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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?

Passover on Lockdown

 

By the third week of lockdown I started to feel the isolation kicking in. I don’t know what made the difference; maybe it was when I started to feel pressure to make videos for synagogue school, or when I rushed to the local grocery store (on news of toilet paper) and found out that I was the only person not wearing a surgical mask (the cashier sold me some at the checkout counter, but by then I already felt like I’d been branded with the cooties). It was the first time I’d been at a store for a week, and it made me feel like hiding out in a bunker for another few months.

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“That works for us.”

I’m having a hard time concentrating, and sleeping, and my nightmares have followed me into lockdown. The anxiety seems to be creating weird attention deficit symptoms (ADD is not usually one of my diagnoses), and I’m having trouble focusing on any one thing for very long. I keep interrupting myself and jumping around from task to task, and then falling asleep for hours because I’ve exhausted myself. Even trying to write this essay feels like grabbing at thoughts trapped in helium balloons that are trying to escape out the window.

I’ve been outside a lot, because of the dogs, but we mostly stick to the backyard of the co-op. Most of our neighbors are careful about keeping ten or twenty feet away, instead of just six, but that’s what they did before the virus too. We walked the dogs up the hill one day, when I had more energy, but seeing the empty train station parking lot, and the empty streets, was disconcerting.

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Though some creatures like the wide open spaces.

I’ve spent hours on Pinterest looking for information on how to use Zoom, and Google Forms, and how to make and upload videos, and looking for games and puzzles and all kinds of things to share with my synagogue school students, on bible passages and Passover and moral lessons, but, you know, funny. And then there’s the time spent on Facebook and YouTube, which just seems to pass without my knowledge.

I’ve been exercising more than usual, trying to wear out the anxiety, and I found a murder mystery series from Australia starring Lucy Lawless (Xena Warrior Princess!), that was a lovely break from the news. But then I ran out of new episodes, and the panic returned.

We celebrated Mom’s birthday in lockdown, with a homemade chocolate chip yogurt cheesecake and lots of calls from family and friends. Oh, and I did the cleaning that day, not the next though.

We heard from my brother’s family for Mom’s birthday, and his wife, also a doctor on the front lines of this pandemic, said that my brother is doing more telemedicine than in-person ER work lately. Even if it’s not true, it was a nice attempt to reassure Mom that her baby boy is going to be okay.

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My brother’s the one on the left

Mom has been sewing constantly. First there were the cloth grocery bags (because New York forbade plastic bags at the grocery stores starting March first – great timing!), but then most of the stores loosened the rules on plastic bags, probably because they didn’t want us dragging our germy cloth bags through their stores, so Mom moved on to making cloth masks. The first prototype was thick and had a hepa filter in it and suffocated me, but the next design was easier to wear and only made my glasses fog up a few times, so now she’s making tons of them to send to family and friends.

I finally received my latex gloves from Amazon this week, so now I feel a little better about doing the laundry, because for a while there I worried that I was picking up germs from one doorknob and transferring them to another, and killing everyone.

I hear different estimates for how long we’ll be in lockdown. We are supposedly, maybe, in the apex of the thing right now, but who knows. We could get multiple apexes, especially if we leave lockdown too soon. At the very least, we’re going to be practicing social distancing, and wearing masks and gloves, into the middle of the summer.

The hardest thing for me is trying to forgive myself for struggling through this. My expectations of myself are always much higher than I can live up to, and now is no different. I have to keep reminding myself that I am doing enough, even on the days when I’m not doing much at all. And I hate the anxiety. I hate the way it makes my heart beat too fast, and makes me nauseous, and makes it feel like shards of glass are traveling through my veins and airways. And I hate the way it makes me so sure that everything is my fault and everything would be within my control if I just tried hard enough. My little yoga practice helps, sometimes, when the anxiety starts to tell me that I should be able to earn more degrees, and write more novels, and learn how to fly, during all of this free time.

Even Governor Cuomo, Mister tough guy, acknowledged that mental health has been an issue for him, and his daughters, and his dog. Exercise helps, and being heard helps too. Maybe that’s why he does a press conference every day.

