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The Last Summer at Camp

 

During my last summer at sleep away camp, at age thirteen, we had a strange outbreak of mosquitoes. We weren’t allowed to go in the lake for two weeks, and the mosquitoes were in pretty much every breath of air we breathed. I don’t know if it was an early case of West Nile Virus or something else they didn’t bother to explain, but I had to sleep in jeans and a sweatshirt, in ninety degree weather, to try to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

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“That sounds bad. I’m worried about this story.”

It was already a very, very bad summer for me. I’d begged to stay home, or better yet, go to California. I had this idea about California that wasn’t based on anything I can remember, except that it wasn’t home. I think my best friend at the time had been talking a lot about going to California for some reason, and she either went to California, or to Israel that summer, to visit family.

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“Oy. It’s getting worse.”

I was deeply depressed, irritable, anxious, and uncomfortable 24 hours a day. I’d lost weight (this was pre-anorexia, so I was normal thin, not skinny yet), and had some pretty outfits, and I’d assumed this would make me happy, but it actually made things worse.

Sex was everywhere in camp. There were a lot of rape accusations (all true as far as I could tell, but not taken seriously by the counselors, who were eighteen and nineteen years old, or the administration, who had no excuse). There was a lot of dating and flirting and coupling. I would not have been able to tell you why it was all so awful to me at the time. I couldn’t explain why I felt so thoroughly under attack. I’d had some memories of the sexual abuse by then, in vague images and awful feelings, but I didn’t know what it was, or what to do with it.

My parents came up on visiting day and I was sure they were going to take me home, but instead, my father announced that they were going to Israel in a few days and wouldn’t be back until it was time for me to come home from camp. And I couldn’t go with them. I screamed and cried and he took a picture of me, inconsolable (he framed it and put it up in the downstairs hallway in our house, where it stayed for years).

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“Told ya.”

After the mosquito drama, or before it maybe (time was confusing that summer), the counselors took my age group on an overnight campout on a hill. It was coed, with the counselors down at the bottom of the hill, out of ear shot. None of this had been made clear ahead of time. There was at least one rape that night, but I only knew about it because it happened to a friend of mine. I have no idea what else happened, but we were a group of thirteen year old boys and girls without supervision, so I can guess. Someone stepped on my hand in the middle of the night, and no one seemed to notice when I screamed.

No one listened when I ranted about the campout for the next few days, because everyone else seemed to think that a coed sleepover for thirteen-year-olds was totally fine. I was the prude and the hysteric. And the fact is, I couldn’t explain why I was so angry about it when no one else had a word to say, except for the girls who whispered in my ear about rape, on the hill, and on other days and at other times, but refused to go to the administration, or to let me go for them.

None of the rapes, or attempted rapes, happened to me. I barely even touched a boy all summer. But the lack of concern from the adults enraged me. The counselors suggested that my problem was that I was too mature for my age group, and that was why I was so uncomfortable. My opinion was that I needed to walk home from camp, even if it took the rest of the summer. But I was too afraid, and had no money, and that made me feel powerless.

 

When a twelve-year-old girl was sent home because she had accused two boys of forcing her to give them blow jobs – and no one believed her, because, How can you force someone to give a blow job, really it’s the boys who were raped – I realized I was never going back to that camp.

And it was a terrible loss. The thing is, I’d never really been safe anywhere else. I was sexually abused at home and at my childhood best friend’s house. I was bullied at school. Camp was the one place that felt normal, where I could work through the kinds of painful experiences that everyone else had to go through too. It wasn’t a great joy, but it was a place where I had learned how to make friends, and set boundaries, and argue, and swim. But once sex became an issue, for me and for my peers, camp was no longer safe for me, with my abuse history. Maybe if they’d had better policies in place for how to handle problematic behaviors, or if the counselors were better trained, or if the adults had taken on more of an oversight role, things would have been different. But maybe not.

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“I’m sorry, Mommy.”

Usually Mom drove to camp to pick me up at the end of the summer, but this time she arranged for me to go home with another Mom from our area and two of her daughters, because of her late return from Israel with my father. I felt really sick to my stomach on the drive, but I didn’t know the Mom or the girls well enough to say anything. When I finally got home I ran upstairs and barely made it to the bathroom in time, throwing up in the sink. I kept throwing up for the next two days, and by the time school started a week and a half later, I wasn’t eating much at all. My body felt like it had been filled with poison, and I didn’t want to risk adding more. Within weeks I was basically anorexic, and that seemed to help keep the poison at bay. By then I didn’t just want to be skinny anymore, I wanted to be invisible.

