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The Mumble Grumble Prayers

            One of my jobs as a synagogue school teacher is to teach my students how to pray, but sometimes I worry that I’m the wrong person for the job. I grew up going to a Conservative Jewish day school, where half of each school day was spent on Hebrew language, and Jewish history and customs, and prayers. But I don’t remember actively learning the why behind the prayers. I learned how to sing the prayers, and which prayers and blessings to say when, but the Kavanah, the intention, was most often left for last, or for never.

The assumption, I think, was that little kids couldn’t understand the deeper meaning yet, but by seventh grade I’d switched over to an Orthodox school where there was a sudden descent into the mumble grumble form of prayer. We didn’t focus on the music of the prayers much anymore, instead we gave value to the words of the prayers, with a requirement to read or say every single word. The problem was that the girls were given very little time to say the morning prayers, and it was mumble grumble, or nothing. Even at my most fluent, I couldn’t have even skimmed the Hebrew of the prayers in the short time allotted to us, though many of my classmates were able to do it, and even seemed to feel something. In orthodoxy, our teachers told us, the belief was that if we did the right things, and read the right things, and said the right things, we would become good Jews, even if we never understood the why of any of it. But for me, that method didn’t work.

“Harrumph.”

 I’m only responsible for teaching the kids a few prayers each year in synagogue school, which gives us time to learn the tunes, and the words (often in transliteration), but most of all the intention behind each prayer, which meant that I needed to know what those were; and in some ways I had to start from scratch. I did my research and reading, but most of my learning came from going to services myself. At my synagogue we learn a lot of different versions of the prayers, to emphasize different ways of looking at the words and meaning, but even when we use the same version over and over, we often stop to read a poem or hear a story first, to shed new light on the purpose of the particular prayer. And that has given me a lot of material to share with the kids, but, more often than not, I ask the kids if they can explain it to me.

“Huh?”

For example, the Mishaberach is a prayer for wishing someone healing from physical or emotional pain, so we spend some time talking about how a prayer might be able to comfort us, or give us strength, even if we don’t believe that God is answering our wishes directly. And when we look at the words of the Ve’shamru, a prayer we say on Friday nights to remind us of the obligation to celebrate Shabbat, I’ll ask them why we might need, or want, a reminder in the form of a prayer every week, especially one that we say after the Sabbath has already started. And then we can look at the Modeh Ani, one of the weekday morning prayers, in which we thank God for letting us wake up in the morning, returning our souls to us after a night in God’s safe keeping (go ahead, try to teach that concept to children without accidentally referencing zombies, I dare you).

“Zombies?!”

A lot of this focus on creating meaning is due to the fact that most progressive Jews (Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Conservative, etc.) don’t feel obligated to pray. In orthodoxy, you are supposed to accept the burden of obligation, in rituals, and daily behaviors, long before you ever learn the why behind the what, which is what makes mumble grumble prayer a help to them. In progressive Judaism the why always comes first, because many of the obligations have been made voluntary, which has its own risks.

Sometimes I worry that my synagogue school students are missing out by spending so little time on their Jewish education each week. I wouldn’t have been able to fill my brain with so much of the how of Judaism, and the history of Judaism, without half of each day of my childhood being set aside for learning how to be Jewish. And I feel lucky to have the background I have, and the wealth of information to tap into. My hope is that, in the time my students and I have together, they will learn to see the obligations of their religious community as more than worth the gifts they will get in return, especially because there are so many fewer obligations in Progressive Jewish life. And maybe this lighter touch will keep them from falling into the mumble grumble form of religion, where the obligations drown out the inspirations.

            In my ongoing search for ways help the kids to feel connected to the prayers, I went to a Zoom presentation by the founders of a musical group called the Nigunim Ensemble, based in Israel. They have created new versions of old prayers, incorporating chants and new rhythms from Arab, Persian, and popular Israeli music. Their message to our Zoom class was that the Jewish world can, and should, widen its ideas of prayer music, not only to include more people in our community, but to add more layers of emotion to the experience of prayer. And I was excited by all of the new sounds they were introducing to us, but for me, the message that came through most strongly was the sense of joy I heard in their voices. And I realized that not only singing good music, but singing in community, allows me to feel heard and accepted, as I am. And, when I feel heard by my community, I start to think that maybe God can hear me too.

“We can hear you, Mommy.”

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

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

Cricket and Ellie’s Extraordinary Playlist

My favorite television show this Spring was Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, where Zoey, a computer programmer in her twenties, discovers that she can hear people’s innermost thoughts and feelings in song and dance numbers (after an accident in an MRI during an earthquake). I’m a sucker for a musical to begin with, but this show made the connection between music and emotional honesty even more explicit. And I loved it!

            And watching the show made me wonder what I might be singing, out walking the dogs, or on Zooms, or at the supermarket, if someone could hear my “heart songs” (this is what Zoey’s friend called the song and dance numbers only Zoey could see and hear on the show). Would my heart songs express the feelings I already feel safe sharing? Or the things I consciously choose to keep to myself? Or feelings I don’t even know I have?

“Ooh, a mystery!”

            I’m a little bit afraid of this question; on the one hand, I don’t think my emotions are much of a mystery. I may not sing them at the top of my lungs to every stranger on the street, but I imagine that most of my feelings are kind of obvious. Except, what if there were surprises? What if the emotions I haven’t yet wrestled into compliance just started to let themselves out? That worries me. I think I’d rather be Zoey than be heard by Zoey.