Ellie likes to sit on my lap for our noon Zoom sessions with the clergy from our synagogue. One day I even brought a pair of scissors over, to trim the mats from her ears and tail, because those forty-five minutes are her most docile of the day, but I can’t imagine what the other people on the Zoom must have been thinking.

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“They were thinking that my Mommy is insane.”

Cricket prefers the streaming services on Friday nights, probably because we sit on the couch to watch those in our pajamas. That’s more her speed. She needs the rest after long days spent screaming at possible zombies, or squirrels, passing by our door.

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Cricket likes when the cantor sings to her.

I’m too aware of how well other people are adapting to the shutdown, and adapting to the technology, while I struggle just to keep my head above water. I watch as my fellow synagogue school teachers make videos and run Zoom classes, while I’m still trying to learn how to do Google Forms. I watch all of the videos people are making on Facebook, where they’re making chair lifts and fake snow hills in their backyards, or singing incredible duets, or making Covid 19 parodies to keep people entertained, and I feel like a turtle, no, slower than a turtle, more like a snail.

I feel like the kid standing ten feet behind the diving board, watching while everyone else lines up to dive in. And all of this is making me even more anxious about what happens once the shutdown ends, and even more changes take place in the world, and I need to keep catching up, or at least running behind with the stragglers, to prove that I’m trying to keep up, even if I won’t ever actually catch up.

I guess Passover is an appropriate time for this type of internal crisis. I am in the Sea of Reeds, waiting for God to part the waters. I jumped in with everyone else, because I couldn’t stand the peer pressure of standing on the shore, and because I didn’t want to be killed by the Egyptian solders rushing to capture us, but while everyone ahead of me has faith that the waters will part, or that they will be able to swim to the other side, I am treading water, barely breathing, and holding onto the tiniest bit of hope that I won’t drown.

We never hear that version of the story. We hear about the brave ones who jump in first and lead the rest to safety, or the evil ones who chase them into the sea, but I’m the type of person who jumps in because I see no other option, and I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I’m already scared of what’s going to happen after we make it to the other side and have to then travel through the desert, which is full of even more unknowns. But I’m holding on anyway.

We had two communal Zoom Seders in our congregation, one for each night. They weren’t perfect, of course. Sometimes the sound dropped out, or the shared-screen froze, or people forgot to mute themselves. But we were brought together when we really needed togetherness to help us manage the fear and isolation. We have a virtual place to go while the real world is off limits, and I can bring my dogs with me to that safe place.

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So, yes, I’m scared, and overwhelmed, and feeling intimidated and not good enough, but I’m also feeling held and seen, and feeling like, just when I thought the bottom was going to drop out of the universe and send us hurling through space, we’ve created a magic carpet to catch our fall.

There’s a song that we sing a lot in our congregation, in Hebrew and English and in many different musical versions, but the line that resonates the most for me is:

“Spread a canopy of peace, a canopy of love, for everyone.”

And that’s what it feels like we are doing, with all of our Zooms and YouTube videos and group freak out sessions on Facebook. We are creating a patchwork canopy of peace for everyone to grab onto. It’s not like standing on solid ground, but when there’s no solid ground it’s a pretty damn good substitute.

Ellie and the Afikomen

“Okay, but what’re you gonna give me for this piece of Matzah I just found?”

 

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 Children Inside

 

Generally when I write in my blog, or anywhere else, I’m writing from the point of view of my most grown up, most presentable self, because that’s what people do. When I leave the house to interact with other people I generally dress up in a certain way and use certain words and facial expressions, and I pay close attention to how I present myself. Am I being nice enough? Mature enough? Responsible enough?

But when I’m at home, watching TV, doing puzzles, or playing with the dogs, other parts of me are allowed to surface and have their say. There’s a lot of arguing about food (Why can’t I have the whole container of ice cream right now?) and clothes (I want to wear pajamas all the time!) and entertainment (Cartoons! No, wait, mysteries! No, episodes of Law & Order on an endless loop!). Most of this doesn’t fit my image of who I’m supposed to be at my current age, and therefore I try to keep it at home where no one can see and judge.

