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Teaching Leviticus

 

For the next few months, I will be teaching a synagogue school class on Leviticus (Vayikra, in Hebrew), the third book of the Bible. It’s an odd book for children to study, with its focus on laws that applied in ancient temple times: laws for the Levites (the priests and their helpers) around purity and sacrifices and holiness. There’s also a section on dietary laws.

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No, Cricket. You can’t eat the Canadian bird, even if she’s kosher.

But the fact is, the class will be based on a pre-set curriculum with very few actual quotes from the text, and much more focus on the ways these issues can be extrapolated into the modern lives of Jewish children. This makes a lot of sense. What’s the point of bogging down children’s minds with long passages, in Hebrew, about rules for priests who no longer exist? Judaism used to be a temple cult, with animal sacrifices, but long ago transformed into a synagogue and prayer-based religion.

Except, when I went to Jewish day school as a kid, we read everything, and we read it in both Hebrew and English, and it had an impact. We learned about “an eye for an eye” and that it should be translated to mean “money for an eye,” because the victim should be adequately compensated for the loss, rather than inflicting a similar loss on the perpetrator. We also learned about who’s responsible if someone’s ox falls into a pit on someone else’s property, and how punishments should vary based on whether a crime was intentional or accidental. It was, a little bit, like law school for ten year olds.

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“That doesn’t sound like fun to me, Mommy.”

We also read the stories of the prophets in Hebrew, like a novel, without even bothering with the commentaries most of the time. Our Hebrew was pretty great, now that I look back on it.

I can’t say whether all of that was better or worse than what we do at the synagogue school; it’s just very different. My students still struggle to sound out words in Hebrew, confusing similar looking letters for one another, and struggling to remember which sound goes with which vowel sign. And the bible classes are meant to be taught in English. But I’d still like to infuse more of the Hebrew text into the process; not because it’s part of the set curriculum, but because I want them to know that there’s a connection between the lessons we’re learning in class and the Torah that we read with such awe during services in the sanctuary. We dress the scroll in velvet and silver, and we read it with a special silver pointer, from a parchment written by hand by a single scribe. I want them to hear the ancient Hebrew, and the strange melody of the chant, and to feel the connection to the past that makes it all feel so sacred and phantasmagorical to me.

I’m a little bit anxious about the transition to something so much more clearly planned out. This will be the only year, at least in synagogue school, that they study the book of Leviticus, so I can’t hop around and choose to teach whatever interests me at the moment as if I’m picking from a vast Chinese food menu, the way I do in the Hebrew class. There are important lessons here that won’t be addressed elsewhere and that will be helpful to them in preparing for their Jewish lives. But I’ve gotten used to the creativity of the Hebrew class, where we can spend fifteen minutes trying to shape the Hebrew letters with our bodies without feeling like we’re wasting time (I have one student who can do a bridge pose that looks exactly like the Hebrew letter Chet – it’s possible she has no spine).

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“What letter am I, Mommy?”

It’s a balancing act, to bring the kids some of the magic that I feel, without overwhelming them with too much that is beyond their abilities for now. I need to make it fun, and relevant, and engaging, and useful to their daily lives, but I also don’t want it to feel so familiar that it loses its spark.

So, I need to study the lesson plans carefully, and study the book of Leviticus itself again, and try my best to teach my kids about holiness and where to find it in their lives, in their communities, and in themselves. And in dogs. There’s got to be room for the dogs in there somewhere.

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“There always has to be room for us.”

Wish me luck!

 

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 Distorted Mirror

 

Very early in our lives, we look to the people around us to tell us who we are. We smile at Mom and Dad, and if they smile back we feel good, and if they are distracted or angry or sad we think that means we did something wrong. Because, we believe, if Mommy isn’t smiling at me, I am not loveable. This is normal. This is how humans create their sense of self.

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“Dogs too!”

Gradually we start to look at other mirrors nearby. We notice how our siblings and peers and teachers, and even strangers, respond to us. If our siblings are jealous or angry, or indifferent, we believe we’ve done something to cause that reaction. If our teachers tell us that we’re smart or kind, we can, maybe, believe that we are smart and kind, but if they tell us we’re stupid, or selfish, or bad, we might believe that too.

Ideally, our early mirrors will be accurate, and compassionate, giving us the chance to see our strengths and to reassure us that we can work through our weaknesses as we build our self-esteem. Often, though, our mirrors are distorted in one way or another, and we learn to believe things about ourselves that may not be true.