            Some of the “heart songs” Zoey heard on the show didn’t express people’s deepest secrets, but rather things that Zoey, when she wasn’t hearing the songs, wasn’t able to figure out for herself. Before the accident in the MRI gave her this special power, Zoey was kind of dense about her own emotions, and anyone else’s, and it was keeping her stuck and lonely. The heart songs were her awakening to the world around her and the world inside of her.

            I can imagine some of the songs I’d hear other people singing, though: like my rabbi singing Sondheim on every occasion (which he kind of does already); or long litanies of anger and complaint from my fellow shoppers in line at the supermarket (some singer/songwriter laments, but mostly in the Headbanger genre). My synagogue school students often did break into song at random moments, to let me know how bored they were by my chosen lesson plans. My preference would be to listen to a playlist of ballads about people’s secret longings and disappointments, but I’m not sure I’d be that lucky.

“Oy.”

            And, what if in my version of the disorder, all of the singing and dancing people would be tone deaf and have two left feet? I’d be cringing all the time, and dodging falling bodies. I don’t do well with cacophony, and long stretches of listening to off key music might actually kill me. But at least I wouldn’t have to spend as much time guessing at what people are thinking, reading body language and tone of voice and worrying that I’m guessing wrong. Instead, I could feel confident that I really did know what people were thinking, and then I could move on to feeling guilty about all of the ways I would inevitably fail to help them.

            Given that, I still love the idea of my day being filled with music. And I love the idea of all of my thoughts and feelings being intertwined with music, instead of just standing there, like stick figures, marching through my brain.

“There’s music in my head? Can you get it out?”

            But I do worry that if I could hear and see these musical numbers as vividly as Zoey does, then I’d become so overwhelmed with external noise that I wouldn’t have any room left to hear my own thoughts. I’d have to hide away in my room just to get any writing done – which, come to think of it, describes my regular life pretty well.

            The only people I know who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by a sudden outpouring of song and dance numbers, expressing our most secret feelings, would be dogs. For Cricket and Ellie, and all of their compatriots, humans are vividly expressing their deepest secrets, through tone of voice, and body language, and especially smell, all the time. Dogs know everything! And yet they still love us. It’s pretty much the dream of every human being, that even at our most vulnerable and imperfect, with all of our embarrassing smells and shameful secrets hanging out, we could still be deeply loved. And yet to dogs, that’s a given. And, more often than not, we do this for our dogs in return (those lovely creatures who lick themselves in public, and breathe stinky breath in our faces, and expect us to pick up their poop while they bark their heads off at all of our neighbors). It’s other humans we struggle to accept as they are, and other humans who we think will reject us if they knew everything.

Pets, even dogs as judgmental and harrumph-y as Cricket, love us just the way we are. No wonder we love them so much in return.

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?

Writing Music

            As soon as I admitted to myself that I wanted to write a song, I stopped practicing the ukulele and the recorder. It wasn’t intentional, or even conscious, but when I look back, that’s the timing.

“I’m keeping it warm for you, Mommy.”

            I had been practicing three or four days a week at that point, not every day the way I’d promised myself but not too bad. And I’d been thinking about songwriting for a while, wondering what was stopping me, and wandering around the edges of the idea. And then, I think it was part of Holocaust Remembrance day at my synagogue, the Cantor shared songs with us during his Zoom, and showed us a version of  “Blessed is the Match” in Hebrew and English, based on a poem by Hannah Senesh, and, almost immediately, I wanted to rewrite it.

            Some background, Hannah Senesh was born in Hungary and immigrated to Palestine as a teenager. She joined the Haganah, the precursor to the Israeli army, and in March 1944, at age 23, she and others parachuted into Yugoslavia to assist with the rescue of Hungarian Jews who were being deported to concentration camps. She was caught by the Nazis, tortured and then killed by a firing squad. “Blessed is the Match” was written in Yugoslavia as she prepared for the rescue mission.

            This is the English translation the Cantor taught us:

            Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

Blessed is the heart that knows, for honors sake, to stop its beating.

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

I went looking for other versions of the song, hoping to find something wonderful, so I wouldn’t have to do the work. I found a few versions, one that sounded like a march, and another that sounded like a dirge, and I was still annoyed by the vague and sentimental way the English sounded, as opposed to the original Hebrew, and I hated the saccharine and schmaltzy orchestrations. Don’t get me wrong, I like sentiment and sweetness, but not for this.

“I always like sweet stuff!”

I started working on a new translation that afternoon, looking up possible variations in Google Translate until I came up with a formulation that sounded close to the original Hebrew, at least to me. Except, then I had to match the rhythm and meter of the English to the Hebrew, because I wanted the song to be sung in both languages, and that process helped me understand where the vague and sentimental versions had come from in the first place; matching Hebrew and English rhythms is very hard, because Hebrew is so much more terse than English.

Anyway, this is what I came up with:

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame.

Blessed is the match that burns in the depths of their hearts

Blessed are the hearts that know death is near and go on

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame

“Blessed” isn’t really the right translation for the Hebrew word “Ashrei,” but the more accurate translation, of “grateful” or “happy,” feels misleading, or at least uncomfortable in this context, so I stuck with Blessed.

