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Author Archives: rachelmankowitz

Blurry Vision

One of the many signs that Cricket is aging (she will be fourteen this summer) is the blueing of her eyes from cataracts. It takes her longer to recognize people at a distance, which has made her even more anxious about strangers than before, and prone to long bouts of barking at nothing. She can still see well enough for most of her tasks of daily living, but she has handed over the squirrel chasing to Ellie, content to sniff the grass and wait for larger prey of the human kind, or, you know, shadows. But really, she doesn’t seem to have any angst about it. I don’t think she’s even noticed the change in her vision. She’s pretty sure that it’s the rest of us who’ve changed while she’s stayed the same.

“I’m exactly the same. Always.”

            And then there’s me. I tend to assume that everything is my fault and I’m not trying hard enough to fix it. So when I noticed almost a year ago that my distance vision was blurrier than usual, though only on occasion, I figured I had to have it checked out. I thought, maybe, that allergies could be the cause, though I wasn’t sure why they would have worsened so much, or for so long. And since I have a number of autoimmune disorders, and a lot of extra symptoms that don’t coalesce into a diagnosis, I thought I should check with an ophthalmologist just in case this was a new symptom to worry about.

            But I kept putting it off. Because, Covid, and because I hate going to doctors, especially new ones. Except that the blurry vision was coming up more often and becoming more disruptive, so, finally, when it seemed as if New York had passed the dangerous stage of the winter Covid resurgence, I decided to call and make an appointment (or rather, to ask Mom to crowd source a good ophthalmologist among her friends and then call to make an appointment for me). I wasn’t able to get an appointment until late in May (by which time I was fully vaccinated, so, cool), because everyone else had the same idea about getting back to doctor visits after Covid.

            I have a history of eye problems, and a concomitant history of hating visits to the eye doctor and the dreaded eye drops that sting and then the dreaded eye drops that dilate and make me feel blind. Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to drive myself home after the visit, and because I was nervous, Mom came with me, but she was asked to sit outside on a bench, because only patients were allowed to sit in the waiting room, so I waited out on the bench with her until it was my turn to go in for my appointment.

“That’s anti-Grandma prejudice!”

            The first part of the visit was the most involved, with a tech taking my history and checking my vision and putting in the dreaded drops. Almost as soon as the drops hit my eyes I felt like I was ten years old again. I had Iritis as a kid and they treated it with steroid drops which I had to take twice a day, and I never got used to them. But there were also endless tests to see what may have caused the Iritis, with all kinds of drops and bright lights in my eyes and then needles shoved under my skin, and security guards holding me down so I wouldn’t run, and what seemed like gallons of vials of blood squeezed from my arms. It all came rushing back.

            After the first part of my ophthalmologist visit was done, the tech guided me down a hallway to wait in a chair for the next tech who would be photographing my eyes for their records, or something. The world was a fuzzy place and I couldn’t really see my phone well enough to distract myself, so I just had to sit there feeling vulnerable and worried. When it was my turn in front of the camera, though, the burning bright lights only lasted a few seconds for each eye, and then I was sent to another exam room to wait for the doctor, and read all of her diplomas on the walls (it’s lucky they use such big type on those things).

            The visit with the doctor was the quickest part of the day – with a look-see at my eyes and at my history and at the results of the previous tests and the photographs. She told me that my eyes were fine, with no sign of Iritis or any other disease, and there was no change in my vision. She suggested a brand of over the counter eye drops to clear up my seemingly allergy-induced blurry vision and sent me on my way.

            I had to put a sort of rolled up version of sunglasses under my regular glasses in order to tolerate the sun, and it took hours for the dilation and sensitivity to pass, but I was relieved that it was over and that I didn’t have a new disease, and didn’t need new glasses (which is just a pain in the ass); but I was also frustrated that I’d forced myself through the whole ordeal of the visit and had learned nothing new about my myriad weird symptoms.

            We stopped off at CVS on the way home, though I couldn’t see much even with the partial sunglass thingies, and they didn’t have the eye drops the doctor had recommended, so I went home and ordered them online. I was hopeful that at least I’d found an answer to the blurry vision, after all that, but when the drops arrived they didn’t help at all. So, my vision is still occasionally blurry and I get annoyed and impatient, but at least there’s no underlying problem to worry about. Maybe.         

“They have chicken treats at CVS, don’t they?”

            Even before I had the Iritis, I had ordinary vision problems. I remember distinctly being in second grade and feeling like an idiot when I couldn’t figure out what the teacher had written on the board. Some part of me understood that my eyes were to blame, but more of me was convinced that it was my brain; that I had become unteachable over the summer and suddenly I was falling behind and struggling to understand what everyone else seemed to pick up easily.

            The relief I felt when a pair of glasses actually fixed the problem was huge, but the realization that my vision could be taken away so easily remained, especially because I kept needing new prescriptions and had to wear my glasses more and more often.

            The metaphor of blurry vision has always resonated for me, though, because I so often feel like I’m not seeing things as clearly as I want to, and have to move slowly out of fear of missing a hole in the ground or a wall coming up out of nowhere. I’ve collected a lot of metaphorical injuries over the years, and a healthy dose of anxiety about all of the hidden dangers along my path. But each time I find my vision clearing on an issue, so that something that used to be fuzzy starts to seem clear, I feel such a sense of relief and calm, even if it took five, ten, or twenty years to get to that clarity. And then, of course, the blurriness comes back, on the same issue and on new ones, and I have to find my way back; it’s a lifelong task.

So I’m jealous of Cricket and her ability to see herself as the center of the universe and let everything else go blurry. She may not be able to see the monsters out in the forest, but she also doesn’t have to worry about them ahead of time. She only has to worry about the monsters right up close, like the mean humans who don’t share their French toast and that other dog who tries to steal all of the attention. That’s more than enough to think about on a daily basis, really. Just ask Cricket.

“Seriously.”

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 Hebrew Class

            My first fear about taking an online Hebrew conversation class this summer was the half hour Zoom interview and assessment I’d have to get through first. I was afraid I’d be convinced to spend more money than I wanted to spend, because my social anxiety would kick in and get me to agree to terms I wasn’t okay with, just to please the interviewer. But as one of my readers recently pointed out, Duolingo can only take you so far, and I really wanted to overcome my fear of speaking Hebrew (or any of my other foreign languages) out loud. My hope was that pushing my boundaries in this way would help me make progress in my life overall, but I also just wanted to become more fluent in Hebrew; it’s been a life-long dream.