 

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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 Bites

 

Cricket is a biter. She has been a biter since she was a puppy, and now that she’s 12 years old, I don’t see it changing. We were warned that Cockapoos could bite – though the warning came after Cricket came home from the breeder, and from an unreliable source, so, not especially helpful.

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She ate most of this pumpkin before we knew what was happening.

Cricket bites when she’s scared, angry, overexcited, etc. She resents any attempt to brush, comb, or clean her hair (though groomers have been able to do it, when she’s medicated). For her first two years, I worked hard at trying to condition Cricket to grooming at home. It was a long ritual, with lots of chicken treats and very gradual steps, and it was never, ever successful.

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“You’re killing me, Mommy.”

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“I kill you back!”

When the groomer left a small mat on one of Cricket’s ears, during a grooming visit a few months ago, I got nervous, because Cricket has very cottony hair, prone to knotting up if we’re not careful. I even took out the round-edged scissors to try to remove the small mat before it could grow. Cricket didn’t appreciate that, of course, and I decided to keep my fingers for a while longer. That meant that, at her most recent grooming, after the mat had grown and spread to both ears and her face, Cricket faced the indignity of being shaved down to the nubs. Her head is surprisingly small without all of the fluff, and she looked a bit like a tiny alpaca, with her naked ears and prominent nose, and big, wide open eyes.

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Escaping from the groomer’s house!

 

The thing is, at this point, I’m done battling with her about her hair. I’m done risking life and limb to save her from another bad haircut, that she will, of course, blame on me. She is a senior citizen in the dog world, and this is the best she’s going to be. I may have better luck cleaning her up once she loses a few more teeth, though. That’s something to look forward to, and since she has resisted every attempt at tooth brushing, with every kind of special doggy toothbrush and chicken flavored toothpaste, she won’t keep all those sharp little teeth forever.

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The immediate problem is that she has convinced Ellie that any attempts at home grooming are the equivalent of death threats, and Ellie has fluffy ears and a long fluffy tail that need regular combing to avoid mats. Ellie doesn’t bite, Thank God, but she does run away from me, or give me those puppy dog eyes that seem to say, Mommy, why are you hurting me? Aren’t I a good girl? Which really is worse than a dog bite in terms of long lasting damage to the soul.

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“Cricket says you’re trying to kill me.”

I think we need to come up with something like a miniature carwash for dogs, where the dog is harnessed in and washed and brushed and dried without any human fingers put at risk. I mean, sure, the actual haircut would still have to be done by professional, but in between, the carwash could keep the girls from smelling like pee, and covering their faces with snot. And, I would be able to keep all of my fingers. Wouldn’t that be great?

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“No, Mommy. I don’t think so.”

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The poor miniature alpaca doesn’t think so either

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Ellie’s Magic Carpet

 

For a year now, Ellie has struggled to jump up onto the living room couch. It seemed odd, since she can easily jump up onto my bed, which is significantly higher off the ground, but Mom pointed out that there is a rug surrounding my bed, and no rug next to the couch (because when Ellie first moved in she peed through the rugs in the living room and hallway to the point where we were afraid to replace them).

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“Oops.”

But it’s been a year, and we were at Costco recently and saw a (very) cheap area rug that would fit right in front of the couch. It wouldn’t be a terrible loss if the flood of pee returned to wash it away, but, maybe, we thought, it could be the magic trick to allow Ellie to jump up onto the couch instead of needing the Mommy elevator (that would be me) every time.

I was not especially optimistic: one, because Ellie still pees on the exercise mat in my room on occasion, and two, because I didn’t really understand Mom’s logic about wood floor versus rug as effective transport up to the couch. But it was worth a try.

We got home from Costco too exhausted to set up the new rug (this is a constant. I always look forward to going to Costco and I always come home feeling like I ran a marathon in cement shoes), but later in the day Mom set out the area rug, trapping it in place under the coffee table (or whatever you call a low table on wheels that sits in front of the couch and holds all kinds of miscellaneous tchotchkes).