            I still wasn’t thrilled with my version, but I wanted to start thinking about the music. I wanted a simple, clear, melody. I wanted the melody to do a lot of the work that my translation couldn’t do; I wanted the melody to convey the conflict hiding in the lyrics.

“Ask me. I know about conflict.”

            Hannah Senesh’s poem rides a very thin line between suicidality and heroism; a line that needs to be delineated clearly when you are talking about freedom fighters or soldiers. How do you stand up and say that you are willing to put your life at risk, without also sounding like you want to die? How do you express a desire to save others, without pretending to a kind of complete altruism and selflessness that you don’t feel?

            The central image of the poem is of a match that willingly goes out, or knowingly risks going out, for the sake of others. And that image is both beautiful and horrifying; it’s a sacrifice that no one should have to make, and that no one should be asked to make, but it’s a sacrifice that some people will choose to make anyway, in order to save those they love. This is why I didn’t like the saccharine iterations, where the assumption is that you would feel complete happiness in dying for those you love, or the military march versions, which suggest that your patriotism will make you so single minded that you will lack any regrets. I wanted the darkness, and the fear, and the love, and generosity, to be in the music all at the same time. No pressure, though.

            I’m not sure yet why this poem resonated so deeply for me. I am not selfless, and I don’t dream of being a hero and sacrificing myself for others, but something compelled me to sit down and write music for the first time in forever, just to capture some resonance I couldn’t articulate in words.

“Have you ever tried barks instead of words?”

            But working on the music, and trying different combinations of notes, and trying to count syllables and quarter notes, and trying to remember which keys have which flats and sharps, all opened a wound that seems to have been sitting there, full of puss, for years. I’d managed to tap into a dark morass of feelings of worthlessness and stupidity and guilt and shame that I didn’t know were there.

            As a writer, a long time ago, I was able to find mentors to help me get past the endless rules and criticisms I found in school; I read Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott and others, and I used freewriting to get to what I wanted to say, instead of what other people found acceptable and impressive. It took a lot of work, and I still get stuck, but I found a path to go down. With music, though, I never found that path. I tried listening to classical music, and I studied voice and piano and guitar, and I really tried to understand what people were saying about how to do it all correctly, but the theories and the math and the rules never made sense to me.

            I have a notebook full of songs from my early teens, but at some point I got stuck and I couldn’t write one more measure. All I heard in my head was, You Don’t Understand Music, Your math is wrong, your harmonies are stupid, and you don’t even know what a chorus is.

            I’ve made a tentative return to practicing ukulele and recorder, though. And I even wrote a poem in Hebrew a couple of weeks ago (most of which came to me in a dream), but the unfinished draft of “Blessed is the Match, with its unmoored musical notes scares me too much. I’m afraid it will be awful, and wrong, and explode in my face if I look too closely.

            I asked Cricket and Ellie to look at the draft for me and, though they are not trained bomb sniffing dogs, and they didn’t notice anything explosive on the paper. But I still can’t look at it, or, God forbid, try to sing it, or sound it out on the keyboard on my phone. Instead I’m writing about it, or trying to, and doing my best to build a bridge, one word at a time, to make my way across this dangerous sea.

“Are we going swimming?”

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 Problem with Charity

            I’ve always felt uneasy about giving charity. I can’t figure out which charities to help, or how to be helpful, or how to not feel guilty for all of the other charities I am therefore ignoring. As the Covid-19 pandemic has grown, I’ve watched others act generously, and give generously, and the peer pressure to do the same has been enormous, but still impossible to live up to.

“I don’t have peers, so I’m safe.”

We had a discussion about charity one Friday night at my synagogue, after hearing the results of a study that said the younger generation of Jews (AKA me) are not giving as much money to charity as previous generations. The consensus opinion among the older congregants was that young people don’t understand that charity is an obligation, and therefore they don’t even think about giving, either to their own communities, or to the needy, or to the arts, or medicine. The older congregants remembered their parents setting aside specific times to give Tzedakah to different charitable organizations. They would do this once a year, or once a month, or before major holidays, and they were purposely involved in the process by their parents, in order to teach them that this is an obligation they would need to live up to as adults.

The discussion then veered off into how we could (and should) use peer pressure to encourage people to give more money to charity; how we should purposely press on those guilt buttons and encourage competitive giving, and offer rewards to those who give, because people need to be pushed to do “the right thing.”

“Do NOT push me.”

And I was left feeling confused, and guilty, and troubled. Because I don’t want to be left to give charity on my own. I don’t have enough money to make a difference, and I don’t want to watch my single coin drop to the bottom of an empty well. I felt like something was missing from this discussion but I couldn’t figure out what it was, at least not right away. I needed to take some time to think about it.

            The word charity feels Christian to me, both because it is, and because it is so often paired with the word “Christian,” especially in all of the Christmas movies I inhale in November and December. The Hebrew word Tzedakah, though, has a somewhat different connotation, even though it is often translated as charity. Tzedakah literally means “righteousness” and refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just. The Torah requires that 10% of a Jew’s income be allotted to righteous deeds and causes.

            Except, from where I sit, giving charity is much more complicated than that. For example, in the United States, people can receive tax refunds for giving money to charity, and many corporations see giving charity as good publicity. Does charity given for selfish purposes still count as charity? Does charity given out of guilt still count as righteous?

