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A Purim Spiel

            The last thing we did in person at my synagogue last year, before the Covid shut down, was the Purim Spiel. Everyone was crowded into the sanctuary, with congregants of all ages singing from the “stage.” A few days later, the world stopped, but we had no idea that we’d be living on Zoom for an entire year, or more, and that our next Purim Spiel would be presented entirely on Zoom.

            I’d never seen a Purim Spiel (or even heard of one) before coming to my current synagogue nine years ago, but it turns out that they have been a Jewish tradition for centuries. A Spiel is a play (from the German/Yiddish) and a Purim Spiel is a comic version of the story from the Book of Esther that we read each Purim, with a lot of leeway for modern interpretations, humor, music, and especially satire. Many politicians and Very Important People have been lampooned in Purim Spiels across the world.

“Am I a Very Important Person?”

            At our synagogue, the Cantor writes the Purim Spiel each year, usually adapting popular songs to fit the Purim story: there was a Star Wars version, a Wizard of Oz version, a Billy Joel Extravaganza, etc. Once a year, it’s a chance for doctors and lawyers and teachers and children to get up on stage and sing their hearts out to an audience filled with every age group, including children dressed as unicorns and cowboys and princesses.

“That will never happen to me.”

            The goal of the Purim Spiel is to provide a catharsis and to give us a chance to laugh, and after the devastations of Covid and the economy and politics this year, we really need that. It will be easier to take a deep breath and move into the more sober tone of the Biden years after getting what we’ve just been through out of our systems, and then we can wash our hands of it, as much as that’s possible.

            Purim isn’t a major holiday on the Jewish calendar, unlike Passover or Rosh Hashanah. It’s very likely that the holiday of Purim was instituted by the rabbis to give Jews something Jewish to celebrate at this time of year instead of being drawn into the celebrations of their neighbors. Purim may have been based on an ancient pagan festival, celebrating Marduk and Ishtar, two of the important pagan gods of the ancient Near East, with the names changed only slightly to Mordechai and Esther.

            The story of Esther, considered by most scholars to be historical fiction, rather than history, highlights one of the major themes in Jewish life across Millennia: anti-Semitism, the baseless hatred of Jews because they are “the other.” But in this story the Jews win, because Esther, a Jew who hides her Jewish identity, becomes queen of Persia and is able to thwart an attempted genocide of the Jewish people. It’s a court intrigue, with all of the misunderstandings and frivolity and devious plans and feasting and blood lust you can imagine. The main characters are the King (silly and gluttonous), his first wife Vashti (smart and rebellious), his new wife Esther, her uncle/cousin Mordechai who encourages her to play her role to save her people, and Haman, the Grand Vizier and the bad guy.

            Imagine if, instead of going along with Hitler’s Final Solution, German leaders had listened to Jewish voices and turned around and killed Hitler and his henchmen instead – that’s the Purim story. It’s a fantasy, and a welcome one for a people who have often been the targets of prejudice and genocide and need at least one day a year to imagine what it would be like to turn things around.

Like if I sent You to the groomer?”

            The original commemorations for Purim were more sober and serious and focused on the formal reading of the Book of Esther; the custom of masquerading in costumes and the wearing of masks probably originated among the Italian Jews at the end of the fifteenth century. But whether it was originally intended as a party or not, the playfulness and laughter and blurred boundaries of Purim feel essential now.

            Usually our synagogue also has a Purim carnival for the kids, with games and rides and a costume parade, and Hamantaschen to eat, but that will not be possible this year. Hamantaschen were another late addition to the holiday, based on a German cookie called a Mahn-tash or poppy pocket, filled with sweet poppy seed paste. Hamantaschen are three-cornered cookies filled with sweet (or even savory) fillings, meant to resemble Haman’s three-cornered hat.

Triple Chocolate Hamantaschen (recipe from MyJewishLearning.com)

            For adults, Purim is also a time for drinking. The tradition is to drink until you don’t know the difference between cursed be Haman (the bad guy) and blessed be Mordechai (the good guy), maybe to let us know that feasting and drinking, and taking on the role of power, can make us into the bad guys if we’re not careful. We tend to learn these lessons best by acting them out, rather than just learning the theory, so this holiday is a low risk way to try out being one of the bad guys (with a mask), or to lose track of your moral rectitude for a moment (with alcohol), and re-learn the lesson that you need certain rules in place in order to be the person you want to be the rest of the year.

The masks and costumes are always fun, but resonate even more deeply this year. Many people who have been outsiders to society know how it feels to wear a mask in order to fit in, but we’ve all experienced the way masks can obscure aspects of who you really are, for better or worse, this year. Our Covid masks allow, or require, us to obscure who we are, and especially how we feel. I have masks for synagogue school, made by Mom, covered with chocolate chip cookies, or butterflies, or birds, or dogs, instead of plain surgical or black masks, because I can’t smile with a mask on and the colorful and playful fabrics can do that for me, even if I don’t feel like smiling underneath.

My Masks

            So this year the Purim Spiel was on Zoom, with wine and Hamantaschen optional, and without the music (because group singing on Zoom is heinous), but it still gave us a chance to act out our revenge fantasies, and laugh at ourselves. If nothing else, Jewish history has taught us that we can adapt to new circumstances, and make the best of what we have, as long as we continue to tell our stories and search for meaning, together.

“Where are the cookies?”

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?

Mom’s Wrist Surgery

            The first thing I thought of when Mom told me she would be having surgery on her wrist (outpatient for Carpal Tunnel) was – who’s going to cook? I cook once in a while, but I generally don’t have the energy to do much of it, and with all of the extra chores I’d be responsible for with Mom’s right (dominant) hand out of commission, I was worried we’d starve. Or have to live on peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches, or something.

“Peanut butter sounds good to me.”

            I’m sure I was also in a panic about the risks of anesthesia, and problems with the surgery itself, and Covid, and Mommy is going to die and leave me all alone! But on the surface, mostly, I was worried about the food. And having to take the dogs out for all four walks each day, especially first thing in the morning. Ugh, and I’d have to wash dishes and fill and empty the dishwasher, and vacuum and clean, on top of doing the laundry and the food shopping as usual. Just thinking about it all was exhausting, and Mom was (selfishly) just worried about her potential pain, and how would she survive without sewing until her wrist healed. Harrumph.