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“Ask me, Mommy. I’ll tell you the truth.”

As we get older, we are expected to have the inner strength to choose the right mirrors for ourselves and to decide what to believe and what to discard. But, in reality, we’re still not sure who is an accurate mirror and who is a distorted one. Even when we start to understand that all humans are distorted mirrors of one kind or another, because everyone has their own stuff going, we still can’t be sure what’s about us and what isn’t. And, really, where are those tools going to come from if they weren’t given to us in childhood?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in my role as a synagogue school teacher, even though I only see the kids for two hours a week, because I know how validating even one compliment or smile from a teacher can be for a child. I do my best to reflect the children back to themselves accurately, and with kindness. They won’t believe me if I say they are well-behaved when they are not, or work hard when they don’t, but if I can recognize their behavior as it is, and still find something in it worth praising, that they can believe.

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Cricket knows she’s loved just the way she is.

The problem is, I still tend to see myself as if I’m looking through a kaleidoscope, with all of these broken pieces of glass reflecting me back to myself in a million different, usually negative, ways.

When I’m teaching the kids, I’m excited and happy, and overwhelmed, and cataloguing all of the moments and interactions for later. And then I go home and the distorted mirrors of my childhood start yelling at me. They tell me that I made this mistake, and that one, and that I’m seconds away from being fired, or I should be, because I’m a terrible teacher, and I missed this hint or that nudge and failed utterly to teach anything useful. The process of unraveling the facts from the distorted reflections in my head is exhausting and painful, but the only other option would be to accept the mountain of guilt as true, and I can’t do that. Often it takes more than twenty-four or forty-eight hours to get to level ground and accept that, while there are some things I’d like to do differently next time, overall I did okay. This process involves a lot of reality checking, and replaying the tapes in my mind to make sure I heard what people actually said to me instead of what I imagined they must have been thinking.

One of the problems, for me, is that I’m still searching for accurate mirrors, wherever I go. And sometimes I look to my students to tell me who I am. If they are bored, I must be boring. If they are frustrated, I must be failing to teach them. And if every child is reflecting something different back at me, then oy vey, I must be all kinds of terrible at once.

There are times when I think Cricket would prefer it if I didn’t reflect her mood or behavior back to her quite so accurately. She’d like me to pretend that she’s a happy go lucky dog, and never bites the hand that feeds her, and never gets lost in the barking of her own mind. But then there are times when she’s relieved that I can read her so well, and be with her in her misery, and not try to cajole her into a better mood, but just accept her as she is in that moment and let her know it’s okay. And that’s what I want to do for my students, if I can. I don’t just want to teach them a little bit of Hebrew, I want to help them breathe more deeply, and see themselves, as they are, with more compassion, and maybe see others with more compassion too.

Jacquelyn Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books are favorites of mine for a lot of reasons, but one of the things I love most is the way Maisie (a psychologist/investigator) mimics people’s body language so that she can feel how they are feeling. When I read about that the first time, I realized that that’s what I do, too, unintentionally. I find myself twisting my body into different shapes in response to the person across from me, feeling their confidence, or fear, or shame, or anger. After a few hours with the kids I feel something like a pretzel, with a lot of emotion to wring out of my body. My goal is to learn how to identify what’s theirs, what’s mine, and what can help me reach them more effectively, without pretzeling myself into complete knots. I expect this to take a while.

 

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“We’ll wait with you.”

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

A Sense of Time

 

Time feels like a game of Chutes and Ladders to me. On paper, time seems like it should be a linear sort of thing, with one hour following another in orderly progression, but sometimes I fall through a chute and I’m suddenly ten years old again and I have to work hard to climb back up to my forties and remember all of the events that came in between. I know too many people who slip and slide through time like this to think it’s unique to me, but the percentage of my time spent falling down chutes and climbing up ladders seems excessive. Trauma creates strange loops in our brains. We call them flashbacks, or regression, or dissociation, depending on how we experience the details of the thing, but they all have the same general effect of making time feel like an unreliable substance that refuses to stay solid and constant.

When it snows, memories of winters past pop up, but they don’t have solid picture frames around them announcing that they are moments from the past, or even descriptions in permanent marker telling me the exact date and time when it all occurred. In my mind I am both here in this moment, in my walk-the-dog shoes, stepping out onto the slushy walkway with Cricket and Ellie dragging me forward, and I am also eight years old in my pink snowsuit and boots, feeling like an over-stuffed sausage and too hot and too cold all at once.