            I don’t think I’m the only person from my generation who has noted the hypocrisy, and been put off by it. But for me, there’s also a more personal set of issues in the way. When I was a child, my father often made a show of putting a twenty dollar bill into the pushka (the tzedakah box) at our synagogue, after weekday morning services, or buying gifts for people at our synagogue that he didn’t really know, or helping other congregants when they were locked out of their cars. And at the same time, he refused to pay the bills at home, or fix things that were broken at home. My mother was often left to seek out hand-me-downs, or to buy furniture at St. Vincent De Paul, or to go to consignment stores and flea markets (though the last two she’d have done anyway), to make sure we had what we needed. And then my father would suddenly give us generous presents, though rarely what we asked for, or needed. At the same time, he spent a lot of money on clothes and shoes and hats and books and classes for himself.

            It was very hard for my brother and I to figure out what we could actually afford as a family, and my brother just decided that we were poor, even though in reality we were solidly middle class, given our parents combined incomes, where we lived, and where we went to school, even with scholarships.

“Did you have to walk six miles, uphill, in the snow, to get your chicken treats?”

In graduate school for social work, I heard a lot about the debate between needs-based and rights-based approaches to poverty. Needs-based thinking leads to charity and philanthropy, or voluntary giving to the “deserving” poor. Rights-based thinking includes changes in government policy, income redistribution, wage floors and cash subsidies, so that poverty can be eradicated and no one is seen as “undeserving.”

            As a child, I believed (often incorrectly) that paying taxes would mean lifting everyone up out of the risk of poverty, and creating a social safety net. I thought taxes equaled that ten percent we were required to give to good works, plus some more for roads and bridges. I believed that we paid our taxes so that we could all have our basic needs met. Over time, I started to realize that this wonderful safety net I’d imagined was more like a Swiss cheese umbrella, and I could easily get rained on. I heard screeds against anyone who would apply for disability or Medicaid, like me, instead of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. And I realized that, in the eyes of a lot of people who did not know me, I would qualify as the “undeserving” poor.

            Often, the excuse for not covering the holes in our social safety net is that “charities can handle that.” Except, why would we prefer something as unreliable as charity over obligatory protections?

I think that a big part of why people prefer charity to taxes is that giving charity feels good. I see it in my synagogue all the time. The same people who grumble at having to pay yearly dues (to pay for salaries, building maintenance and repairs, taxes, and other boring things), will gladly give money at a fundraiser, or offer money to charity, or give time as a volunteer. Partially it’s because it looks like generosity, but more often it’s because it feels like generosity. It feels so much better to give a gift that you are not required to give, than to give what is required.

            I remember an episode of Law & Order where a man became addicted to giving away his organs. He wasn’t selling them, or selling his blood, or skin, or whatever else he was giving away, but the feeling of giving and of being generous was so intoxicating for him that he couldn’t stop, even when it put his own life at risk. But, he insisted that the person who received his generous gift be “deserving,” and he was the only one who could determine their worthiness. In fact, he felt justified in killing someone in order to re-gift an organ to someone he deemed more worthy. Giving charity gave him the power over life and death, literally.

            As, as a child, I would have preferred to have an allowance, or clear guidelines for what I could and could not have, instead of randomly receiving gifts (or charity) from my father, when he wanted to give them. And I feel the same way now. I’d rather know what kinds of support I can rely on, and where it will come from, so that I can plan ahead, and not feel constantly on edge about whether the needed gift will come in time, or whether I even deserve that gift.

“When do I get my chicken treats?”

In response to Covid-19, at first, the federal government of the United States seemed to be stepping up and taking responsibility for compensation, not just because we needed help, but because we had a right to it. We wouldn’t have to pay for testing, and we could rely on unemployment and subsidies and rent freezes to allow us to stay home as long as necessary. This made sense to me, both because other countries were doing their own versions of the same thing, and because it was clear that our government could have limited the impact of Covid-19, by testing early and often, providing adequate protective equipment to health care workers, and doing contact tracing as soon as the first cases were discovered.

Pretty quickly, though, it became clear that the measures put in place were wildly inadequate, with underfunded and understaffed unemployment plans, and much of the loan money meant to go to small businesses going to companies who had pre-existing relationships with the big banks. And despite those clear failures, congress was unwilling or unable (depending on your perspective) to offer further support. In response, some politicians advocated reopening businesses and throwing senior citizens into the volcano to appease the Covid gods. And then, because we thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, it became clear that the federal government’s already weak response to the coronavirus had dropped precipitously at the same time as studies began to show that poor people and people of color were being disproportionately impacted.

And, as usual, kind and generous people stepped in with charitable organizations to try to fill the gaps. Except, charity means that each individual gets to choose who they want to help, and who they don’t, and many people who needed help were left with nothing.

I have a tendency towards cynicism and hopelessness, expecting failure at every turn, but lately I have been seeing evidence that real change is possible, if you fight for it. I want to learn how to be hopeful and to believe that the current wave of protests and education and political change will take us further than we’ve been able to go in the past. Because honestly, if we don’t make a change soon, I think we’re screwed.

“Uh oh. Mommy used a bad word.”

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?

Virtual Field Trips

            At the beginning of the Covid-19 shutdown, my Facebook page flooded with resources for students, including long lists of virtual field trips to zoos and aquariums and exotic locations. And then the adults, feeling left out. started posting pictures and videos of all of the places they wanted to go. And I couldn’t look away.