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The girls don’t seem to care what we watch, as long as everyone’s together.

Or I bring it to therapy. Though it’s still hard for me to bring my whole self to therapy, even after twenty-five years. Generally, I report the hard stuff from my notes, or I keep it to myself.

Over winter break, I watched the HBO miniseries version of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and it reminded me all over again of the thing I loved about the first book when I read it a few years ago (someone said to me, if you like Harry Potter, you’ll love this): each character, in this alternative universe, has an animal dæmon; not just an animal companion, but a part of their soul that exists outside of their body and takes an animal form. Up until puberty the dæmon is able to take many different forms (ferret, mouse, bird, turtle, cat, etc.), to meet many different needs, and then at puberty the dæmon takes the shape of one specific animal for the rest of the character’s life. That last part was the only thing that didn’t ring true for me when I read the first book. Only ONE animal companion? Only one aspect of the soul? Unlikely. My dæmon has never settled. My self has never come together into one definite and unchanging thing. I still flit and switch and change.

I would say that, for my most grown up self, the part of me that goes out into the world, my dæmon would be a Yellow Labrador Retriever – not quite as trusting and fluffy as a Golden Retriever, but playful and loyal and gentle, and smart, rather than clever.

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“A yellow Lab. Really?”

My writing self is more like an eagle, soaring above it all and observing, feeling the wind in her feathers and finding her way; mostly isolated, but able to be part of a congregation, when necessary.

But the little ones, the ones who live in pajamas and think chocolate covered pretzels make a great breakfast, they’re different; both from the adult version of me and from each other. After watching the HBO miniseries, I tried to come up with a list of animal familiars, to help me recognize each internal child part more clearly, but that just set off a lot of internal noise and a sort of buzzing that sounded like a table saw, so I had to stop for a while and rest before trying again.

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“It was so loud I could hear it too, Mommy.”

I think there must be a porcupine, and a fluffy brown rabbit, and a black Lab puppy, and a Starling or a Sparrow, and a bee (though nobody likes the bee).

I don’t have anything like a tiger or a bear or a lion in there, and I feel the lack of that protection.

This feels like a project I should take on: get out a huge animal encyclopedia and see which ones resonate with me and which ones don’t. I should draw pictures and write stories and figure out everyone’s favorite foods and colors and music. But just the thought of it exhausts me.

Like Walt Whitman said: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” I’m just too tired to count them right now.

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Clearly, everyone’s exhausted.

 

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

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

 

 

The Jigsaw Cake

 

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

rainbow explosion cake online

This is not my picture, just so you know.

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

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“Phooey.”

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

2018 Lila September

“But I like cake too, Auntie Rachel.”

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

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

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“That sounds like fun, Mommy!”

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

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

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

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“Mmm, cake.”

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

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

 

The Bird’s Visit

During the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Days of Awe) a bird came to visit my apartment. She showed up midday on Saturday; she was just there when I came back in from walking the dogs, flapping her wings against the inside of the living room window, inches away from the space where she must have accidentally come in (there’s a space next to the air conditioner that Mom uses to give the neighborhood birds their snacks). I tried to show the bird the exit, as gently as possible, but she ignored me.

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“I’m staying.”

I, of course, took pictures of her flying around the apartment, from light fixture to curtain rod to picture frame, thinking she would be leaving at any moment. And when I left to pick up Mom from the train (she’d been out quilting with friends for the day), I was sure the bird would be gone when we returned. But she was still there, and Mom said that she was a (female) house sparrow, based on her size and markings.

We put a few pieces of challah on the window sill in the living room, to show her the way back outside, but the bird picked up each piece of bread and flew it to her safe place (a wooden loom on top of Mom’s bookcase) and ate in peace. Then she took a nap, head curled into her neck, half hidden behind the living room curtain.

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Sleeping birdie.

We were sure she would be gone by morning, after her meal and a long nap indoors, but she woke me up at seven thirty the next morning with a big squawk. She had ventured out of the living room at some point and found her way into my room. And decided she needed company; and that her company should be awake.

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“Something is very wrong with these animals.”

