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Prayer is Work

            Walking into the synagogue for the third day in a row of Rosh Hashanah services (one evening and then two mornings), I yawned and said to Mom, this prayer thing is work. I actually do work at my synagogue, as a teacher, so there’s a blurring of the lines for me between work and prayer on a regular basis. But I was specifically referring to the exhaustion of dressing up, and spending hours standing and sitting and standing, and dealing with my endless social anxiety so that there was no energy left to do much else. But when I was flipping through the prayer book later that morning (and our prayer book for the High Holidays requires a lot of flipping to get from one prayer to the next, because if we tried to say every prayer in the book we’d be there all week), I saw the word Avodah, which means both work and worship, and I had an aha moment.

“Aha!”

            In the back of my mind, I knew that the word Avodah was used to refer to the animal sacrifices in the ancient temple days, and that after the second temple was destroyed, in 70 CE, the sacrifices were replaced with prayer, and therefore the word Avodah came to refer to prayer. But more often than not, the word Avodah, in Modern Hebrew, refers to work: like a nine to five job or a chore that needs to get done. Sitting there in the sanctuary, praying that we would remain seated for a few more minutes, I wondered, were our ancestors so low on vocabulary that this one word, Avodah, had to have two meanings, or was there more poetry in the dual usage?

In our modern world we tend to think of prayer as transcendent, and spiritual, and somewhere above our regular lives, but in traditional Judaism, prayer and ritual are grounded in everyday life. You wake up and say the Shma, you go to the bathroom and say a blessing, you wash your hands and say a blessing, you pray three times a day, in community or alone, and then you continue to say blessings all day long; it’s not separate from your real life at all – it is your life.

But I’m not traditional in that way, and I tend to experience prayer as an oasis I can escape to on Friday nights, on Zoom or in the sanctuary, with my community. Except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The long standing/sitting/standing intervals and the hours and hours of prayer definitely feel like work; but, also, still, transcendent. The work of prayer isn’t, usually, physical labor, but it does require us to stretch our minds to find the wonder in our world, and to search our hearts in order to develop our relationships with God and community.

And this year’s High Holidays were, if anything, more work than usual.

Cricket was not happy.

When the world seemed to open up last spring, we had so many plans for things to “go back to normal,” including having our High Holiday services in person. We were so sure we’d be rushing back to shul that the clergy planned for two or three seatings for morning services, to accommodate all of the vaccinated congregants and still allow for social distancing. But then came Delta. We tried to ignore it at first. We had choir rehearsals week after week, gradually putting our masks back on and sitting further apart, and then our re-opening committee said that not only couldn’t the choir sing, but no one except the clergy could sing in the sanctuary, even masked and vaccinated. And then people started to call in to the synagogue to say they would be watching services online instead of coming in person, to be safe, and, ironically, we were able to plan longer services, since we’d only need one seating for each service to accommodate those still willing to come in person.

            Mom and I decided to go in person instead of watching online, partly because Mom was asked to put on a one woman show in the social hall, to share her photographs and quilting and fiber art, just in time for the High Holidays, and partly because I was going to read my pawpaw essay on the first evening of Rosh Hashanah services.

            I was, of course, anxious about how many people would show up, and how the essay would be received, and how my reading would go (would I pause in the right places? Read too fast? Mumble too much? Fumble over my words?), but most of my anxiety was about how I would look. I’ve gained weight from my attempts at Intuitive Eating, and even on my best days I feel unpresentable, so I was afraid of putting myself up on the Bima in full view.

            I know, I know. It doesn’t sound like the right mindset for such a solemn and spiritual occasion – the beginning of the new Jewish year, the time to atone and make amends and return to the true path yada yada yada – I should be wearing all white with flowers in my hair and smiling beatifically, la la la.

            I felt honored to be asked to read, truly, and hopeful that people would get to know me better from hearing my essay, but… I was afraid. I forced myself to practice my “for the most part thinking,” as in, I will do my best to read my essay with appropriate drama and clarity and humor, and try to look up once in a while, but I can’t expect to be perfect or look perfect. I will try instead to be grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts, and accept that I will be nervous and self-conscious and therefore imperfect.