         “I dream of chicken.”

   I was nervous about the interview for days ahead of time, and tried to think of every excuse to skip it, but in the end I forced myself to sit in front of my computer and click the Zoom link.

            First there was an initial greeter, a young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked about my background in Hebrew and where I lived and if it was anywhere near the Five Towns (it depends on what you mean by “near.”) And then he sent me off to a breakout room to meet with a teacher for an assessment. The teacher was another young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked me about my background in Hebrew. I thought I was supposed to answer him in Hebrew, since he was assessing me, but it was a struggle to find the words and he said I could use English to start with. Eventually, though, he started asking me to translate things, and answer questions in Hebrew, and then he had me repeating phrases in rapid fire scripted conversations. When I had trouble hearing him a few times early on we both assumed that the problem was coming from his computer, and he was apologetic and tried everything he could think of to fix the problem. Some things seemed to help for a short period of time, but then the problem would come back, and go away, and come back. We doggedly made it through the whole interview, though, and he told me that I’d be at the third level, out of eight. He told me that I’d be a little advanced at the beginning of the class, but it would be good for me to get a chance to build my confidence, rather than feeling too challenged right away.

I had to remind myself that the levels he was talking about were Israeli levels; being a good Hebrew student in America is not the same as being an Israeli native speaker. But it still hurt my pride.

“Harrumph.”          

  Anyway, then I was sent to the third young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked about my background in Hebrew and then gave me an overview of the program, including the costs and class schedules. When I had trouble hearing him he said that the problem was coming from my side, and it turned out that he was right. I pressed every button I could think of and then unplugged my headphones, just to see if that would change anything, and the problem went away. I’d never had problems with those headphones before, so I hadn’t even thought of them when I was having my assessment with the teacher, but discovering that the problem had been coming from me all along sent me into a shame spiral. That poor guy had worked so hard to fix a problem he had no control over, and it was my fault. I get into shame spirals very easily, and I was already feeling guilty about not being more advanced in Hebrew, and for being uneasy with all of the young male energy, and for just being so uncool. But I was able to keep my head up and when the third young Israeli guy tried to convince me to sign up for a year of classes at a time, saying there would be discounts for each added semester, I was able to politely and firmly say No, I only want to sign up for one class right now. Even so, the cost of the class was more than I’d expected, and I felt guilty for spending so much of my salary from synagogue school learning advanced Hebrew that I wouldn’t really need in order to teach my beginner classes.

And yet, I decided to take the class anyway, because I really really wanted to. There would be two one-and-a-half hour sessions per week, for ten weeks, plus up to four hours a week of more casual conversational zooms for practice. There was also something about What’s App and Facebook, but at a certain point I wasn’t able to take in any more information. It was a relief when the Zoom was over and I could shut off my computer and take a breath, but almost immediately the shame spiral sped up and I went over and over my internal transcript of the conversations and worried that I’d said and done a million things wrong, especially signing up for the class at all.

  “You could have bought more chicken treats, Mommy.”       

   When I got the follow up emails, reiterating all of the information, there was also a video explaining how they used What’s App in their program (which was helpful because I’ve never used What’s App in my life), and even better, the teacher in the video was female. The tidal wave of young male energy on the Zoom had clearly been more overwhelming than I’d realized, because seeing a relatable woman, not my age but not twenty-two either, was an incredible relief.

            Why do I want to do this now? Because teaching synagogue school has been reminding me of how much I loved learning Hebrew growing up, and how much more I want to learn; and because I want to push myself to build my social skills, and my tolerance for being uncomfortable. But there’s also the extra push of the recent situation between Israel and Hamas, and even more so the media and social media reactions to it.

            I’m not an Israeli, and I have no plans to move to Israel, but the existence of a Jewish state has always been important to me. Israel is the only place in the world with a Jewish majority population and where Jewish holidays are celebrated as state holidays. In the United States, Christian holidays are the default holidays for school vacations and days off from work and national celebrations, etc., but in Israel, being Jewish is the default. It’s kind of like being a Trekky and going to a Star Trek convention, and suddenly you’re not a weirdo anymore. Or at least not the only one. Just knowing that a place like Israel exists makes me feel more acceptable for who I am.

            But a lot of the barbs thrown on social media recently have been questioning Israel’s right to exist at all, and have used many old anti-Semitic tropes and even outright support of the Holocaust in their arguments for why the country should be wiped off the map. As a result, anti-Semitic attacks in real life, in America and Europe, have increased, on top of the four years of rising anti-Semitic incidents during the Trump era.

            I can’t fix anti-Semitism. And I can’t fix the problems in Gaza and Israel and the West Bank. But I have had a lot of feelings about all of it, and the answer for me has been to deepen my understanding of Israel and the people who live there. There has been solace in spending time in Jewish spaces and reading articles from many different perspectives, and listening to Israeli music, and remembering my childhood joy when I first learned about the State of Israel.

            So, I’m going to take this very scary online Hebrew conversation class, and try to build my tolerance for things that are uncomfortable: like grammar, and making mistakes in public, and talking to people I disagree with. Because all of my reading and listening and thinking and remembering has left me believing that Israel is strong enough to withstand the criticism, and to correct her mistakes and accept multiple viewpoints in order to find a new way forward. Just like me.

“That sounds exhausting. We’ll just wait here.”

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

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

Looking For Delilah

In my quest to write my own Midrashim (alternate explanations for gaps in the biblical text, AKA biblical fan fiction), I’ve found that I’m drawn to stories about wicked women, like Jezebel, because I always wonder if the biblical authors were telling the whole truth or slanting the stories to fit their prejudices. It also occurred to me that before I can write my own versions of those stories, or answer the questions I have about them, I need to understand the stories better as written. I decided to look at Delilah, as in Samson and Delilah, because I’ve heard her story from so many unreliable sources, including Hollywood, and I wanted to know what the Hebrew Bible actually said about her.

