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Author Archives: rachelmankowitz

Prayer is Work

            Walking into the synagogue for the third day in a row of Rosh Hashanah services (one evening and then two mornings), I yawned and said to Mom, this prayer thing is work. I actually do work at my synagogue, as a teacher, so there’s a blurring of the lines for me between work and prayer on a regular basis. But I was specifically referring to the exhaustion of dressing up, and spending hours standing and sitting and standing, and dealing with my endless social anxiety so that there was no energy left to do much else. But when I was flipping through the prayer book later that morning (and our prayer book for the High Holidays requires a lot of flipping to get from one prayer to the next, because if we tried to say every prayer in the book we’d be there all week), I saw the word Avodah, which means both work and worship, and I had an aha moment.

“Aha!”

            In the back of my mind, I knew that the word Avodah was used to refer to the animal sacrifices in the ancient temple days, and that after the second temple was destroyed, in 70 CE, the sacrifices were replaced with prayer, and therefore the word Avodah came to refer to prayer. But more often than not, the word Avodah, in Modern Hebrew, refers to work: like a nine to five job or a chore that needs to get done. Sitting there in the sanctuary, praying that we would remain seated for a few more minutes, I wondered, were our ancestors so low on vocabulary that this one word, Avodah, had to have two meanings, or was there more poetry in the dual usage?

In our modern world we tend to think of prayer as transcendent, and spiritual, and somewhere above our regular lives, but in traditional Judaism, prayer and ritual are grounded in everyday life. You wake up and say the Shma, you go to the bathroom and say a blessing, you wash your hands and say a blessing, you pray three times a day, in community or alone, and then you continue to say blessings all day long; it’s not separate from your real life at all – it is your life.

But I’m not traditional in that way, and I tend to experience prayer as an oasis I can escape to on Friday nights, on Zoom or in the sanctuary, with my community. Except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The long standing/sitting/standing intervals and the hours and hours of prayer definitely feel like work; but, also, still, transcendent. The work of prayer isn’t, usually, physical labor, but it does require us to stretch our minds to find the wonder in our world, and to search our hearts in order to develop our relationships with God and community.

And this year’s High Holidays were, if anything, more work than usual.

Cricket was not happy.

When the world seemed to open up last spring, we had so many plans for things to “go back to normal,” including having our High Holiday services in person. We were so sure we’d be rushing back to shul that the clergy planned for two or three seatings for morning services, to accommodate all of the vaccinated congregants and still allow for social distancing. But then came Delta. We tried to ignore it at first. We had choir rehearsals week after week, gradually putting our masks back on and sitting further apart, and then our re-opening committee said that not only couldn’t the choir sing, but no one except the clergy could sing in the sanctuary, even masked and vaccinated. And then people started to call in to the synagogue to say they would be watching services online instead of coming in person, to be safe, and, ironically, we were able to plan longer services, since we’d only need one seating for each service to accommodate those still willing to come in person.

            Mom and I decided to go in person instead of watching online, partly because Mom was asked to put on a one woman show in the social hall, to share her photographs and quilting and fiber art, just in time for the High Holidays, and partly because I was going to read my pawpaw essay on the first evening of Rosh Hashanah services.

            I was, of course, anxious about how many people would show up, and how the essay would be received, and how my reading would go (would I pause in the right places? Read too fast? Mumble too much? Fumble over my words?), but most of my anxiety was about how I would look. I’ve gained weight from my attempts at Intuitive Eating, and even on my best days I feel unpresentable, so I was afraid of putting myself up on the Bima in full view.

            I know, I know. It doesn’t sound like the right mindset for such a solemn and spiritual occasion – the beginning of the new Jewish year, the time to atone and make amends and return to the true path yada yada yada – I should be wearing all white with flowers in my hair and smiling beatifically, la la la.

            I felt honored to be asked to read, truly, and hopeful that people would get to know me better from hearing my essay, but… I was afraid. I forced myself to practice my “for the most part thinking,” as in, I will do my best to read my essay with appropriate drama and clarity and humor, and try to look up once in a while, but I can’t expect to be perfect or look perfect. I will try instead to be grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts, and accept that I will be nervous and self-conscious and therefore imperfect.

            I worked on that a lot, but I wasn’t especially convinced.

Ellie wasn’t convinced either.

            I was nervous all day before my reading, preparing my all back outfit and trying not to look in a mirror. That night, I wore a mask with pictures of dogs on it (over my KN95) to help me feel like the girls were with me, even though they couldn’t be in the sanctuary itself, and I planned to envision a crowd of dogs sitting in the first few rows of the sanctuary, heads tilted with interest as I read, though probably in the mistaken hope that I might say the word “chicken.”

            I walked up to the Bima when it was time, and placed my pages on the lectern, and told the small in-person crowd about the significance of my doggy mask and my imagined crowd of doggy listeners, and they laughed. And then, it went really well. I forgot to think about how I looked, and instead read my essay as if I didn’t know the end of the story ahead of time. I even looked up every once in a while and made eye contact with people in the sanctuary. And I remembered to mention that there was a picture of the pawpaw tree in the social hall, along with the rest of Mom’s beautiful artwork (hint, hint).

Part of Mom’s exhibit – Pawpaw tree is second to last on the right.
The Magic Garden Quilt
Dahlia Art Quilt
Dandelion Thread Painting
Chestnut Leaf Sunprint, with stitching
Mom with her photos and fiber art!

            And then I walked off the Bima and tried, and failed, to put my masks back on as I returned to my seat. It took me three tries to figure out that the reason the masks kept popping off my ear was because I had them upside down, with the nose clips at my chin.