At first, Ellie didn’t seem to notice the new rug. She saw Cricket sitting up on the couch and came over to me, as usual, with her front paws up in the air, asking for the Mommy elevator. But Mom said not to lift her up. “Encourage her to do it herself,” Mom said, sounding loving and sweet despite the horrible cruelty she was asking me to carry out.

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“But why, Mommy?”

I got distracted by something (dinner, TV show, news alert, whatever) and then noticed that Ellie was stretched out next to me on the couch, with Cricket looking extra grumpy next to her.

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“Harrumph.”

And that was it. The magic carpet had done its job! Ellie has been up and down, with no help from me, dozens of times since then. She still can’t figure out how to jump up onto Grandma’s bed – which is no higher than mine and surrounded by a fluffy rug – but I think that has more to do with Cricket’s dirty looks. It is, after all, Cricket’s bed. She kindly allows Grandma to sleep on it, out of noblesse oblige, but that courtesy clearly does not extend to her sister.

There have been no pee puddles on the new rug so far. It’s possible that Ellie has finally figured out that wee wee pads and carpets are not the same thing. Now if only that knowledge could extend to exercise mats…We’ll have to see how things develop.

I might also have to carry a piece of rug with me to place next to the car, so that Ellie will remember that she can jump onto the backseat by herself. Usually she only jumps in after she’s seen her sister doing it, but maybe the rug could work its magic there too.

 

In the meantime, I started to think that this metaphor might fit me too. Just like Ellie only needed one extra, small step to allow her to make a big step forward, something to help her feel a bit more secure and supported, would the same trick work for me?

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Will it work for Platypus?

I’ve been struggling with the social work job search ever since I passed my licensing exam in the spring. I’ve written cover letters and sent out resumes like a good girl, but inside I’m terrified that someone will actually offer me a job, or even an interview, and call my bluff. This next step just seems too enormous to me. Internships and classwork and graduation and the licensing exam were all big things, but they seemed doable. This next jump feels more like jumping off a cliff.

 

But after watching Ellie’s transformation into a jumping bean, I started to think about what could serve as my area rug, or magic carpet, to make the next step in my life seem more possible. And then I got an email from one of the rabbis at my synagogue, asking if I’d be interested in teaching in the synagogue school this fall. They’d only need me for two hours a week, to teach Hebrew language and Jewish holidays, and I thought about it, for maybe a second, and wrote back: Yes!!!!

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“Yes!”

I couldn’t believe I’d written that, and I was even more shocked when I went in for my meeting with the rabbi and couldn’t stop smiling. Teaching? Me? Children?

 

It’s only two hours a week, so that explains some of the doable-ness, but I think the real magic is that the job is at my synagogue. That’s my safe place. I’ve always been able to do things there that feel impossible everywhere else.

Of course, after I accepted the job, the anxiety flowed in and I started feeling like I had to write out all of my lesson plans for the year within the first twenty-four hours, and all of my internal monsters had to have their say: about what could go wrong, and how badly I could fail, and who would hate me, and on and on. But, surprisingly, but I still wanted to do it. How strange!

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“Very strange.”

It’s possible that some part of me is thinking that this two hour a week job will be instead of a part-time/twenty-hour a week job in social work, but I think it’s more that a deal has been struck internally, if I can have this, then you can have social work. I didn’t even know I wanted to do this, or that I could do it. Just like Ellie didn’t know she needed an area rug to get up onto the couch.

I don’t know where any of this will lead, and it’s possible that I will need a few more metaphorical area rugs to get to the long term goal of becoming a therapist, but now I think they might actually be out there, waiting for me to be ready for them, or waiting for me to imagine them into existence.

We’ll have to see. But for now, I really need to memorize the Alephbet (Hebrew alphabet) song, and practice my Hebrew print writing, and figure out what a lesson plan might be. Wish me luck!

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. Izzy’s father then sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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 Slow Fast Day

 

The summer when I was ten years old I lived in the bunk behind the bunk, at my sleepaway camp. My bunk was added on behind the popular girls’ bunk for our age group; they had a lot of light and windows and a porch facing the public, and we were hidden in back, invisible. There was a thin wall separating the two bunks, and we had to listen to the soundtrack of Footloose all summer long through that wall.