            (Don’t worry, we went to the freezer section of the supermarket two days before the surgery was scheduled and loaded up on cauliflower crust pizza, and veggie stir-fry’s, and ice cream. I’m sure that’s what you were most worried about.)

            I don’t think of myself as lazy, per se, but I do get very grumpy about doing chores. Mostly I curse quietly to myself. But not always.

            Of course, as we got closer to the day of the surgery, and all of the prep work was done, we were both getting anxious about the day of: Mom about the surgery itself and the potential pain in the aftermath, and me about the driving. I always get nervous about driving to new places, or to places I haven’t been to in a while. And I would have to drive early in the morning (originally we were told she’d have to be there by 7:30, but in the end it was a more reasonable 9 AM).

            Mom has a map of Long Island (and all of New York and probably the Tristate area) tattooed on her brain; me, not so much. I drive because I have to, and I resent it. It just seems like a game of Frogger brought to life, except that I don’t identify with the frog who keeps stupidly trying to cross a busy street in the middle of traffic; instead I identify with the poor drivers who can’t dodge the enormous frog in the road, and have to feel guilty when the frog goes splat.

            But, once we got going on the morning of the surgery, I realized that I mostly knew the route. I couldn’t picture it on paper, or by the street names, but in person it looked familiar. I was sort of relieved that the Covid protocols prevented me from going into the hospital with Mom, because if I had to sit there doing nothing but worry for hours I would have been swamped with anxiety. But I also felt guilty for dropping Mom off like a package at the front door, and I worried about her the same way I worry when I have to drop one of the dogs off at the vet instead of going in with them. What’s happening in there? Will Mommy/Ellie/Cricket/Butterfly/Dina ever come out again? Why didn’t I go to medical/veterinary school so I could take care of these things myself?

“Could I go to medical school?”

            As soon as I arrived home, the dogs insisted on going out to pee again, and to sniff Grandma’s footsteps along the walkway. Cricket gave me dirty looks for the next few hours, because, clearly, it was my fault Grandma was not home, and I could never be trusted to leave the house again.

            I was too anxious to take a nap, so I worked at the computer while I waited to hear that Mom was ready to come home. Mom had said the surgery would be over by around one o’clock and that she would call to let me know when to pick her up, but I didn’t hear from anyone until after two o’clock, and the wait felt more like a week than just an extra hour. I imagined every possible disaster, including: problems with the anesthesia, accidental amputation and catastrophic blood loss, a sudden outbreak of Covid taking over the whole hospital, a bomb, a meteor, aliens…My brain can do a lot in an hour.

            But a nurse finally called and said that everything went fine and I could come in an hour or so to pick Mom up. Of course I left early, because I was afraid I’d get lost, or stuck in traffic, or something, and I called Mom’s cell phone as soon as I arrived at the front of the hospital. She was rolled out in a wheelchair ten minutes later, and I worried when the man guiding the wheelchair said that I should help her into the car and make sure she didn’t fall, as if she was much more fragile than usual, but it turned out that he was just being extra careful. Mom’s hand was wrapped to the size of an oven mitt, and she was a little tired and dizzy, but otherwise not too bad.

            When we got home I found out about more of my duties, including medicine-bottle-opener, and ice-cube-bag-filler. I got used to filling both of our ice cube trays every few hours, and then pounding them on the counter to try to make the ice cubes come out. Ice cubes are stubborn creatures, until they break free, and then they can really fly.

            After seventy-two hours I was able to drop the ice-cube-breaking and replace it with Mommy-Watching, because Mom seemed to think she could do all kinds of things with her wrapped hand that she clearly was not supposed to do, like creating power point presentations. Each day, I had to watch her more closely to make sure she wasn’t secretly carrying heavy packages or chopping vegetables. She found the whole thing very frustrating. And boring. And clearly I was the meanie keeping her from doing anything fun.

“Don’t be a meanie.”

            After ten days I drove her to her follow up visit with the doctor and, since Mom did not want me to go in to the appointment with her, I asked her to get a clear plan from the doctor for how she could gradually return to normal activities. I sat in the waiting room watching a live action Chipmunk movie that I will never be able to unsee, and eventually she came out with a much smaller bandage on her hand and a smile on her face. It seemed that the doctor had said the most wonderful thing that a doctor could say: sewing is good therapy. As soon as we got home she was on the computer telling all of her quilting friends that the doctor recommended that she spend MORE time sewing, and they all cheered.

            We still had a few frozen meals left, but Mom was eager to get back to cooking. By the next afternoon she had prepped a soup for the slow cooker, walked the dogs on her own twice, and was planning to go out and do some errands; because, where my instinct is always to rest, hers is to DO SOMETHING. I had to intervene and drive her for the errands so she wouldn’t overdo it on her first day back in action, and then I really needed a nap. Watching her do so much stuff is exhausting.

“For us too.”

            It will be a few months before her hand is back to full use, and I’m expecting many tantrums as Mom struggles to survive on only five or six hours of sewing a day. (Don’t worry, the dogs and I will do our best to avoid the living room when Mom gets grumpy. I’m sure that’s what you were most worried about.)

“Is it safe to go back to the living room yet?”

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?

Sketchnoting and Visual Learning

            We had a professional development session for synagogue school – on Zoom – to teach us a technique called Sketchnoting. The broad purpose of the session, I think, was to open our minds to different methods of teaching, and different ways to encourage our students to express their own thoughts. And for people who process information best through visuals, and especially through pictures, the Sketchnoting method is probably a huge step forward in learning and comprehension.

            But for me, it was torture.

“Me too.”

            It took me years to learn how to read menus and recipes, because of the way the words are presented on the page, and I have never been able to read a comic book or a graphic novel from beginning to end without wanting to throw it out the window. I’m sure this qualifies as a learning disability of some kind, but it was never diagnosed or addressed in school, and I worked around it well enough that no one seemed to notice.

            But sitting there during the professional development session, staring at the computer screen and trying to make sense of a series of little pictures meant to represent words, drove me nuts. I wasn’t the only one who struggled, thank God, or else I would have (naturally) assumed it was all my fault, for being so hard-headed and stiff-necked and whatever else is wrong with me. The teacher of the class even acknowledged that learning how to translate words into pictures is much harder than recognizing the meaning of pictures drawn by someone else (though I found that difficult too).

“Oy.”