But the response was lovely: lots of warm, kind comments. And then, we went on with the holiday. There was a two and a half hour service the next morning, and Tashlich at the water in the afternoon (the one service each year when congregational dogs are invited. Cricket had a great time sniffing other dogs, while Ellie hid behind my legs), and then there was another two and a half hour service the following morning. And when I finally got home on the afternoon of day three, knowing we wouldn’t have to go back until Yom Kippur, I felt like I could sleep through that whole week and still be exhausted from all of the emotional and physical work of prayer.

Mom and the girls, exhausted.

But saying that it felt like work doesn’t mean I regret it, or wish I’d just stayed home. Instead, it means that I put a lot of effort into something that is sacred to me. I pushed myself to be present, and I built more spiritual muscles in the process.

Yom Kippur, a week later, was, as usual, even harder. The services were longer and there were more of them in a shorter period of time. I didn’t fast, but I went to all of the services and did all of the standing/sitting/standing calisthenics. I switched to sneakers, not so much to avoid leather (one of the things traditional Jews avoid for Yom Kippur) but because my feet hurt, a lot. Yom Kippur requires more standing, and more chest beating and introspection, and repentance. The music was beautiful, and mournful, though, and we were told to hum along with the Cantor as he sang in full voice, standing even longer than the rest of us.

I was asked to do a reading at the concluding service on Yom Kippur, a poem by Yehuda Amichai this time, and I did my best to read it as if the words were my own, as if it were as much a part of me as the essay I read at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, ten days earlier.

By the end of everything I felt like I’d been hit by a truck, and I still felt guilty for all of the ways I’d cut corners (not fasting, avoiding some of the more penitent prayers in favor of my own thoughts), but overall I felt like I’d done my best. I’d made the most of the opportunity to be present with my community, and within myself, and I was grateful to be finished with the work, for a while, and to be able to rest and let it all settle in.

Did I come to any exciting revelations about my health, my body, my spirituality, or my future from all of that prayer? I’m not sure yet. But I put in the work, and I took a few small steps forward; and, really, every step is worth taking, even if it’s not clear, in the moment, where it will take me.

The girls are ready for whatever comes next, as long as it’s a walk.

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?

Ellie’s Grey Eye

            For a few days in a row, Ellie’s left eye was a little bit red and she occasionally seemed reluctant to open it, but she’d had similar symptoms before and they usually cleared up on their own, so I wasn’t worried. The vet had given us an ointment way back when, but when we ran out we didn’t bother to get it refilled. When I saw the redness in Ellie’s eye I had it in the back of my mind to call the vet and ask if she should come in, or if we could just refill the old prescription, but it didn’t feel like an emergency.

“Really?”

            And then, at around ten thirty one night, Ellie looked up at me (to tell me that it was time to go out for the final walk of the day) and her left eye, almost all of it, was grey. It looked like a particularly opaque cataract, except that her eye had been clear just a little while before. I started to panic. My baby was going blind! She had multi-system organ failure that was showing up first in her eye! The emergency vet clinic would cost thousands of dollars I did not have, but how could I not rush her out to the car right away!

            I was freaking out.

“EEEEEK!”

            Mom went to the computer to google the symptoms while I watched Ellie dance around on her toes to let me know that she really, really, really wanted to go outside. There were a bunch of possibilities, like a sudden cataract or irritation, Mom said, so let’s wash her eye with warm salt water and see of that helps. We took the girls out for their walk, because they were now barking up a storm, but I was still freaking out. When we got back inside I made the salt water mixture and held Ellie in the bathroom sink and poured the water over her eye, over and over again, to her great frustration. I was hoping the greyness would just disappear with the water, but no such luck. At least the salt water didn’t seem to be hurting her (though she was very annoyed at getting wet and required serious treats as a reward).

            I went to sleep that night worried that I was condemning my baby to death, or at least blindness, by not rushing her to the emergency vet, but Mom said we would go to Ellie’s own doctor the next day and he would know what to do. I was not convinced. I had nightmares about stray dogs coming to my house for help with serious medical problems and I couldn’t help them. The guilt was endless and I woke up feeling like the most awful, selfish, hopeless, incapable person to ever live. And then Ellie came running into my room with a smile on her face and almost no greyness left in her eye.

            Oh Lord.

            We made the appointment with the vet anyway, and did everything we could do to distract Cricket while shuttling Ellie out of the apartment. Ellie cried in the car, but she always does that. She sits in the back seat and makes very high pitched conversation with us, to make sure we don’t forget she’s back there (when her sister is in the car with her, Cricket will climb behind my neck, in the passenger seat, to deal with her anxiety and leave Ellie in the back on her own anyway).

“Hey! Don’t forget about me!”

            By the time we’d reached the vet’s office, and the vet tech came out to get Ellie, I actually had to point out which eye was bothering her, because it was hard to see even the redness now. And then we had to sit in the car and wait. I hate this. Going to the vet is always anxiety producing (for me almost as much as for my dogs), but at least I can be there with them to give them comfort and ask questions and remind the doctor of whatever I think he needs to know. With Covid, I just have to sit in the car and wait while they steal my baby away from me.

            Eventually, the doctor came out and told me that Ellie had had a thorn in her eye (!) and he’d removed it, but there was an ulceration at the wound site and she would need eye drops twice a day, and she’d have to come back in a week to have her eye examined again to make sure it was healing. The vet has something of a hang dog face to begin with, but he looked even sadder this time, clearly upset for what my baby girl had been through; which sort of helped, but also sort of made me worry more.