            Samson and Delilah appear towards the end of the book of Judges, after the ancient Israelites returned to Israel from Egypt, but before the kingdom of Israel was established. To set the scene, the Israelite tribes were ruled by various chieftains and prophets and judges, but mostly they were under the thumb of other nations, like the Philistines and the Midianites. Then an angel came to Samson’s mother, known only as the wife of Manoah, to tell her that she will finally have a child, and that her son will be the one to overthrow their Philistine rulers, and therefore he must be dedicated to God, as a Nazirite. A Nazirite is someone who pledges not to drink alcohol, eat unclean food, spend time around unclean things, or cut his hair (this is, supposedly, the source of Samson’s great strength). I think you can already see a problem developing, since it’s his mother who makes this vow, and not Samson himself of his own free will.

   “You can’t tell me what to do.”       

It’s possible that Samson was a real historical figure, but it’s more likely that he was the Jewish version of the Hercules myth (or the Sumerian Enkidu or Greek Heracles), both because of the implication that the angel may be Samson’s real father, making him half divine, and because his story is filled with feats of supernatural strength, like slaying lions with his bare hands and killing a thousand men with the jaw bone of an ass.

“Isn’t that a bad word?”          

When Samson grows up he marries a Philistine woman, rather than an Israelite, despite parental objections. But at his wedding, his betrothed “nags” him for the answer to a riddle he has told to the men of her tribe, and then she tells the men the answer so that they can win the bet they’ve made with Samson. Despite the trivial nature of this betrayal, Samson is enraged and kills thirty random men and takes their clothes in order to give them to the men at the wedding, as their “reward.” Samson then burns the grain of the Philistines, and when they go in search of him, he kills a thousand more of them with the jawbone of an ass. Oh, and then his wife marries someone else.

The biblical authors suggest that God is creating all of these situations to inspire Samson’s hatred of the Philistines so that he will destroy them, which implies that Samson has no particular issue with the Philistines to start with and needs to be pushed. But the fact is, Samson kills a lot of people in this story, always in a rage, and always for his own reasons rather than for the betterment of his people. The biblical authors tell us that, somewhere in there, Samson rules Israel for twenty years, but no details are given on how he leads them or what he does for them.

Then, after twenty years of leading Israel, Samson falls in love with Delilah. The text makes a point of saying that Samson loves Delilah, but not that she loves him. The name Delilah is wordplay on the Hebrew word for night, Lilah, while the name Samson in Hebrew (Shimshon) is related to the Hebrew word for Sun, Shemesh. So there is an implication that night is set against day, but Samson does not seem like an especially sunny character. Delilah also means “delicate,” which is either an ironic touch or suggests another way of interpreting her behavior, or even her role in the story.

After the affair is established, Delilah is approached by the Philistines and bribed to find out the secret of Samson’s great strength. There is no explanation for why she goes along with this request. Does she need the money? Is her life threatened? Does she have her own grudge against Samson? We can only guess. Delilah asks Samson about the source of his strength, and he lies to her, and she believes his lie and ties him up and calls in the Philistines to capture him. But Samson, still at full strength, fights them off. Delilah complains to him that he doesn’t love her enough to tell her the truth and tries again, with the same result, three times. But, on Delilah’s fourth attempt to learn his secret Samson finally tells her the truth, that the secret to his strength is in his uncut hair. Delilah waits for him to fall asleep, calls in a servant to cut his hair, and then turns him over to the Philistines. The Philistines blind him and imprison him, but they forget to keep his head shaved. As his hair grows back he regains his strength, and when they bring him to dance for them at a festival, he pulls down a Philistine temple, killing himself and 3,000 Philistines with him.

But, why does Samson go along with Delilah’s game, knowing that she will betray him to the Philistines each time? She isn’t hiding her intentions at all. Is Samson so in love that he misses her obvious malice? Is he so arrogant that he assumes he will be able to fight off the Philistines no matter what? Is he very very stupid?

“Yes.”          

How has the story of Samson come down to us as a hero’s story about a naïve strongman taken down by a wily woman, when even a cursory reading shows him to be a mass murderer with a hair trigger temper (pun intended)? And how is Samson even a hero in this story? There are no heroic acts, no acts done for the sake of others. Even his final act of killing the enemy is for revenge rather than for the advantage of his people.

            In the movie version the story of Samson and Delilah was re-told as a great love story, where, after her terrible betrayal of him, Delilah then sacrifices herself with Samson, helping him to bring down the Philistine temple; the assumption being that she agrees that the Philistines are the enemy, and that Samson really is a hero. But there’s no basis for that interpretation in the text itself.

            Even though my goal in re-reading this story was to figure out Delilah, I’m wondering if she’s not really that important to the outcome after all. Yes, Delilah tries to manipulate Samson with her womanly wiles, but Samson should be able to see through her, and see everything else in his life much more clearly. He should be able to use his superior strength to lead his people to victory, but he doesn’t even try. Long before the Philistines blind him, Samson is already blind – to his own purpose in life, to the welfare of his people, and to God. Delilah is barely a cardboard cutout in this story, there to be blamed for Samson’s capture (because she’s a foreign woman), when clearly it was his own weaknesses that got him into trouble.

More than anything, I think this is a story about how it’s not enough for God to choose you, and to believe in you; you have to believe in God, and you need to have a moral purpose to guide your choices in life, or you’re lost.

The final story in the book of Judges, the one set up by Samson’s failures to lead, is a brutal rape and a resulting civil war, and the biblical author repeats, over and over again, that this is what happens when there is no leader and every man can do as he pleases. But beyond a lack of leadership, the people lack a sense of right and wrong. They see their relationship with God as covenantal, as a deal: we do for God and God does for us. And the lesson they learn from the period covered in the book of Judges is that each time they break their covenant with God, they are overtaken by their enemies, or destroyed from within.

It takes much longer for them to even consider the question of morality, or the idea that our actions have consequences, in this world. These are my ancestors, and while they are not who I would have hoped for, we don’t get to choose our families. We can only learn from their mistakes and strive to make the world we live in a better place, through our own actions.

We chose our family, Mommy, and that worked out well.

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?

Duolingo Yiddish

            My Duolingo adventure started a few years ago, when I was looking for a way to learn Yiddish online. I wasn’t up to going to an in-person class, and the Yiddish for Dummies book didn’t do much for me, but I couldn’t find a good, free Yiddish app. Instead, I decided to brush up on my Hebrew and learn German on Duolingo, in the hopes that the two languages would mush together in my brain and magically become Yiddish (The Yiddish language is written in Hebrew letters, but is largely based on German, with words also borrowed from many other Eastern European languages, like Polish and Russian).