            After a general introduction to what Sketchnoting looks like on the page (simple drawings, separated by boxes, often modified with one or two descriptive words), we did an exercise where the teacher gave us a word (in this case the word was “idea”) and asked us all to draw a picture of the word on a post-it note. My first thought was a lightbulb, but I can’t draw a lightbulb, and I don’t understand why a lightbulb is supposed to represent an idea, so I rejected that one. Then I tried to draw a cloud, because I was thinking about the Platonic ideals and how there’s supposedly a perfect version of each idea, somewhere, like maybe in heaven, but I couldn’t draw a cloud either; my best attempt looked more like an ameba.

And then I drew a tree – a very simple, curly-headed tree – because trees have been on my mind lately, and because I never have just one idea; I tend to have a core idea that branches out in dozens of directions. So a tree fit the word idea, for me.

            All of this took place in twenty seconds. And when I held up my post-it note to the camera, the teacher picked it out of everything on the screen and said, disbelieving, is that a tree? He didn’t ask why I would draw a tree, or what made a tree my best representation of the word idea. He just told us that whenever he does this exercise the majority of people draw a lightbulb, and a significant minority draw a word bubble over the head of a person, and this is proof that we actually do share a common visual language that most people will understand. Except for Rachel, of course.

“Oh, Mommy.”

            If I’d gone with my first idea and drawn even a terrible lightbulb, I would have fit in fine, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied with my work. I would have been disappointed in myself, because even though I know enough about popular culture to know that, at least in the United States, a lightbulb is often used to represent an idea, that’s not what it represents for me.

            But I felt guilty for rocking the boat. I didn’t realize, until after the exercise was over, that the teacher had been trying to prove a point about the universality of certain images. I thought I was supposed to be creative and imaginative, and I’d clearly misunderstood the purpose of the exercise.

            The teacher went on to tell us that you can use Sketchnoting to capture the deeper meaning of an essay or a lecture or a YouTube video. He said that you’ll be able to remember more of the lecture if you can sum up key ideas in pictures instead of words. But I couldn’t do most of the exercises he gave us, because I couldn’t think of pictures to draw to represent specific concepts, and even when I could think of something, I couldn’t draw it fast enough.

            Before the teacher himself had come onto the Zoom, my boss did a warm up exercise with us, asking us to describe how we each take in information. She called on me first, and I should have been able to guess that she was asking if we are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners, or some variation on that idea, but instead I was flummoxed, because I didn’t know what she was looking for. I don’t know, I said, I take in information in a million different ways.

“I take in information through my nose and my belly.”

            I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I only understood that she was (probably) asking the visual/auditory/kinesthetic question in the aftermath, though no one else really answered in those terms either. But it felt like a microcosm of how I respond to the world overall: with confusion. I know some part of it is because I want to be different, but a lot of it is that I can’t figure out what kind of answer people are looking for and I don’t make the assumptions they expect me to make. I generally have the “right” answer in my back pocket, but I have ten other answers in there too, and I don’t know which one to choose.

            I remember a psychology class where the teacher had us go through a stack of Rorschach cards and describe what we saw. She had a list of scores for each possible interpretation and most of the students in the class fit nicely into the pre-set answer groups, and then there was me. She called my answers “creative,” because I saw things like a group of monkeys in space suits riding bicycles, instead of a butterfly, or a lion. She couldn’t score my answers and just shrugged when I asked what that might mean.

“Harrumph.”

            But, I’m learning that it’s not that I’m bad at all kinds of visual learning, it’s that my mind sees more possibilities than other people see, and I have to ask a lot of extra questions to narrow down what someone else expects me to see. It makes me difficult. And it makes my life difficult. And people assume I’m doing it on purpose, just to be different. And I don’t know; maybe I am.

            But is that so bad?

            When I look at my students, I don’t see anyone who fits neatly into the predetermined learning categories. I see a lot of unicorns. And maybe I’m seeing things in them that no one else sees; but it’s there. And, yes, they can be trained to see the world in a rigid, conventional way; or most of them can. But I’m unlikely to be the teacher who asks that of them. I’d rather have a room full of unicorns, even if that makes them more challenging to teach, because that’s what makes the work so much fun.

“I’m a unicorn too, right?”

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

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

Who do I want to write for?

            A friend in the blogging community (Elizabeth at Saved by WordsElizabethslaughter.com) suggested that I could think about who I’m writing for when I’m writing something other than a blog post, since I’ve been struggling to want to work on anything other than blog posts.

            In a lot of ways, my writing feels automatic to me, because I’ve been doing it my whole life. I spent a huge part of my childhood telling myself stories, about trips to other planets and alternate families and happier endings to my own life stories too. As I got older, I wrote poems and songs and stories and novels. I would write to organize my thoughts, and to remember what I was thinking, because I forget things so quickly. I wrote down dreams in order to remember them, and then to process what they might mean. When I started the blog I quickly found that it was a satisfying way to connect with actual people. I didn’t have to tell my stories only to myself anymore, or send my words out into the ether to be judged, or ignored.

“Don’t worry. I still judge you.”

            Over the past eight years that I’ve been blogging I’ve come to realize that my favorite thing about writing is hearing back from readers, knowing that my writing has been read and heard and processed and responded to. The feeling of satisfaction I get when I see that people really feel something in response to my words is so much better than getting an “A” in school (which is still pretty nice). And I’m loathe to waste my writing on literary magazines who will just reject my work after a year-long waiting period, when instead I could post something today and get responses from thoughtful readers within hours.

            But I still want to be a professional writer; the kind that gets paid. And I still want to write longer form essays and fiction. I LOVE fiction. I love the freedom it gives me to change the stories of my life into something more hopeful, or to live out a completely different life from my own.

            The problem is, when I think about writing professionally I start to feel distant from myself, remembering all of the rejection letters and the critiques and the endless questioning of how I write and what I write about and who I write for and the underlying, persistent, mantra telling me that my voice doesn’t matter and won’t sell; my writing is too literary, or too commercial, or too serious, or too lighthearted, or too plot driven, or too character driven, or too emotional, or too intellectual. But when I sit down to write for the blog I remember the comments I received on the previous blog posts, and the encouragement and kindness and investment of my readers.

“Bloggy people are awesome!”

            There’s that, but there’s also something else. When I’m working on longer projects, my writing voice varies. I don’t have any conscious awareness of trying to fit a style while I’m writing, or any conscious control over how the words come to me, but when I read over the draft, days or weeks later, I can see how my writing was influenced by my intended audience, or by my preconceptions of who they would want me to be.