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“Wheeeeee!”

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“I’ll wait here.”

And then I smell mildew and I’m back at Grandpa’s house in Chappaqua, looking at the pen and ink portraits in the laundry room, and the chute that carries the laundry down from the upstairs hallway. But really I’m thirty-something and living in half a house, in a town by the water, where the smell of seaweed blows through the windows. Wait, no, that’s not right. I’m forty-something and there’s no mildew smell at all, and I don’t live by the water anymore, and I’m not even sure I’m awake.

The image of the Chutes and Ladders game feels so visceral to me, as if I’m sliding down a red chute into the past or laboriously climbing up a silver ladder to get back to normal. But I wasn’t sure that my 3D memory of that childhood board game was even accurate, so I had to ask Google for help. According to Wikipedia, Chutes and Ladders is the American version of an English (and Canadian) board game called Snakes and Ladders, which itself is a variation on an ancient Indian game called Moksha Patam, filled with moral lessons based on the Karmic cycle. The English version adapted those lessons to teach children virtues like generosity and faith and humility, and to discourage vices like lust, anger, theft, and murder. And then the American version adapted the lessons again, to fit good and bad deeds that American kids could relate to, like saving a cat from a tree and eating healthy food, versus eating too many cookies and not doing chores.

I don’t remember any of that, and it’s possible that Wikipedia is lying to me, but I’m pretty sure the essentials are true, especially the fact that the game is a game of luck. The player doesn’t get to choose whether to do a good or bad deed, and therefore to receive the resulting reward or punishment. Scoring is all based on the roll of a die or the spin of a wheel. And that bothers me, because it’s too close to the truth.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the value of being a good person. I strive to be a kind and generous and open-hearted person, to hurt no one, or to hurt as few people as possible, and to help when I can. But I don’t actually believe that these virtues will add up to an easier life for me, or to a more successful life with more rewards. I don’t believe that we are always rewarded for good deeds, or punished for evil ones, though I wish we were. I do believe that our souls are impacted by our actions, but I know too many people who walk around with Swiss cheese souls and don’t seem to mind.

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“Those people scare me, Mommy.”

This Chutes and Ladders metaphor started out as a way to describe the way my memory slips and slides through time, and how I struggle to maintain myself in the present tense, and yet the original meaning of the board game works for me too. Whether we act in good or evil ways is not about chance, but whether we are rewarded or punished is chance. And I resent that. I resent that the game of life has such unreliable rules, and that the rules don’t always fit my moral code.

I resent that evil acts can be perpetrated, on me, and on others, that create these chutes and ladders in our brains, and yet the punishment belongs to me, not to the perpetrator. I resent that the roll of the die can go against me, no matter how many good acts I perform, or how good of a person I try to be as I am slipping and sliding through time. But I still do the work. After every fall through a chute into the past I climb back up the ladder to the present, and maybe the reward is that the ladders actually exist at all, and that I can climb them; that I can always find my way back into the game and the chance for something better. The dogs always help me back to the present tense with their right-this-moment view of the world. They make every ladder easier to climb.

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“Where’s this ladder you speak of, and do we have to climb it 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?

 

The Chanukah Drummers

 

This year, for Chanukah, the principal of the synagogue school planned a special event to celebrate with the kids. She invited a drumming group, a Jewish drumming group, to tell the story of Chanukah in an interactive performance. They brought dozens of small djembe drums so that all of the kids could participate (and the adults too, it turned out!). This was a chance to celebrate Chanukah at shul, instead of just at home, because Chanukah is yet another family holiday, rather than a holiday celebrated at the synagogue (think Passover rather than Yom Kippur). If you don’t have family to celebrate with, for eight days in a row, it can all be a bit demoralizing. This was also a chance to educate the kids about the basic story of Chanukah, especially the drum beat of the military battle, in a new way.

Every culture seems to have a holiday at this time of year, possibly in order to find light in the darkness and try to overcome the seasonal depression we’re all vulnerable to. There’s also an emphasis on eating fattening foods (potato latkes and jelly doughnuts and chocolate Gelt for Chanukah), which conveniently packs on a layer of warming fat for the winter. There were a few Hallmark movies that tried to find more of a connection between Chanukah and Christmas than the lights and the food, but it was a stretch. They imagined a family that got together every single night of Chanukah to play dreidel games and fry latkes. I don’t know families like that. This made me wonder if all of the Christmas movies over play the happy jolly family celebrations of Christmas. Hmm. There was also a very strange moment in one of the movies when a caroling group, in period dress, suddenly managed to sing O Hanukkah, word for word. But, hey, what do I know? Maybe these people exist.