“Voof.”

Earlier this year, after I wrote a blog post on my difficulties with visual learning and “reading” pictures, someone suggested that I could try learning an ideographic language, to see if that would be a useful step for me. I’d actually spent a semester in college learning Egyptian Hieroglyphics, but since Duolingo didn’t have a course in that, I decided to try Chinese, just to see if the pictures really could help me to remember the sounds and meanings of words in a way “regular” letters could not.

            And I discovered that Chinese is really, really hard. I don’t know if it’s the unfamiliar ideograms or the wide variety of subtly different sounds in Chinese that make it so hard for me, but I kept trying.

            Not long after I started my struggles with Chinese, Duolingo started to advertise a new Yiddish program, and I was thrilled! I immediately had plans to read Sholem Aleichem in the original Yiddish and connect to my Eastern European Jewish roots and maybe even work on my Yoda impression. But every time I checked through the language options on the Duolingo app on my iPhone, Yiddish wasn’t there. Finally, I went to the Duolingo site on my computer, and there it was: Yiddish. It seemed that the Yiddish program was still in the Beta phase of development and that meant it only worked on my computer for some reason.

            I tend to do my Duolingo practice in bed, as a way to relax before going to sleep, so the idea of having to sit up at the computer to study just seemed wrong. But I did it. And I found that my Hebrew/German mishmash really had helped me, because I was able to test out of a bunch of the early lessons of Yiddish, despite the fact that letters that were silent in Hebrew were used as vowels in Yiddish, and vowels that made one sound in Hebrew made another in Yiddish (though I found out later that that may not be universal, but specific to the dialect of Yiddish taught on Duolingo).

“Oy.”

            Despite all of the differences, the lessons were addictive, and I was racking up points on my Duolingo account that I was ready to spend on Chinese lessons, except, when I went back to my iPhone app that night the system got confused and logged me out. I had to reset my password just to get back onto the app, and I realized that, for some reason, using the Beta Yiddish program on the computer made my iPhone angry, or jealous, or something, and discombobulated the whole system.

“Grr.”

            So, I’ve been staying away from the Yiddish program, mostly because I’m too lazy to sit up at the computer to study when it’s so much easier to lie down, but also because I’m too lazy to come up with yet another new password when I inevitably have to reboot the app on my phone. In the meantime I’m still practicing my German and my Hebrew, and French, and Spanish, and every once in a while I get up the nerve to try another lesson in Chinese, but only when I have a lot of points saved up so I can make a thousand mistakes and still finish a whole lesson.

            Continuing to study German has its own benefits too, beyond prepping for Yiddish, because I discovered that there are a lot of German language murder mysteries on Hoopla, the streaming service I get through my library. I was running out of English language mysteries to watch, so being able to tap into all of the shows in German has been a life saver.

My hopes are still high, though, that once I can do the Yiddish lessons on my phone, in comfort, I will progress quickly to spouting yiddishisms everywhere I go and annoying everyone I meet. I’m a patient person, if not an energetic one. I can wait.

“Me 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?

Meditative Quilting

            My Mom is a quilter, and while I’ve followed her into crochet and knitting and even doll clothes and mending, at different times in my life, I have never wanted to learn how to quilt. Until recently.

            A few weeks ago, she took a Zoom workshop on a style of African quilting that was billed as “mindful, improvisational, and intuitive,” and my ears perked up. The class focused on how to make Kawandi quilts, made by the Siddi, an African ethnic group in India. Kawandi quilts are traditionally made out of worn out clothes, either from family and friends or bought in bulk at a used clothing market. The fabrics are usually bright and light, to bring some joy into the darkness, and the various pieces can be cut small, or left recognizable as clothing, with necklines or buttons or sleeves as part of the design. They are made using an applique technique, traditionally using a cotton sari as the quilt’s backing, with the pieces of fabric sewn on top, overlapping to different degrees, depending on how warm of a quilt they want to make.

The quilter starts to sew at one corner of the sari and works their way around, usually in a counter clockwise direction, fixing the patches in place with a running stitch that eventually covers the entire quilt. In this way, a quilt can become a document of the family’s history, and when the quilt begins to fall apart it can be mended with new patches of old clothing. The final step is to sew a folded square patch at each corner of the quilt, a multi-layered triangle called a phula, or flower. The phula serve no function, but are an important finishing touch to each quilt, so that the quilt won’t be left “naked.”

“Mom’s Kawandi-style quilt

            The math of quilting usually intimidates me; matching edges and hems and stitches, and dealing with sewing machines and patterns is too much for me. But the Kawandi quilts, at least as taught by Mom’s teacher, looked doable. I could choose my fabrics as I went along, without any need for the pieces to match in size or shape or color, and I could tack them onto a backing, instead of having to plan ahead and work according to a pattern.

“I suggest this fabric.”

            I especially liked that there would be no set artistic goal in mind, and no pressure to make things perfect. And yet, immediately I started thinking of ways to make it useful and productive, like maybe making quilt squares of the Hebrew letters so I could use them in my classes, as a sort of touch and feel, three-dimensional object to learn from.

“I can help!”

            The official Siddi quilts are much bigger than anything I would try to make, and they often include religious symbols and decorative flourishes in the middle that would be too advanced for me. I will leave it to the experts to make the kinds of beautiful quilts shown in exhibitions and sold for thousands of dollars. All I want is a small square to work on, a needle and thread, and some bright colored fabrics, so I can fall into the quilt and forget about everything else for a while.

from the Soulful Stitching exhibition on display at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College (photo by Celina Colby)
Another Kawandi Quilt from the Soulful Stitching exhibit (not my picture)

            I’m not good at sitting mediation: I get distracted and self-conscious and my mind fills with all of the worst images I can imagine. I’ve always done better with walking as meditation, or writing as meditation, and my hope is that quilting as meditation will be in that category. There’s something deeply satisfying about making something with my hands, and I will need a lot of stress relieving activities this summer, to help me recover from a year of hybrid teaching, so that I can, eventually, wind myself back up for whatever comes next.

“All quilts are mine.”

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?

Reading about Pawpaws

            A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to read one of my essays out loud to a Mutual Support Zoom for my synagogue. We’ve been doing these all year, as a way to keep each other company and to get to know our fellow congregants during Covid. We’re winding up the series now, since most of the regulars have been vaccinated and are returning, slowly, to in-person events, and this was my last chance to take a risk and add my voice to the mix.

