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Goodbye, My Friend

Teddy

            A good friend of mine died recently. He was a black-haired, gentle-souled miniature poodle named Teddy and I miss him very much. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but just knowing that he was still there, still climbing through his doggy door and sleeping on his Mommy’s lap, was reassuring and made the world feel whole.

            He was fifteen and a half, I think, two and a half years older than Cricket, my cocker spaniel/miniature poodle mix, who adored him from the get-go. He was long-legged and skinny, with hair that quickly covered his eyes between grooming session. He could leap like a ballet dancer, pointed toes and all, or just race full steam ahead to play with a toy. He was full of joy, and love, and seriousness. He was a gentleman, in the way he held himself and in the boundaries he set around himself. If he could have spoken, he would have had a faint French accent, nothing too broad, more like the head waiter at a high-end restaurant.

Gentleman Pose

            Over the past few years he grew blind and deaf, relying on his younger sister to alert him to noises he needed to respond to, and by the end, to alert him to meal time as well. He had been slowing down for a while, but took great joy in his resurgence on CBD oil, it gave him a zest for life and an appetite and the energy to be his athletic self once again. But his final illness came on quickly, shutting down his kidneys. Treatment only relieved his symptoms temporarily, and when the symptoms inevitably returned he was even more confused than before, and unable to feel like his true self. When he stopped eating, his sister stopped eating too, to keep him company, to express her grief at what she instinctively knew was coming, and because when your loved ones are in pain, you feel the pain too.

            He died with dignity, in a way we don’t often allow our human loved ones to do, surrounded by love and by the knowledge that he had lived a full life, a generous life, and a satisfying life. I imagine that when he crossed the rainbow bridge he did a few leaps and arabesques and then raced towards his two golden sisters who were waiting for him on the other side. He would have had so much to tell them about the world they’d left behind, and they would have had so much to tell him about what comes after.

            We tend to think that our role models and teachers will be human, but Teddy was one of my best teachers, and he was truly, and fully, a dog, in the best possible way.

            Teddy was my therapy dog. Not only because he was my therapist’s dog, but because he offered his own version of therapy: a nonverbal, relationship-based therapeutic technique that they don’t teach in school. He modeled for me how to respect your own emotions and your own boundaries even while reaching out to others. He modeled how to be fully yourself and respectful of others at the same time. He, like Cricket, taught me that there is no shame in speaking up when you feel strongly about something. And that there is honor and strength in accepting your own limitations and not forcing yourself into situations where you don’t feel safe.

“I want out!”

            He was a picky little man, with specific tastes in food and people and dog friends, and he chose me. He trusted me, and I felt the honor of that deeply. Teddy taught me that it’s not arrogant or selfish to hold your own views, or to love only who you love. He showed me that you can have those preferences, and know yourself, while still being respectful and polite to those who don’t fit for you – unless they scare you or piss you off, and then you can scream.

“Let’s get ready to rumble!”

            He showed me that you can express your fear and pain, and if you express it fully and truthfully, there is then room for other feelings to come in. He taught me that there is no shame in asking for affection when you need it, and he taught me that there are people, and dogs, who will be honored that you’ve asked for their affection.

            His acceptance of me, his love for me, and his trust of me, was healing on a very deep level. He reflected me back to myself as I really am. He told me that I am kind, I am trustworthy, and I am loveable. And I believed it, from him. I think the fact that he could never communicate in words, which are my stock in trade, also played a role. He reached the parts of me that can’t speak and they heard him and felt comforted by him.

            I know there were times when it wasn’t easy being Teddy. There were a limited number of people that made him feel comfortable, and when he couldn’t be with those people he suffered. I can relate to that, completely.

            He stayed with me a couple of times, in the period after Butterfly died and before Ellie arrived, and after a short period of vocal grief and longing for his Mom, he settled in with us. He set his boundaries with Cricket early on, and she respected those boundaries, and appreciated his respect for her space too. They went on walks together, and ate dinner together and took naps together peacefully, as long as I was there to referee. By the time he had to leave Cricket was forlorn, sleeping in his makeshift bed until the scent of him dissipated.