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“Back up. Did you say something about food?”

The drumming performance at the synagogue started with an introduction from the two drummers, to show us all of the different possible rhythms and sounds they could make (one of the drummers had jingle bells on his shoe!). And then an introduction to the Chanukah story (a small group Jews fights the conquering power and wins, then rededicates the temple with one night of oil lasting eight whole days, etc.). And then they handed out the little djembe drums and we could already feel the skins vibrating, because they had caught the vibrations in the air and were ready to resonate before we ever hit our own drums.

The head drummer taught us how to make two different sounds: bass, in the middle of the drum, and tone, closer to the rim. And we learned a few different ways to hold our drums too, including sitting on the drum, like on the back of a horse, or holding the drum against one side of your lap or the other, or holding the drum between your knees. We were sitting on the floor, so the between-the-knees idea wasn’t workable for me. The only no-no was to place the drum flat on the floor, because then the sound would be trapped and muted.

As we all started to play I could feel the resonating of the drum in my hands, in my face, in my feet, in my chest. Children who rarely said a word in class volunteered to play their own drum solos for the room, and every variation was encouraged and celebrated, and the room kept up a steady hum the whole time.

There’s such relief in finding other ways to communicate; ways that don’t have to be as precise and detailed as words. I wish I could have brought my dogs to the performance. Cricket would have been barking along with the crowd, or in a contrasting rhythm, more likely, and Ellie would have been crazy excited, zooming around the room. My girls are Jewish too, after all, and they want to be part of the community. And the drumming, because it doesn’t require words, is the kind of language that could be shared more easily across species.

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“Woof!”

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“I can sit still, Mommy. I can do it.”

Watching the light of the candles, and listening to the rhythm of the drums, and singing, and drawing, have all become more prominent parts of my life since I started to teach Synagogue school, and I am grateful. I love language. I love finding the words to capture my experience and communicate it directly to other people. But there’s something magical about being able to tap into a larger energy that connects all of us down to the cellular level. I love the sense that we share something deep and wide, something like a rhythm that resonates in the air between us.

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Happy New Year!

 

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 Jigsaw Cake

 

For my birthday present this year, my brother out did himself. One Amazon box arrived after another, with frosting and cake pans and candy molds and cake mix and pudding mix and sprinkles. When I asked him what it was all for he said that I’d find out on my birthday, and no sooner. On the day of my birthday I received a recipe by email for a six-tiered rainbow cake, covered with icing and sprinkles, and filled with candy.

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This is not my picture, just so you know.

By the time my brother called, to see if his present had finished arriving, and to receive praise for his great idea, I was sick, both exhausted and nauseated (from Shingles and medication for Shingles), and unable to show the proper amount of enthusiasm for the considerable effort and ingenuity behind his gift. But instead of just saying, I hope you feel better soon, he said, it’s probably better to make the cake when you’re nauseous anyway, so you won’t eat so much.

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“Phooey.”

I felt responsible for triggering his comment, and then annoyed at how easily he could turn on me, but most of all I felt overwhelmed, by the cake itself. The idea of this massive tower of cake, that I shouldn’t eat, and that would probably take two or three days to make, and that wouldn’t fit in my freezer once it was all put together, felt like a symbol for how challenging my life has been feeling lately. I wouldn’t even be able to bring the finished cake to my brother’s house, because anything made in my kitchen wouldn’t be kosher enough for his family. We’d have had to make the cake at their house for it to be kosher, and that wasn’t suggested.

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“But I like cake too, Auntie Rachel.”

I love puzzles. And I love cake decorating, when I have the energy. And I really, really, really love frosting, but I could not figure out the puzzle of this huge, unmade cake.

I wanted to accomplish this. I wanted my brother to be proud of me for making this six-tiered cake, and I wanted him to know that I appreciated his gift, and that I appreciated that he thought of me on my birthday. And I really wanted to have a birthday cake that was covered with frosting and bursting with candy. But I wanted to share the cake with a room full of people who could eat it and enjoy it with me; I didn’t want to have a cake that size in my house just to remind me that I had no one to share it with. And I was afraid that after going through all of the effort to put the damn thing together, I’d wake up one morning and stuff the whole thing in my face.