            Then the vet tech brought Ellie back out to the car and, other than the yellow stain on the hair around her eye from the examination, Ellie looked fine. She was eager to get onto her own feet and get the hell out of there, and she had a lot to say about her adventure on the drive home.

            As soon as we got home, Ellie and Cricket had a tête à tête about the vet visit (mostly Ellie reassuring Cricket that she really didn’t miss anything good), and Cricket seemed to be reassured. They both got a treat for their different traumas and then bedded down for their afternoon naps.

            My first attempt at giving Ellie her eye drops that night was not especially successful (she kept closing her eye so that the drop just rolled down her face, but I eventually figured out how to tilt her head back far enough to get the drop into her actual eye). Once she got the hang of the eye drop routine, though, she got so excited about the treat-to-come that she started to dance around before I could get the drop into her. By the end of the week I just accepted that I would never be good at this, and if it took three drops before one got into her actual eye, so be it.

            We never figured out how Ellie had gotten a thorn in her eye, but given her propensity for rolling around on the floor, bed, and ground whenever and wherever she can, it’s not a big mystery. Days after her visit to the vet she managed to get what I hope was just poop on her back (we have dead mice out there in the yard, and who knows what else I don’t what to know about), and she had to have a full bath to wash it all off, and of course treats to make it better, which meant that along with the twice daily eye drop treats she and her sister had pretty much hit the jackpot.

            We went back to the vet after a week of eye drops and he stained her eye again and there was no sign of the ulceration. I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be, because of how healthy and wide open and brown her eye looked, but we had to check and make sure.

            So now we’re back to the usual problems – with Cricket intimidating Ellie away from Grandma, and off the couch, and away from the leftovers meant for both of them. Not that any of that went away while Ellie was suffering; Cricket doesn’t believe in having mercy on an injured opponent. She takes any advantage she can get.

“Who me?”

            G’mar Chatima Tova! To another year of silliness and treats and good health for everyone!

P.S. Ellie begs for treats even while she’s sleeping

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?

It’s Hard to Respect a Body You Can’t Trust

            I’ve been having stomach pains since mid-March, so when I went for my yearly check up with the cardiologist I told him about the pain and he sent me to the gastroenterologist in his practice. I haven’t been to a gastro since I was a teenager, on purpose, so the referral was not a happy thing for me, especially when the cardiologist casually told me it was also time for a colonoscopy.

“Never. Absolutely never.”

            The new doctor was nice, though. And he actually listened to me, and read through my records, and even recommended a geneticist to figure out what type of Ehlers Danlos I have (in case it means that my tissues are too fragile for a colonoscopy, which would be a pretty cool escape). But he also sent me for a few ultrasounds, and even though I knew I should be happy that he was looking for answers, I was dreading the scans, especially the more invasive one. I want to feel better, magically, not go for more humiliating tests.

“What does invasive mean?”

            When I told my therapist about the latest medical drama, and my concurrent struggles with Intuitive Eating and trying to learn how to respect my body, she said, it must be hard to respect a body you can’t trust.

            I’d never quite thought about my lack of trust in my body as coming from my health issues; I’ve thought of it more in terms of the childhood sexual abuse I experienced, and feeling like my body was always in danger and not a safe place to live. But my therapist was right: the way my symptoms come up intermittently, and don’t show up on traditional tests, has made it hard for me to develop a feeling of trust in my body as an adult.

            But maybe the more apt question is: How can I respect a body that my doctors don’t trust? How can I ignore their doubts about my symptoms when they are the only path available for seeking help? The way doctors tend to focus on blood tests and scans, and ignore basic details of how the person is or is not functioning, is frustrating. They are supposed to be empiricists, and yet they ignore so much of the information that’s right in front of them.

            I went for the invasive scans, despite my reluctance, telling myself that even if I don’t trust my body I still need to do whatever I can to heal it. And hours later I was able to check my virtual medical chart and see the results: mostly normal, but with areas obscured. It was already late on a Friday when I got the test results, so I couldn’t call the doctor’s office for more information, or to find out what to do next.

            By the following Monday afternoon I still hadn’t heard from my doctor, but I put off calling, not wanting to be a burden, and not really wanting to hear what he might say. When I finally called, after a few more days of dragging my feet, his secretary said that she hadn’t received the results of the tests, and that’s why I hadn’t heard from the doctor; he would definitely have called by now if he’d received the results, she said. That was something of a relief. And she told me that she was going to reach out to the testing location to get the results and then call me right back. Except, I didn’t hear from her that day, or the next day, or the next. I probably should have called again right away, but I didn’t want to. I resented all of the work that had to go into getting only mildly useful healthcare.

            I was finally able to speak to the doctor about two weeks after the ultra sounds had been done, after calling the office again and speaking to the secretary again, and the doctor told me that he wanted me to go for a Catscan this time, with contrast, in order to see whatever had been obscured on the ultrasounds.

            I reluctantly made the appointment for the Catscan, and I also heard back from the geneticist’s office (for the Ehlers Danlos diagnosis) with a three page history questionnaire to fill out before my visit.

            In the meantime, my nutritionist suggested trying a low FODMAP elimination diet, to see if that could reduce my belly pain. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols, which are short-chain carbohydrates (sugars) that the small intestine absorbs poorly. She gave me a crazy list of foods to avoid for the next two to six weeks – like cashews and pistachios (but not walnuts or pecans) and mushrooms (but not oyster mushrooms) and cauliflower (but not broccoli). I could have tomatoes, but not prepared tomato sauce (because of the onions and garlic that are usually added), and I could have chickpeas and lentils and potatoes, but not kidney beans or barley or wheat. It’s totally non-intuitive; I could eat handfuls of table sugar on this diet, but not an apple.