Teddy on his bed

            The most important lesson I learned from Teddy is that love is a gift. His love for me was a gift. And the love I felt for him in return made me feel strong enough to raise Cricket with love, and then Butterfly, and now Ellie. He taught me that having enough of what you need makes you feel like you are enough.

            Dogs, maybe because they live such short lives, focus in on the most important things: love, food, joy, and safety. They don’t get distracted by appearances or wear the masks we humans wear to get through our days.

Cricket and Teddy napping with Grandma

            I will miss Teddy, but I will also keep Teddy with me, as part of me, for the rest of my life, as a guide, and as a source of energy for the lessons I still want and need to learn.

            Goodbye, my friend. May you feel all of the love you have inspired throughout your short life, and find peace and community on the other side.

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.

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“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.

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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?

Triggered

 

The first sexual abuse memories that came back were from my second abuser, my best friend’s older brother. He was six years older than us, and it seems like the abuse started when I started to sleep over at her house, at around age four, but he had access to us long before that. He boasted a few times that he used to help change our diapers, but that seems unlikely. He abused us in her bedroom, and in the den when we slept on the fold out couch in order to watch TV. He also abused us during the day, in the pool and in the kitchen, when he was left to watch us.

I couldn’t have told you that I was being abused if you’d asked me at the time. The memories dived under the surface as soon as they were created. All I knew was that whenever I saw my best friend’s brother I felt sick to my stomach and frightened, but I wasn’t sure why.

I stopped sleeping over at their house, abruptly, when I was seven or eight years old, after I couldn’t get to sleep one night during our weekly sleepover. I don’t remember going to bed, and I don’t remember the abuse that night, I just remember pacing in my friend’s room and then walking out into the hall and knocking on her parents’ bedroom door and asking to go home. It may have been ten o’clock at night, but to me it felt like three o’clock in the morning. I called home on the phone in the hall, and Mom came to get me, though I don’t actually remember going home. There’s a lot I don’t remember.

This was my best friend’s house. We’d met as infants, when our mothers took us to Mother’s Day Out at the local community center. We did everything together, for years, except that we eventually went to different schools. She went to a Lutheran school and I went to a Jewish school. I brought her with me to junior congregation at my synagogue, and we danced around her living room to a record of Jesus songs for kids.

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“Who’s dancing?”

Looking back, the abuse must have taken a turn that last night, something worse than usual to make me so desperate, but I don’t know what it was. It’s possible that something else woke me up to my fear, or to the idea that I could leave if I wanted to. I don’t know. But I still went over to her house during the day, even though I was starting to be aware that something was wrong. I knew that I felt nauseous each time I saw her brother, and I knew that it seemed ironic (and yes, I knew that word as a kid), that I wasn’t allowed to walk home alone from her house once it got dark, and her brother was sent along to protect me. He liked to carry Nun Chucks. Their parents thought they were keeping me safe from the bad guys by sending him along with me. They never let me walk home alone in the dark, no matter how much I begged.

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“Grr!”

My friend and I grew apart for multiple reasons. We were, as I said, at different schools during the day, and my father became more and more religious, making us keep kosher, so that I couldn’t eat at her house anymore. But the abuse had to have played a role too, though neither one of us talked about it, or seemed to remember that it had happened. There was some sort of secret miasma that sat between us in a way we couldn’t articulate. I went to her eighth birthday party, a sleepover, but I threw up multiple times and had to go home, again in the middle of the night.

It took years to piece those pictures together, though, and to guess how old I was in each one, and how one thing led to another. It’s still like a kaleidoscope, with tiny pieces taped together in incomplete patterns; but the memories I have are vivid, and eventually, when we were older, my friend and I were able to talk about what happened and validate each other’s memories.

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“Harrumph.”

We’d both experienced amnesia for the abuse. When we talked about it years later, our memories of the abuse were remarkably similar, including the ways we had forgotten about it, but while my memories of being abused always included her sleeping nearby, or being abused as well, she’d blocked out any memory that I was even there.