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“That sounds like fun, Mommy!”

The nausea and the exhaustion from the Shingles, and the guilt and shame for being fat and lonely, and the anxiety and the depression for everything in the world were making any productive action impossible. Which of course left me feeling like a jerk, because I should have already made the cake, if only to take a picture of it to send to my brother. Even after the illness passed, every time I looked at the box-o-cake I felt sick to my stomach.

I kept trying to think of ways to make the project more manageable, like, to make cookies out of the cake mix and slather them with the frosting, to give the kids at synagogue school as a Chanukah present. And to take another box of cake mix, and the food coloring and frosting and cake pans and make an abbreviated rainbow layer cake for Mom to bring to one of her many, many, quilting groups. But none of that would give me a satisfactory picture of a six-tiered rainbow explosion cake to send to my brother.

In the meantime, I noticed that there was a huge bag of peanut M&M’s going to waste in one of the boxes, and I decided that chocolate could help my thought process. I mean, it couldn’t hurt. And the cake ingredients are at no risk of going bad while I come up with a plan. Though there are two little white dogs who keep eyeing that box of ingredients, and it’s possible that they are coming up with their own schemes for how to bring this cake to life.

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“Mmm, cake.”

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 Movie I Walked Out On

 

For the past few years, the Israel Engagement committee at my synagogue has been showing Israeli films a few times a year, as a way to explore the modern state of Israel from the point of view of its own citizens. This year the theme is movies made by Palestinian Israelis, and told from a Palestinian perspective. You might think this would be a weak draw at a synagogue on Long Island, but more people came to the first movie of the year than come to most Friday night services.

This was my first time going. When the series first started I was busy with graduate school and too exhausted to go back to synagogue for an extra night, to sit in uncomfortable chairs and watch movies I could easily watch online. I finally went this year for a practical reason: I’m on another committee that’s planning to show a movie in a few months, and I wanted to see how the Israel Engagement committee managed the scheduling, snacks and seating, and the actual showing of the movie (and no one else on the committee volunteered to go).

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“We’ll just wait here for you, Mommy.”

Mom came with me for moral support, and we both decided to skip the schmoozing period before the movie. It turned out that even though the movie was listed as starting at seven, it actually didn’t start until after eight o’clock, so many people were still arriving long after Mom and I found seats in the back of the sanctuary (the film was being shown on one of the new screens in the remodeled sanctuary, to justify the expense of building screens into the design). This was my first lesson from the movie – don’t plan for seven and show the movie at eight, no matter how many people talk about “Jewish Time”. Fifteen minutes for schmoozing and late arrivals, and then start the movie, because I don’t want to be there forever.

The head of the Israel Engagement committee gave a brief introduction to the theme for the year, and a warning to the one sixteen year old in the audience that he had just made the age cut off, because there was some drugs and other adult themes in the movie.

I was a little apprehensive, partly because I’m always tense before seeing movies in movie theatres, worried that I’ll be trapped for an hour and a half watching a movie I don’t like, but also partly because the movie was billed as coming from a Palestinian perspective, and I had no idea what that would mean. The description of the movie had said that it was a story about three Palestinian women living together in an apartment in Tel Aviv, and it sounded like a sort of comedy/relationship movie, but there could still be anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli stuff going on, and while I’ve worked hard to challenge myself with different perspectives on Israel I tend to do it at home, where I can stop the movie or close the book and take a few deep breaths and pet a dog before continuing.

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Two dogs available for petting.

Once the lights went out I took a deep breath and told myself to accept the challenge of watching the movie, because, really, it wouldn’t kill me. I might get bored, or annoyed, but how bad could it be, especially with so many other members of my congregation filling the room. I rolled my eyes at all of the marijuana, and the smarmy men hitting on the gorgeous women at the beginning of the movie. I couldn’t really tell when the dialogue switched from Arabic to Hebrew, because they all spoke so quickly and fluently in both languages. The whole thing hurt my ego, because after so much effort to work on my Hebrew I was still stuck reading the subtitles like everyone else.