            I wish I could write everything the way I write for the blog, trusting that my readers will care about me and respect me and engage with the subjects I care about. I want to be able to write from where I am at this moment in time, instead of trying to guess what other people will want to read at some moment in the future. And I want to challenge myself to write the different things that interest me, the long essays, and the children’s stories, and the mysteries, and the Young Adult novels, and the memoirs.

            And I would love to see my books on library shelves, in hardcover, with beautiful reviews on the back cover; and I’d love to win awards and make a living from my writing, and be interviewed about my work.

“I can interview you, Mommy. First question: Where are my treats?”

            But I don’t trust that the larger audience will embrace me and accept me the way my blog readers have, and I think I’ve learned to stop myself from writing the things that could force me to face those rejections again, even though I want to write these things.

            If only I could quiet the voices that recite all of the rejection letters to me when I sit down to write, and replace them with the voices that are kind and thoughtful week after week. Maybe then I could be prolific again, or at least feel free to write everything that matters to me.

“Just keep writing about us, Mommy. That’s the most important thing.”

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, Continued

            I’m making progress on my journey to Intuitive Eating. I’ve tried a bunch of different exercises in the Intuitive Eating Workbook, with varying levels of success. The first really helpful exercise was keeping a Hunger Journal, which I did for a few weeks. I was often at “desperately hungry” before I would let myself eat, but the nutritionist said no, eat sooner, eat before the hunger becomes unpleasant, because if you wait too long you’ll be so distracted by the intensity of the need to eat that you won’t notice when you start to feel full.

            I still struggle with this, because it feels like a competition, and if I eat before I’m starving to death then I lose. But I’m getting a little better.

“Sure you are, Mommy.”

            The biggest challenge after that was figuring out when to STOP eating. And I hadn’t reached the chapter on fullness yet, so I had no idea what to do. The next time I had a Zoom meeting with the nutritionist she said, if you’re struggling to figure out fullness then why don’t we just jump ahead to that chapter in the book?

            Jump ahead? Skip a chapter that an author put in that exact order for a specific reason?

            Yes. Of course, the nutritionist said. This is about your journey with food. If fullness is on your mind, then that’s what we should turn to.

            Sometimes being a compulsive ‘A’ student gets in my way. Who am I kidding? It always gets in my way. And even after I jumped ahead in the workbook, only skipping one chapter, I felt guilty and worried. What if, without that missing chapter, the whole experiment falls apart? What if everything is riding on the specific magic of the order of the exercises and I’m ruining it?

            Oh Lord.

            But, I took the risk and started the fullness chapter anyway. The first exercise asked me to stop each meal with one or two bites of food left on the plate, to check on my feelings of fullness. A few times I waited ten minutes, to see if I was still hungry, and then ate the last two bites anyway, but most of the time I found that I didn’t need the last two bites as much as I thought I did (the dogs really enjoyed this exercise!). I told myself that if I was hungry again in half an hour, after giving away those last two bites, I could eat again, and most of the time I didn’t need to.

“We’re ready whenever you need us.”

            The next exercise I tried was eating with my left (non-dominant) hand, to see if that would help me slow down and pay more attention to my fullness signals along the way. It was an interesting experience, but mostly it just made a mess and strained my left wrist, so I moved on.

            Then I read the section about removing distractions while eating, and found that my most persistent distraction during meals is TV – because I always eat in front of the television set. And when the book told me to try not eating with the television on, I rebelled. I was just not ready for that kind of horror, and since this is my journey I get to decide what I’m ready to try, and that is not it.

            The next exercise I chose to do was another journaling exercise to chart fullness levels, every half hour after eating (lasting two hours overall). The goal was both to force myself to check in on my fullness levels throughout the day, and to pay attention to how long the feeling of fullness lasted after different meals. I discovered that the full feeling I got from salads doesn’t last long at all, but trail mix lasts for hours. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop eating salads, but I’m going to think about how to fill out the meal with more protein and fat next time, so that the feeling of fullness can last longer.

            I still feel sad when I realize that I’m full before I’ve finished eating everything on my plate. It’s disappointing to find out how much less food I need to eat than I want to eat. I’m discovering that the distance between emotional satisfaction and physical fullness is still a pretty big gulf, and I’m not sure how to fill it.

            Ellie has a similar issue, but she relies on me to limit her food intake, so that she doesn’t eat something that makes her feel sick, or she doesn’t eat so much that she can’t fit through the door. She always thinks she needs to eat more than I think she needs to eat, but once she can shake off the emotional hunger, she’s ok. She just needs my help. Most often that means some belly scratches, or a walk, or some time spent playing or napping. I need to figure out how to take as good care of myself as I take of Ellie.

“I love you, Mommy, but I’m still hungry.”

            There’s still a lot more to learn about Intuitive Eating and how much and what kinds of food my body needs, but it’s a relief to have made some progress and to see a path forward. I even managed to lose the two pounds I gained during the first part of this experiment. We’ll see if that trend continues.

            Fingers crossed.

“Our fingers don’t cross, 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 New Year of the Trees

            On the evening of January 27th, 2021, and through the next day, Jews around the world will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees. Historically, this was an agricultural festival celebrating the emergence of spring in the land of Israel. Here in the Unites States, where we’re still in the deep freeze, Jewish children will celebrate the holiday by eating fruits and nuts that grow in Israel (like olives, dates, grapes or raisins, figs, pomegranates, Etrogim (citrons), apples, walnuts, almonds, carob, and pears.)

“We’re Jewish children too!”

            When I was a kid in Jewish Day School, a platter of dried fruit and nuts was brought to each classroom, and it was the only time during the year that I would see actual carob, rather than carob chips masquerading as chocolate chips. The idea that we were brought food in our classrooms was meant to show us the specialness of the day (and it did! It really did!), because after Kindergarten the whole idea of snack time had disappeared as completely as nap time, and food in the classroom was verboten.

(a picture of a Tu Bishvat platter I found online)

This year, because of Covid, we won’t be able to share food in our synagogue school classrooms, or have our usual Tu Bishvat Seder in the synagogue, where we tend to celebrate by dipping dried fruit into a rapidly diminishing bowl of melted chocolate. Instead, this weekend, the kids at my synagogue will have a Zoom chocolate chip cookie baking lesson, and the adults will sing Tu Bishvat songs on mute and learn about the history of Jews and chocolate.

