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Author Archives: rachelmankowitz

Pawpaw Fruit

Big Bird the Pawpaw Tree

            In May, after reading my pawpaw essay out loud in a zoom, and then posting it on the blog, I continued to check on my pawpaw trees, as usual. I watched my pawpaw grove starting to leaf, the skinny little trees swarmed the area; their trunks ranged from a fingernail wide to the size of a dime, but they were there.

One tiny pawpaw tree starting to leaf

            And then I went over to the big, fourteen-year-old pawpaw tree that looms over the back yard, searching for sun and attention. It kind of reminds me of a Sesame Street creature, like a shaggy green version of Big Bird that prefers to stay in one place. As the big tree was starting to leaf, I noticed that there were some green clumps that weren’t growing into leaves; instead they looked suspiciously like tiny pawpaw fruits. That seemed so unlikely though, since we did nothing special to fertilize the pawpaw flowers this year, like moving the sticky pollen from one flower to another with a Q-tip, now that we only had one mature tree to work with.

Pawpaw fruit?

            But I kept watching, and at one point I counted eight clumps, some with only one green bump, and some with six or seven protrusions. As the pawpaw leaves grew bigger, the little fruit clumps became harder to see, but I could still count maybe five, and then maybe three; and I could still see that one big clump with what looked, now, like four or five green protrusions on it.

Pawpaw fruit or bird foot?

            I checked every few days, but especially after a storm or a visit from the gardeners, and by late June I could only find one fruit, not even a clump, just a single green bump on one of the lower branches of the tree. Mom reassured me that there were probably more on the higher branches, hidden by the now-enormous leaves, but I wasn’t convinced.

            Instead, I checked on my one pawpaw fruit every day – despite the old adage, revised a bit, that a watched pawpaw never grows. I watched it just to make sure it was still there, worried that a heavy rain, or a bird, or a visit from the gardeners would knock it down. And it kept growing – like a long thin balloon gradually filling up with air, growing a belly almost like a fat green banana.

Fat Green Banana Pawpaw

            And then, one day, when I went out to visit my one pawpaw fruit and take a picture to mark its growth – like a proud parent marking a child’s height against the kitchen door – I looked up and saw another pawpaw fruit. It was high up and half hidden by the leaves, but it was much, much bigger than the one on the lower branch, and instead of one pregnant belly it had two bellies, like a big green peanut. Even zooming in as close as my camera could get, every picture of the newly found pawpaw fruit was blurry and unconvincing, and I worried that it was just a trick of the light, but each day I found it again, with wonder.

Big Green Peanut Pawpaw hiding

            I’m sure I give too much metaphorical weight to these pawpaws – and therefore give them too much power to disappoint me – but the hope I feel when I see the new trees sprouting up, or now when I look at these slow growing pawpaw fruit, I think: good things are possible. I think: patience will be rewarded. I think: maybe the good stuff is just around the corner, and if I keep putting one foot in front of the other I will get there.

            The danger of the metaphor is that these two lone pawpaw fruits will die prematurely, or taste disgusting, or some other catastrophe will come along and convince me that my hope was misplaced and I should relax into my natural cynicism and just raise my dose of antidepressants and get on with survival. But the fact that I make these metaphors at all tells me something about my deeply ingrained hope – it’s there, and it will be there. My instincts will always lead me on a search for signs of possibility, for something to hope for. And if I can’t find it in the pawpaws, I’ll find it somewhere else.

After another storm, I went out to check on the pawpaw fruit, and the smaller one, the fat green banana, was gone. It was probably knocked loose by the rain and then carried off by one of the many animals that make our backyard their home (squirrels, birds, raccoons, voles, cats, and of course, Cricket and Ellie). But the big green peanut was still there, and, who knows, maybe there will be more pawpaw fruits hiding in the upper branches. Or maybe not. Either way, I’ll find my hope wherever I can get it.

“We didn’t eat the pawpaw. We prefer 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 Tokyo Olympics

            I’m sort of dreading the Tokyo Olympics, because watching the events on TV tends to bring up all of the old I’m-not-good-enough crap from my childhood. It’s two weeks of comparisons and competitions and unreachable goals, and storylines about people who have “overcome everything” in order to succeed, without much acknowledgement of their support systems, good fortune, and natural genetic gifts, or the deep prices they’ve had to pay to pursue what is, for most, an unmeetable goal. Everyone who doesn’t succeed is left to feel like they didn’t try hard enough, or worse, that they were just unlucky, despite unimaginable effort.

“That sounds exhausting.”

            But this year there’s more to my dread. There’s Covid, for one, which is still raging out of control in Japan. Tokyo and other major Japanese cities are still under a state of emergency, and they are only now starting to vaccinate people under 65. More than 80% of the population wants the games cancelled or postponed, and Japanese scientists have warned that allowing spectators in the stands at the Olympics will help the virus spread domestically and internationally. Tourists from other countries have already been banned from entering Japan for the Olympics, and yet, Japan’s government and the International Olympic committee are going forward anyway, because the costs of cancelling would be prohibitive.