When we all decamped to the living room for breakfast, and the CBS Sunday morning show (Mom watches the whole show just to see the moment of nature at the end), the bird followed. She was very entertaining. She flew back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room to the living room, doing her own version of dog zoomies. She shared Mom’s breakfast (Mom got a picture of the bird eating challah on the kitchen counter), and pooped in all kinds of new places.

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“Don’t poop on me, Birdie.”

Later, the bird even followed me into the bathroom when I went to take a shower (I didn’t notice she was there until too late, but she was kind enough to wait for me on top of the medicine cabinet instead of hanging out in the shower with me. Small favors). Cricket was waiting right outside the bathroom door afterward, horrified.

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“Aaaaack!!!”

By the thirtieth hour of the bird’s visit, Mom was getting worried. She’d reached out to her cyber community and was reminded of the health risks of having a wild bird in the house, because of the poop she seemed to drop any and everywhere. So we removed all traces of food from the kitchen counters, and even got rid of the bread for the outdoor birds. But the bird decided to try the kibble left in the dogs’ bowls, and then she checked the living room floor for any crumbs the dogs might have left behind. Cricket started to notice the invasion at that point, because it was one thing to have a bird flying around in the light fixtures, but something completely different to have a bird calmly walking along the floor, trying to share her food. Cricket’s food is sacrosanct, just ask Ellie.

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“It’s true.”

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“Now where did that fluffy monster hide the treats?”

When it was time to go to sleep for the night, the bird set herself up on her wooden loom again, and she was still there the next morning, though she was kind enough not to wake me up this time. I do prefer to sleep as late as I can.

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Butterfly watching over Birdie’s meeting with Canada bird.

I was seconds away from naming her (Tzippy, short for Tzipporah, Hebrew for female bird) when the bird finally left. Mom plugged the hole next to the air conditioner with a tissue, to discourage her from coming back in, but the bird seemed to have finished her visit by then and didn’t return. There had been a lot of extra squawking outside the windows that morning, maybe from her family or friends, telling her that she needed to come back out to the real world.

 

The depression I felt after the bird left was pervasive. I felt like we’d exiled her. Yes, she pooped everywhere, and didn’t clean up after herself; and yes, she woke me up too early in the morning; and yes, Cricket was getting annoyed with her. But she made me feel special, just by being there. She made me feel chosen.

There’s a moment in the prayer service at my synagogue where we put our arms around each other to say the Priestly Blessing, as a way to celebrate family and community ties. It took me a few years to get used to all of the touching and closeness involved in that blessing, but for the forty-some-odd hours while the bird was staying with us, I felt like she was holding out her wings to be included in our little family group: singing the blessing with us, arm in arm.

And I felt blessed, and full of awe. We focus so much on self-examination and looking for the sins we need to atone for during the High Holiday season, but the bird reminded me that sometimes there’s nothing to atone for. Sometimes your assessment can tell you that you are on track and you are loved, and that you deserve the visit of a little bird to remind you that every day can be full of awe, if you pay attention.

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Bye bye Birdie.

 

 

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 Shul

Now that I have more free time, because I don’t have a social work internship this semester, I’m free to return to my regular activities, including the irreverent Bible seminar at my synagogue every other Thursday night. I could even go to the open choir practices, which are supposed to be less stressful than the ones I tried five or six years ago, where I tried to learn twenty new pieces of music, in four part harmony, in a month. Or I could join a committee, of some kind. But, I’ve been feeling reluctant to step back into the flow, aware, all over again, that I don’t quite fit in.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, every year, we have the one event of the year where my dogs are invited into the synagogue community. The service is called Tashlich and it’s all about casting our sins into the water, by way of bread (traditionally), or bird seed, or cheerios. It’s a kid and dog friendly service, because it is held outdoors and it is short. There’s also singing, which makes it Rachel-friendly. I am not a believer in this casting-off-of-sins business, so I never join in with that part of the service. But I go, because it’s dog day. How could I skip dog day?

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“But, isn’t every day dog day?”