            I worked on that a lot, but I wasn’t especially convinced.

Ellie wasn’t convinced either.

            I was nervous all day before my reading, preparing my all back outfit and trying not to look in a mirror. That night, I wore a mask with pictures of dogs on it (over my KN95) to help me feel like the girls were with me, even though they couldn’t be in the sanctuary itself, and I planned to envision a crowd of dogs sitting in the first few rows of the sanctuary, heads tilted with interest as I read, though probably in the mistaken hope that I might say the word “chicken.”

            I walked up to the Bima when it was time, and placed my pages on the lectern, and told the small in-person crowd about the significance of my doggy mask and my imagined crowd of doggy listeners, and they laughed. And then, it went really well. I forgot to think about how I looked, and instead read my essay as if I didn’t know the end of the story ahead of time. I even looked up every once in a while and made eye contact with people in the sanctuary. And I remembered to mention that there was a picture of the pawpaw tree in the social hall, along with the rest of Mom’s beautiful artwork (hint, hint).

Part of Mom’s exhibit – Pawpaw tree is second to last on the right.
The Magic Garden Quilt
Dahlia Art Quilt
Dandelion Thread Painting
Chestnut Leaf Sunprint, with stitching
Mom with her photos and fiber art!

            And then I walked off the Bima and tried, and failed, to put my masks back on as I returned to my seat. It took me three tries to figure out that the reason the masks kept popping off my ear was because I had them upside down, with the nose clips at my chin.

But the response was lovely: lots of warm, kind comments. And then, we went on with the holiday. There was a two and a half hour service the next morning, and Tashlich at the water in the afternoon (the one service each year when congregational dogs are invited. Cricket had a great time sniffing other dogs, while Ellie hid behind my legs), and then there was another two and a half hour service the following morning. And when I finally got home on the afternoon of day three, knowing we wouldn’t have to go back until Yom Kippur, I felt like I could sleep through that whole week and still be exhausted from all of the emotional and physical work of prayer.

Mom and the girls, exhausted.

But saying that it felt like work doesn’t mean I regret it, or wish I’d just stayed home. Instead, it means that I put a lot of effort into something that is sacred to me. I pushed myself to be present, and I built more spiritual muscles in the process.

Yom Kippur, a week later, was, as usual, even harder. The services were longer and there were more of them in a shorter period of time. I didn’t fast, but I went to all of the services and did all of the standing/sitting/standing calisthenics. I switched to sneakers, not so much to avoid leather (one of the things traditional Jews avoid for Yom Kippur) but because my feet hurt, a lot. Yom Kippur requires more standing, and more chest beating and introspection, and repentance. The music was beautiful, and mournful, though, and we were told to hum along with the Cantor as he sang in full voice, standing even longer than the rest of us.

I was asked to do a reading at the concluding service on Yom Kippur, a poem by Yehuda Amichai this time, and I did my best to read it as if the words were my own, as if it were as much a part of me as the essay I read at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, ten days earlier.

By the end of everything I felt like I’d been hit by a truck, and I still felt guilty for all of the ways I’d cut corners (not fasting, avoiding some of the more penitent prayers in favor of my own thoughts), but overall I felt like I’d done my best. I’d made the most of the opportunity to be present with my community, and within myself, and I was grateful to be finished with the work, for a while, and to be able to rest and let it all settle in.

Did I come to any exciting revelations about my health, my body, my spirituality, or my future from all of that prayer? I’m not sure yet. But I put in the work, and I took a few small steps forward; and, really, every step is worth taking, even if it’s not clear, in the moment, where it will take me.

The girls are ready for whatever comes next, as long as it’s a walk.

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.

sparrow sleeping cropped

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.

sparrow with stuffed animals

“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?

 

 

A Summer of Singing

 

At the first official choir rehearsal for the Jewish High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, starting Sunday night, September 29th), I received a loose-leaf full of music from the choir director. Most of the other choir members have been there for years (some for over thirty years), so while they mostly had to show up at rehearsals and sing, I had to take my loose-leaf home and study. Even the songs I thought I knew had to be relearned, because I was used to singing the melody with the congregation, and now I was singing the harmony with the other altos.