We won’t have synagogue school classes again before Tu Bishvat, so this past week I sent my students home with a list of fruit and nuts to choose from, and a copy of the two blessings they may want to say. The first blessing is a simple blessing over the fruit itself:

            Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.

The second blessing is the shehechiyanu, a blessing we say whenever we experience something new, or newish. We say this blessing on Tu Bishvat if the fruit or nuts we choose to eat is something we’ve never had before, or haven’t had for a while. As a kid, this blessing was always said over the weird Carob thingy on the platter, which looked nothing like the carob chips in my trail mix.

(I found this online too, but I can’t remember how to eat it.)

But over time I’ve come to realize that the shehechiyanu blessing is much more interesting than it sounds, because it doesn’t just say thanks for this new thing. Instead, it says:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

So, it’s not just about celebrating the new thing; it’s about celebrating the fact that we survived long enough to experience this new thing. It allows us to acknowledge all of the work and suffering and fear and luck it has taken for us to get to this moment, and to bless all of it.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

We inaugurated a new president here in the United States this week, and even though the celebration was muted by Covid, and the threat of violence, the feeling of renewal and relief was palpable, and we could say a shehechiyanu for that too. We have so much recovering to do in the United States, and around the world, and most of us have had a hard time seeing anything to be thankful for lately. But the shehechiyanu blessing reminds me that everything we’ve been through to get here is part of the blessing of this moment.

It’s easy to celebrate new plants and trees and fruit when they come up in the spring, but what if we can also bless the planting of those seeds, and the turning of the soil, and the worry that nothing will grow, that comes before the spring?

I’m not a gardener, but my mother is, and this is the time of year when she starts looking through seed catalogs and sometimes starts new seedlings in biodegradable containers, so that they can begin to grow and build strength before the ground is warm enough to support them. This trust that spring will come, and the awareness that we have a role to play in planting the seeds, is part of the process of getting to spring.

One of Mom’s indoor seedlings

So, maybe this is exactly the right time for Tu Bishvat and the New Year of the Trees, here and in Israel and everywhere else. Maybe we can say the Shehechiyanu and bless the fact that we are planting our seeds, even in the winter, even with our fear and doubt still in place, because we choose to believe that, in time, something beautiful will grow.

“I’m ready to help. Again.”

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?

Waiting for the Vaccine

            Last weekend, my boss sent out a text to all of the teachers in the synagogue school with a phone number to call in order to get on the waiting list for the Covid vaccine in our area. The peer pressure to call right away was enormous, with all of the dings on my phone as texts came in from other teachers who’d been on hold for fifty minutes, fifty-five minutes, seventy minutes…

“Can we go for our walk first?”

            I put it off for a little while, because I was busy doing something else, and because I hate making phone calls, and waiting on hold brings up all of my social anxiety because I’m afraid I’ll forget what I called to say by the time someone finally answers. But I finally did it. I sat on hold for eighty minutes, getting other work done that didn’t require too much attention, keeping a notebook close by to remind me what information I meant to convey and why I was even calling to begin with.

“Oy.”

            I felt awkward when I finally got through, because I always feel awkward on the phone. I’m afraid I’m going to misunderstand the questions asked of me, or lie unintentionally, or get myself in trouble in some way. My biggest fear with this particular call was that, as an after school Hebrew teacher, I shouldn’t really be identifying myself as a teacher, because I’m not all that essential, even though I do teach kids in person once a week, just not every day.

            I ended up chatting with the operator, a mom from Florida with a seven year old son in virtual classes, for ten minutes. She told me about her son’s second grade teacher, who had also taught her two older kids, and usually decorated the classroom but this year she couldn’t, but she’d managed to adapt to teaching online and she is saving my life. I asked if she could put my mother on the waiting list too, because Mom is over seventy-five and therefore also in group 1B, and she asked if my mom has any pre-existing conditions, other than boredom. I told her that Mom is busier than I am, with all of her Zoom groups, and that my great aunt (105 years old) is keeping busy too, but she just got her appointment, and the operator said that once this is over we should all go on a cruise to celebrate, because it’s been such a trying time for the older people who haven’t been able to hang with their girls all year. Then she told me about a time she went to the store and suddenly felt naked, and realized she’d forgotten her mask in the car.

            Basically, I made a new friend. And I was proud of myself for having done the grown up thing, the responsible thing, and signed me and Mom up on the waiting list for the vaccine. I was so relieved and proud of myself that I actually felt like I deserved my three hour nap in the aftermath (usually I still take the nap, but I feel guilty about it).

“Naps are ALWAYS good.”

            By Monday, though, the teacher text chain was buzzing again. Individual teachers had found different websites where you could actually make appointments to get the vaccine. Try here! No, try here! But hurry! Hurry!

            But, what was my ninety minute ordeal for over the weekend? What about my big grown up accomplishment? Was I really supposed to sign up in a whole new location? Then someone texted that we’d need proof that we’re teachers, and would our paystubs be enough? I hadn’t even thought about that.

            The dings from the texts just kept coming, so I went to one of the websites, but when it asked if I was a teacher it specifically asked, are you a P-12 teacher or do you work in a school district, and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to answer. There was no option for after school Hebrew school, and I knew I didn’t work in a school district, but did I qualify as a P-12 teacher? I had no idea.

            I was so afraid of getting into trouble that I didn’t finish the form, even though the website link had been sent by my boss, who certainly knows what kind of teachers we are. I was afraid of jumping ahead in line before it was really my turn. And I was afraid of getting an appointment at a distant vaccination site and finally getting there and handing over my pay stub and being told, in front of the real essential workers, that I was a fraud.

            But I also felt guilty for NOT pushing to get the vaccine appointment, because I was failing in my duty to be a responsible adult and get vaccinated as soon as possible, to protect my students and fellow teachers, and Mom, and everyone I come in contact with.

“Am I going to get sick too?”
“Don’t be silly.”

            Once Mom woke up from her nap, I told her about the website and the question that tripped me up and she said, Duh, of course you’re a P-12 teacher. Well, she probably didn’t say “Duh,” but I heard it anyway.

            A few hours later I got an email from the original waiting list, telling me where to go to make an appointment (a different website than either of the ones mentioned on the text thread), but all of the appointments were taken and I was told to keep checking in case new appointments were added.