It was pouring rain for Tashlich this year, but I wasn’t going to skip Cricket and Ellie’s only opportunity all year to be seen and heard. We arrived before anyone else, and Ellie tried to make friends with the geese, despite the rain, dragging me through puddles, and piles of green goose poop, while the geese studiously avoided her. Someone I often see at services arrived after us, and said he was surprised that I had dogs, which seemed off to me. I thought everyone in the world knew that I had dogs; that you could see it through my skin. My dogs are my family, but I’m not sure that’s something the people in my community are able to understand, because my dogs aren’t human children. There is no synagogue school, or dog-friendly classes, or services for them on a regular basis. I can’t bring my girls to the bible seminar, or to choir practice, which means I can’t bring a big part of who I am with me.

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“I never knew going to services could be so much fun!”

The dogs were completely soaked by the time the rest of the small crowd arrived, but they got the chance to meet a grey-haired toy poodle who looked suspiciously like a baby lamb, and a tiny Maltese, and even a few bigger dogs. I met a woman with a husband, two little boys, and a dog, and she told me that she had to come despite the rain. I thought I’d found a kindred spirit, but she said, no, it’s not because it’s the one time of the year that dogs are allowed, but because she had so many sins she needed to get rid of. I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.

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“Mommy, did you know that rain is very, very wet?”

The next day, the junior rabbi came up to me at services, congratulating me on going to services, “rain or shine.” I explained, for what felt like the hundredth time, that I went because it was my only chance to bring my dogs to shul, but she didn’t seem to understand what I was saying. Maybe, in her eyes, I was just an obsessively religious person, I don’t know.

And then I missed Yom Kippur with vertigo, and continued to wonder if it was really worth all of the effort to keep going to shul if I was left feeling, endlessly, unknown. I went to Friday night services, two days after Yom Kippur, because the world had stopped spinning, and because I just like Friday night services. When the senior rabbi came up to me, to see how I was doing post Vertigo, he asked if there was anything he could do, and I got brave for a second and asked if Ellie could come to services on Monday morning, for Sukkot, since the services were being held in the Sukkah, and the Sukkah is, technically, outdoors. And the rabbi said yes.

I’m not sure I would have been motivated to get up early for services on that Monday morning, without the promise of Ellie being able to go to shul with me. I knew not to even think of bringing Cricket; she’s terrible with crowds, and her Attention Deficit Disorder would have made the two hour service torture for her. But Ellie was perfect. She sat quietly on my lap and let people pet her. Only one person seemed to have a problem with her being there: when I first walked into the Sukkah, holding Ellie in my arms, and sat down in the back row (of three), one woman from the back row stood up and moved up front. She didn’t say anything to me, just moved, so I don’t know if she was allergic to dogs, or just didn’t like being around them, but it made me feel uneasy. I worried that other people would have the same reaction, but as soon as they began to notice Ellie, they smiled and reached out to pet her. One woman purposely sat down next to me and fell in love with my Ellie within minutes. The junior rabbi laughed at Ellie’s funny faces from across the Sukkah, and made sure that the one little (human) girl at services had noticed the puppy dog. The senior rabbi made a point of publicly welcoming Ellie, as a hypoallergenic family member who was able to join us at services for this special occasion.

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Ellie learning how to be a therapy dog, in therapy.

I’m still trying to absorb how good it felt to be allowed to have Ellie with me at shul. I don’t expect to be able to bring her to synagogue with me on a regular basis, because we are rarely outside for services or other events, but just knowing that she’s been seen, and that I’ve been seen with her, means a great deal to me.

 

My New Nephew

 

I finally got to meet my new canine nephew last week. His name is Coby and he’s an eight month old Husky. He came home five or six months ago, but this was my first chance to meet him in person. When I entered my brother’s house, Coby and his canine sister, Lilah, a black Lab, fought for the right to hug me first. I have the black and blue marks on my arm to prove it. I pity any burglar who tries to enter their house, because he won’t know what hit him with all of those kisses.

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“You let other dogs kiss you?”