Flashes of different images came back to me at different times, out of context. I didn’t have words for what he had done to us, sexually, or emotionally, or psychologically. I couldn’t make sense of why he would do those things. I remember these little speeches he gave, telling me to close my eyes and that everything would be fine, telling me that my friend was fine with it so I should be fine with it too, telling me that I couldn’t tell anyone about it because they’d be disappointed in me. My friend was right next to me in her bed, sleeping through his abuse of me, and of her, and I couldn’t make sense of that. I didn’t understand how she couldn’t hear him. I hated how easily she fell asleep.

I remembered hiding in the bathroom one night and holding the door shut, even though it was already locked, and arguing with her father, because I thought he was her brother coming to get me, when he tried to open the door. I remembered standing in their kitchen, with the sun shining on my face, and my underpants down at my ankles. He’d made it into a game, kind of like hide and seek, and I was terrible at hiding. I’m very bad at games in general, but I was also a very slow runner compared to my friend. I remember her leaning out of her hiding place and asking why no one had found her yet. I remember being terrified as her brother counted down, because I couldn’t think of anywhere good to hide.

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“I could have helped you, Mommy.”

It wasn’t until I’d been in therapy for a few months, at age 19, after years of remembering parts of the abuse, that I felt strong enough to confront my friend’s mother with my memories. The family had moved out of the neighborhood and it was a long drive out to see her. By the time we got there I was too scared to get out of the car, so Mom had to talk to her first. That’s when we found out that my friend had already told her what had happened, a year or so earlier, but had only told her about one other little girl who’d been abused, and not about me.

My friend called me in the middle of the night, that night, for the first time in years, to talk about our memories of the abuse. She had no answer for why she hadn’t mentioned me to her parents, when she confronted them with her own memories of the abuse. She said that she just didn’t remember that I’d been there that much. She even named someone else, a boy, as her best friend from that time. It was part of the dissociative response, I guess. That’s the most sense I can make of it. She had told herself that we weren’t as close as I knew we’d been, and that I hadn’t spent as much time at her house as I knew I did. Something about remembering that I was abused too was more than her brain could handle. And even her mother, who could have guessed that I was, at least, a potential victim, had forced herself not to think about the possibility. But in the next sentence, my friend told me that it was my fault that she was so bossy to her friends, because I’d let her get away with that behavior when we were little. She saw me as the template for all of her later friendships, but she couldn’t remember that I’d been at her house constantly, for years, being abused right along with her. No matter how much my therapist tried to explain dissociation to me, I still had a hard time with that.

My friend’s parents made a special trip to see my parents, a few weeks later, and I tried to listen in on their conversation from my bedroom upstairs, but I could only hear the clinking of glasses, and laughter, while I sat in my room, shaking with fear, and anger. The one line I remember from Mom’s description of the conversation later on, was that my friend’s father had said, well, it gave her something to write about, or something to that affect, because I’d given my friend a story I’d written about the abuse, which she then shared with her parents, and her brother.

My father’s response to me, the day after seeing my friend’s parents, was that he was “surprised to find out that the memories were true and not just your fantasy.” This was said with a smile.

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“This is worse than Grr.”

The validation of the sexual abuse by my best friend’s brother was probably the trigger that allowed me to look at the even darker memories I had around my father. I’d been hinting at abuse by him to my therapist, telling her about all kinds of weird things he’d said, about how children under five don’t remember anything, and children under three don’t feel pain. And the way he took me on “dates,” and the way he tried to get between me and my mom, and bribe me with presents, and the way he’d used religion to control me. There were so many things that were off, overtly, about my father and the relationships within the family, but it wasn’t until after the validation of my memories of abuse at my friend’s house that I could even contemplate the other images that kept swirling around in my head.

And even then, it was a long process, with images being pieced together over time, and body memories finally being verbalized, and memories I’d always had being re-examined. I started to recognize that the same way my memories of the abuse at my friend’s house would fade to black, memories of time spent with my father, in the darkroom developing pictures, and in the dark, period, faded to black too.

Why am I writing about this now? Because I was doing one of my language learning apps and the word for “eel” came up in Hebrew, and below it there was a sketch of an eel, and suddenly, memories of the abuse by my friend’s older brother rushed back; memories that I’d supposedly worked through ad infinitum over the years, and resolved, over many years of therapy. The images of a squid and an octopus, both phallic-adjacent, had bothered me in earlier lessons, but it was the eel that pushed me over the edge.