            And then there’s something else. Gymnastics is one of the marquee sports of the Summer Olympics – like figure skating is at the Winter Olympics – and going into this games we have been awash in stories about the sexual abuse of hundreds of female athletes, both by a doctor working for USA Gymnastics, and by coaches across the country. Complaints against all of them were ignored by USA Gymnastics, for years, leaving a generation of young girls unprotected.

There was something inevitable about all of this, given that, for the most part, women’s gymnastics is a misnomer. The athletes are usually very young girls, left under the power of middle-aged men. We have always known about the abuses in gymnastics: the horror stories about anorexia, and bullying from coaches, and athletes forced to compete while injured, but as long as the powers that be were willing to look past those overtly abusive practices, they allowed the covert abuses to proceed unchecked as well.

            The culture of gymnastics is changing, somewhat, with college gymnastics gathering a little more attention, and therefore showing the world that female athletes actually become women at some point, and can still excel at their sport. And USA Gymnastics has gone through a lot of changes, at the urging of the gymnasts who came out as survivors of the abuse, but not enough.

            Simone Biles, at 24, is a unicorn. She is still dominating the sport and becoming better with age, which represents something completely new in women’s gymnastics. She’s been able to speak up, and have her own life, while still being at the top of her sport. The question is whether her success is a sign of new things to come, or just a moment in time that will pass.

            I took gymnastics as a kid, so I have a deep appreciation for the talent and hard work it takes to be even a good gymnast, let alone a great one. It was clear, very early on, that I didn’t have the right body for gymnastics. By the time I was eleven years old, and tried one more time to take gymnastics classes, I was five foot six and surrounded by much smaller girls. My feet were too big for the balance beam, and I didn’t have the faith to throw myself forward over the vault, or backwards into a back handspring, for fear of falling on my head.

“I did that once, but it wasn’t my fault.”

            I wanted to be a good gymnast (and dancer and swimmer and tennis player), but my knees were swollen with Osgood Shlatter’s by the time I was ten years old, and my feet were flat, and my ankles and hips and shoulders were injury prone because of my loose ligaments.

            My childhood was also a time when it was still totally acceptable for teammates and coaches to humiliate the weakest athletes with verbal abuse.

“I’d be good at that, Mommy.”

            When I watch the Olympics it all comes back to me, all of that failure, and not being in the right body, and the name calling and ostracizing. I’ve been working hard lately at trying to respect my body as it is, but there’s so much history behind my self-loathing, and so many voices yelling at me and blaming me for things I could not control, that it’s hard to move forward.

            It’s so much easier for me to respect my dogs and accept their bodies as they are. I can see how differently they are built: Cricket has long legs and Ellie has short ones; Cricket has a long neck and almost no waist, and Ellie is built like a tank. If I tried to starve Ellie down to her sister’s weight, she would die, first of all, and her corpse would still be “too big.” But she is the right weight for the body she has, and she is strong and runs fast and loves her life, and her food. I can accept that about Ellie, and I can accept Cricket’s personality quirks – like her attack reflex whenever she feels likes she’s in danger, which is most of the time. I can accept and celebrate who they are, and I can adapt to each of them differently, but I can’t do the same for myself.

“We’re perfect just the way we are.”

            I’m not sure I understand what draws me to watch the Olympics, given all of this. Maybe it’s just because, traditionally, there’s not much else to watch on TV while the Olympics are on, in the middle of the summer. But there’s also something magical about the athletes and what they can do. The judging of each skill becomes tedious – like having to count the number of rotations in the air, or separate out a field of swimmers by hundredths of a second – but the dedication of the athletes, and the amazing heights they can reach inspires me.

            So maybe this year, when I inevitably do watch the Olympics, I will remind myself to work on self-compassion and tell myself that I can admire the athletes’ efforts without putting myself down. And maybe I can even send compassionate thoughts to all of the athletes who don’t quite reach the top of the mountain, but deserve to be celebrated for their talent and their efforts in getting so close.

            I’m not promising that I can stay positive and constructive through the whole two weeks, but maybe the games will surprise me by protecting the Japanese people from the spread of Covid and honoring the athletes who have been abused, by striving to keep them safe in the future, and by celebrating all of the athletes at the games and what it took for them to get there, especially after a year of lockdown and uncertainty, instead of just celebrating the winners. But even if those things don’t happen, I can remind myself that honoring the athletes and their accomplishments doesn’t mean I support the IOC or the Japanese government for putting their people at risk, or the individual sports federations that put their own financial survival over the wellbeing of their athletes. I can work hard to hold both realities inside of me at the same time without ignoring either one. It’ll just take some practice.

“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?