            It’s not clear to me why this is being run as survival of the fittest (or most persistent), rather than genuinely being organized by the priorities already set in place. Why are there still health care workers who haven’t been vaccinated yet? Why was the age range lowered to sixty-five, rather than seventy-five, at the last minute, if we’re still so low on doses and appointments? Will the list of people who end up with appointments even resemble the original priorities stated by the CDC? Or will it prioritize the people with the right contacts or the most patience, and free time, to sit on hold?

            I’m told that in other states, where they’re struggling to convince people to take the vaccine at all, you can just walk in at the last minute without an appointment. I’ve also heard that only five hundreds doses were sent to Long Island to begin with, which would explain why it’s so hard to get an appointment out here in the first place.

            Meanwhile, the reports on Covid cases and Covid deaths are now in horror movie range, with over four thousand deaths in one day, and hospitalizations continue to rise so that in a few weeks the four thousand a day number will seem miniscule.

            And people are still refusing to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces (Congress people?! Police officers?!) And there are new, more contagious Covid variants, and forget about the insurrection at the Capitol building, and constant threats of more violence there and at state capitols across the country.

            Why can’t I just hide in my room until it’s over? My fellow teachers keep ding ding dinging with new vaccine locations, and cancelled appointments, and my email and Facebook feed are full of the hurry hurry hurry, but I’m not up to fighting for my spot in line. Except, I’m worried that, the way things are going, we will all be infected with the latest Covid variant which will inevitably make us into zombies, all before we get enough doses of vaccine on the Island. But that’s crazy, right? I mean, we’ll all be fine. Right?

“Uh oh.”

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

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

Cricket and the Pee

            I was slow to notice the excess peeing. We have wee wee pads by the front door of the apartment, despite taking the dogs out four times a day, and over the summer we noticed that the wee wee pads were getting filled faster than usual. But I couldn’t determine which one of the dogs was peeing extra, and it didn’t really seem important, except for the cost of the wee wee pads adding up.

            But then there were tiny puddles, not even puddles, just wet spots really, on the dog beds, on the couch, and Cricket was licking herself clean more often, and Mom was getting concerned. So we moved up Cricket’s yearly Vet appointment from December to November and had the doctor check her out. He did pee tests and blood tests and checked her ears (both ears were infected after so long without the hair being removed) and her teeth (a mess), and her spine (she’s had lower back issues in the past). But the Vet said she was in good health and most likely the problem was incontinence related to aging. He made an unfortunate comment about females tending toward incontinence in their older years, but at least he was awkward about it.

“Rude much?”

            He prescribed a medication to help relieve the incontinence, and cleaned Cricket’s ears, and told us to schedule a dental cleaning, despite her advanced years (she’s thirteen and a half). He also told us to keep her away from the groomer for ten days, because of the medicine he’d put in her ears, even though a haircut was clearly overdue.

            We started Cricket on the incontinence meds, twice a day, and watched for any improvements, but if anything the peeing issue got worse. We finally got her to the groomer a few weeks later and by then her hair had to be cut very short, but more than that, the groomer said that her pee smelled bad and the hair in that area was discolored and it seemed like an infection. We called the Vet and he told us to switch from the incontinence medication to an antibiotic for the next ten days.

            But again, nothing improved. The pee puddles got bigger and more frequent. We were doing an enormous amount of laundry and found reusable dog diapers at Petco, but they didn’t work (the pee leaked through the hole left for her tail).

            We called the Vet again and he suggested a urine culture, more sensitive than a regular pee test apparently, once she’d finished the antibiotics. We made an appointment for two days after the last dose of antibiotics, but then the snowstorm intervened and we got a last minute appointment on that Wednesday afternoon, right before the snow was supposed to start, with one of the other veterinarians in the practice.

            Cricket was anxious in the car, as she always is before going to the Vet, and shaking, but when the Vet Tech came to get her through the car window, Cricket went without a fight. They only needed a pee sample, so we expected the visit to be pretty quick. I wandered over to the CVS next door to get some colored markers and butter cookies, to get me through the snow storm, and I was surprised that Cricket wasn’t back in the car before I was. Mom was starting to get a little bit worried about the delay, but not too worried, yet.

            The substitute Vet came to my window a while later, after the snow had started to swirl. I didn’t recognize her with her mask on, even though we’d met her once or twice over the years. She wasn’t acting like herself, though. She was sort of hysterical. At first I thought she was telling me that Cricket was a difficult patient, which I knew very well, and that Cricket had been anxious during the procedure, but then the Vet said, “I thought she was going to die!” and everything changed. She said that Cricket had peed all over the place, including all over her, and there was blood in the urine, and then she seemed to go into shock (Cricket, not the Vet) and, the Vet repeated, “I was afraid she was going to die right there!”

            I was having a very hard time following her narration, because it was out of order and unexpected, and it seemed like the Vet was angry or scared or something else I couldn’t pinpoint, and I couldn’t make sense of any of it given that Cricket had only gone in for a urine culture. She told us that they’d been sitting with Cricket in the office, monitoring her vitals, and she was going to give Cricket subcutaneous fluids, and medication for shock, and then she could let Cricket sit with us in the car, as long as we didn’t leave.

            Cricket came out in the arms of the Vet Tech, looking listless and frail. She sat on my lap and seemed to weigh nothing at all. I kept talking to Cricket and petting her and trying to reassure myself that she was going to be okay, but I really wasn’t sure. I could feel the pocket of liquid under her skin from the fluids. Mom and I went over the things the Vet had said and shared our confusion. I was on the edge of tears, constantly rehearing “she’s going to die!” and Mom was trying to keep things together and stay calm, but it was rough.

            Gradually, Cricket started to recover and look around. When she climbed behind my neck, readying herself for the drive home, I knew she was out of danger, but we still had to wait for an okay from the Vet before we could leave. She came outside as the snow was getting thicker and she checked Cricket’s gums, and looked in her eyes, and said we could take Cricket home as long as we promised to call in half an hour with an update, or else she (the Vet) wouldn’t be able to get to sleep that night.

“Grr. Times two.”

            It took most of a day for Cricket to recover from her urine culture, but she did recover. We ordered new diapers, measured to fit Cricket’s shape and not just her weight, but with the delays in shipping for Christmas we had to make do with spreading towels everywhere for a while. It took five days to get results from the urine culture – positive for two infections – and a prescription for a stronger antibiotic. There was no explanation for the episode at the Vet’s office, though. And it was still unclear if the incontinence was caused by the infections, or if the infections were caused by the incontinence.