I resent the way memory works, but I’ve gotten better at dealing with the consequences of these triggers, and honoring the need to process what comes at me, with as much patience and self-compassion as I can muster. I used to think that I could force all of the therapy work to be done at one time, and on my schedule, and fully under my own control, but my brain refuses to let me. It decides when I’m ready, and when I’m not.

Maybe someday I will know everything that happened, and I will stop feeling like there are ghosts waiting to jump out at me from behind every curtain. But maybe not.

yeshiva girl with dogs

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

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

 

 

Orthodoxapalooza

 

A few weeks ago, when my best friend from high school was visiting from Israel, we met up on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst. If you are not an aficionado of the habits of Orthodox Jews on Long Island you may not recognize the name of the place, but Central Avenue is a haven for Orthodox Jews looking for kosher food, Judaica products, modest clothes and wigs, and the general companionship of similarly dressed people.  I was one of three women wearing pants, along the whole street, and even the little girls wore skirts over their leggings (and this was not a cold day).

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“That seems like an awful lot of clothes, Mommy.”

I had to do a practice drive ahead of time, even though I’ve lived on Long Island my whole life, because I’d never driven to Central Avenue before. Even though I stayed in the car for that first trip, it felt a little bit like time travel, being surrounded by the sort of people I remembered from my adolescence. Even my brother’s Modern Orthodox neighborhood doesn’t quite jangle the same bells, if only because the skirts the women wear are shorter, and the men don’t let their payes (side-curls) grow long enough to dangle.

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“Do I have those payless things?”

We met there because my friend had fond memories of Central Avenue from an adolescence filled with longing to go there, both to window shop and to mingle. She doesn’t have the same anxieties about not looking religious enough that I do, but she told me that people dress completely differently in her neighborhood in Israel, even though they’re just as religious as in Cedarhurst. I assumed she meant that they wear different kinds of clothes there because it’s so much hotter, but she said that even though you don’t need to dress a certain way in Israel in order to look sufficiently Jewish, there are still different styles of dressing for almost every religious neighborhood, so they can make it clear that they are each, even if only slightly, different kinds of Jews.

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“We can’t BOTH be dogs. That’s just silly.”

Back in Cedarhurst, I noticed that the Jewish-friendly stores on Central Avenue are mostly high end, and I was afraid to go into one of the cafes, not because I question their level of kashrut (I don’t keep kosher), but because the prices were way over my head. The wigs in the wig shop weren’t cheap synthetics, but natural fibers and beautifully cut and colored, and the clothes were very well made, if mind-bogglingly similar. And almost every car was an SUV, even for the young marrieds with only one or two kids (so far). It used to be that very religious Jewish communities were sort of down at heel, because raising eight kids on a social worker’s or teacher’s salary, while the husband studies all day, doesn’t lend itself to wealth. But Modern Orthodoxy (which encourages Orthodox Jews to embrace living in the larger society instead of choosing isolation), has changed the lifestyles of many religious Jews, encouraging young men (and women!) to go into business or become doctors and lawyers, instead of studying all day.

But there are still a million rules to remember when you walk back into the Orthodox world, around clothes and food and haircuts and handwashing and on and on. It goes beyond the 613 Mitzvot the rabbis deduced from the Torah, because at some point orthodox rabbis decided that local customs should gain the power of Jewish law, which means that if the community you come from has the custom of waiting six hours to eat milk again after a meat meal, then that’s what you have to do, even though the length of time is not specified anywhere in the bible. And in my brother’s neighborhood if you only have one dishwasher, instead of one for milk dishes and one for meat dishes, then you are never having guests for dinner. There are strictures upon strictures, drawing lines between every two Jews, so that you are inevitably more religious than one neighbor and less religious than another and you are going to hear about it.

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“I’m sorry, Mommy, but you’re just not religious enough for me.”

My friend, orthodox as she is, isn’t as kosher as the rest of her family, and doesn’t have quite enough children to compete with her younger siblings, but she has adapted to it. She respects their choices and makes sure not to serve them a chicken certified kosher by the slightly less strict rabbi in her neighborhood, but instead by the slightly stricter rabbi in their neighborhood, when they come over for dinner. She has always been tolerant of their differences, but able to hold on to her own views at the same time, which has a lot to do with why we were friends in high school, when I was nowhere near as religious as my classmates and, no one would eat at my house (only one dishwasher).