“What IS this show?”

            I never travel in real life, but, now that I can’t go anywhere, I spend a lot of my time wondering where I’d go if I could. I even saw a car commercial that encouraged people to take to the open road this summer, though my first thought was, I am not going into a gas station, in a town where no one knows me, wearing a bandana over my face. Even as a white woman, that just seemed like a stupid idea. And I haven’t seen that commercial again.

I think, for the most part, people who live in the United States aren’t going anywhere for a while. Instead, I’ve been taking virtual field trips. I’m on the second season of a murder mystery series set in France, where each episode highlights another picturesque French town I’ve never heard of. They pronounce “oui” as “way,” which is disconcerting, but the landscapes are breathtaking. There was a murder on an isolated island, steeped in fog, and a murder on the border with Spain, and a murder set between cliffs and caves, and a murder at the end of a long drive by the sea. I’ve also visited the beach in Sandhamn, for another mystery series, set in Sweden, and then there were murders in Masada, and Tel Aviv, and Tennessee. In order to solve fictional murders, I have vicariously climbed mountains and gone scuba diving and even tried line dancing and Flamenco.

“We could dance too.”

            There’s something extraordinary about the technology that allows us to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. There’s also something strangely comforting about a murder that can be solved, by someone else, in an hour and a half, with proof, and clear motives, and justice prevailing in the end.

            I’ve also been listening to a lot of Duolingo Spanish Podcasts lately (because I forgot I had subscribed two years ago and now there’s a pile of them on my phone). The varied accents and unfamiliar vocabulary of the stories are a challenge to my advanced beginner Spanish, but the host always steps in, just in time, with an explanation in English. Each podcast is set in a different part of the Spanish speaking world, like Cuba, or Mexico, or Columbia, or Madrid, or Los Angeles, and the narrators tell stories about becoming the first female skydiving teacher in South America, and learning to love your Afro-Latina hair, and building up a mescal factory in rural Mexico, and becoming a successful wheelchair tri-athlete, and on and on.

“Any stories about dogs and their nose-less birds?”

            I don’t think I would have found this much joy in my virtual field trips ten years ago; it would have overwhelmed me. I wouldn’t have known what to do with all of these lives that were nothing like mine, teaching lessons I didn’t feel ready to learn. But therapy has done a lot of work on my internal world. I feel like a construction worker, using my invisible tools to build invisible rooms in my head to store and organize all of my complicated feelings. I’ve learned a lot about pacing, and self-protection, so I’m not as easily flooded; and when a story or idea is more challenging than I can handle, I have plenty of internal shelves to store them on, for later.

            I’m still not at the point where I could manage actually traveling to any of these places in real life, but clearly I don’t have to. Another benefit of virtual field trips is that I don’t have to stockpile a month’s worth of medication from my local drugstore, or try to find someone willing to tolerate Cricket for an extended period of time. I don’t even have to worry about the weather, or a new wardrobe, because I can just wear my pajamas, and rest my head against my air-conditioner, and visit Bombay or Tokyo or Quebec or wherever I choose to go next. Coronavirus be damned.

“Can we go to the dog park?”

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

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

I want to be back in the classroom in September, not on Zoom

            The staff of the synagogue school where I work is spending the summer, just like every other school, planning for the unknown. We’re doing curriculum development and lesson planning, for every scenario, and we’re building our technical abilities, and looking for ways to re-interpret our current ways of teaching for a two dimensional world.

            But it sucks.

“Harrumph.”

            I mean, I’m grateful that we’re doing all of this preparation, so that it won’t feel like we’re being dropped into a sea of ice cold water, again. And I’m grateful that the technology exists, both to allow us to work together from afar all summer, and to build up our online classrooms into more interesting places. But I want to see my kids. I want to hear them; without one person’s microphone blocking out everyone else’s, or all of their voices coming at me through a delay, or some of the kids not coming through at all because their internet connections are spotty or because every member of their family is online at once. I want to be able to talk with one of my kids privately, if they seem upset, without everyone else noticing or listening in. I want to be able to make eye contact with the quiet kid in the corner who thinks he’s invisible.

“Can you see me, Mommy?”

            Zoom, even with all of the bells and whistles, and integration with other apps and games and videos, is not the real world. I miss being able to talk to my students and forget what I look like, or what I’m wearing, or how silly I look when I’m trying to dance. I miss seeing all of the other kids in the hallways, and catching the eye of another teacher as we silently ask each other “are you okay?” And I miss being able to shut the door of my car at the end of the day and feel the transition from work to home starting to sink in.

“Be quiet. I’m sleeping.”

            But I really miss being able to close the door of my classroom and knowing that it’s just me and the kids for a while, with no one looking over our shoulders, or recording our conversations, or judging each move we make or each word we say.

            It’s not that my classroom is so awful that it can’t withstand the scrutiny (I hope), but there’s something intimidating about having so many virtual doors and windows open at all times, and not knowing who’s listening in or watching from two feet out of camera range.

“Is somebody watching me?”

            Zoom is so public.