We didn’t bring Cricket and Ellie with us for the visit because Cricket has had trouble with visits when there was only Lilah to contend with; two big dogs would have given her a heart attack. I think Ellie would have liked to meet Lilah and Coby, and maybe even enjoyed running through the back yard with them, but Cricket would never have forgiven me for leaving her home and taking Ellie out for the day. And, when Ellie inevitably peed on my sister-in-law’s rugs, family violence would have ensued, so we were better off leaving her at home as well. It was actually Ellie’s longest stay at home with just Cricket for company. The evidence of her anxiety was left on the living room rug, because Miss Ellie is not clear on the difference between rugs and wee wee pads, and will pee and rest on both. So now we have a new, indoor/outdoor, easy to clean, living room rug, and I’m hoping that Ellie will figure out that rugs are not for peeing on.

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Ellie getting cozy on the wee wee pad.

Back at my brother’s house, we spent some time out in the Sukkah, getting to know Coby, and catching up with my other canine and human nephews and nieces. Miss Lilah, the black Lab, has that long suffering big sister look that Cricket wears constantly, but she made sure to bring me both her leash and Coby’s when she wanted to go for a walk. Cricket would never have been able to relate to such a thing.

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This is Coby, in the Sukkah, sitting on his human sister’s lap.

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Sweet Lilah.

My second oldest nephew is the dog whisperer of the house. He willingly wakes up in the middle of the night when Coby, still not quite potty-trained, asks to go out, and Lilah has a huge dog bed that fills most of his floor, but she still prefers to sleep in his bed, leaving my nephew two or three inches to stretch out in. He doesn’t seem to mind sharing his space with the dogs, or allowing the housekeeper to come in and clean, but he’s building a fingerprint lock to keep out the other members of the family. He hasn’t figured out how to add a paw print censor to the lock, but I’m sure that will come next, or else the dogs will just break down the door. He even has a 3D printer of his own, to build new parts for his fingerprint lock and other creations, and he made me a name plate as a gift, to show me how it works. It’s nice to have geniuses in the family, but it’s even better when they are also sweet, and kind and good people (or dogs).

When we finally got home, Cricket and Ellie were wild-eyed, as if they’d spent most of the day convincing each other that we were never going to return. They’d probably also been talking to their canine neighbor across the hall, Oliver, a black haired Shih-Tzu/Bichon mix, about the horrors of being left behind by their humans. He’s their size, and therefore manageable, even for Cricket. If only we could temporarily miniaturize Lilah and Coby, maybe they could spend a day visiting with Cricket and Ellie, just like Oliver does sometimes. I’ll have to discuss this with my second oldest nephew, he’ll be the one to know where to start.

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This is Oliver, carrying one of Cricket and Ellie’s toys on his walk.

The Bird Came Back

 

Last Sunday, while I was answering heartfelt condolences on the death of Mom’s friend Olivia, and sharing the joy of a visit from a bird who seemed to be acting as Olivia’s familiar, the bird came back. This time she came into the apartment through the small opening next to the air-conditioner in the living room (where Mom leaves bird snacks year round, just in case). The bird visited the quilting closet again, of course, and the light fixture in the dining room, but then she became more bold and stood on the kitchen counter to eat pizza crumbs off of a plate, and walked on the living room rug, looking for any treats Cricket might have left behind (as if that would ever happen).

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Psst. Check the pink thing.

Cricket tolerated the invasion moderately well, until the bird stepped into Cricket’s food bowl to sample the kibble, and then wet her beak in Cricket’s water bowl. The bird even had the temerity to wander under Cricket’s couch! Cricket ran after the bird at that point, and was flummoxed by the whole flying thing.

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“I must guard my couch from interlopers, Mommy.”

The bird landed on top of curtain rods and lamps, checked out cookbooks, and stood on my computer chair for a good long time, looking over at me with what looked suspiciously like Cricket’s side eye expression.

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(This is my favorite picture – photographed by Mom and her magic camera.)

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“These had better be vegan.”

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“This chair is just right.”

At bed time, instead of remaining in the living room, or the kitchen, the bird followed me and Cricket into my bedroom, investigating the tops of my bookcases, and the notebooks on my bedside table. She even followed Cricket into Mom’s room, and stood on the blanket, about a foot away from Cricket’s tail. We were starting to wonder if we had accidentally adopted a wild bird.

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“No. Just say no to the bird.”

