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The Choir is Back

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

“Am I singing?”

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

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

“Grr.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How bad are these bad jokes?”

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

“I will always love you, Mommy!”

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

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

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

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

The Tokyo Olympics

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

“That sounds exhausting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d be good at that, Mommy.”

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

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

“We’re perfect just the way we are.”

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

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

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

“We’ll wait here.”

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

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

Going Back to In-Person Synagogue Services

            I’m on the Ritual Committee at my synagogue and we were tasked with deciding whether or not (but really when) to go back to Friday night services in person. The re-opening committee (a group with health and building expertise, brought together by Covid) gave us the go ahead, saying that we could safely have one hundred people in the sanctuary – as long as they are masked and socially-distanced. Our job was to decide whether to take them up on the offer, and if so, how to manage the transition, especially whether to do a hybrid service or not.

We’ve had in-person Bar and Bat Mitzvah services all along, adapting to changing protocols as necessary, with limited in-person guests and a lot of Zooming and masks and social distancing and temperature taking. They even started to have food trucks outside of the synagogue, to allow for some kind of celebration. But most of our congregational events have been on Zoom for the past year. We had a few hybrid beach services last summer, but the Zoom side of those services was not very good. And while the hybrid synagogue school classes have been acceptable, they haven’t really been successful.

But now, with so many congregants vaccinated, and planning for High Holiday services in September underway, it seemed like the right time to consider in-person Friday night services, for those who would want them.

“I’m ready!”

            (By the way, I had my second vaccine shot a few weeks ago and survived; there was that one day when I felt like I was on a creaky rowboat in the middle of a thunderstorm, but the feeling passed. Sort of.)

“Ugh. I’m gonna vomit.”

We decided immediately that, if we returned in person, we would have to do a hybrid service, including interactions on Zoom, because we couldn’t go back to a one way/streaming style for online services, with a single camera catching the service from a distance and no chance for online folks to participate in discussions. Over the past year of zoomed services, congregants who wouldn’t usually be able to get to the synagogue on a Friday night, because they were out of town or not feeling well or not up to driving at night, have been able to attend by Zoom and feel like full members of the community. We’ve had members who were wintering in Puerto Rico or Vermont, or living full-time in New York City or Albany zooming in on a regular basis and participating in ways that used to be impossible. We couldn’t go back to what we used to do and leave those members out.

            The problem is, in order to do this right, we are going to need better technology – like overhead microphones to capture the in-person audience singing and speaking, and more cameras placed around the sanctuary, and someone to keep track of the tech, and…it’s a lot.

“Oy.”

            Given the difficulties involved in hybrid services, and the fact that we still can’t have an Oneg (coffee and cake and schmoozing in the social hall) after services, and we’ll still have to wear masks and social distance in the sanctuary, and we may not even be allowed to sing indoors, it’s hard to get excited about returning to in person services again. And going in person will mean leaving the dogs at home, and actually having to get dressed, and drive. These are definite downsides. I get tired by eight o’clock at night and just want to sit around in my pajamas and watch TV, not get dressed up and drive and worry about how my hair looks from the back. And spending most of the service on mute means I can try out new harmonies without feeling self-conscious that someone will hear me and object, and I can turn to Mom and make snide comments about whatever I’m seeing on screen, as long as I cover my mouth to avoid the lip readers. But, there’s something special about getting to see people in person, and I feel an obligation to at least try to make it work.

“People are over-rated.”

And yet, chances are high that people will be impatient and obnoxious, out of frustration with the inevitable glitches, and online folks may unmute themselves in the middle of the service to tell us that they can’t hear what’s going on, or to complain that they are being neglected. And the in-person folks may get angry about all of the pauses, and having to repeat themselves. We are not a quiet, what-will-be-will-be sort of congregation, so the complaints will be plentiful. And a lot of the stay-at-home people still haven’t figured out zoom etiquette, so we will have big screens in the sanctuary full of people’s foreheads or ceilings, and I will definitely get seasick from the constantly moving iPhones.

            I don’t really want to go back yet, honestly, but I feel like I should. I can’t donate thousands of dollars to a fund drive to pay for new technology, but I can sacrifice a few hours to be a Guinea pig and help figure out how to make the hybrid services work a little better. And I miss being in an actual space with other people, instead of just a virtual one. But, the singing part really is a deal breaker for me. If we can’t sing in person I’d much rather be on Zoom. Progress be damned.