            We had a Zoom class just before Mother’s Day, and I was helping the kids create blessings for their mothers (and fathers, since school was going to end before Father’s Day), and one of the kids started miming at the screen, and then messaged me privately that she couldn’t answer with her mom in the room. Up until that second I had no idea that her mother had been there, just out of range, for the previous forty-five minutes.

            I can be silly with kids in a way I can’t with adults, at least adults I don’t know. I can play the role of the-one-who-knows-things with the kids, whereas with other adults around I’d be more self-conscious, recalibrating each time a new person came in. Just like I would feel different, and probably act differently, with my boss in the room.

I’m the boss.”

            And the kids are different too.

            A lot of the things the kids would have said in the classroom could barely even be thought when they were at home; not because they were unsafe at home (though I don’t know), but because they are different people at home than at synagogue school, and they are much more aware of being overheard, and of being their home-selves; being the big sister, or the good kid, or the chatterbox they are presumed to be when they are at home.

            In the classroom they can try on new behaviors, and say things they wouldn’t say with an audience. At home, even with Mom and Dad in a separate room, their internal censors are on and they are much more careful.

            I don’t really care if I ever step into a shopping mall again, and while I miss movie theaters, I actually like the variety and control and cost of streaming better. I do miss going to synagogue in person, but the alternate-universe-Zoom-synagogue has been a pretty good substitute. But, I miss my classroom, and my kids.

            And it sucks.

“Harrumph.”

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

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

Cricket’s Bat Mitzvah

            Cricket will turn thirteen later this summer, and I have been wondering how best to mark this monumental birthday. For humans of the Jewish persuasion, thirteen means it’s time for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, to mark the onset of adolescence (Orthodox Jewish girls may have a Bat Mitzvah at age twelve instead). But, what about for a Jewish dog?

Cricket at (almost) thirteen

To be honest, thirteen seems too young for a transition into adulthood, at least for humans. A hundred years ago, kids might have left school at thirteen and gone out to work, but now that’s not even legal, and certainly not practical. But we’ve kept the Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations at the onset of puberty, or thereabouts, because…tradition. And because it would be impossible to convince kids to stay in Hebrew school for even more years before they can have their big party.

But dogs, even Jewish dogs, are a different story. If anything, the age of thirteen would mark old age, rather than the first steps into adulthood. And a lot of dogs don’t make it to thirteen, especially the larger breeds. I don’t understand how a religion that has rituals for almost everything, has missed the opportunity to designate lifecycle events for our pets, so I’m stuck with this somewhat inappropriate and misleading event that has come to be called, at least on social media, the Bark Mitzvah.

“Is that a celebration of barking?!”

            When we first brought Cricket home, twelve and three-quarter years ago, I looked up Cockapoos on an aging chart and it said she could live eighteen to twenty years. Dina, my Labrador mix, had lived a miraculous sixteen years, twice as long as the Doberman who had preceded her. But twenty? That’s more like a cat!

“Hey! I’m not a cat!”

At almost thirteen, Cricket is showing signs of aging, with a little cloudiness in her eyes and a habit of hearing things that aren’t there, and a tiny bit of slowing down (though not much). But she has amassed an enormous amount of knowledge in her thirteen years, and many useful skills: she can beg, and guilt, and manipulate; she can bully and wheedle and whine; she can love and cuddle and sniff like a scientist; she could have been a gardener or an archeologist or a detective very easily, if we lived in a world that allowed dogs to go to school, and she has always been the de-facto Sherriff at our home. She has also been a surprisingly effective big sister, to Butterfly, and now to Ellie, who both needed mentoring in how to be dogs after growing up under less than ideal conditions as breeding mamas. Cricket has even learned how to offer comfort, rather than just to receive it, and can, on very rare occasions, even share food with her loved ones (though she would rather not).

“Cricket never shares food. Never.”

            There’s no escaping that thirteen is old age for a dog, but maybe that’s what we could celebrate with Cricket’s Bat Mitzvah. She has accomplished an enormous amount and now she is graduating into the last third of her life; finally becoming the wise old crone she has always wanted to be.

“I am very wise, it’s true.”

I don’t think Cricket is prepared for the rigors of a traditional Bat Mitzvah, though. She understands quite a few words in Hebrew, but she has trouble with articulation, and her sense of melody is iffy (though she is, at this very moment, singing the song of her people. I think I can make out the words “chicken” and “I want”). And, really, no one with any sense would ever let Cricket into the sanctuary or anywhere near a Sefer Torah (the holy scroll, kept in the sanctuary, that Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids dread having to read from at their services). But that actually works out well this year, since all of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah services at my synagogue are being streamed, while we can’t attend in person. Maybe Cricket’s Bat Mitzvah could be in our backyard, with the support of the big Paw Paw tree (also turning thirteen this year, coincidentally). They could have a service of their own, to mark their individual, and complex, journeys to their current stages of life. A very short service.

“Grandma, how did Mister Paw Paw get so much taller than me? Rude.”

            The fact is, Cricket could care less about having a Bat Mitzvah to celebrate her accomplishments, and her quirks, or to set a hopeful tone as she marches into her senior years. She just wants the food. So I will have to stock up on chicken treats and liver and all of the other good stuff she loves to eat. In moderation, of course, because I want her senior years to last a very long time.

“Did you say food?”

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?

What’s Next?