 

Mom did research on Carolina Wrens, through Google and bird-wise family and friends, and she found out that this is the time of year when they go house hunting, to decide where to nest in the spring. Of course, we started to worry about how much bird poop we’d be dealing with if the bird decided to bring her whole family to live in our apartment, but there was also something gratifying about even being considered for such an honor.

 

When Mom woke up in the middle of the night (she and Cricket are big fans of the late night snack), she was sure that the bird had left, but then she saw a pile of feathers on the radiator in the living room. She was afraid that the bird had died, but it turned out that this was just the bird’s sleeping pose, puffing her wings out to act as a blanket, and stuffing her head down to mute the outside noise.

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Ssh. It’s nap time.

By the next morning the bird was gone. We were able to clean up all of the lingering bird poop, which is surprisingly tenacious stuff, but there was also a sense of loss, and then hope, that maybe the bird will return again. Maybe this will become a weekly Sunday visit! Cricket would not be thrilled with a bird in the house on a regular basis, but, for me, it was nice to have another pet again. I think Miss Butterfly would have approved.

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“Birdie!”

(Most of the pictures in this post were taken by Naomi Mankowitz. Any pictures that look less than perfect were taken by me.)

My Nephew is Going to Israel

 

My nephew is going to Israel for his gap year between high school and college. It has become de rigeur for kids from orthodox Jewish schools to spend a gap year in a yeshiva or seminary (for girls) in Jerusalem, immersing themselves in Jewish studies, Hebrew language, and maybe even the political realities of the Middle East. I wouldn’t want to spend a year in Israel, though, even now. I’m kind of addicted to familiar things. I could manage a week away, maybe ten days, tops. Though even that would strain Cricket’s anxiety disorder to the breaking point. Mine too. I’m impressed by all of these eighteen and nineteen year old kids who have the self-confidence to go to another country for a whole school year.

And the state of peace in Israel is always shaky; flair ups can come at any time. The recent violence at the holy sites could be forgotten by the time my nephew even gets on the plane, or it could grow into a conflagration. Many parents will send their kids to Israel during wars or uprisings. I don’t know why they feel so confident that their children will be safe, but they do.

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This is how I’d feel about it.

 

My nephew probably won’t be visiting a kibbutz, because there aren’t many left. Israel is a tech crazy country with some of the best medical research facilities in the world; it’s not a country of people living on collective farms, picking oranges, anymore. Will the boys get to meet the Palestinians who live on the other side of Jerusalem? Or visit the Knesset (the parliament) to hear arguments from politicians from the many different sides? Or will they spend all of their time studying Talmud and meeting other Jews? Maybe even only other American teens like the ones they grew up with, instead of the Russian or Ethiopian or French or Indian Jews who have found their home in Israel.

It took me a long time to even dip my toe into the waters of modern Israeli history, and I still can’t say that I fully understand the conflicts and points of view of everyone involved. I know that my support for Israel is tribal rather than logical, but then, I think that’s probably true of everyone, on either side.

I have seen and heard a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric recently, and some of it goes over the line into the anti-Semitic language used during the Holocaust. But I have also heard prejudiced arguments and comments from some Jews that are not only unconvincing but disturbingly racist in nature. Smarter and better informed people than me will have to figure it all out and find the compromises that will work. I don’t have answers, or ease, on this issue.

But what I do have is a deep understanding of the need to live somewhere surrounded by people who are like you. I grew up going to Jewish schools where we could each be who we were – the athlete, the musician, the artist, the brain, the druggy – and not be defined by everyone around us as “the Jew.”

I am an American Jew, though. America is my country, my home. This is where my family is, where my dogs are, living and dead. It would be nice to visit Israel, though, and see how it feels to be one among many, and no longer in a minority, surrounded by my people’s history, deep in the ground under my feet.

Unfortunately for me, the Jewish state is in the Middle East, in the desert, where it is too freaking hot. Maybe if the Jewish state were somewhere like Vancouver, I’d be more eager to go. I wonder how Cricket would take to traveling in a plastic crate under my feet.

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I mean, she has fit herself into smaller places.