There was a girl in my bunk who was sort of my friend, but mostly not. She was the one I’d made fun of the summer before, in my aborted attempt to fit in with the popular girls, and our friendship was on a teeter totter. She was pretty, but strange, and from different evidence over the years – promiscuous behavior at a young age, severe memory lapses, a changeable personality – I realized later that she was a sexual abuse victim, like me. That could explain why I was drawn to her, even though she was often mean to me. She could say awful things, or ignore me for large swaths of time, despite the itsy bitsy size of the bunk we lived in together, and I still accepted her friendship when it was offered.

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“I understand.”

And then came Tisha B’Av. The Ninth day of the month of Av, on the Jewish calendar, commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, in 586 BCE and 70 CE. Over time the fast day has come to represent a long list of catastrophes in Jewish history, maybe because we need more relatable grief to hold onto, like method actors, in order to effectively mourn the loss of two temples we’d never seen, and a kind of life that none of us had ever experienced, with high priests, and animal sacrifices, and all Jews living in one place.

Tisha B’Av is regarded as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, but generally goes unnoticed in the liberal Jewish world, except in Jewish summer camps, like the one I went to for five summers as a kid. For one full day, from sunset to sunset, we were prohibited from eating or drinking, washing or bathing (aka, no swimming). Fasting is a tool used by all kinds of religious and spiritual practitioners, because it works; depriving the body of food starves the brain of needed Serotonin, creating a neurochemically induced state of depression. Kids under thirteen are supposed to be excused from fasting, but most of us did it anyway.

The summer when I was ten years old, we trekked to the other side of camp and to sit on the basketball court in the dark when Tisha B’Av began. We sat on the ground, by bunk, with a single candle in the middle of each circle, and we listened to the older kids chanting the book of Aicha (Lamentations) in Hebrew. It was haunting, and sad, even though no translation of the text was offered. The next morning we went to services again, all together as a camp for the only time all summer, but then the rest of the day stretched out before us with no distractions, no food to eat, and no activities to keep us busy. Our counselors were felled by the fasting and most likely by the lack of caffeine, because no food or drink also means no coffee, and they didn’t have the energy to sit with us and talk with us and offer comfort.

That year we were all hanging out in our tiny bunk, to escape the heat, bored to death. All of our negative feelings were let loose in the bunk with no safe place to lock them away, and we just lived in the undifferentiated soup of our emotions for hours. Maybe that darkness, and the desperate desire to do something to disperse it, explains what happened next.

I don’t know where our counselors were, but the girl in my bunk who was sort of my friend and sort of not, decided that I needed a haircut. That was the summer when one of the girls had brought Judy Blume’s Forever to camp, and let everyone borrow it. It was the first book we’d ever read with a sex scene in it, and people were reading it in hushed voices, after dark, with flashlights. The brink-of-puberty thing left me open to a lot of criticism: for my bland clothes, my plain brown hair, my lack of makeup, etc. For some reason, this girl focused all of her frustration on me that afternoon, and offered to cut my hair, to make me look presentable. I don’t know if it was hunger, fatigue, or humiliation, but I agreed to stand over the sink in the bathroom while she parted my hair into bunches and started chopping inches off from the bottom.

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“Eeeek!!!!!!”

Our senior counselor appeared at the entrance to the bathroom when only one bunch was finished. She screamed at both of us, outraged that we would do such a thing on a holy day. Haircut Girl dropped the scissors and walked out of the bunk with a shrug. I stood still, looking in the mirror, feeling guilty for not knowing all of the rules for Tisha B’Av, and guilty for going along with something I didn’t want to do, and guilty for accepting Haircut Girl’s assessment of me as so far below her. Guilty and ashamed and lonely and depressed; it all seemed to resonate with the character of the fast day, and the shame and guilt of the Jewish people for so upsetting God that he would have to destroy our Temple, twice.

My counselor sat me at the picnic table outside of our bunk and put my uneven hair into a French braid to hide the damage, somewhat, until she could finish the haircut herself after sunset. She had to have known that there was an element of bullying in the haircut, but I think she was also confused that I’d gone along with it. She didn’t understand why I’d say yes to such a thing, and I couldn’t explain it without humiliating myself even further. It matters that the girl cutting my hair was the one I’d made fun of the previous summer, mimicking her in front of the popular girls before I realized I never wanted to do that again. Maybe I felt like I owed her the chance to humiliate me in return, except that she didn’t seem to remember any of it. She barely remembered that we’d lived in the same bunk the previous summer. Or at least that’s what she said.