Like my friend, I work hard to be accepting of how other people live their lives, and I try to look for reasons to be tolerant and understanding, but religious orthodoxy pushes my buttons. It reminds me of feeling like an outsider as a kid, and feeling like I was an essentially bad person for the food I ate and the clothes I wore. I think I jump to conclusions much faster about a woman wearing a wig, or a man with a black hat or payes, than I do with people who are different from me in other ways. I feel automatically more self-conscious and less acceptable when I walk into a religious Jewish neighborhood, wearing my usual jeans and a sweater, whereas most other places I tend to feel invisible, in a good way.

I’ve found that this is a trigger for a lot of liberal or progressive or secular Jews, because it taps into a feeling that we are not good enough, not Jewish enough. And the fact is, being Jewish is an essential part of our identities, just in a different way than for the Orthodox. When one of my nephews, years ago, looked me up and down (in my jeans and short sleeves and sneakers) and asked me if I was Jewish, I had to take a deep breath not to hiss and curse at him. He didn’t mean anything by it (he was and is a very sweet boy), he was just raised in a world where Jews look a certain way, and act a certain way, and he didn’t know what to make of me. But even knowing that it was an innocent comment, I still felt the hurt, just as I do when I hear about the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel deciding that liberal Jews aren’t really Jews and their weddings and conversions are not kosher.

There are a lot of things about Orthodox Judaism that I love, though, most especially the way they preserve tradition and create worlds that are infused with Jewishness, so that you don’t have to work very hard to feel Jewish and to feel proud of being Jewish. Their children are educated in the history and traditions of the Jewish people, and feel connected to their community and heritage. But in the process, they also condemn a lot of other Jews to being outsiders, and to being treated as less than and in need of improvement. The endless rifts between progressive and Orthodox Jews, in Israel and in the United States, are painful and intransigent. We, as human beings, tend to be much better at identifying our differences than our similarities.

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“It’s true. Human’s are terrible.”

But I went to Central Avenue in Cedarhurst anyway, and I chose to walk down the street, as I am, and no one gave me the evil eye, or pulled me aside to proselytize me into orthodoxy, the way I was afraid they might. Everyone went on with their lives, and, at the very least, kept their hurtful opinions to themselves. And I got to see my good friend for a few hours, with only the effort of a drive across the Island instead of a long plane ride across the world.

That’s a pretty good place to start.

 

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

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

 

 

 

A Greek Orthodox Funeral

 

A few weeks ago, I went to a funeral at a Greek Orthodox Church. The death was expected, though still sad. I’d kept in touch with one of my clients (from my senior center internship), visiting and calling her on a regular basis for the past two years. She had been actively dying for at least fifteen years (from cancer), and inspiring everyone with her persistence and her capacity to live fully within her limitations. But for the last year, things were slowly coming to an end and we talked our way through it together; coming to peace with her death, as much as that’s possible.

The funeral was open casket. Jewish funerals are, traditionally, closed casket, so this was not something I was really prepared for. Even from my seat six rows back, I could see her head clearly (they cranked up the bottom of the casket, with an actual crank, to make her visible during the funeral, and then cranked her back down at the end so they could close the lid). I think I was the only one in the room who didn’t go up to talk to her. They had dyed her hair, and put on makeup, so she looked sort of alive, but not really like herself.

The only people I knew at the funeral were from the senior center, and a few family members; everyone else was a picture I’d seen, or a story I’d been told (she was a great story teller). She told me, often, that I should write her life story for her, and I told her, just as often, that I wanted her to write it for herself. But she never did. I know there are rules about this in the social work code of ethics (avoiding dual relationships), but also just for me, writing her stories would have felt like stealing.

I didn’t start crying until the eulogies started. The director of the senior center talked about my former client as if she was right there in the room (she was!), and I used up all of my tissues within minutes, and had to reuse them, until I was basically wiping my face with snot (don’t judge me, I was desperate).