“When do I get to talk?”

The theme of this particular Zoom was trees, probably the third or fourth on that theme, because with all of the time we’ve been spending at home for the past year nature has caught everyone’s attention more fully than before. People have been presenting photographs and quilts and poems on trees, and experts have been called in to speak about the science of trees and the care and feeding of trees. When I was asked if I had anything to contribute on the subject, I thought about my pawpaw trees. They have grown with me, and surprised me, and devastated me for a long time now, and I realized that this was something I wanted to share. It didn’t hurt that I had an essay ready to go, freshly rejected from various literary magazines.

“Harrumph.”

            I haven’t done a public reading of my work in a long time, and in the past, I have found them overwhelming. At the graduate reading for my MFA in Fiction I was so anxious that I started crying at the podium, which made it much harder to see the papers in front of me, though I made it through, eventually.

            This reading went a lot better than that one; maybe because it was a small group of familiar faces, or because in the intervening years I’ve had a lot of practice reading other people’s work out loud and teaching in front of a class. I don’t know. It was certainly helpful to have my pawpaw friends there to keep me company, in spirit. Whatever made the difference, this time I actually enjoyed reading my work to an audience. And I think I even did a good job of it (which, given my propensity to self-criticism is saying a lot).

            I don’t know where this leads me, but it felt like a big step forward, because it’s a sign that, maybe, despite all of my fears, I’m getting better at pursuing the things I love. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

“Yes!”

            So here’s the essay I read to those fifteen kind people. I hope you like it.

A Pawpaw Story

            Almost fourteen years ago now, I ordered a box of Pawpaws at a friend’s suggestion. They arrived in September, each fruit wrapped in newspaper because they are so fragile and easily bruised. Pawpaws are custardy sweet, and the flesh has to be eaten with a spoon, not peeled like an orange, or sliced like an apple, or bitten straight into like a strawberry. They are filled with a row of almond shaped seeds that you have to dig out, or suck on, to get the flesh that clings stubbornly to them. It’s work.  The Pawpaw season is very short and the fruit rots within days, so if you order a box (usually from Ohio) you need to eat them, or freeze them, fast.

             Some say pawpaws are too sweet, or too funny looking, or too smelly, but, I discovered, pawpaws are just right for me.

Pawpaw fruit (not my picture)

            We saved the seeds in the freezer, like the instructions said to do (pawpaw growers are, by their very nature, proselytizers), and at the end of the winter, Mom and I planted the seeds in big ceramic pots in the kitchen, next to the window sill, with the pots wrapped in scarves because there was still a bit of a chill left in the air. And then, like the Talmudic sages said the angels do for every blade of grass, I stood over the pots and whispered, “Grow, Grow.”

            And they did grow. The seedlings were tall, and full of personality, and five or six of them even survived long enough to be planted outdoors once the weather was warm enough. We kept them in their pots at first, though, so that they could come back inside if they needed to.

            Three, maybe four, survived the first year and grew into saplings, gradually growing taller, as their leaves extended out like shiny green fans. For years, their leaves paled to yellow in the fall, disappeared for the winter, and reappeared in the spring.

            We had to dig the three surviving trees up and replant them five years later, when we moved. And one suffered a horrible gardening accident when the maintenance men were working higher up on the retaining wall and tossing small trees downhill. But the other two Pawpaw trees survived, now carefully marked, and settled into their new surroundings. They continued to grow, year after year, getting taller, and healthier, but there was no fruit yet, not even a flower.

            We got impatient and ordered two new baby trees, because a Pawpaw expert told us we needed to have at least two trees in close proximity in order for fertilization to occur, and the two we had were too far apart. But the baby trees were crushed in the shipping process and never really recovered, though we watched over them hopefully for a season.

Finally, after eleven years, my two Pawpaw trees started to flower. The flowers were small, and a deep burgundy brown color, but pretty quickly they dried up and flew away, and the leaves turned yellow again and the trees went to sleep again for another winter.

            The following year, the flowers came back bigger and brighter, and there were more of them, and they were filled with enough powdery, sticky pollen that we were able to transfer it from the flowers of one tree to the flowers of the other, by Q-tip, and hope for fruit. A tiny cluster of baby fruit showed up a while later, and even though it only survived for a week, we were hopeful that maybe in another year, after another season of flowering, the trees would be ready to fruit for real.

A pawpaw flower

            Twelve years may seem too long to wait for a piece of fruit, but to me the wait was sort of the point.

            And then, about a month later, disaster struck, of the human kind. I was napping during the day, as I often do, and Mom was in the living room working on a quilt. Somehow she heard a sound over the thumping of the old sewing machine, maybe the crying out of a dying tree had a particular power. I heard a scream, and a door slam, and then my dogs came to get me, but they couldn’t tell me what was wrong. I waited, worried about that scream and the horror it foretold. I could only imagine the death and destruction, the multiple apocalyptic events held in that scream. When Mom finally returned, ringing the doorbell, because she’d forgotten her key, she told me that the new gardeners had killed one of the pawpaw trees, and she’d reached them just in time to save the second one.

I didn’t understand. The pawpaw trees were over fifteen feet tall by then, and no longer wearing the blue tape they’d worn years earlier to mark them as special, because after seven years on the property they didn’t seem at risk anymore. Mom said she’d had to drag the murdered Pawpaw tree into the woods herself, for burial. But, why? The gardeners told her that they’d had to cut everything back in order to mow the lawn in straight lines. But not a tree, she’d screamed at them, you could have trimmed some of the branches if they were in your way, but who cuts down a tree in order to mow a lawn?

            The violence of it felt real to me, not metaphorical. When I finally went outside, the stump of the dead tree stuck up out of the retaining wall, looking wet, almost bloody. Obscene.

            Within minutes, Mom was googling for advice. She wondered if we could re-plant the amputated branches, or order pollen from another pawpaw tree to be sent to us each year, in order to fertilize our lone tree and maybe, finally, produce fruit.

            But I sat still, undone, convinced that you can’t un-chop a tree.

            Weeks passed. We dressed the lone pawpaw tree in a colorful bowtie, to protect it from future gardeners, and I whispered to it daily, to keep it from dying of loneliness.