Towards the end of that summer our age group had a talent show, and Haircut Girl asked me to do a dance routine with her. I’m pretty sure I was a last minute replacement when her preferred dance partner dropped out. She would have looked around our tiny bunk and reluctantly accepted that I was the one most likely to agree to do it, because I loved dancing. I would have gone to dance classes every day in camp, if they’d given any dance classes at my camp. I danced unconsciously most of the time, instead of walking, and it’s possible that that played a role in my less-than-cool reputation.

We did our dance routine to “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” from Footloose, since we’d been listening to the soundtrack all summer. I don’t remember the performance itself, but I do remember the magic of being able to match my steps to her steps as we rehearsed next to our bunk. Did we sing out loud? Or lip sync during the performance? I don’t remember. Were we better friends when it was over? Nope. But for a couple of days we were dancing to the same music, and even smiling at the same time, though probably not at each other.

And yet, I prefer to remember the fast day, despite all of the pain involved. For that one day, each summer, everyone was more real, with all of their light and all of their darkness visible. It wasn’t comfortable, or fun, but it was cathartic. If a fast day hadn’t already existed in the middle of the summer, we’d have had to create something like it ourselves, just to relieve the pressure of keeping up appearances, if only for a moment.

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“Phew.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

 

Finding Noom

 

I was on Weight Watchers for more than a year, and I did really well with it early on, but at a certain point I couldn’t make any more progress. I still stayed with it for another six months, though, asking for more help and trying different strategies, until I eventually gave in to the ubiquitous ads for the Noom app and switched allegiances.

On Weight Watchers there are zero point foods that you can eat in unlimited quantities; that’s what made the diet so easy to follow for so long. Whenever I was hungry, even if I’d run out of points for the day (foods are given point values instead of calorie counts on WW), I could just eat any of the zero point foods, and there were tons of them. But in the end, those zero point foods were the problem. I was eating too much.

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“What does ‘too much food’ mean?”

Noom is, basically, a calorie counting program in the form of an app. There are daily lessons in psychology, and creating small goals to change your eating habits for the long term, but the overall intention of the program is to help you stay within your assigned calorie limit. You are assigned to a virtual group, with a group coach, where you’re supposed to discuss the daily lessons and assignments and any insights that come up along the way. Then there’s a goal specialist who tries to help you come up with your own particular goal for each week – something suggested by the daily lessons, or the group, or just whatever you’ve been struggling with, like emotional eating or peer pressure or planning meals.

I wasn’t sure about the program at first, so I kept my Weight Watchers account, and as soon as I started counting calories again, the hunger returned. Hunger is a dangerous feeling for me, because I’ve dealt with anorexic tendencies more than once in my life. On the one hand, I want to eat everything in sight to fill the empty space, and on the other hand, I feel righteous and pure for feeling the hunger and not giving in to it. There’s a strange high that comes from extended starvation, but in my experience that high leads to severe health consequences, and big weight gain when you inevitably start to eat again. I can’t risk going through that again, so I have to be careful. But I survived that first week on Noom, without too much drama, so I decided to stick with it and put Weight Watchers aside for a while.

I’d love it if Noom could help me make more progress on my underlying eating disorder issues, because while being on Weight Watchers allowed me to lose weight, it didn’t require me to confront my thought distortions around food or body image. Noom, if it’s going to work, is going to have to address my food panic, and internal arguments over what I do and do not deserve, and so much more, hopefully in a very gradual and manageable way, so that I don’t feel overwhelmed.

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“I’m already overwhelmed.”

I already wish there were more interaction with the goal specialist on Noom, because what I really need is the one-on-one help. I have my own real-life therapist, but food and weight issues have never been her strength. She understands the issues intellectually, but not personally, and not with huge amounts of compassion. It would be like going to my brother for help with math – he’d just do the problem for me, speed through the solution, and then look at me like I’m speaking Swahili when I say I still don’t understand. How could you not understand? It’s simple!