            There are so many trainings advertised on Facebook, for online teaching and social work, and I keep thinking I should sign up for all of them, but I don’t want to, and I feel guilty about it. I want to work on my own writing, but my brain can’t shift out of work mode, or job search mode, or Rachel-isn’t-trying-hard-enough mode. It doesn’t help that I’ve been hit by another wave of inflammation and exhaustion and can’t stay awake long enough to finish a thought.

I’m expecting stay-at-home rules to last longer in New York than elsewhere, especially in the areas closest to Manhattan, like Long Island, where I live. Even when we start to open up a little bit, schools will still be closed, and crowds will still be forbidden. I keep hearing that we’re supposed to get tested, but I don’t know if that includes me, or if I’d need a prescription from my doctor, or an appointment, or specific symptoms. I’ve been trying to figure out Governor Cuomo’s system of regions and parameters and how that relates to what’s happening in other states, but it’s not computing.

            I’m really not looking forward to wearing masks and gloves in the heat of the summer, or the inevitable power outages when everyone is at home on Zoom and using their air conditioners all day. And I’m afraid that my doctors will decide to reopen their offices soon. I don’t want to go to the dentist. I don’t want to go to the dermatologist. I don’t want to go to the cardiologist or the oral pathologist or the general practitioner for tests. Skipping non-essential doctor visits for the past two months has been one of the perks of the shutdown for me. Maybe I can hide under the couch with Cricket when they start to call.

“No room.”

            We finally ordered take out for the first time in two months (for Mother’s Day), and I had to put on my mask and gloves and walk around the corner to the Italian place, which has remained open all along. They were all set up for social distancing, with a table at the door to keep customers outside, and everyone on staff wearing gloves and masks. But there was a lot of staff, and I was preoccupied with details, like the hole in one man’s glove, and the workers brushing shoulders behind the counter. I forgot to get the receipt as I took the bag of food and ran away. It was such a relief to get back home and into my pajamas again.

            Usually, for Mother’s Day, we would have gone to a gardening store to pick out Mom’s new plants for the season, but with the cold spell, and the expected crowds of Mother’s Day shoppers, we delayed the trip. Mom threatened to race out to the gardening store as soon as the weather improved, but, Thank God, she didn’t do it. I keep picturing huge globs of coronavirus rolling down the street, like a bowling ball looking for pins to knock down, and I don’t want Mom knocked down.

            One bright spot is that my big Paw Paw tree (the lone survivor, at thirteen years of age) has started to blossom. We probably won’t have fruit this year, because you need two trees for cross pollination, and the gardener has been lackadaisical about replacing the tree he cut down. He ignored Mom’s suggestions for where to buy a sapling, maybe because he assumes all of his suppliers are awash in young Paw Paw trees. If he ever follows through on his promise to replace the tree he killed, chances are high that he will mistake a Papaya for a Paw Paw, or just fill the space with whatever fruit tree he can buy off the back of a truck. But in the meantime, my tree is leafing and flowering, and that makes me happy.

Paw Paw flowers

We’ve been having a lot of zoomed Ritual Committee meetings at my synagogue recently, to discuss what we’re going to do for the High Holidays, in mid-September. Even if we are allowed to go back to the synagogue building by then, will we really be ready to stuff hundreds of people into the sanctuary at one time? Will we go to services in protective equipment and sit six feet apart? Could we have services outdoors? In a tent? A really, really big tent?

            In the meantime, the choir is preparing to sing a few the songs from home, in case singing in person remains impossible. I did my first video this week, listening to the piano and the Cantor on earphones while singing to the computer screen. It took a lot of willpower not to look down at the music, but Mom insisted that I had to look up, and smile.

“Smile like this, Mommy!”

            I’m taking each next step, but I still don’t feel like I’m back on track, or managing my life very well. It’s not that I want to get a haircut, or go to the beach or the mall; I just want to go to a supermarket with full shelves. And I really want to stop feeling like I’m forgetting something important. Did I lock the car? Did I leave a sock in the dryer? Did I touch my face?!!!!!

            Actually, I think what needs to come next for me is rest, so that I can begin to approach the next set of challenges with some energy and motivation, instead of dragging myself along like an English bulldog forced to walk around the block. I really need a nap; or twelve.

“Bed’s taken. Too bad.”

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?

Finally, the Groomer is Essential

 

I was getting very jealous when I started to see other dogs on Facebook posting their after-grooming pictures last week, so we called our groomer, thinking she might have a recorded message letting us know when she might be back in business. Instead, she answered the phone and told us that she had received the okay from the local fire department to re-open, on a limited basis, and she could give us an appointment in a few days. I continued my constant watch on Cricket’s mats, and sneak attacks with the comb and scissors, until Grooming day finally arrived.

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“I looked fine, Mommy. I liked the way none of the hair on my face could move in the wind.”

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Ellie, on the other hand, was ready for a trim.

We handed the dogs off to the groomer in her parking lot – me on one side of the fence, wearing my red face mask and blue-alien-skin gloves, and the groomer on her side of the fence. The girls know the groomer well, so they were (mostly) okay about going with her. I, on the other hand, had to go home to a dog-less apartment. The echoing silence was so exhausting that I slept for most of the time they were gone.

The pick-up was basically the same in reverse, tossing the leashes over the fence in exchange for an envelope full of money. I was worried that we’d have to pay double for Cricket, given the state of her hair, but we paid the same price as usual. The girls jumped into the car as if they were fleeing the scene of a crime and then Cricket climbed onto my lap in the passenger seat, and then behind my neck, leaving a cloud of white hair in the air and all over my clothes.

