for the chance to stand in front of the classroom and give dramatic readings – as if they were on stage reciting Shakespeare. Who knew blessings could be so loud, and entertaining?!

“Me!!!!”

            I’ve been collecting blessings to teach to the kids this year, and of course I have to include the most used blessings, the ones over food, because the kids are always hungry! The Jewish food blessings are well documented – you’ll find yeshiva boys competing over who knows which blessing to say over which kind of food (for example, you have to say two different  blessings for an ice cream cone, one for the cone and one for the ice cream!). I’m not a big fan of getting into the weeds of the pre-set blessings, but I appreciate that they exist and can give me a reference point for how to create my own blessings.

            We often think of a blessing as something that is given to us – we are blessed by luck, blessed to be loved, blessed to survive a flood – but I like the idea of a blessing as what we say in response to that good fortune; so we’re giving the experience our own stamp, our own interpretation, to make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed, by us.

            I specifically went looking for a blessing over putting on a face mask, because I needed a reminder that I’m still wearing one for a good reason, and I found a blessing (at ritualwell.org) written by Rabbi Michael Knopf that blesses God for commanding us to protect life (this actually is a commandment, called Pikuach Nefesh, where we are told to break many of the other commandments if it will allow us to save a life).

Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to protect life.

It’s sufficiently vague to use for all kinds of protective behaviors: like getting a vaccine, or wearing a mask, or forcing yourself to go for a regular checkup even when you really don’t want to.

“I never want to go to the doctor.”

There were also blessings on Ritualwell for taking off masks, and all sorts of other things that don’t already have existing blessings in the canon. I’m hoping that by the end of the year I’ll have a whole file of blessing from my students to send in to the website, because kids are really good at seeing the specifics of their lives and the wonder in the every day. I’ll teach them the blessings for seeing a rainbow, or meeting a wise person, or surviving a life threatening experience, and then it will be their turn to teach me: how to bless an endless session of playing video games, or sharing a peanut butter and pickle sandwich with a friend, or rolling down a snowy hill until you can’t breathe for laughing.

I can’t wait!

“Peanut butter and pickle sounds pretty good.”

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

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

I Am (Not) Brave

            People keep telling me how brave I am, for doing this or that, but I feel fragile. Actually, when they tell me that something I’ve done is brave, I worry that they think I was an idiot for doing it. Because I tend to think bravery, just for the sake of being brave, is a waste of time. I don’t want to be brave. I want to be happy. My whole life, every risk I’ve ever taken was in pursuit of happiness. I couldn’t care less if I’m considered strong, or courageous, or admirable; I just want to be happy.

“Weeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

            Part of my discomfort with being called brave is that I have a very wide streak of hiding under the bed in fear, and I refuse to see that as a flaw. I want to give myself credit for knowing when I’m scared, and respecting how I feel, and judging the danger accurately.

            I don’t try new things because I want to be brave; I try new things because what I was doing before wasn’t working for me. I refuse to try new things just because they’re there, or because someone else tells me that it’s time to jump off this cliff or that bridge and be brave. I will jump off the bridge only when it’s crumbling under my feet, or when it’s not going in the direction I need to go.

            In general, I tend to think of myself as cautious and turtle-slow. I take my time stepping into each new challenge (when possible), and my reluctance to just do what’s asked of me without question is long-lived and incredibly annoying to other people. I know.

            Too bad.

            There are times, though, when I know I have to be brave, and I know I have to force myself out of my safety zone and do scary things. But I don’t like it. And I reserve the right to complain bitterly about having to do it. Because being brave does not make me feel good. Doing things that matter to me, and that make a difference to the people around me, makes me feel good; expressing my individual thoughts, and still feeling like a welcomed member of the group, makes me feel good; and writing stories that matter to me and that reach other people deeply, makes me feel good; but I’d rather be able to do all of that without having to be brave.

            I don’t often curse on the blog, but, as Cricket would say, Fnuh.

“You said a bad word!”

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?