            The thing is, I like to overeat. I liked the big bowls of yogurt, or soup, or sliced peaches with fat-free whipped cream I was eating on Weight Watchers. I would make a pot of vegetable soup, or turkey chili, filled with mostly zero point foods, so that I could eat as much as I wanted and never have to worry about serving sizes. I ate so many canned peaches that I developed a low grade allergy to them, but they were a zero point food so it still took me months to stop eating them!

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“Mmm, more peaches.”

Big portions give me the sense that there will always be enough, and I’ve always worried about not having enough: whether it was food, or love, or money, or time. I’m obsessive about making sure that I have more pens and notebooks and toner and printer paper than I need, and I like to go to Costco for huge bottles of vitamins and a year’s worth of paper towels, just in case. I get nervous when I’m reading the last pages of a novel, and have no new novel on deck, because, who knows? The library might be closed, or they may not have a book I want I read! And I panic in May when the official TV season ends, even though they’ve learned to stagger their start and end dates a bit so there will be shows to watch over the summer (never enough though!).

I’m really not a fan of finding out that everything I want to accomplish in life requires me to confront myself and work through my limitations, because some of my limitations are really intransigent. It would be like expecting Cricket, at age twelve, to overcome her fear of bath time. Are you insane?! Water is terrifying!

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“Water is terrifying!”

            But, here I go, down the calorie-counting path again, hoping to find fewer monsters hiding behind the shrubbery this time. Wish me luck!

 

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. Izzy’s father then sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

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“Well, what?!”

Writing Our Own Blessings

 

There’s a long list of blessings in the Jewish tradition, most of which are over food. The official purpose of saying blessings in Judaism, according to Wikipedia, is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessings, and to transform everyday actions and occurrences into religious experiences. There are blessings on giving charity, and hearing thunder and seeing lightning, on smelling a fragrance, or seeing a rainbow (though that last one is focused on blessing the memory of the covenant between God and the Jewish People, which isn’t really what’s exciting about rainbows). There are blessings for seeing the ocean, or the blossoming of trees, or undergoing a medical procedure, or crossing an ocean, or being released from prison. There are blessings you’re supposed to say each morning, to thank God for straightening the bent, and releasing the bound, and opening the eyes of the blind, and “making me a man.” There is an alternate blessing for women to say, but, spoiler alert, it’s not equivalent to the blessing for men. There are blessings on seeing a miracle, and on receiving good or bad news, and then there’s the blessing thanking God for not making me a Goy (non-Jew), which I just refuse to say.

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“Hey, what’s that about?”

My question is: are these existing blessings sufficient to fill our needs? Every blessing in the canon was written by a human being, at a certain time and for a certain purpose. If the blessings we say throughout the day impact how we feel about our lives, it only seems fair that we should have some control over what they will be. I want to feel empowered to say the blessings that mean something to me, today, and not be stuck repeating what generations of men have seen as worthy of gratitude.

First of all, I want to be able to alter existing blessings when they don’t work for me. For example, I would change the blessing over rainbows so that it focuses on the beauty of a rainbow, or on the hope that leprechauns and gold coins will appear at the end of it. And since I can’t say the thank-god-I’m-a-man blessing and I refuse to say the thank-god-I’m-not-a-Goy blessing, I need to find alternatives. Maybe, thank God people are all different so we don’t get bored with all of the sameness, or, thank God I am the specific person I am, whoever that may be.

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“That sounds much better.”

I like the idea of spontaneously expressing gratitude when good things happen, even if those good things don’t fit into some universal pattern. Ellie might say Thank you God for giving me a mommy who knows that I want chicken right now. And Mom might say, Thank you, universe, for this little bird who landed on my window sill to eat the leftover matzah from Passover that the other birds ignored. And for me, Thank God I have enough pens and yellow narrow-ruled legal pads to write down all of my random thoughts.

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“Did you say chicken?”