            But, despite all of that, we decided to go ahead with the experiment, even with the costs and complications involved, even though I will miss being able to turn off the computer and instantly be at home, without having to make awkward small talk or try to signal Mom across the social hall that I really want to go home, even though she is in the middle of a fascinating discussion of how best to protect her plants from the insect hordes. She has a tendency to “misunderstand” my signals, or ignore them entirely, when a conversation really interests her.

            I’m not sure I’m optimistic about how this will turn out, but I am determined to try. And we’ll see how it goes. It might be terrible, but it could also be the first step on the road back to normal. Whatever that might be.

“We have no idea.”

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

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

The Other Door

            Since the beginning of the Covid shutdown last March, the clergy at my synagogue have been hosting zooms to discuss both serious and unserious topics, to maintain our social connections from home. Sometimes I can’t make it to a session with the Rabbi or the Cantor, but it’s reassuring to know they’re always there and always coming up with something interesting to talk about. Ellie comes to every zoom, sitting on my lap, while Cricket sleeps in her bed next to me.

The one time Cricket came to Zoom

A few weeks ago, at one of our clergy connections, the Cantor was asking us how our idea of time has changed during the pandemic. He looked into references to time in biblical and Talmudic sources, but to me it seemed obvious, as in so many other areas, that dogs are the secret to mental health in general and to structuring time in particular; having to take the dogs out four times a day – marking breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime – has kept me on a regular schedule all year, despite not always remembering which day it is.

“I’m ready to go again!”

            The dogs even make sure we stay aware of the seasons, because they don’t believe in skipping walks on cold days or rainy days or hot days. In reality, they do have preferences, but until they get to the front door and see and feel the weather for themselves, they are always confident that it’s beautiful outside. Often, when I open the door and the front steps are covered with snow, or rain and wind are aiming themselves straight at us, the dogs look up at me as if I’ve betrayed them, I told the group, and the Cantor said, yes, they want the other door.

What?!

Our cantor is a big fan of science fiction, so he would be the one to see that connection, but it sounded so right.

Is it possible that my dogs actually believe that I am choosing this snowy/rainy/windy world on purpose, just to annoy them? Of course it’s possible! They want the door that opens to the outside world that’s warm and smelly and rich with sounds, none of this weather business, and they are convinced that I could get that for them, if I wanted to. Mean Mommy.

“That’s my line.”

            Of course, this idea sent me cruising down a rabbit hole and I mostly missed the rest of the discussion about the nature of time. I was too preoccupied with the possibility that we could choose a different door and get a different world. If it were possible, would I choose the door to our world, or to somewhere else? I don’t know. There’s something reassuring about not having a choice, and having to make do with what reality brings. I love the Harry Potter books, and the idea of magic wands and magic words, but, too much magic could mean that there would be no rules and no consequences to our actions, or to anyone else’s. How would we learn how to adapt to other people and take responsibility for our behavior, if when one world gets tough we could just choose another door? Would there be infinite other doors? How would we know which one to choose? If we could choose the more pleasant, easy world, would that lead to a happier life?

            It’s a truism that reality is stranger than fiction, and often more frustrating and chaotic, but it can also be more interesting and definitely more varied than what we could imagine for ourselves. The desire for alternative facts, and the belief that all news is fake if it’s not what we want to hear, have become prominent (again) over the past few years. And I understand it. I understand finding reality overwhelming and incomprehensible and wanting it to be something different, something more comfortable and less challenging.

            But isn’t that what fiction is for? We get to read and write stories about what’s behind that other door, as a way to escape reality, but also as a way to reshape how we understand our realities, and find ways to cope with them, and tame their chaos. When we return to the real world from the fictional one we can feel rejuvenated, and use the knowledge and insight we’ve gained from our trip through that other door to make our real lives better.

            This is just a thought experiment, unless you know something about alternate dimensions existing in our world that I am not privy to. But sometimes it helps to think through these impossibilities, like if we’d choose to live forever, or what we’d do if we won the lottery, in order to appreciate the value of the world we actually have.

            Except, does this thought experiment really lead to more contentment with the here and now? I wonder if Cricket and Ellie would find such joy in a breezy spring day, full of smells and sounds to explore, if that’s what they experienced every day. And I think, probably yes.