            And then Mom called me to look at something in the retaining wall, in the area of the dead tree stump. I thought maybe she would show me more of her re-growth experiments, expecting me to be excited and invested, when all I could feel was the deadness of everything. Instead, she showed me pawpaw leaves, living and breathing on two long stalks, half green and half brown, and wobbly from very recent growth, growing out of the dirt two feet from the dead stump. We had not planted new Pawpaw seeds, or even noticed any random Pawpaw trees planting themselves under the mass of other trees and bushes in the retaining wall, but there they were. It just seemed so unlikely, to me, that Pawpaw trees could have created themselves, without any help, just when we needed them most.

            I picked one of the leaves to bring over to the big Pawpaw tree to compare. But I still felt skeptical, because that’s my automatic response to most things. It can’t be true, especially if I want it to be true. Mom pointed out the unique quilting design on the leaves, unlike any other leaves nearby, and the shine on the baby leaves, which I’d seen many times myself when our Pawpaws came back to life each spring.

            A few days later, Mom went back to the same spot, to make sure the Pawpaw stalks were still there, and not just a mirage made out of grief, and she found another, much smaller, Pawpaw sapling, maybe just a few weeks old. And she kept going back, and searching more carefully, and finding more Pawpaws, sprouting everywhere like a tiny village growing from the roots of the seemingly, but not really, dead tree.

            And I had to accept that my skepticism, my pessimism, was wrong. Sometimes the things we want most really do happen; sometimes trees can re-create themselves. From the beginning, I thought that Mom and I would put in endless years of effort for no real reward, because that’s just the way of things. But there they were, a forest of pawpaws coming to life all around me, trying to tell me that trees are living things, and deep in their roots they are desperate to survive, just like us. And sometimes, despite everything, we grow.

The pawpaw tree in autumn.

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?

Going Back to In-Person Synagogue Services

            I’m on the Ritual Committee at my synagogue and we were tasked with deciding whether or not (but really when) to go back to Friday night services in person. The re-opening committee (a group with health and building expertise, brought together by Covid) gave us the go ahead, saying that we could safely have one hundred people in the sanctuary – as long as they are masked and socially-distanced. Our job was to decide whether to take them up on the offer, and if so, how to manage the transition, especially whether to do a hybrid service or not.

We’ve had in-person Bar and Bat Mitzvah services all along, adapting to changing protocols as necessary, with limited in-person guests and a lot of Zooming and masks and social distancing and temperature taking. They even started to have food trucks outside of the synagogue, to allow for some kind of celebration. But most of our congregational events have been on Zoom for the past year. We had a few hybrid beach services last summer, but the Zoom side of those services was not very good. And while the hybrid synagogue school classes have been acceptable, they haven’t really been successful.

But now, with so many congregants vaccinated, and planning for High Holiday services in September underway, it seemed like the right time to consider in-person Friday night services, for those who would want them.

“I’m ready!”

            (By the way, I had my second vaccine shot a few weeks ago and survived; there was that one day when I felt like I was on a creaky rowboat in the middle of a thunderstorm, but the feeling passed. Sort of.)

“Ugh. I’m gonna vomit.”

We decided immediately that, if we returned in person, we would have to do a hybrid service, including interactions on Zoom, because we couldn’t go back to a one way/streaming style for online services, with a single camera catching the service from a distance and no chance for online folks to participate in discussions. Over the past year of zoomed services, congregants who wouldn’t usually be able to get to the synagogue on a Friday night, because they were out of town or not feeling well or not up to driving at night, have been able to attend by Zoom and feel like full members of the community. We’ve had members who were wintering in Puerto Rico or Vermont, or living full-time in New York City or Albany zooming in on a regular basis and participating in ways that used to be impossible. We couldn’t go back to what we used to do and leave those members out.

            The problem is, in order to do this right, we are going to need better technology – like overhead microphones to capture the in-person audience singing and speaking, and more cameras placed around the sanctuary, and someone to keep track of the tech, and…it’s a lot.

“Oy.”

            Given the difficulties involved in hybrid services, and the fact that we still can’t have an Oneg (coffee and cake and schmoozing in the social hall) after services, and we’ll still have to wear masks and social distance in the sanctuary, and we may not even be allowed to sing indoors, it’s hard to get excited about returning to in person services again. And going in person will mean leaving the dogs at home, and actually having to get dressed, and drive. These are definite downsides. I get tired by eight o’clock at night and just want to sit around in my pajamas and watch TV, not get dressed up and drive and worry about how my hair looks from the back. And spending most of the service on mute means I can try out new harmonies without feeling self-conscious that someone will hear me and object, and I can turn to Mom and make snide comments about whatever I’m seeing on screen, as long as I cover my mouth to avoid the lip readers. But, there’s something special about getting to see people in person, and I feel an obligation to at least try to make it work.

“People are over-rated.”

And yet, chances are high that people will be impatient and obnoxious, out of frustration with the inevitable glitches, and online folks may unmute themselves in the middle of the service to tell us that they can’t hear what’s going on, or to complain that they are being neglected. And the in-person folks may get angry about all of the pauses, and having to repeat themselves. We are not a quiet, what-will-be-will-be sort of congregation, so the complaints will be plentiful. And a lot of the stay-at-home people still haven’t figured out zoom etiquette, so we will have big screens in the sanctuary full of people’s foreheads or ceilings, and I will definitely get seasick from the constantly moving iPhones.

            I don’t really want to go back yet, honestly, but I feel like I should. I can’t donate thousands of dollars to a fund drive to pay for new technology, but I can sacrifice a few hours to be a Guinea pig and help figure out how to make the hybrid services work a little better. And I miss being in an actual space with other people, instead of just a virtual one. But, the singing part really is a deal breaker for me. If we can’t sing in person I’d much rather be on Zoom. Progress be damned.

            But, despite all of that, we decided to go ahead with the experiment, even with the costs and complications involved, even though I will miss being able to turn off the computer and instantly be at home, without having to make awkward small talk or try to signal Mom across the social hall that I really want to go home, even though she is in the middle of a fascinating discussion of how best to protect her plants from the insect hordes. She has a tendency to “misunderstand” my signals, or ignore them entirely, when a conversation really interests her.

            I’m not sure I’m optimistic about how this will turn out, but I am determined to try. And we’ll see how it goes. It might be terrible, but it could also be the first step on the road back to normal. Whatever that might be.