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When she was a puppy.

Look-a-likes

 

I have a friend whose 17-year-old daughter is like a facsimile of her, except that she does her hair and makeup differently (as in not at all) and dresses her own way. They’re like two identical dolls dressed by radically different children. There’s danger there, because my friend sees her own face so clearly on her daughter, and struggles at times to see her daughter as a separate person, with different characteristics, and needs, and limitations. The temptation to project yourself and your own feelings onto such a familiar face must be extraordinary.

“You sound just like your father.” I said this to my second oldest nephew recently, because I heard his voice from a distance and actually thought it was my brother. His voice had deepened significantly since my previous visit. The older one looks more like his father, and the younger one sounds more like his father, but neither one of them is just like either of their parents, even though there are those genetic matches, and habits they’ve picked up in how they phrase things.

I look very different from my mother, especially in body type. I am taller, with a bigger frame. I’m built more like my father, which does not feel good to me. As a teenager, I tried to starve myself down to the right size, so that I would resemble my mother more, and my father less, but it only lasted long enough to give me fainting spells and muscle cramps, and when I started eating again, the illusion of similarity disappeared.

My father is six-foot-four and over three hundred pounds. He used to be unspeakably strong, before diabetic neuropathy, two strokes, cancer, and age. My hair is brown with red highlights, like his was, rather than dark brown to almost black like Mom’s. My nose is more rounded, like his, my face is more Russian, like his, my skin color is peachier, like his, whereas Mom’s coloring is more Mediterranean. To other people it’s probably subtle to the point of invisible, but to Mom, and therefore to me, the differences are overwhelming.

The fact is, I didn’t and don’t look like my father. I have a full head of hair, and no beard. I am nowhere near as tall or imposing as he is, and my body language is very different. I wasn’t a smaller version of him, at any point in time. But when categories were being given out, my brother matched up more with my mother and I matched up more with my father, and that was that.

For a lot of people, there’s relief in being able to see a parent’s features in a child, if only because it proves parentage. That way you know for sure that the babies weren’t switched at the hospital, and the mailman didn’t get his genes in there without you knowing. But I wonder if looking nothing like your parents might be easier, as long as you are certain of their love and attachment, because then people can see you more clearly as an individual and not so easily confuse you with someone else. But then again, we all look for clues to who we are in the people in our families. We look for a great uncle with our particular inability to do math, or a cousin with our propensity to laugh until we fall on the floor crying. The balance between wanting to be unique and wanting to fit in is so precarious.

I have two dogs instead of human children, and they are small, white-haired dogs. We will never show up in those side by side pictures of dogs and owners who look alike.

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“Wait, you don’t look like us?”

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“We need to lie down.”

When I was younger, we used to have black-haired dogs, so that was a little more like me. I especially felt like Dina, my black lab mix, was my familiar, even if we didn’t look exactly alike. I related to her “black dog” status, not the most desirable puppy at the shelter, not the right size or breed or coloring to be popular. There were lots of puppies like her at the shelter, and at every shelter. But mostly it was her personality, and her status in the family, that I related to. She cried desperately when we had to keep her downstairs in the kitchen as a puppy, before she was potty-trained. She escaped from every enclosure we made for her, but no one was willing to put time and effort and money into training her, or buying her special beds and toys and treats, or coming up with a set schedule for her. She was largely left to her own devices, like I was, and she was overwhelmed, like I was, and she developed some odd behaviors as a result, to try to comfort herself, like me.

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Dina’s smile.

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Me and Dina (we even dressed alike).

A look-a-like was what I needed at that time. Someone I could think of as just like me, and still worthy of love and attention and care. Taking care of Dina taught me how to take care of myself. But by the time Cricket came along, I was ready for a dog who was not like me at all, but who needed me anyway. She was so assertive, and cute, and very high maintenance. She taught me that even though there’s a steep learning curve in loving someone so unlike yourself, there’s also a freedom in it. It’s so much easier to accept her strengths and weaknesses as they are when they don’t reflect on me. She’s her own person and I can see her clearly without judging her, or myself, quite so much. And that’s a relief.

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Cricket is her very own person.