“Sounds good!”

            I emptied most of the High FODMAP foods from the pantry and put them in boxes (like we do on Passover when, for religious reasons, we are supposed to avoid eating leavened foods), and I adapted our regular recipes to the best of my ability. But my mind was spinning.

            The low FODMAP diet was originally designed for people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and/or Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), with the goal of figuring out which foods on the list, if any, are problematic for each individual sufferer. I didn’t have the right list of symptoms for either of those diagnoses, but I was desperate to feel better, so I agreed to go on the diet anyway.

            And there was a lot of relief in being on a diet again; any diet, for any reason. It gave me the feeling that I was at least doing something to help myself, and that someone was watching over my shoulder to make sure I was doing it right. But the diet was hard, and even harder for Mom who had to go along with it for no good reason of her own, expect to support me; though she made a lot of “secret” trips to the Italian restaurant around the corner to make it bearable.

“Wait. What?!”

            After three and a half weeks on the diet, though, my belly pain was worse, if anything. And the limited number of foods I could eat was bringing up my old food panic issues, and leading me to eat more of the allowed foods (like low-lactose cheeses and gluten free cookies).

            My nutritionist had told me that people often lose weight on this diet – even though that’s not the purpose – but I’d actually gained weight. And it wasn’t over, because I still had to slowly reintroduce the high FODMAP foods, in case I had a reaction to any of them. Knowing that there would most likely be no relief going forward, despite the length of time it would take to carefully reintroduce each food, made me angry; but I’m such a good girl that I did it anyway.

            Oh, and I met with the geneticist. She will be sending me a saliva testing kit so we can see if I actually have a connective tissue disorder (I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos on clinical examination in the past), but she said that the tests only catch about forty percent of cases, so, even if the test comes back negative, the chances are 60% likely to be wrong.

            And the Catscan came back normal. So I’m at a loss. I was hoping that this summer of medical tests and diets and time off from teaching would re-energize me and allow me to start the new school year with more energy – but I’m still sick and tired, and we’re going back to masks and social distancing and possibly hybrid classes again in September.

I’m angry.

I’m angry that nothing has worked, and that my pain doesn’t qualify as significant because it’s not caused by the right things. I’m angry that I can’t lose weight, and that I can’t stop blaming myself for it. I wanted to make progress with Intuitive Eating and respecting my body, and I wanted to have more energy to live my life the way I want to live it, and it’s just not happening.

Next up. The nutritionist and I are planning an anti-inflammatory diet, to see if, one, nutrition can actually reduce the inflammation in my body, and two, if reducing overall inflammation will reduce my pain and give me more energy. I’m not especially hopeful, but I have to keep trying.

The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is coming up fast, and this is a time to make an accounting of the mistakes of the past year and start on a new path, so I’m not giving up yet. But I’m pissed off. Really, really pissed off.

“Grr.”

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?         

Traveling around the world with BeamZ

            I don’t remember when the BeamZ ad first showed up on my Facebook feed. I’d been looking for Hebrew language courses some time before then, so my feed was filling up with Jewish-related ads, and this one advertised a free virtual tour of the Jewish Quarter in Paris. Free? Paris? I looked into it a bit to make sure it wasn’t just a scam to get my email address or something, and it seemed genuine, so I decided to try it out.

            Mom and I dutifully sat in front of the computer to see what would happen, and it was, a bit, underwhelming. It was raining in Paris that day, and the host was sort of hitting the end of his rope, telling us that he wasn’t making enough money to keep working as a tour guide and would need to rethink his line of work. His internet connection was also spotty, but there was something about the whole thing; something charming about being on a real time tour of a foreign city.

            The way the BeamZ platform works is that instead of asking for a flat fee up front, they ask viewers to pay a tip to the host if they like the tour. You can pay from two dollars up to twenty dollars (with five to seven recommended), and if you leave early, or feel like it was a waste of your time, you just don’t pay. The guilt for not paying is relieved by the fact that there are so many viewers of each tour at the same time. That arrangement meant that we could take the risk of signing up for more tours, knowing that if we didn’t like the host, or the connection was bad, we could just leave without owing any money or feeling any (or much) guilt.

            I continued to get e-mails from BeamZ, listing more possible tours, and I realized that this wasn’t only a Jewish-centric enterprise; there were tours from Quebec and Tokyo and Vietnam and Amsterdam and Scotland, too. We decided to sign up for another tour, this time to a Flea Market outside of Paris (because Mom is a big fan of flea markets) and that’s when we discovered Patrick. Patrick was relaxed and friendly and knowledgeable, and even though I’m not a flea market/antiques person, I still had a good time. Watching his tour, I started to understand how the platform could really work for a host who could build a following, because there were viewers on the tour who’d been with him week after week, and he kept adding more tours to his list – like a series on sacred places and another on famous Americans in Paris – and hundreds of people were showing up.

“A market for fleas?!”

            On our next Paris tour, Patrick took us to a popular foodie area and showed us the inside of his raspberry pate au choux and chocolate-covered macaron, and walked us through a kitchen supply store and a chocolatier. The immediacy of watching random Parisians walking down the street, some wearing masks and some not, with no one really aware of being filmed, or caring, made it feel like we were really there in Paris, except that I didn’t have to do the walking. And it only cost a few dollars for each of us, instead of having to pay for airline tickets and hotels and transportation. And each tour was only forty-five minutes long, so I didn’t have time to get (too) bored. It was like a little vacation in the middle of the day, and a chance to visit a place I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.