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The saving grace was the distraction of the Greek orthodox rituals. I could focus on my curiosity and hold the grief at bay, just a little bit. The sanctuary had a domed ceiling, and gold painted apostles on the walls, and hidden doors where the gofer (I’m sure there’s a more dignified title for him, but I don’t know it) would sneak in and hand one of the clergymen something they needed. One clergyman was dressed in all black and stood in front of three microphones. The other one wore dramatic white robes, with an overlaid floor length scarf, and had a microphone attached to his head so he could walk through the room and swing incense around the coffin and down the aisle.

They both kept talking about how my former client had “gone to sleep” (at least in the English, I can’t tell you what they said in Greek or Latin). And with the raised pillows, and the hair and makeup, you could almost believe she really was just sleeping. The fact is, she would have loved to have been there, just to hear what people were saying about her, and of course, to critique all of the performances.

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As they wheeled her (now closed) coffin out of the building, the crowd followed her out through two enormous steel doors into the fresh air. Everything about the setting was so dramatic and impressive. She would have loved that.

I knew she was ready to die, and that her body had been ready for even longer than her spirit, and I was relieved for her when the end came. But she took up such a big space in my heart – as one of my first clients as a social work intern, but also as a friend. And I miss her.

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It was a hard day. I sat with my former supervisor afterwards, both of us trying to absorb the loss and put it into some kind of safe, protected place where it wouldn’t leak out into the rest of our lives. But grief doesn’t really work that way. I remember everything: the times when my client was heartbroken, and enraged, and confused, and as lost as a child. The times when I couldn’t wait to see her, and couldn’t stop laughing, and the times when she cut me so deep I could barely breathe.

The idea that social workers can have a full caseload of clients and not be impacted by them, and not care about them, or miss them, or hate them, or love them – is crazy. We’re human. Yes, we have to choose how to behave, given those feelings, and follow our codes of ethics as far as we can, to make sure we are doing no harm, but the connections are real.

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My former supervisor goes to a lot of funerals. That’s what happens when you work with seniors as your life’s work (and maybe why I’m reluctant to follow her down that path, even though I really like the population). You meet people and make connections and do as much as you can to help them, and then, often, you watch as they slip away. Seniors are just as complicated and troubled as everyone else, but maybe more so because they are usually more aware of death, and sometimes that makes them angry, or depressed, or desperate to fit as much as possible into each day, and it can be hard to live up to their needs and expectations.

The funeral did what it was supposed to do: it let me grieve, and it let me say goodbye. But I feel sad that I never wrote my client’s stories down. Even in my progress notes, I didn’t quite capture her voice, and that feels like a loss. For me, for everyone who didn’t get to meet her, and for everyone who did. But I will always remember her, and that’s a good thing.

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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?

 

Bird Blogger

 

I spend a good portion of time each week exploring blog posts on WordPress. I start by going through the sites I follow on my Reader, and then, if I have time, I check in with the posts in different categories, like dogs, birds, memoir, knitting, recipes, etc. Part of it is just simple outreach, looking for other bloggers who might be interested in what I’m writing too, but a lot of it is an endless curiosity about other people.

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“What about us?”

So when I came across a blog post that promised pictures of crafty handmade birds for the next thirty days, I decided to keep an eye on it. The blogger was sewing these elaborate stuffed birds, each with their own colorful personality, and I was charmed. After a while, out of the blue, I heard from the blogger herself, thanking me for my support and offering to make a bird just for me.

I was shocked! All I’d done was press like a few times, but her email reminded me that the small acts we do each day can have much bigger meaning in the world than we realize. I know that I have been impacted in big and small ways by the things other people have done, like smiling at me in the supermarket, or commenting on one of my blog posts, or posting a picture that breaks my heart or makes me laugh or just reminds me that I am not alone. We do these things every day, thinking we are such small actors in the world and it’s only meaningful to us, but I’m starting to realize that I can’t know what my impact on other people might be. And impacting even one person, even in a small way, feels wonderful!

My beautiful bird arrived last week and she has been acclimating to her new environment, and new housemates. Cricket and Ellie were fascinated by the look and smell (and taste) of her, so she flew back into her box for a little while until they calmed down. My bird’s creator is Susan Fae Haglund, by the way, and she’s on Instagram and WordPress and Etsy too, so please look out for her work.