            I feel strongly, though, that we should be allowed to acknowledge that life is complicated, and that I can feel more than one thing at a time, without cancelling out the gratitude. I’d call these the “Thank you, but…” blessings, as in, Thank you, God, that I can still walk, even though my hips ache on rainy days, and I have to take pain killers and wear orthotics in all of my shoes; thank you for helping me tolerate people who disagree with me, even though they are still, clearly, wrong; thank you for giving me a nervous system that is extra sensitive to smells and sounds and feelings of all kinds, even though it makes me feel awful half the time; thank you for the joy I feel when I hear a bird singing outside my window, but, you know, it’s five o’clock in the morning and I’d rather be sleeping. And of course, thank you, God, for this piece of chocolate, but next time could you make it Godiva?

            I also want blessings that can acknowledge pain as part of my life: Thank you God for seeing me in my pain, accepting me as I am, and knowing that I am doing my best; thank you God for making it rain on a day when I feel like crying; thank you God for sitting next to me in the muck and not being in such a hurry to leave; Thank you for hearing me when I’m angry and sad and confused, as much as when I’m happy and inspired; Thank you God for teaching me the power of kvetching; blessed art thou, oh lord, our god, ruler of the universe, for not giving a f**k that my hair is a mess today.

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“Stop talking about my hair!”

            And I need some aspirational blessings, to help me imagine that things can improve: may we, one day, remember what it’s like to wake up to actual birds chirping instead of to twitter alerts; may God, or the force, be with me during my exam so that I don’t forget everything I learned in a fog of anxiety; may we all learn to hear one another with empathy and compassion, even when we do not understand.

            And last but not least, because it’s the category we usually think of when we think of blessings, I need some more blessings that celebrate wonder and gratitude, like: a blessing for every time I see a new tree or bird or flower; a blessing on making a new friend, or having an “aha” moment. A blessing for pushing myself one centimeter further into a stretch, or being able to stand up again after sitting on a low chair, or having enough tissues during allergy season. A blessing for practicing a musical instrument, or taking medication that actually works, or reading a good book, or having a nice phone call, or receiving a kind email. A blessing for the ability to think for myself, and a blessing for the miracle that is chocolate mousse.

But I still have a lot of questions about blessings, and the role they play in our lives. Why do some people find deep meaning in saying blessings all day long, and others find it tedious? Is there still value in saying blessings even if you don’t believe in God? Is there a right way or a wrong way to say a blessing, and if I say the “wrong” blessing will it make me feel worse?

The dogs seem to say blessings throughout their day, like when Cricket sighs a deep sigh as she stretches herself out across Grandma’s lap, or when Ellie flies off the steps to chase a squirrel. They haven’t told me who they say their blessings to, or if they believe in God or some other universal force, and I have no idea if there are words attached to the blessings they mutter to themselves all day long, but it makes them happy. I can see how meaningful it is to them, to acknowledge, with a sound or a smile or a stretch, how wonderful they feel when they smell chicken in the air, or when they scratch their backs on the rug. They are fully present in the moment and acknowledge their gratitude, but also their disappointment and grief, all at the same time. Taking that extra second to acknowledge it all seems to really work for them.

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“Aahhh.”

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Some blessings don’t need words.

 

I wonder if there is a collection of blessings that dogs have access to that helps them find the exact right thing to bless, because I could use something like that. But, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure they didn’t find any of their blessings in a prayer book. They just know what they are feeling, and feel free to say it to whoever might be listening. That seems like a good place to start.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

 

 

Yom Daled

 

On Wednesdays at my Jewish sleepaway camp, when most of the kitchen staff took the day off, we made our own sandwiches, right after breakfast (egg salad, tuna, peanut butter and jelly), and tossed them, and some pieces of fruit, into a black garbage bag to be kept in the fridge for later. The scary part was that we had to tell our counselor what kind and how many sandwiches we wanted, so that two delegates could stay late with her and make the sandwiches. And then during lunch I had to sit there with everyone in my bunk knowing that I’d asked for two peanut butter and jelly, plus an egg salad sandwich. I wanted more sandwiches than a pre-teen girl was supposed to want. I was always hungrier than I was supposed to be. I could eat three bowls of cereal at breakfast, but at least no one was announcing it to the whole room. It’s possible that the other girls ate as much as I did, but they hid it better.

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“Did you say sandwiches?”

Wednesdays were called Yom Daled, or day four, because everything had to have a Hebrew name in camp. I’m not sure why it was Yom Daled, which is the fourth letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, instead of Yom Revi’i, which literally means “the fourth day” in Hebrew. This is a mystery I may never unravel. The other days of the week weren’t named after Hebrew letters, though. In fact, I think we just called them Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, like everyone else.