            I kept thinking about my friend Teddy, the black miniature poodle, who died over the summer at age fifteen from a sudden onset kidney disorder. He was a little bit older than Cricket, and had a little more blindness and deafness going on, but still, his death was unexpected. I’m not ready for Cricket to be an old dog. The way she allowed me to put the reusable diapers on her scared me – normal Cricket would have tried to rip my fingers off for trying such a thing. She even let us wash her, occasionally.

Teddy and Cricket, a few years back.

            The new diaper arrived, a light pink with Velcro straps, and Cricket let us put that on her too, though she made it clear that it was not her preference. There was only one diaper in the package, instead of the three we expected, so there was still a lot of washing and drying to do, with one memorable night spent hurrying the process with a hair dryer.

            About a week into the second course of antibiotics Cricket woke up shivering one morning, similar to the way she’d done during her Vet visit for the urine culture. We sat with her and massaged her back and whispered to her until she seemed to be okay, and then we called her regular Vet. He said to take a video if she had another episode, but he wasn’t too worried. He was more concerned with her continuing pee puddles and he wanted us to start the second incontinence medication right away. Mom drove to the Vet’s office that afternoon and we gave Cricket the first dose of DES, a synthetic estrogen meant to tighten the urethral sphincter, with her antibiotic and hamburger, that night.

Within twenty four hours of starting the DES Cricket’s puddling stopped. It’s possible that the antibiotic finally kicked in at the same time, but the correlation with the start of the DES was convincing. Cricket got through a whole night with a dry diaper, and then a whole day without a diaper and without any accidents. We put the diaper on her for the next two nights, just in case, but she had figured out how to take it off and she would leave it, still velcroed closed, on the edge of Mom’s bed while she went to pee on the wee wee pad.

She’s feeling much better, and she thinks she still deserves hamburgers every morning and very night, despite finishing the second course of antibiotics. She’s back to peeing only on the wee wee pad and outdoors with no accidents. But, this was not the answer I was hoping for. I wanted so badly for this to be a one-time infection, because incontinence, while treatable, is a sign that she is really aging now. I want to celebrate and feel the relief that she is back to normal, or normal for Cricket, but I’m worried about what might come next.

Ellie has found the whole situation confusing. On the one hand there have been many more treats to go along with Cricket’s medications (hamburgers, peanut butter, chicken livers, anything to get Cricket interested), and Ellie always gets her share, but there’s also been a lot of extra attention going to Cricket instead of to happy little Ellie. For example, Ellie was very jealous of the diaper. For a while there she reminded me a lot of Dobby the House Elf, from the Harry Potter Books, desperate for a piece of clothing of her own. But then our neighbor found out that the sweater she’d ordered as a Christmas present for her brother’s dog was too small for him, and she offered it to us. Cricket, feeling much better already, refused to put her paws through the armholes to try it on, but Ellie was thrilled! Finally, a present just for her! She wore it for a night and a day and had her picture taken and celebrated with some zoomies out on the lawn. The only problem with the sweater is that it covers all of the places where she wants to be scratched and petted, and she eventually decided that scratchies were more important than fashion. So the sweater has been put aside, awaiting the next snow day, when she can wear it out in public and run around in circles and get all of the attention she craves.

“I have clothes!”

I’m sure Cricket will be fine with that. Maybe.

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?

How do I grow from here?

            I was growing before. I could feel it. My trunk was growing more stable and my branches were starting to leaf, even to flower. But I hit a wall this year, with the extra weight of Covid, and hybrid teaching, and maybe trying to move forward too quickly.

“I’m a blur!”

            I keep watching Hallmark movies, hoping that the gumption and confidence of the heroines will rub off on me. I want to be the kind of person who sees a problem and relishes the chance to solve it; I want to be the kind of person who can embrace change, and persist despite rejection, and believe in my vision of the future and fight for it; but I’m not.

            It’s been a relief, during Covid, to have an excuse not to move faster towards my goals, because my inner clock runs very slowly compared to the normal world. Covid time is much more my speed.

            I know I need to branch out in new directions, but I don’t feel safe out on those shaky limbs. I’ve struggled to decide which risks to take, because I don’t know ahead of time what I’m ready to handle or what will be too much. I’ve had experience with “too much” in the past and how deep the hopelessness and depression can be when what I thought would be a small leap over a shallow puddle turned out to be a swan dive off a cliff.

            I keep hearing the introjected voices in my head telling me what I should do and who I should be, and lately the shoulds have been taking precedence over what I want, and they’ve prevented me from investing the energy and patience I’d need to succeed at the things I really love. Like writing. I feel like the shoulds are yelling at me and the wants are whispering, and I don’t know who to listen to.

            I’m still writing, but the voices keep telling me that I have no right to think of myself as a writer in the face of all of the rejection, and no right to spend time working through plot lines when I should be doing something worthwhile, like teaching, or social work. And when I sit down to write, the voices get louder and louder. I only feel safe working on short pieces for the blog, because the longer pieces are the ones that have collected all of the rejections. It feels like masochism to keep writing things that no one but an intern at a literary magazine will ever see.

“I like to reject people. Deal with it.”

            Is it okay to continue to write when so much of my work has been deemed unacceptable? Is it selfish? Is it self-destructive?

            I’m angry that the rejections have stopped me from writing more, and I’m angry that I can’t shut off my inner critics and get the work done, and then I’m angry at myself for being such a loser and a moron and an idiot, and on and on. My therapist asked me to write down all of the nasty things I hear in my head when I try to write and I filled six pages without ever feeling like I’d scratched the surface.

“It’s exhausting.”

            But I don’t want to give in to these voices and follow the shoulds instead of doing the things I love. I’m so tired of hearing what’s wrong with me, and what’s not enough, or what’s too much, as if the noise is blaring out of speakers everywhere I go.

            So this year, my resolution is to do the work that matters to me, even when it’s hard, even when I have to fill page after page with nonsense before I can get to one good, heartfelt sentence. I hate that it’s so hard to get to the good stuff, but it is, for me, for now.

            And I have to persist.

“I can teach you how to persist, Mommy. It’s my super power!”

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?

Why Can’t I Write a Midrash?