“We have no idea.”

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?

Jezebel and Polytheism

            During my search for something in the Hebrew Bible to write a Midrash (AKA biblical fan fiction) about, I realized that I haven’t read the book itself closely enough yet to know how I want to re-write it; I’m still grappling with what these stories were meant to teach me in the first place. I have to remind myself that the goal of the Hebrew Bible is to convince the reader to believe in one god, Yahweh, rather than to tell the absolute truth, and therefore, anything that detracts from belief in that one god is characterized as evil, even if, in our modern view of morality, it isn’t evil at all. Given my cursory understanding of history, it seems like women were given more power and authority by the polytheistic religions that came before, and were then put down by monotheism. And I don’t understand why that was a necessary part of the transition to a One God system, or if it was.

“Girl Power!”

The story of Jezebel, in the book of Kings, focuses on this transition from a female-friendly polytheism to a male-centric monotheism, and it portrays foreign women, and the worship of any God other than Yahweh, as evil. And we have taken this portrayal of Jezebel as fact, because the Bible says it’s so. But is it?

            I know that many modern women have tried to find redeeming value in Jezebel (I did that myself by naming a protagonist after her), but I was willing to believe that she was as wicked as advertised, because I think there’s value in recognizing that women are capable of unforgivable harm; that you don’t have to be a man to be evil. Except, often in the Hebrew Bible, what the evil women are accused of seems more like rebellion, or a different opinion, than true evil.

Jezebel was a priestess of Baal and the daughter of the Phoenician king, and she was married to Ahab, the king of Israel, in a political alliance. She was raised with her own gods, including Baal and Astarte, and did not switch over to Yahweh when she married Ahab. Why? Because she came from a place where both male and female gods were worshipped, and when she married and moved to Israel there was only one, lone, Male God, and, not surprisingly, she didn’t appreciate the change.

“Me neither.”

            The biblical authors don’t like that her husband, the king, builds a temple of Baal, rather than forcing her to worship his national God. They accused her of interfering with the exclusive worship of Yahweh among the people of Israel and bringing in her own gods, as if that is her main crime. In one parenthetical sentence it says that Jezebel has been killing off the prophets of Yahweh, so she may also be a murderer, but there’s no explanation for why she’s doing it, or for how she would have the power to do so without the King’s okay.

            Her crimes seem to be: being a powerful woman able to hold her own against men, and being a polytheist instead of a Yahwist. Her own morality and use of power are questionable, but not more so than her husband’s or other kings of Israel. In fact, King Ahab is considered one of the worst kings of Israel. He reigns for twenty-two years, and the Bible says, he did what was displeasing to God even more than his predecessors.

The prophet who speaks up against Jezebel and Ahab in the Book of Kings is Elijah, and he asks the Israelites how long they will keep hopping between Yahweh and the other gods. His fight is with Polytheism and with the temptation to worship other gods. Elijah and the prophets of Yahweh fight the prophets of Baal and win, and then Elijah kills all 450 prophets of Baal. So Jezebel is evil for killing the prophets of Yahweh, but Elijah is pure for killing 450 prophets of Baal? Doesn’t that make both of them killers?

Elijah confronts King Ahab and predicts that he and all of his heirs will be destroyed, and that dogs will devour Jezebel. Eventually, the King is killed in battle, and his sons become kings for short periods of time each and then they die too.

            We finally return to Jezebel in chapter nine of the second book of Kings. She is sitting in her room in the palace, putting on her makeup, when the new king arrives and has Jezebel thrown out of the window by her eunuchs. He drives over her body with his chariot, and she is devoured by dogs, as the prophecy foretold.

“Eeeeew.”

But is she being punished as a murderer? Or for worshiping foreign gods? For me, it matters.

            Polytheism is the worship of multiple gods, often assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses representing forces of nature and ancestral principles. Sometimes these gods are seen as completely separate individuals, and other times they are seen as aspects of a single god – which resonates with how God is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. God is given many names in the Hebrew Bible –  Yahweh, El, Elohim, El Shaddai, Tzevaot, Yah, Adonai, etc. – and many attributes – healer, merciful, warrior, infinite, strong, omnipresent, shepherd, righteous, Rock of Israel, etc. Possibly the variety comes from so many different authors, but, conveniently, absorbing the names and attributes of the surrounding gods helped the biblical authors to convince the Israelites to stop worshipping foreign gods; if you prized strength or mercy or healing or war, you could find any and all of those qualities in the one god, like in a big box store.

            Polytheism is actually a more comprehensive way of depicting the multiple aspects of the self, and the contradictory nature of the universe. Monotheism attempts to determine what is good (loyal to God) and what is evil (antagonistic to God), and tries to explain how all of our different qualities can exist within a single person, or a single universe. But that doesn’t mean that the particular forms of monotheism that we believe in are right, or lead to more moral behavior in human beings. If anything, Monotheism encourages more black and white thinking, ignoring the grey areas, and giving in to totalitarian leadership systems, whether they strive for actual goodness or not.

            Jezebel’s role in the story is to play the straw (wo)man, that Elijah, as God’s representative, is able to tear down. But even a surface level reading of Kings tells us that Elijah’s behavior is no more moral than Jezebel’s, no more compassionate or reasonable or just. Elijah wins because he backs the protagonist of the book: Yahweh.

“Where’s MY book?”

            So where does that leave me? Why do I believe in one God rather than many? Do I believe in the Yahweh portrayed in the Bible, or a more modern iteration that my ancestors wouldn’t recognize? Can I find fault with the Hebrew Bible and still look to it for guidance?

            I think the lesson I learn over and over is that this book is the memoir of a flawed people, groping towards a vision of God and community that will be able to sustain them and help them find peace. But, clearly, the Hebrew Bible is not always meant to be taken literally; even great rabbis have understood this. This book is not the last word on morality; it’s a starting point.

If seeing the Hebrew Bible this way makes me a Jezebel, so be it. I’m in good company.

“Do you mean us?”

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 Emptiness

            The more successful I become at Intuitive Eating, the more I have to face the sadness of not being able to use food to fill the emptiness. I don’t know why I describe it as emptiness when it seems so full of pain, but it’s so black in there, and it’s all so un-see-able and un-name-able that it appears empty to me. I think I became a writer in order to try to name the emptiness, but I’m still working at it.