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“Hello everybody!”

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Ellie is trying to say hello.

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Cricket really likes the new bird in the house.

When I first started this blog I thought it was something I was supposed to do, to build my “platform” as a writer, but it has become something I need to do for myself, to feel connected to people who matter to me. The majority of the book sales for Yeshiva Girl have come through the blog and I feel endlessly grateful for that. I want all of you to know that every blog I follow has made an impact on me, and made my world bigger and brighter than I could have hoped.

Thank you!

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The new bird is fitting in with the older guys.

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Even Lambie’s on board!

 

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?

 

 

Friendship

Friendship is still something I’m not very good at. I’m friendly, and I have some friends, people I care about who care about me, but I’ve never figured out how to be a good, day to day friend to someone. I have friends who I can reach out to when big things happen, positive or negative, and I know that they will hear me, and they know that I will hear them. But I don’t have people I call every day, or every week. I’ve tried, very hard, to do better at this. I’ve tried to put myself in positions to have friends like that, but something always stops me.

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Cricket can relate.

There’s a constant monologue in my head judging what I say to other people. Was I friendly enough? Too friendly? Do they like me or think I’m a loser? It’s as if the closer I get to other people, the more rejectable I feel, and the more damage they can do to me. It’s easier to care about people from afar, but them I’m lonely and isolated, and that’s not good either.

I was better at mimicking friendship when I was a kid, doing all of the behaviors asked of me: listening, caring, and showing attention. But I was never very good at requiring friendship in return, or believing that I deserved it. If someone got angry at me, and said that I wasn’t being a good enough friend, I believed it. If someone said I wasn’t interesting enough to be their friend, I believed them. I didn’t like it, but it seemed true to me.

I like where I live now. I like that there are people who live all around me, and even without planning to, I can run into a neighbor (and her dog!) on a random laundry trip. But it’s so much easier to befriend dogs than people. First of all, they always have their own humans, so I don’t have to take responsibility for them. With other humans, I always feel like I’m supposed to help them, take care of them, and do things for them, and I feel disappointed when they don’t fix everything for me in return. With dogs I can just share a nice moment, offer affection and curiosity, and then move on. Except, I usually feel bereft and guilty for walking away from dogs too, as if I should have done more for them, or gotten more from the exchange.

My therapist once said that she assumed I had an attachment disorder, and that’s why I didn’t have more friends. She was so relieved when I fell in love, because it proved that I wasn’t completely detached, even though it also meant my heart was broken when he said goodbye. But the thing is, I never felt detached. If anything I felt more attached than I could stand.

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“Harrumph.”

One of the benefits of becoming a therapist is that I can focus on caring about other people, without requiring them to care about me in return. My job as a therapist is to give, and not to take, and that feels so much easier to me. I like being kind to people. I like helping people, and feeling compassion and understanding for people. But I don’t like being disappointed in people when I have expectations of them, or need things from them.

Cricket is a great customer for this kind of therapy, at least with me. She’s much more of a caretaker with her grandma: guarding her, listening to her, keeping her company. With me, she accepts my support and guidance and attention, and seems to be free of any burdens of care in return.

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Cricket guarding Grandma

I miss my Butterfly, though, because however much she needed me and needed my care, she always had room in her heart for me, and licked my hand to let me know she was with me. Cricket has tried to take on that role, every once in a while, when I scratch her under her chin, but the licks last only for a moment, and then she wants me to take her outside for her walk. And that’s okay with me, because she loves her walks and her joy is contagious.

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“Hi Mommy. Do you need lickies?”

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“Let’s go! There’s so much sniffing to do!”

Bella, The flying Dog

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Cricket and Bella do the sniff

 

 

            We first met Bella when she was four months old and too small for the pink harness tightened around her chest. She looked like a sling shot, popping out of the harness, leaping from it, trying to fly.

Bella is a tan and silver Yorkshire terrier mixed with some unknown, big-headed dog. She lives down the hill from us and we see her leaning out the passenger side window of the car when her family drives up the hill. She gets great joy out of hanging her head out of the window like a daredevil.