“Did you say food?”

            I tried a tour of Jewish Berlin by myself, but it felt too much like a history class, and a painful one, because we visited a Jewish cemetery in East Berlin that had been destroyed by the Nazis and remade as a memorial to Holocaust victims. There was a haunting sculpture depicting the people who’d been brought to the Jewish retirement home, in front of the cemetery, when it was made into a detention center for the Jews on their way to the death camps. I made it through the whole tour, and found it interesting, but I wasn’t up to the next three tours in the series.

            We tried a few other tours, to Venice and Quebec and Edinburgh and Loch Ness and Budapest, with mixed results, and then I signed us up for a Tokyo tour. Usually the television coverage of the Olympics is full of stories from the host country, and how the people live their lives, but because of Covid there were only a few overhead shots of Tokyo’s Olympic village, and I wanted more. Our guide, Eriko, walked us through a lotus filled pond – with a walkway running through it – and the lotus plants were as tall as she was! And then we visited a Shinto shrine, and a Buddhist temple, and then we went to a market under the train tracks where they sold pretty much everything, but especially seafood. And there was a candy stall at the end of the market that sold boxes of candy sushi, where you could put together your own little piece of sushi however you wanted! We even saw a pine tree bent by a bonsai master into the shape of a circle! It was placed in front of a Buddhist temple, so that if you looked through the circle you could see another Buddhist temple across the park. Eriko was lovely and seemed to enjoy the trip as much as we did, and we immediately signed up for another tour with her, this time to an area outside of Tokyo called Kamakura, where we could virtually sample Japanese street food.

“Sushi in a cup!”

            And then we went back to Patrick, for a second attempt at Paris’ Jewish Quarter, Le Marais. He told us from the beginning that this tour would be about the sweet and the sour; the memorials to the Holocaust, yes, but also the life of the Jewish quarter today.

            Le Marais means the swamp, because in the Middle Ages the streets in the area were flooded regularly, which is probably why the Jews were allowed to live there. The streets are still what they were in the middle ages, made of cobblestones with a channel down the middle for water to pass through. And there are plaques everywhere to commemorate the French Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. An especially painful one commemorates the 11,400 Jewish children collected in the Marais and sent to their deaths; one as young as 27 days old.

            One of the main streets of the Jewish Quarter is Rue Des Rosiers – the street of rosebushes – and it is filled with kosher restaurants and pastry shops and Jewish bookstores. Many Jewish people still live in the Marais today and it’s a lively place. I went to the Rue Des Rosiers as a teenager, but I didn’t really know what to look for back then, and I didn’t even get to try the food because I was struggling with a serious eating disorder at the time, so it was so nice to be back there, with Patrick and my virtual friends, in a very different state of mind.

I almost bought that hat when I was in Paris.
This was the best part of my Paris trip as a teenager. By far!

            Some of the streets in the area are set aside for pedestrians, but others have metal poles at regular intervals to prevent cars from ramming into people. Patrick acknowledged that there is still anti-Semitism in France, but he said that there is much more anti-Moslem sentiment among the French. When one woman asked about the number of Jews of color living in France, Patrick told us that French law forbids the counting of people by color, religion, or ethnicity, because of how the Nazis used those lists in the Holocaust, so any count would have to be approximate.

            The last stop on the tour was the Memorial de la Shoah – the Memorial of the Holocaust – which included a wall of names of the French Jews killed in the Shoah (in France they use the Hebrew word Shoah rather than Holocaust). In this memorial, there was a chimney-like installation, with the names of the death camps inscribed on it, and underneath they mixed together ashes from Auschwitz and earth from Israel, to both mark the horror and to provide some form of good burial for those who were murdered.

            The final moment of the tour was the wall of the righteous among nations, listing 3,800 non-Jewish French people determined by Yad Vashem to have helped save Jewish lives during the Shoah. Somehow the balance of the sour and the sweet on this tour was just right.

            There are more BeamZ tours of Prague, St. Petersburg, Glasgow, Lisbon, Barcelona, India, Vietnam, etc…and they’re adding more tours, and more countries, all the time. Covid be damned. My only real problem is deciding where to go next. I’m trying to remind myself that I don’t have to go everywhere right away, because there’s plenty of time to explore at my own pace, if only because Covid doesn’t seem to be going away.

            Cricket and Ellie tend to sleep through these tours, though every once in a while there’s a dog on the screen, barking in a completely different dialect, and they’ll perk up for a second and then go back to their naps. Maybe, one day, BeamZ will do a canine tour of Paris and the girls will be able to take part.

“We’re ready!”

            Until then, in case you’re interested in going on a virtual tour to visit the humans of the world with BeamZ, here’s the link: https://www.beamz.live/

“We’ll wait here.”

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

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

Abraham the Father of Multitudes

            There’s a belief – that you are supposed to take on faith – that all of the books of the Hebrew Bible, and even the Oral Torah (the commentaries on the Hebrew Bible written later by the rabbis, called the Mishnah and the Gemara) were given by God at Mount Sinai, along with the Ten Commandments. According to Jewish dogma, in fact, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were all written by Moses (and inspired by God) in about 1300 BCE. Unfortunately, it’s more likely that these stories were written and collected during the Babylonian exile, after the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE, and a long time after the events described would have taken place.