            But we’ll never know for sure. Right?

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

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

Life in the Absurd

            Out of the blue, one evening, Mom got an email about a pop-up vaccine site taking people over 65, and she called and got an appointment for the next morning. And then, after she’d gotten the vaccine and scheduled her second shot, she felt so guilty that she’d gone without me, and that so many of the sites on Long Island were reserved for older people and not for essential workers or teachers, that she started obsessively watching for new sites, and nagging me to do the same. I didn’t enjoy having to jump onto the computer each time she saw a hint of a possibility of an appointment for me, especially because they all turned out to be nothing. But then, three weeks later, an email arrived saying that there was a site taking people over 60 and teachers, from our town. She emailed back and got me an appointment for that evening.

            The only problem was that I was still at synagogue school, where I was so overwhelmed with the laptop and iPad (to teach the remote kids), while also corralling the in-person kids, that I didn’t think to check my phone. By the time I got home Mom was standing in the parking lot, waiting for me. She yelled through the window of the car that I had an appointment, and I screamed back, for what?

            The Pharmacy was in a small strip mall two towns over, down a badly lit hallway and behind a non-descript door. It was some kind of specialist compound pharmacy, with one pharmacist and two helpers, and I was one of the last appointments of the day. I made sure to tell the pharmacist that I teach synagogue school, in case she wanted to disqualify me on the spot as not a real teacher, but she just nodded and asked where I teach, and then she told me that I was getting the Moderna vaccine, and stuck the needle in my arm. One of her assistants filled out a vaccine card and scheduled my second appointment, and then they sent me on my way.

            It took all of five minutes, and I had a hard time processing that I had really gotten the shot, even while holding an ice pack against my right shoulder. Two days later my left shoulder started to hurt, in the same spot as on my right shoulder. I tried to find a reasonable explanation for it, like maybe I’d been sleeping on my left side to protect the right shoulder, though that didn’t explain the pinpoint nature of the pain. But I was still wiped out from synagogue school, or from the vaccine shot, or both, and I couldn’t really think it through.

 The next day, which turned out to be the second windiest day of the year, I decided I had plenty of energy to do the food shopping on my own, even though Mom said it was too cold to go out and she and the dogs all gave me funny looks. Instead of wearing my hair in braids or a pony tail, which is what I’ve been doing since my hair got so Covid-long, I left it down, and it rose in a whirlwind around my face until I couldn’t see a damn thing. Then I went into the supermarket and filled my cart with everything on the shopping list, and only realized at the checkout that I didn’t have my pocketbook with me. I asked if they could watch my cart, melting ice cream and all, at the customer service desk, and then ran out to the car, hoping my pocketbook would be sitting on the passenger seat waiting for me. It wasn’t.

“Oy.”

I knew I had to drive home and find my pocketbook, but I was afraid someone would see me driving away and think I was a criminal of some kind, racing out of the parking lot. It was only when I’d pulled out into traffic, heart racing, that I thought to check under Mom’s cushion on the passenger seat, and of course my pocketbook was right there. I was relieved and flustered and had a hard time figuring out where to make my U-turn back to the supermarket. I parked in the same exact spot I’d just left and then ran out, forgetting my mask in the car, so I had to race back and find it on the floor, under Mom’s cushion, which I’d managed to toss into the air in my frenzied search for my pocketbook.

I tried to walk back into the supermarket like a sane, rational person and gracefully guide my cart from the customer service desk to the next open checkout lane, but there were no open lanes, except for the self-checkout. I hate self-checkout. I don’t understand how this is supposed to be more convenient when every time I try to buy a fruit or a vegetable someone has to come over and play with the machine to get it to recognize my broccoli. But I paid for all of my groceries and managed to put them in my reusable and refrigerator bags, piled to the top of the cart. As soon as I got outside, of course, the bag on top of the pile fell off the cart, and the receipt flew away in the wind, never to be seen again. By the time I got home I felt like I’d been through all of the Herculean labors, and fell into bed, exhausted.

“I totally get it.”

            I’m pretty sure my life isn’t the only one falling into the absurd lately, but I like to tell myself that mine is the most absurd, just so I can feel like I’m winning at something.    