I noticed that even though some of the men in the movie were creepy, either overly smarmy or overly controlling, there were a lot of other characters worth watching, straight and gay, religious and secular, successful and not so successful. And the actresses in the main roles were very good, luminous really, and funny and smart and interesting. The friendships developing among the women, once the early partying and drug scenes were out of the way, were surprisingly gentle and sweet, and I started to really care about what happened to them, especially to the religious girl who seemed very familiar to me, despite being a religious Muslim rather than a religious Jew. I was almost patting myself on the back for my open-mindedness by then, for being able to look past the drugs and the sex and the politics and just enjoy the people.

And then the rape happened. I saw it coming when the controlling fiancé touched his girlfriend’s hair-covering and started to tug on it. No, I saw it coming before then, in the way he tried to control where she lived and what she planned to do for work once they were married. The conflict was all telegraphed from the beginning, but it was played light and sort of funny, and I figured that over the course of the film the religious girl would come to realize that some kind of independence would be great and maybe she didn’t have to do every single thing her fiancé or male relatives told her to do. I assumed that the movie would continue in the same light-hearted style, with the sex happening behind closed doors, and all of the challenging topics addressed with humor and ellipses.

And then the fiancé touched the religious girl’s hair covering (they didn’t call it a hijab in the movie, so I’m not calling it a hijab, even though that’s the only word I know for a Muslim woman’s hair covering). My whole body tensed, because I know what it means for a religious man to break what other people might see as a minor boundary. I don’t care if you are Muslim or Jewish or Christian, if you follow modesty laws and you suddenly break them, watch out.

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“I’m watching them. All of them.”

The rape started so quickly, and I was so busy telling the girl (silently) to get the hell out of there, that it took me a second to really freak out. I wanted to drag that man off of her, just reach up into the screen and toss him to the floor, and I couldn’t. The only thing I could do was run, or walk, out of there. If she couldn’t run, I would have to run for her.

I stood up awkwardly, because there wasn’t a lot of room between the rows of chairs, and quietly told my mother that I had to leave. I was willing to sit alone in the hall by myself for the next hour or two, if necessary, but I wasn’t going to stay in that room and watch a woman being raped. I felt like, by sitting there, I was allowing it to happen, even making it happen.

Mom followed me out immediately, and listened to me ranting all the way home, and even sat with me, and the dogs, while we watched a Hallmark Christmas movie to recover.

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It’s important to say that, even if they had warned me that there would be a rape in the movie, I’m not sure I would have known how it was going to affect me. Though, just the word rape would have been a trigger. No one used it. Watching people have sex on screen is embarrassing, and would have felt really weird in a room filled with fellow congregants, but not scary. Rape is scary.

 

As far as I know, no one else left. But I didn’t speak to anyone about it afterwards, so I don’t really know. I have no idea if they discussed the rape scene during the discussion after the movie, or if it had been eclipsed by other plot points by then. I don’t even know if anyone, other than the female rabbi who was sitting in front of me, even noticed that I left, or why. She emailed me after the movie, to make sure I was okay, and I sobbed with relief, because I was afraid that no one had even noticed that I’d left. Or why.

The thing is, a bunch of the people in that room have read my novel, or know about it, and know that I am an incest survivor. They do not talk to me about it, or ask me about it, though. And when I’ve offered to discuss it with the congregation, in person, in a letter, any which way, no one has taken me up on it. The fact that they can sit through a rape scene in order to show their support for Palestinian women and Palestinian filmmakers, but they don’t want to hear from me, hurts.

The rape scene, as much of it as I saw, still flashes through my mind over and over again. And I resent it. I have enough awful memories of my own. I don’t need more.

I felt selfish for walking out of the movie. I beat myself up about it for hours. I felt immature, and melodramatic, and I could hear my father’s voice in my head calling me Sarah Bernhardt and telling me that I was overreacting, again, just like I always used to do as a child when I got all riled up about my father’s behavior and the crazy conspiracy theories he liked to spin about why he kept being accused of sexual misconduct at work, with children.

But most of all I felt invisible and insignificant. I felt like, in the face of intersectionality and world issues, and the increasingly strong need for people not to think about certain things, I do not matter at all. That’s the scariest thing, to feel like I don’t matter to the people who matter to me. And I can’t shake that feeling any more than I can shake the etch-a-sketch of my mind and make the rape images go away.

 

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

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

 

 

I hate games, so of course my students love them!

 

Even back in kindergarten, I hated playing Duck Duck Goose and Musical Chairs and Mother May I, and Red Light Green Light. I hated the competition, and I hated the humiliation when I couldn’t remember the rules, and the hierarchies that decided who would be a winner and who would, forever, be a loser.