            My Rabbi likes to say that the early stories in Genesis, pre-Abraham, are meant to be like Rudyard Kipling’s Just-so-stories, fables really, to explain the origins of things in our world. Why is childbirth painful? Why do we wear clothes? Why do we speak so many languages? Why are we scattered across the earth? And the answers were often adapted from what surrounding cultures had come up with to answer those same questions.

“Just so you know: dogs don’t wear clothes, and we all speak Woof.”

            There’s a well-founded theory, new to me but not new to biblical scholars, that everything before the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the central story of the Hebrew Bible, was written to make that Exodus more meaningful, and to explain why the Israelite tribes were able to escape slavery and enter freedom in the land of Israel. Others say that even the Exodus story itself is a fiction, created by a mixed group of tribes living in the land of Israel centuries later, to create a cohesive story of how they became a nation.

            This idea makes me feel seasick, as if the ground under my feet has been pulled away, but in another way it’s freeing. It allows me to see my ancestors, and these stories, as less concrete and more open to interpretation. There are reasons why every culture writes its own history, creating its own heroes and villains. Even the American story, so much more recent in history and therefore much easier to fact check, is full of exaggeration and idealization and interpretation meant to bolster certain values. This is what people do: we tell stories about our lives and our families. Some of these stories are even true, but many of them are meant to be symbolically true and to be emblematic of the life lessons we want to teach our children, rather than sticking strictly to the facts.

            And in the ancient world, history and chronology and literature were treated very differently than the way we treat them today. The idea that we fact check our stories at all would have seemed strange to them, and the idea that the science of a story would have to be correct would just seem silly. They didn’t care if the splitting of the Sea of Reeds was possible, just that it felt true to them.

“I never let facts get in my way.”

            Despite my endless questioning of the biblical authors, I always took it on faith that Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob) were real people. I assumed that the authors of the Hebrew Bible were mythologizing and interpreting every which way, in order to make these patriarchs seem more important and to make them stand for more than just individual people doing idiosyncratic things, but I assumed that at least some of the stories were based in fact. It never even occurred to me to wonder if Abraham himself was a fictional character, created by later generations, to validate cornerstones of the Israelite faith. Part of me even accepted that the mythological characters of Adam and Eve, and even Noah, were historical in some way. My questions, when I had them, were more often about the way the biblical authors interpreted events, editorializing and exaggerating to particular ends, rather than whether or not the events themselves had ever taken place.

            But, if the stories of the Hebrew Bible are fiction, why do the patriarchs, and especially Abraham, matter – so much so that three world religions see Abraham as their forefather?

            The name Abraham basically translates as Big Daddy, or father of multitudes. And yet, Abraham is a mess as a husband and a father, which makes him an interesting choice for patriarch. He’s certainly not a good role model, except, maybe, in his faith in God.

            So what is the point of this Abraham character? And why has he resonated with so many people for so long? We can ask that question whether we believe that God wrote the Hebrew Bible or that many different authors wrote it for their own different purposes, actually. Why has Abraham lived up to his title as the father of multitudes, inspiring so many people to believe in monotheism and this Yahweh version of God?

            The Hebrew Bible doesn’t present us with a paragon of goodness who is born knowing how to do everything right – no, Abraham is flawed, and makes terrible mistakes, even life threatening mistakes, in his misreading of what God wants from him.

            He learns.

            And God is with him every step of the way, not always cheering on his actions but trying to guide him and be with him as he makes his mistakes. Maybe his imperfection is what allows us to relate to him, and go on this journey with him, and believe that, maybe, we can have our own, similar, relationship to God.

“I’m imperfect too, and you love me anyway.”

            This is a God who will stick with you when you struggle, and continue to spur you on to be better, and give you second and third chances to learn. Isn’t that what we all want, really, to be supported along the way and not required to be perfect from the start, or even at the end, in order to earn that support?

            So, does it matter if these characters really existed thousands of years ago? Maybe it’s even more powerful to think that our ancestors were able to imagine these characters and their stories, and create this vision of God. I’m a fiction writer after all; I believe in the power of a good story, whether it’s factually true or not.

“Tell us another story, Mommy.”

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

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

The Hebrew Class, Continued

            The night before my online Hebrew class started, I suddenly got anxious. I had the link to the class ready, and the WhatsApp group set up on my phone, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. I had nightmares that night about racing around Long Island trying to get to my class on time, and, of course, continually missing the class. And when I woke up, the anxieties just multiplied. What if the class was too hard? Or too easy? What if I didn’t like the teacher? Or my classmates? What if I couldn’t stay focused for 90 minutes at a time? What if there were too many students in the class and it was too easy to fade into the background? Or what if there were too few students and I felt like I was being watched and judged the whole time? What if the teaching method overwhelmed me? Or I forgot all of my Hebrew? Or I got bored? Or I was already exhausted by the time the class started and couldn’t keep my eyes open?

Huh?”

            The hours leading up to the class dragged by, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything except the endless worries. But, when I sat down in front of my computer and logged into class, it was fine. There were ten students, not too few or too many, and the teacher was friendly; she made sure everyone could participate and she repeated conjugations and sentences as many times as necessary for us to catch on. The class felt a little bit easy, but that was a relief for day one. The only real problem was trying to figure out the tech (I didn’t understand how to use the WhatsApp group or the Quizlet flashcards), but I survived, and the nightmares went away.

Sweet Dreams

            The second class, a few days later, was more challenging and moved faster, and I started to feel like a spigot was opening up in my brain and my long dormant Hebrew vocabulary was starting to flow again. Except, I felt kind of bad about how easy it all was, as if I’d taken the easy way out by accepting the level I’d been put in, instead of challenging myself to go into the next level up. And I felt lazy for not pushing myself to study more between classes, or watch more movies in Hebrew, or seek out random Israelis to talk to.