Anyway, Yom Daled was meant to be a break from our regular schedule of sports and arts & crafts and swimming and Hebrew classes. We went on day trips, off campus, a couple of times each summer, but otherwise it was up to our counselors to create an “experience.” Like the time they set up a trip to Russia, in the auditorium, and taught us about the Refuseniks (Russian Jews who weren’t allowed to leave Russia). I remember waiting on a long line to get my imaginary passport, and then having it ripped out of my hands (paper cut!) on another line. And I remember feeling like I was wearing a tattered woolen coat, and still shivering, even though in real life I was in a t-shirt and shorts, and sweating to death.

We learned a song that day called “Leaving Mother Russia,” written by a group called Safam, and inspired by Natan Sharansky. I don’t remember singing the song at any other time, but the chorus has stuck with me for thirty years: we are leaving mother Russia, we have waited far too long, we are leaving Mother Russia, when they come for us, we’ll be gone.

Another time, they set up the whole camp as if it were the State of Israel, and we visited a shuk (a marketplace), and had to haggle over prices, in Hebrew, and then we made pitas on a hot stone, and, of course, we had hummus and falafel and Israeli salad for lunch.

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“I’m sure I like falafel, Mommy.”

On another day, in a different summer, we learned about terrorism. Our counselors lined us up in chairs and had us pretend to be on a plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. It was an interesting thing to see our counselors interpret their roles as terrorists; some tried to make us understand the sorrow and pain of losing their land, and the hopelessness of being refugees under the control of strangers; others played their roles with anger and violence and scared the crap out of us.

We also spent a day learning about cults, because it was a hot topic on college campuses that year, and our counselors wanted to prepare us for being tempted to give up our individuality and free will, or something. They didn’t do a very god job of explaining how cults were different from religion or camp, though. I was used to being brainwashed in each new environment I went into, having to buy in to a new set of beliefs, and having to give up things that mattered to me just to fit in. I wasn’t sure how different a cult would be, maybe just in intensity rather than in spirit.

We went on hikes at least once per summer, and it was always exhausting and too hot, but we couldn’t opt out. By the end of each hike dozens of kids were claiming health issues and trying to cadge lifts back to camp with the counselors who had driven to the lunch spot, bringing the food and supplies. I never bothered to beg for a ride, for some reason, even though I hated every second of the steaming walk back to camp.

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“That sounds exhausting, Mommy.”

I don’t remember a lot of our day trips off campus, though there was one memorable trip to New York City. We went to an art museum (I have no idea which one) and to something called The New York Experience, where we sat in seats that shifted around as if we were on the subway, and then fog blew in our faces. Once we were back outside on the street, I realized that I was closer to home than I was to camp, and all I’d have to do was get to Penn Station, and then catch a train home. Except, I had no cash, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go home, though I did wish I’d known ahead of time that we’d be in the city, so I could have called my mother and asked her to meet me.

Another day trip was to Mystic Seaport, where we went on a ferry ride and saw a shipping museum, where they showed us a lot of boats-inside-glass-bottles. But then it started to rain and we couldn’t do the rest of the outdoor stuff, so they took us to see a movie. The choice was between Bull Durham and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and since Bull Durham was R-rated, they chose to make us watch a movie about an animated rabbit, and his animated, non-rabbit, cheating wife, and murder, lots of murder.

For dinner on Yom Daled, the few kitchen staff who stayed on campus would do a barbecue, setting out piles of hamburgers and hotdogs, and watermelon and chips, for us to eat outside. I don’t remember any vegetables, but there may have been pickles. The barbecues were for whoever was on campus in time, and we could start and finish whenever we wanted and sit wherever we wanted, instead of at our assigned tables. We held our paper plates on our laps, and ate with plastic utensils, surrounded by bugs, but I couldn’t always find someone to sit with, and it reminded me of eating lunch at school, just hoping someone would be willing to sit next to me.

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“I’d sit next to you for a burger.”

You know, there’s something to be said for returning to routine, and schedules, and assigned seating, where you know what’s expected of you, and you’re not tempted to hop a train home, and know you won’t have to eat by yourself.

yeshiva girl with dogs

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?