IMG_1543

“Oh, the shame.”

 

Poor little Cricket has had her worst fears realized. The groomer had to shave her really, really close to the skin; she’s not pink, but the film of white hair barely covers her nakedness. Miss Ellie, on the other hand, looks fine. I tried to explain the situation to Cricket – that because Ellie let me brush her hair and cut out her occasional mats, she didn’t have to be shaved down to the nubs. But Cricket couldn’t hear me. It’s possible that she still has hair in her ears, because only the vet has the courage to pull out that stubborn hair and risk murder and mayhem, but more likely Cricket just doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. She has very good selective hearing skills. She can even hear things that aren’t there.

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“Can you see what they did to me?!!!!!”

Both dogs were starving when they got home, as if they were trying to fill up the empty space where their hair used to be. But then they were exhausted and slept through most of the afternoon and evening, barely noticing my Zoom meetings and only waking up to beg for more food and walks.

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“I could eat.”

To cap off grooming day, we watched a segment of Stephen Colbert’s show where one of his producers let his ten year old son give him a haircut. First, the boy clipped off clumps of his father’s hair with what looked like kitchen shears, and then he moved on to the clippers. The Dad/producer ended up looking like a plucked chicken; kind of like Cricket, though she has slightly more hair left on her head than he did. Unfortunately, I can already see tiny mats trying to form in Cricket’s hair, so maybe she would have been better off if she’d been completely plucked.

I feel better now that Cricket doesn’t have any more mats on her face and belly, clumped with goop and food, breeding who knows what kinds of infections. Cricket, on the other hand, still believes that she was fine the way she was; and she’s sticking to it.

005

“Harrumph, Mommy. Harrumph.”

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 Fourth Year Dreams

Up until recently, my dreams kept throwing me back into the fourth year of high school, telling me that I still had credits to finish in order to graduate, even though I have three master’s degrees in real life.

The literal truth of the dreams is that, when I went there, my high school had a three year program. It was an Orthodox Jewish high school, and the idea was to graduate us a year early so we’d feel obligated to spend a year in Israel before college. The other literal truth is that I fell apart during my last (third) year of high school, and even though I went to college the next fall (at age sixteen), I was unable to stay there.

Looking back, I think part of the reason for the dreams was wish fulfillment. I wanted to go back to high school and do a fourth year, because I wanted to believe that my collapse in college was caused by not being old enough to handle it. Maybe, I hoped, if I could go back and finish that last year of high school, I would be all better.

067

“Hmm.”

And in those early versions of the dreams, my orthodox Jewish high school had a drama department, and art classes, and a therapist (none of which we had in real life). But the dreams still focused mostly on the anxiety and stress of high school, with all of the social failures, and the tests in math, or physics, or social studies that I was wildly unprepared to take.

The dreams kept going, even as I got older and worked to get better. It was frustrating to keep returning to high school as I slept, because when I was awake I knew how much progress I’d made in therapy, in writing, in self-awareness, and in my overall mental health. But the dreams kept reminding me of all of the things I still couldn’t do. With each year I fell further behind my peers: in relationships, and work, and money, and independence. I never stopped trying to move forward, but for every mile my peers traveled I made it about a foot into the future.

Ellie and the Afikomen

“Every step counts, Mommy.”

There’s a theory that if you can work through the issues behind your dreams, then you’ll stop having those dreams, but for a long time I felt like these fourth year dreams were going to haunt me for the rest of my life. And the thing is, along with all of the anxiety and failure and humiliation of the dreams, there was also a sense of possibility; that I could have another chance to learn what I couldn’t learn the first time through.

Gradually, even during the dreams, I was able to remember the work I’d done, and the degrees I’d earned in the real world. And then, after graduating with my Masters’ degree in social work last year, the dreams changed again, and even though I was still back in my fourth year of high school, this time I was surrounded by my former classmates, all at our current ages, and all trying to finish those last few credits. And then, sometime this past fall, around the same time I started teaching synagogue school a few hours a week, my high school best friend appeared in the fourth year dreams with me, despite being married with four children and living in Israel, and it was such a relief to have her there with me, and to feel like we were in this fight together, even if it was just a dream.

IMG_1412

And I started to realize that I’m not alone in this unfinished feeling. When I looked at everyone else’s lives on social media, they seemed to be overachieving and rushing ahead and having a great time, but the dreams were telling me that maybe we each had our own unfinished tasks that we needed to go back and work on. Because we’re all still trying to figure out how to be okay. I started to think that maybe all of those kids I grew up with were having the same fourth year dreams that I kept having, stuck back in those old classrooms while they were sleeping, and maybe that’s why I saw them there so often.

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“Hmm.”

 

I haven’t had a fourth year dream in a while now, and that seems to be a sign that I’ve passed a marker of some kind, and filled a void that needed to be filled. Unfortunately, other bad dreams fill that space now, with other unresolved issues that need my attention, and they seem to think I need to be hammered over the head on a constant basis so that I won’t forget that there’s more work to be done. And, really, I know that there’s still a mountain of work left to do, but it’s nice to take a moment and celebrate that some of that mountain may have finally been chipped away.

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“Did you say chips?”

 

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?