“The word you’re looking for is ‘woof.'”

            Is it really sadness that I feel when I tell myself that it’s time to stop eating, or it is anger, or frustration, or disappointment? The first feeling that comes up is that it reminds me of being on the bumpy train with Mom from Paris to Versailles when I was sixteen years old, with no air-conditioning and a severe case of motion sickness. It feels physical, as if there are gears and strings in my belly and they are being pulled and pushed and making creaking noises, just because I won’t let myself eat another two hundred calories of whatever. And every time I try to define the feeling or suggest an activity to distract myself from it, this voice in my belly screams, NO!

“That’s my favorite word!”

            I keep picturing this space as an emptiness that needs to be filled, but the physical feeling is as if I swallowed a sharps container at the doctor’s office and all of these needles and blades are roiling around in my belly. I felt a lot of this as a teenager, but back then the sharps seemed to be in my veins, traveling through my arms and legs and into my skull, and I couldn’t name those emotions either, I just knew that they were unbearable.

            I know all of the things that I’m supposed to try to do in order to fill the void and soothe the pain, like meditation, or a bath, or exercise, or reading a book, etc. Reading and writing are, of course, my reliable old friends, but I’ve also tried different exercise programs and music and movies and craft projects over the years. Knitting used to help, and then coloring and puzzles. But sometimes the emptiness is so persistent and so prickly that nothing works. All I can feel is the sharp, bristling, feathery pangs of something as it scrapes across my insides and whispers hopelessness to me over and over again.

            In fact, a lot of the activities that are supposed to be soothing – like meditation or yoga or baths or massages – create more panic and agitation for me, and stir up the sharp things that live in the emptiness, instead of calming them down. It seems so unfair to have all of these weapons aimed at me from the inside.

            I think some of what’s in the emptiness is a need to fight or flee, even as my body freezes in place and waits for the danger to pass. It would be like catching a humming bird in a glass ball and feeling the endless beat of her wings while she can’t get out. The endless activity and rapid heartbeat and desperation for escape all lead to utter exhaustion, with no sign of an enemy anywhere nearby to explain the need to fly away.

            I keep hoping that if I can name the sharp things, and bring more light into the void, then I’ll be able to soothe the pain, but that hasn’t worked yet.

            Part of the problem is that the panic – that there will be no way to soothe the whatever-it-is that I can’t even name – is profound. And eating something often does stop the panic. The panic is then replaced with shame at overeating, and hopelessness that I will ever lose weight, but the chaos and the panic do subside with food, and in that moment, that’s the most important thing.

“Food is magical!”

            So here I am, feeling the sharp things in the emptiness, resenting them, and trying not to use food to solve the problem. Now what?

“Have you tried chicken?”

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

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

The Other Door

            Since the beginning of the Covid shutdown last March, the clergy at my synagogue have been hosting zooms to discuss both serious and unserious topics, to maintain our social connections from home. Sometimes I can’t make it to a session with the Rabbi or the Cantor, but it’s reassuring to know they’re always there and always coming up with something interesting to talk about. Ellie comes to every zoom, sitting on my lap, while Cricket sleeps in her bed next to me.

The one time Cricket came to Zoom

A few weeks ago, at one of our clergy connections, the Cantor was asking us how our idea of time has changed during the pandemic. He looked into references to time in biblical and Talmudic sources, but to me it seemed obvious, as in so many other areas, that dogs are the secret to mental health in general and to structuring time in particular; having to take the dogs out four times a day – marking breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime – has kept me on a regular schedule all year, despite not always remembering which day it is.

“I’m ready to go again!”

            The dogs even make sure we stay aware of the seasons, because they don’t believe in skipping walks on cold days or rainy days or hot days. In reality, they do have preferences, but until they get to the front door and see and feel the weather for themselves, they are always confident that it’s beautiful outside. Often, when I open the door and the front steps are covered with snow, or rain and wind are aiming themselves straight at us, the dogs look up at me as if I’ve betrayed them, I told the group, and the Cantor said, yes, they want the other door.

What?!

Our cantor is a big fan of science fiction, so he would be the one to see that connection, but it sounded so right.

Is it possible that my dogs actually believe that I am choosing this snowy/rainy/windy world on purpose, just to annoy them? Of course it’s possible! They want the door that opens to the outside world that’s warm and smelly and rich with sounds, none of this weather business, and they are convinced that I could get that for them, if I wanted to. Mean Mommy.

“That’s my line.”

            Of course, this idea sent me cruising down a rabbit hole and I mostly missed the rest of the discussion about the nature of time. I was too preoccupied with the possibility that we could choose a different door and get a different world. If it were possible, would I choose the door to our world, or to somewhere else? I don’t know. There’s something reassuring about not having a choice, and having to make do with what reality brings. I love the Harry Potter books, and the idea of magic wands and magic words, but, too much magic could mean that there would be no rules and no consequences to our actions, or to anyone else’s. How would we learn how to adapt to other people and take responsibility for our behavior, if when one world gets tough we could just choose another door? Would there be infinite other doors? How would we know which one to choose? If we could choose the more pleasant, easy world, would that lead to a happier life?

            It’s a truism that reality is stranger than fiction, and often more frustrating and chaotic, but it can also be more interesting and definitely more varied than what we could imagine for ourselves. The desire for alternative facts, and the belief that all news is fake if it’s not what we want to hear, have become prominent (again) over the past few years. And I understand it. I understand finding reality overwhelming and incomprehensible and wanting it to be something different, something more comfortable and less challenging.

            But isn’t that what fiction is for? We get to read and write stories about what’s behind that other door, as a way to escape reality, but also as a way to reshape how we understand our realities, and find ways to cope with them, and tame their chaos. When we return to the real world from the fictional one we can feel rejuvenated, and use the knowledge and insight we’ve gained from our trip through that other door to make our real lives better.

            This is just a thought experiment, unless you know something about alternate dimensions existing in our world that I am not privy to. But sometimes it helps to think through these impossibilities, like if we’d choose to live forever, or what we’d do if we won the lottery, in order to appreciate the value of the world we actually have.

            Except, does this thought experiment really lead to more contentment with the here and now? I wonder if Cricket and Ellie would find such joy in a breezy spring day, full of smells and sounds to explore, if that’s what they experienced every day. And I think, probably yes.

            But we’ll never know for sure. Right?

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?