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“I’m not a loser like you, Mommy. I’m a winner.”

A million years later, though, it turns out that games are a favorite at synagogue school, and the kids beg to play them over and over, spewing long lists of rules that I’ll have to learn in order to do it just right. They walk into the classroom, ignoring the worksheets and pencils on their desks (I love worksheets!) and they beg to play Jewish Jeopardy or Bingo or Tic Tac Toe before class even starts. They loved the day when we had an active shooter drill, because it meant competing with each other for who could hide best, and for who could make another kid laugh before laughing themselves.

When school first started in September, my idea of a perfect class session was: a handout to start things off; some practice with Hebrew letters; a sing along to learn one of the Hebrew prayers; and then a discussion about what the prayer meant to them; and then maybe a vocabulary list. I wrote one lesson plan after another along those lines, even after I discovered how hard it was to get the kids to sit in their seats for even two minutes at a time.

I figured I’d just need to come up with better ideas for how to reward them for cooperating. One of my first ideas was to give them a dance break, so they could work off their extra energy. I even bought a little speaker to attach to my iPhone, so they could hear the music over their own (very loud) voices. But they weren’t excited by the Nefesh Mountain songs I chose for them (Jewgrass music!!!), and then the new little speaker stopped working halfway through the song, and meanwhile the boys had decided to create a maze on the floor and crawl through the desks until the desks started to fall like dominoes.

Then I brought in sugar free candies and whole wheat pretzels for rewards, which seemed to get their attention, but it also distracted them and led to attempts to steal the snacks from the top of the cabinet (they are much taller than they look, somehow). And then I ran out of candy too soon (who knew sugar free peppermints were so popular?), and they started to complain about who got more pretzels than who, and how unfair the world is, and, by the way, teachers are always nicer to the girls! I’m still working with the snacks, because they are a good motivator, but I’m trying to be more consistent in who gets them and when.

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“I like treats too, Mommy!”

I’ve had a lot of other ideas along the way for how to encourage the kids to finish at least a little bit of my lesson plan before half the class makes airplanes out of the worksheets (hint: half the class are boys). I thought of bringing in stress balls early on, when I noticed that a few pencils had been shattered, and the others were scattered across the floor, but I realized quickly that with the amount of energy and aggression in the room the stress balls would literally be bouncing off the walls, and the children’s heads.

I even thought about bringing Cricket in once, to keep some discipline, but her barking would have prevented even the small amount of work I was getting done. And I knew I couldn’t bring Ellie, because she would have peed on the floor, or cowered under my desk, with so many noisy little people around her.

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“I could play with the children, Mommy. I just need to bring my friends.”

Some of my ideas actually worked out, though, like having the kids do Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, in Hebrew, and making the shapes of the Hebrew letters with their bodies. But they get bored very easily, especially when they suddenly realize they’ve been tricked into learning something.

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“You can’t trick me.”

I finally gave in to the pressure to play a game with the kids a few weeks ago, and they gave me a big list of rules I can’t remember, except that there were two teams, and when one team missed an answer the other team got the “rebound”. I used the game as a way to get through a word list I’d brought in for them, and for the first time they were actually able to get through a whole list, in both classes. To me, it felt tedious and mean and competitive, but to them it was awesome!

I don’t understand the draw, nor am I especially skilled at running games, and I have no creative ideas of my own for new games to play. So the following week I had the kids do student teaching (so they could teach me), and of course, after teaching alien languages and candy eating tricks, they focused on running games. There were clapping games and hiding games and games where we had to sit on the floor and games where we all had to leave the classroom. There were no games, unfortunately, that incorporated learning Hebrew. I’m sure you’re surprised.

But somewhere along the way I realized that if I give a little, they give a little back. I even had one kid ask for a harder worksheet. He decided that if he was going to have to get work done anyway, in order to earn the game he wanted to play, the worksheet should at least be challenging. So, they are teaching me, and they are very generous with their lessons, and eager to tell me when I get things wrong, which seems to happen often.

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“I’ve got a long list. Start typing.”

I’m still going to try out all of my own ideas on them, trying to make the learning itself more fun, and productive, at the same time. And you never know, maybe some time during the year they will become less concerned about who’s winning and who’s losing, but I’m not holding my breath. They’d win that competition easily.

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“Mmmffmmhhm.”

 

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?