Cricket likes Bella, up to a point. She likes that they are the same size, and both girls. She likes that Bella seems happy and friendly. It’s only when Bella starts to invade personal space that Cricket rethinks her feelings. Cricket mistakes enthusiasm for aggression and growls, and Bella mistakes the growling for an invitation to play, which gets dangerous and requires lifting Cricket up so she doesn’t attack Bella with her teeth.

One day, we came home to find Bella running loose down the hill.          It was a shock to drive around the corner and see Bella running down the hill towards us. It was raining, just a little, but enough to make the sky grey and visibility a little muffled. Bella was racing down the middle of the street towards our car and her parents were waving frantically at us.

Mom parked the car at the top of the hill, in front of our house, and was about to walk down the hill to help, when Bella’s parents called out and asked if we could bring Cricket in case Bella would run to her and then be easier to catch. They told us that Bella had slipped her collar off and gone racing around the block.

Cricket was thrilled to have her leash put on and she was very excited to see Grandma and Bella’s Mom, and she seemed to know that something important was happening. Bella ran to Cricket right away and came almost close enough for us to grab her collar, but then she sped away again.

We created a three pointed trap, with Cricket and Grandma at one corner, then me and Bella’s Mom at the others, all blocking potential escape routes until Bella had no where to go. Bella was soaking wet after running through wet grass for half an hour. And once she was caught, her mom held her, belly and legs out and dangling, ready for the towel her Dad had brought out for her.

Cricket was ready to go for a walk of her own after all of that excitement, but I was wiped out. Just walking back up the hill was more than I could handle, once the adrenaline wore out. But I also wanted something more to happen. I’ve felt that way after every dog-saving event. It’s not that I want a reward, though a little statue of me catching the dog would be nice for the top of my bookcase. Cricket and I were at loose ends for a little while, but then we were ready for our afternoon nap. We were pooped.

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The three girls, momentarily untangled

We met up with Bella the other day for the first time since Butterfly has been here. Bella was her rambunctious self and Cricket stood back a bit, but Butterfly went up close and examined her new friend. She stood there without budging, no matter how many times Bella raced from side to side and flattened into play pose.

Eventually, Bella calmed down, and Cricket inched forward, and the three of them did some mutual sniffing. Butterfly didn’t seem to mind being the peacemaker between Cricket and Bella. She accepted their different energies and knew how to manage them. She’s very Zen.

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Zen Butterfly

Cricket and Ursula

Is that Ursula?

Yep.

 

 

Ursula is the dog next door. She looks a lot like a tall Bichon Frise. Her legs are long and she doesn’t have that two-back-legs-tied-together walk I’ve seen on a lot of Bichons, but she does have the white afro. In fact, it’s hard to see her apricot markings when she’s in full fluff.

Before Ursula came home we were told about her. Our neighbors had found a stray dog on a trip to visit family in Mexico and they wanted to know if we would take her. But we had only recently adopted Cricket and she was already more than enough work for me.

Our neighbors decided to take her themselves. It took at least a month before she came home. She was skinny and fragile like a fawn. Her hair was cut down to the nubs and it was hard to tell what breed or breeds she was, but she was about Cricket’s size and very friendly. Except that her idea of friendly was to run at Cricket, bob and weave and then stand up on her back legs and box. But Cricket loved it.

Now, if Cricket sees Ursula down the block, she starts to hop like a kangaroo and pulls to get to her. And then they run to greet each other like long lost sisters and tangle their leashes in knots.

I can never manage to time Cricket’s walks to match Ursula’s, so weeks or even months can go by before they see each other again. But the other day, I saw Ursula out walking and she stopped to sniff exactly the spot where Cricket had peed a few hours earlier. She sniffed carefully, placed herself, and left a return message right next to Cricket’s spot. And I’ve seen Cricket do exactly the same. It seems that they’ve been communicating with each other whether I was able to see it or not. They are pee-mail pals and it makes me feel better to know that. I’d rather they could see each other in person more often, but it’s good to know they are keeping in touch.

I had a friend once who ran up and hugged me like Cricket and Ursula do. It was breathtaking. I never felt like I deserved that greeting but it felt good in the moment. I’m glad Cricket has that in her life.

Are they whispering to each other?

 

Time to go for a walk