The fact is, everything has seemed nonsensical for a long time now, as if we’ve all been suffering from pre-Covid brain fog for years. There was that weird four year period when our president was a white supremacist, and then that year when people refused to wear face masks to protect them from a deadly disease. And then there were those news outlets that only believed in alternative facts. It was weird. Okay, it’s still weird. States are rapidly putting new voting restrictions into place, after what was deemed the most secure election in US history by the Republican in charge of cyber security. And US senators are proclaiming that they didn’t feel threatened by men with bear spray and flag poles attacking the Capitol police and setting up a gallows to hang politicians, but one little black woman knocking on a door in the Georgia Legislature clearly scared the bejeezus out of them.

“Humans are weird.”

            There are times when I believe that God is everywhere, and that the universe is a web of invisible circuits that bring us all together. And then there’s the rest of the time, when I still believe that God is everywhere, but I’m pretty sure the web of invisible circuits is broken, or at least rotting at significant junctures. Hopefully, once we’ve all been vaccinated we can start to do the work of fixing those connections.

To that end, I thought I’d share some new liturgical music from the musical director/composer/rabbinical student from my synagogue whom I’ve mentioned in the past (I make a short appearance in the choral section of the video.) The title of the song is HaRofei, which means the healer, and it’s based on Psalm 147. The lyrics alone are wonderful, but with the music and all of the voices and instruments he was able to bring together, it’s a stunner. https://youtu.be/fmsMljlUWok

“Where are the dogs?”

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 Purim Spiel

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

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

“Am I a Very Important Person?”

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

“That will never happen to me.”

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

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

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

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

Like if I sent You to the groomer?”

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

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

Triple Chocolate Hamantaschen (recipe from MyJewishLearning.com)

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

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

My Masks

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

“Where are the cookies?”

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

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

The New Year of the Trees

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

“We’re Jewish children too!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

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

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

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

One of Mom’s indoor seedlings

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

“I’m ready to help. Again.”

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

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

Rededication

I’m exhausted. I’m (very) tempted to hibernate until spring; to fall into a sea of Christmas movies and jigsaw puzzles and coloring books and naps with the dogs. The schools in my area are preparing to go fully virtual this winter, in case the Covid surge hits us the way it’s hit the rest of the country. I feel like I’ve been running full out the past few weeks at synagogue school, hoping to make it to winter break before the wave inevitably hits.

There’s a deep weariness like cement in my bones, and I feel like my soul has taken a battering too, with the anxiety leading up to, and now out of, the presidential election, and the stress of Covid and how it impacts teaching; it feels like my soul and not just my body is black and blue and tender to the touch.

“Oy.”

I think we’re all feeling that way this winter. It would be nice if we could rest at home until the vaccines are ready for mass distribution, and then Santa and the reindeer could bring doses to every house and apartment and sprinkle fairy dust over all of us, instead of making us go to the doctor for a shot in the arm, or two.

“No fairy dust yet, but I’ll keep checking.”

One of the main themes of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, along with celebrating the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, is the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was used for profane purposes (like, an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within the walls). The word Chanukah itself means dedication, and, not coincidentally, this is often a time of year when we start planning our goals, or resolutions, for the coming year. But I’m not ready.

I keep thinking that I need to rededicate myself to knowing my limits, and respecting them; that I need to stop believing that I have to be someone else; someone who can multitask, and work eighteen hour days, and write three novels a year. I’m not that person, and no amount of beating myself up is going to change that.

But it feels impossible to move from constant self-improvement efforts to some semblance of self-acceptance. I feel like the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, before the Maccabees came in to clean things up. And just like with the Temple, before I can re-dedicate myself to moving forward, I need to really look around and survey the damage, because there may be miracles hiding in the wreckage, canisters of oil that will last eight days instead of one, for example, or other sources of light that have been in hiding. I can’t just turn my system off and on again and expect it to reboot.

“I think I see the light!”

I’m going to continue lighting the Chanukah candles each night, and hope that the growing light gives me inspiration, or at least some peace. But, I’m not ready for re-dedication yet. I need rest and presents and joy, and then more rest, before I can re-dedicate myself to the sacred tasks of my life. I think the dogs will be okay with that.

Night one
Night two, with help from Butterfly
Night three with Miss B
“We’ll think about it.”

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?