When the official Jewish Bible was closed, the rabbis still had questions they wanted to answer, so they started writing the Talmud (The Mishnah and then the Gemara), a compendium of (endless) arguments, commentaries, word play, stories and Gematria (a method for finding deeper meaning in the text, using the number values of the letters). And then, after the Talmud was considered closed, the next generation of Rabbis still had more questions, and answers, about what God really meant in the Bible, so they kept writing and collected the work in new books of Midrashim (a Midrash is a general term for the way the rabbis interpreted and elaborated on the biblical text, and Midrashim is the plural of Midrash).

Midrashim exist in many different forms: stories, homilies, parables, and legal exegesis. In a way, Midrash is the earliest form of fan fiction, where we take existing characters and situations from popular TV shows or books and imagine new scenarios for them. Just like we want to enter the world of Harry Potter, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or Little Women, our ancestors wanted to enter the world of the Bible and imagine themselves in the role of Abraham or Sarah or Miriam or Moses. They liked to think about how they would have behaved in front of the Burning Bush, or facing the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptian soldiers coming up behind them. And they wanted to imagine what it would be like to face God, and speak to God, and criticize God directly the way the characters in the Bible were able to do.

“I tell God my opinion all the time.”

The best known Midrash may be the legend of Abraham as a young child smashing his father’s idols. He tells his father that the idols destroyed each other, and his father didn’t buy it, because idols aren’t living beings. To which little Abraham says, exactly. According to MyJewishLearning.com, this Midrash, collected in Genesis Rabbah, was created to explain why God would choose Abraham in particular to be the father of the Jewish people, because he was willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of his time.

            Midrash fascinates me because it allows us to reinterpret the Bible through our own eyes. It’s about more than just figuring out what the original writers meant, it’s about finding something in the story that rings true for us in particular. A Midrash doesn’t have to be factual in order to express a deeper truth from the Bible, and therefore, possibly, meaningful to the reader as well.

            Unfortunately, since we have such a long tradition of rabbis (aka men) telling us what to think, many people still feel too intimidated to read the Bible through their own eyes. They imagine that the rabbis, who were often already a thousand or two thousand years distant from the source material themselves, must have heard the voice of God. But just because they had the confidence to believe they knew what was right, doesn’t mean they were right. Or that their answers are right for us.

“My answers are always right.”

            Midrash writing wasn’t just popular in the distant past, modern writers have taken it on as well. Consider Anita Diamant’s book The Red Tent, a reimagining of the story of Dinah in the Bible. Judith Plaskow is another modern feminist Midrash writer, who embarked on Midrash writing as a way to include the female voice in the story of the Jews, while still respecting the Bible itself and the traditions of Judaism. She wrote an essay called “The Coming of Lilith,” re-imagining Lilith as a woman who was wrongly punished for wanting to be considered equal to Adam. The original Lilith Midrash was written by men, as an attempt to make sense of the two different versions of the Adam and Eve creation myth in Genesis. In the first version, both Adam and his wife are created from the earth, and in the second version Eve is created from Adam’s rib (or his side), and the rabbis decided that these were two separate creation stories. In the first, the wife God created for Adam, Lilith, was too uppity and thought that she was equal to Adam, so, of course, she turned out to be a demon who defied God and threatened to eat children (no, really). When God created a second wife for Adam, Eve, God decided that she needed to know her place, so she was created out of Adam himself, as a subsidiary to him. Of course she still went and ate that apple, so, women, feh. It’s all their fault.

“That’s not nice!”

Judith Plaskow’s version of Lilith isn’t a demon at all, she’s a woman who refuses to be submissive to her husband and leaves him. Eve, the second wife, is told that Lilith is a demon who has to be kept out of the Garden of Eden because she’s a threat to children and women, etc, etc. But Eve gradually recognizes that Lilith is just a woman, like herself, and someone she could be friends with.

Both Midrashim represent the mindset, and the time period, of the writers themselves, and both give us new ways to read the original stories in the Bible and try to understand the inconsistencies and mysteries therein. Can I believe that there are women whose power to seduce or manipulate men can seem demonic? Yes. Are there women who are called demons who are really just people being held back from living their own lives? Yes. Are either of those readings what God, or the authors of the Bible, meant us to learn from the original stories in the Bible? We can’t know. The truth of the stories, and the lessons of the stories, are up to us to decide. And we can each decide differently.

“I don’t think Cricket believes that.”

I want to help my students, children and adults, see that Judaism isn’t a religion of passive obedience, or at least that it doesn’t have to be. If you are willing to engage in the storytelling, and the story-hearing, and take ownership of your own beliefs and values, Judaism can be as dynamic and meaningful as you need it to be.

            And yet, I keep struggling to write my own Midrashim, or to plan a way to teach people how to write Midrash. I’m intimidated by exactly those people who I want to thumb my nose at, and I think this happens in a lot of areas of my life. I know what I think, and what I believe, but I don’t feel like my beliefs matter, or have value, compared to the people who are RIGHT. The dichotomy between my confidence in my own opinions, on the one hand, and my belief that I have no right to that confidence on the other, is a constant.

The Bible is so tempting to work with, because it is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to certain details. Don’t get me wrong, you will be bored to tears with lists of ancestors and sacrifices and tribes and kosher and unkosher animals, but the storytelling style is very lean and leaves a lot of room for the reader’s imagination. It’s instinctive to start asking questions like, what must have happened behind the scenes to make the characters act that way? What might they have been feeling or thinking that they didn’t say? And what else happened that the writers of the Bible decided to leave out, if we assume that these are true stories?

            But I keep hearing the rabbis (ancient and current day) yelling at me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I keep hearing my imaginary students telling me that this work is too hard and not worth the effort, because we could just read the existing commentaries and Midrashim, or we could write new stories of our own instead of dragging meaning from such a stubborn book. And I can’t disagree. But I’m still compelled by the possibility that I could find a way to place myself in the world of my ancestors, and see more of what was there than I’ve been able to see so far.

            I just don’t know where to start. Maybe with Lilith. Maybe, for me, Lilith isn’t a demon, or even a separate person from Eve. Maybe I can see both creation stories as part of the same story, with one woman seeing herself as equal to her husband, and subsidiary to him, at different times. Because, why wouldn’t the first woman be as conflicted over who she thinks she is, or who she thinks she should be, as I am?

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?