            The thing is, I still forget words in Hebrew that I should know, like the word for “to study,” or I confuse the conjugations for You (f) and She. And I feel the squeeze in my gut, and the beginning of humiliation that after all these years I still can’t master Hebrew. And then there’s this old feeling, where I worry that I’m showing off too much and that if I make a stupid mistake my classmates and my teacher will say, Gotcha, you’re not so great after all. But, actually, that hasn’t happened in this class, at all.

            Even in the practice groups, on different days, with different teachers and classmates, the overall vibe is eager but non-judgmental; everyone is trying and everyone is making mistakes and it’s kind of great.

“Yeah!”

            We spend a lot of time in our class just repeating the words the teacher gives to us, both asking the set questions and giving the set responses in turn; so not only are we saying the words, but we’re hearing them over and over, creating a sort of muscle memory for common phrases.

            My favorite thing is how much we’re learning about the Tel Avivians who created the class materials through the sentences they have us saying. We learn how to say: my back hurts, my teeth hurt, or my legs hurt because I was walking all day; I didn’t get to it because I had a crazy day; I missed the party because the traffic was crazy; and I’m tired because I work all day every day including the weekend. You can get a pretty good idea of a culture from the kinds of things they teach newcomers how to say.

“Woof.”

One of my favorite new phrases is Al HaPanim which translates as “on the face,” or “falling on my face” which basically means, I feel terrible. I definitely want to teach that one to my synagogue school students. By the time they get to class, after a full day at regular school, they really, really love to complain; why not give them a chance to do it in Hebrew?!

            My social anxiety is still an issue. I feel embarrassed when I have to make conversation about my life and my answers sound childish or uncool. I’m also self-conscious about the way I look on screen, especially because my living room is warm in the summer, even with the air conditioner on (it’s a big room and the air conditioner is far away from my desk), so I get kind of sweaty. Ideally, I would be the kind of person who blow dries her hair and puts on make-up before every class, but I am not, so my hair is usually up in a ponytail and my bangs are either stuck to my forehead or floating in the air willy nilly. So be it.

“MY hair looks fine.”

            I still get anxious before every class, of course, and I still hurry up and do my homework right away out of fear that I’ll forget everything I learned within minutes. I’m still me; but I’m trying. And even when I’m anxious or overwhelmed, learning Hebrew still seems to fill up an important place in my heart where my kindergarten self is always hungry for more; so it’s worth the trouble.

My hope is that all of this practice speaking Hebrew, and making mistakes and moving on anyway, will help create circuits in my brain that will be useful in other parts of my life as well. That’s always the goal – that each time I challenge myself to learn something new I’m actually healing my brain, and becoming more fully myself.

“Like me!”

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

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

My Pawpaw Tree is Tilting

            During one of the summer storms, my fourteen-year-old Pawpaw tree went from gently leaning into the yard, to bowing down, leaves almost touching the grass.

            At first, I thought it was temporary, like the way the hydrangeas get heavy with moisture and look like they’re exhausted and wilting, and the next day, as they dry off, they lift back up. But even while all of the other flowers and trees in the yard started to rise back up to standing, the Pawpaw stayed tilted.

            Part of the problem is that the Pawpaw tree was planted in the retaining wall, rather than straight in the ground, and the retaining wall is not in the greatest of health. There are all kinds of bushes and trees around the Pawpaw competing for space, and the wooden slats that keep each level of the wall in place are rotting.

            But still. The Pawpaw tree has been there for nine of its fourteen years, long enough to have deep roots, so I didn’t expect it to fall down and never get up again.

            Mom said it could be about the quality of the soil in the retaining wall; it’s gotten spongy. She has plans to buy special soil to add into the wall around the tree, to help support it, but if it’s the soil, then why is it only the Pawpaw that’s struggling to stay upright?

            I get a teensy bit paranoid about my tree, obviously.

“Obviously.”

            We put some rocks around the trunk and leaned a garden fork against it with the teeth dug into the ground as a counterweight, but that was only a short term solution.

            Then Mom went to the home improvement store and bought a heavy rope and a bungee cord. My job was to climb up into the retaining wall (with a big stick for balance and to push tangled vines and branches out of my way) and wrap the rope around two solid trees a few levels up into the wall. Then the bungee cord went around the trunk of the Pawpaw, as taut as possible, to give the tree some extra support, so at least it won’t tilt further in the next storm.

            I don’t know how Mr. Pawpaw feels about wearing a back brace, as well as the bowtie that marks him out as off limits to the gardeners, but I hope he agrees that survival is more important than vanity.

            So now I wait and see. There’s still one Pawpaw fruit growing on one of the higher branches (out of reach) and the leaves look healthy, so I’m hopeful.

            I’m not thrilled with all of the drama that comes of loving a tree; but it certainly gives me something to write about.

“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?

Respect Your Body

            The hardest lesson for me in my Intuitive Eating journey has been: Respect Your Body. I’ve been dreading this chapter in the workbook (by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch) since I started working with my nutritionist seven months ago. But as we ran out of other chapters to read, and re-read, she suggested going through this chapter one page at a time – in small bites – to keep it from becoming too overwhelming.

Small bites…of chicken?”