Intuitive Eating Hits a Roadblock

            I’m not losing weight from Intuitive Eating. In part, that could be because I’ve been feeling really sick to my stomach lately, which clouds my ability to judge when I’m hungry and when I’m full. And I know that part of my inability to lose weight comes from my health issues, because I don’t have the energy to exercise enough to burn extra calories each day, and because some of the medications I take impact my weight. But, according to the Intuitive Eating workbook, it could also be that my body believes it is at the right size already, and I hate that idea. I’d prefer to believe that I’m unconsciously cheating in some way, allowing myself to eat past fullness and just telling myself that I’m still hungry. That would be a relief, because then I could hold onto the hope that when I do everything right I’ll lose weight.

            I’m still working my way through the Intuitive Eating Workbook (by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch), and one of the biggest blocks I can’t move is that my brain still tells me that in order to be a worthy human being I have to lose weight, and preferably have a smaller frame, including smaller feet. Because I am too BIG.

“Do I have small feet, Mommy?”

            The workbook characterizes thoughts like these as part of the Food Police – a set of destructive voices (picked up from diet culture, societal beliefs, and family rules) that try to keep me dieting and believing that I’m not okay as I am. These are the voices that yell at me for eating a piece of chocolate cake, or for buying 2% milk instead of fat free, or for eating carbs or fat, or for eating anything at all.

“I’m the sheriff!”

            One method the workbook suggests for how to deal with these internal messages is to question whether the beliefs are reasonable, and supported by scientific evidence, or not. For example:

            Distorted thought – I have to be skinny to be loved, to get a job, or to be successful in any other way.

Has this proven to be true? There is some evidence that love and attraction is conditional on body size, but it doesn’t really seem to hold true for work or friendship, so this is at least partially untrue.

That method did not feel especially helpful. Another method they recommend for combatting these negative thoughts is to answer them with a more positive, ally voice, like what you’d say to a good friend:

            A destructive statement – I am a glutton and selfish and eat too much and try to get away with everything and never hold myself responsible.

            Ally response – None of that is accurate. You often think too much about others before thinking of your own needs, and many of your needs have gone unmet because you are afraid of taking up too much space, care, attention or money.

            That seemed a little but more effective, so I kept trying:

            Destructive statement – I’m accomplishing nothing and annoying everyone who believes in my potential. I’m not writing enough or losing weight or getting a real job and they will all give up on me.

            Ally response – It would be impossible for anyone to meet all of those goals at once, and making long to-do lists can overwhelm your ability to get anything done. In reality, you work very hard at everything you do, and you’ve made an enormous amount of progress. You are creating your own path and the people who know you well are proud of you.

“Yeah Mommy!”

All of that sounds good, but the destructive voices keep coming back and telling me that I’m making excuses and lying and being a Pollyanna, and they get more creative and more stubborn with every attempt. This is not what the workbook tells me to expect, and I resent that the authors don’t acknowledge that this is a predictable response for someone whose Food Police voices are so deeply ingrained.

“Grr.”

I’m doing my best to keep doing the work anyway, even if I can’t shut down the Food Police or lose weight, but it’s frustrating that even though I stop eating when I’m full, I still feel empty and wish I could eat to fill the emotional void. I started doing a writing exercise from the workbook in the moments when I know I’m full but I still want to eat: I’m supposed to take five minutes to sit with my feelings first and then write down anything that comes to mind, but I don’t have the patience to sit first, so I just do the writing. Sometimes I list the foods I want to eat: like spaghetti and meatballs, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or chocolate chocolate chip ice cream. Sometimes I just rant about how angry, guilty, frightened, frustrated, sad and hopeless I feel about the state of my body. Sometimes I actually try to figure out where all of the feelings are coming from, and what underlying need they are trying to tell me about, which is the stated purpose of the exercise.

Most of the time, just the act of writing seems to be enough to stop my momentum and prevent me from overeating, in that way, the exercise has been successful. But I’ve never finished the exercise and said to myself, aha, now I know what I really need to do in order to feel calm/comforted/satisfied/relieved/finished. There’s some relief in being able to acknowledge that something is missing, and I’ve learned that I can sit with the feelings of pain or loneliness or confusion or anger or sadness, or even hopelessness, and keep breathing. But not for very long. I still want to feel better and lose weight, and I still want the Food Police to go away, and figure out what it is that makes me want to eat more than my body needs.

            My Nutritionist thinks that the real battle behind all of this is that I struggle to respect my body as it is; that the destructive messages and the feelings of not-enough come from an underlying belief that I don’t deserve to be loved as I am. And she wants me to move my goal from weight loss to body acceptance, but I’m reluctant, because I don’t think that goal is reachable. Weight loss, at least, I’ve been able to achieve before; body acceptance sounds like a fantasy to me.

            But I worry that my Nutritionist is right, and that’s bringing up a lot of hopelessness, and I don’t want to feel hopeless. So I’m going to put the goals themselves out of my mind, or off to the side, and just keep going through the workbook and doing the work I can do; and I’ll see where it takes me.

“On 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?

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?