            One of the basic steps of learning to respect your body is the acceptance of your “genetic blue print,” because we have these fantasies that a five-foot-tall woman can transform herself into a willowy, long-legged model, if she just tries hard enough. In the Respect Your Body chapter of the book the authors write that, “Just as a person with a shoe size of eight wouldn’t expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation about body size.”

            But I do have these expectations. Literally, I’ve often felt guilty for how big my feet are, as if I kept growing on purpose just to take up more than my fair share of space. I don’t know how to accept that it’s okay to have big feet and big bones in a world where, up until recently, I couldn’t find many shoes in my size. But an even bigger part of the problem, I think, comes from the extreme size difference between my parents: my father is 6’4” and my Mom is, maybe, 5’1”, so being big automatically makes me feel like I’m on the wrong side of the parental divide. My father is a bad guy, and I feel bad by association for being tall and big-boned like him, instead of petite like Mom.

            I remember going to look for a watch when I was a teenager and trying on one women’s watch after another until it became clear that the bands on the watches meant for women were universally too small for me. And this was when I was skinny! I had to choose from the men’s watches even though they all looked so masculine and made me feel like I had cooties.

            I have a lot of stories like that: like when I was ten and needed new sneakers and none of the girls’ sneakers came wide enough for me, so I had to buy the ones for boys (aka blue). I wasn’t overweight, just built on the wrong scale for a girl my age, so there were no pink sneakers for me.

“Who needs sneakers?”

            I remember an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, years ago, when Oprah compared her “food addiction” to men who were “addicted” to domestic violence. She sat down with a group of domestic abusers and likened their inability to stop beating their wives with her inability to stop eating pasta. She really seemed to believe that this was a fair comparison. The underlying assumption, that wanting to eat a regular-sized serving of pasta qualifies as an addiction, went unquestioned, of course, but Oprah’s analogy pushed it further, implying that being fat is a character issue similar to beating your wife.

            I don’t know if there was any pushback against her assertions, because this was pre-social media, but her message resonated with a lot of other things I’d heard and seen by then. It was clear that, in our culture, dieting is considered virtuous, and choosing to eat just because you are hungry is a character flaw. But I am tired of dieting, and it has been a relief to give myself permission to eat over the past six months, and yet I haven’t been able to give myself permission to stop beating myself up for eating.

There’s a theory that we hold onto these dehumanizing and degrading ways of talking to ourselves because they serve a purpose; because we get something from these behaviors that we don’t want to give up. But I don’t think that’s true. I think certain types of thinking, especially abusive ones that start early and pervade society, stick to us for neurological reasons, not because we choose to keep them. And blaming me for “holding onto” these negative thoughts is just one more way of blaming the victim, and it sucks.

It’s hard to change thoughts that are so well supported by the people around me, like my doctors. They keep saying things like: if you’d just eat less you’d lose weight; or, your health depends on losing thirty pounds; or, exercise will make you stronger and therefore your perception that you are exhausted and in pain after exercising is false.

            How can I change internal messages that are constantly being reinforced by outside people who I am supposed to trust?

            I want these thoughts to change, but I wish someone could tell me how much more work I should put towards the goal of changing my thoughts, before it’s time to work instead on accepting that I will always have these thoughts and finding a way to give them less power over me.

            As I was reading the Respect Your Body chapter one page at a time, I came across a fact that stunned me: “The majority of American women (67%) wear sizes 16 and up, yet the majority of clothes available for purchase only go up to size 14.”

“Who needs clothes?”

            I have always assumed that I was a mutant for wearing a size sixteen as a teenager. And I felt that way when I wore a size fourteen, and a size twelve too. The only time I felt sort of normal was when I was a size eight (and anorexic). But what kind of society makes the majority of women feel like mutants? And how does the fashion industry even survive by aiming its merchandise at such a small percentage of the overall marketplace? Is the prejudice against larger-sized women so deep that clothing designers are willing to forego profits in order to continue stigmatizing women overall? All my life, I’ve thought that my sizes (of clothing, of shoes, of watches) were rare, and that’s why I could only find them in catalogs or online or in separate stores altogether, where the skinny people wouldn’t have to be contaminated. And now I find out that I’m actually in the majority?!!

            No wonder the Intuitive Eating book needs a whole chapter on respecting your body. It’s a shock that any woman over a size two feels acceptable as she is. And really, maybe no woman feels acceptable, because if you are led to believe that something you have no control over (your height and body type) determines your worth as a human being, why would any woman feel good about that?

            There’s so much work left for me to do on this issue, and the Intuitive Eating book doesn’t even address the body shame resulting from childhood sexual abuse. Even if I can work through the many layers of abusive messaging that come from societal expectations, or childhood bullying, or comparing myself to peers or to people on TV, underlying everything there is the fact that my body was not a safe place for me growing up.

            I want all of this to be easier. I want my doctors to stop being part of the problem, and I want the media to be more realistic about what can be expected of the human body, and I want Anorexia and disordered eating to stop being accepted as the cost of being a woman in our society. I want help, basically, because I don’t think I can do this work successfully without a lot of other people changing their minds with me.

And yet, I still desperately want lose thirty pounds, even though I know from experience that I will be just as unhappy with a thinner body, because I’ve been skinny and it didn’t fix anything. But I can’t let go of the hope.

“I hope for chicken. Always.”

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?

Israeli Music

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

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

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

My Israeli Music Mixtape

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

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

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

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

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

Ofra Haza

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

“I can dance!”

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

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

Netta

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need more music, Mommy.”

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

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

The Choir is Back

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

“Am I singing?”

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

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

“Grr.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How bad are these bad jokes?”

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

“I will always love you, Mommy!”

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

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

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

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