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“Do you really have to sing that again?”

The music kept repeating in my head all summer long. I knew my brain was doing this to be helpful, so that I could learn what I needed to learn in a hurry, but it meant that I was drowning in melancholy music for months. I couldn’t even escape it while I was sleeping.

The dogs are probably sick of hearing about repentance and atonement, but they seemed to like finally being able to participate in synagogue services, in their own way, in their own home. When the summer rehearsals started, I spent a lot of time being mute and grumpy, because I couldn’t sing along. But after months of studying I’ve learned most of the songs, and even figured out how not to be completely distracted by the other voices around me.

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Except for Cricket’s voice. That still distracts me.

Starting in September we had choir rehearsals once a week, and by then I knew most of the music, though some things were still beyond me, especially the songs where the altos just sing the oohs and ahhs in the background (it’s so hard to learn the music without words to hang the notes on!). There are a few pieces of music that still confound me, especially one that requires us to sing ten notes on one word, over and over again. I get three notes in and then shut my mouth and wait.

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“I’ll sing for you, Mommy!”

Unfortunately, no one seems to have noticed all of the progress I’ve made, even though I make a point of singing out when I know what I’m doing. Maybe they think it was as easy for me to learn all of the music, or they forgot that I’m new to the choir altogether. I was kind of hoping for some praise; you now, gold star stickers to put on my loose-leaf, something like that. Maybe someday.

One very lucky break is that our temporary conductor is one of the altos, so she has been able to help us out with finding notes and some much needed attention. She also has her own interpretive dance style of conducting that’s really easy to follow, so that even when I’m looking down at the music and can only see out of the corner of my eye, I can understand what she’s telling us.

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“I bet I could lead a choir!”

For the High Holidays, the choir will be sitting on a raised platform, in our newly redone sanctuary, and I am not looking forward to that. I’m used to being mostly invisible in the crowd at the high holidays, able to be grumpy or tired or whatever I am in relative obscurity. But this year I will be on public view, so I may have to put on a happy – or at least normal – face. This is also when I start to wish I’d lost more weight already, and bought a whole new wardrobe, and maybe had plastic surgery, because otherwise I just look like me. We don’t even get to wear robes to hide behind.

The biggest downside of being in the choir is that I can’t sit with Mom during the services. Hopefully she’ll be able to sit near the choir area, so that I can roll my eyes at her discreetly during the services. I think it might be frowned upon if I actually took out my cellphone to text my ongoing commentary during the services, but it might come to that. I mean, these are long services, and I have a lot to say!

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“Do you? We never noticed.”

I’ve made some friends among the altos, though, so I should be able to nudge someone and whisper when something especially ridiculous happens. Which, of course, it will. With a new sound system, and echoing acoustics, and everyone stuffed together in one big room trying to express all of the repentance and atonement and misplaced guilt of a whole year, laughing fits are inevitable.

I wish you all a Shana Tovah U’Metukah (a good and sweet new year) with as much laughter as possible!

Happy New Year!

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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?

 

 

A Cardinal’s Song

We have a lot of birds in our backyard. There are the Baltimore Orioles and the Blue Jays and the Cowbirds and the Phoebes and the Starlings and these tiny little birds that seem like extra-large flies that crowd together in groups, and the Robins, and the Cardinals.

There was a Cardinal, back in the spring, whose song was like a Rosh Hashanah shofar blast – three long notes and nine short blasts, shvarim truah.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

This is someone else's picture of a shofar.

This is someone else’s picture of a shofar.

This is someone's picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

This is someone’s picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

The cardinal came before the heat and humidity, when I didn’t mind spending extra time outdoors, just to catch the end of a song or hear it repeated. We might as well call the backyard of the co-op a wild life preserve, given the feral cats, birds, raccoons, squirrels, and random humans who hang out back there. The retaining wall is a massive overgrown hill, full of various plantings and weeds and trees and flowers, and the birds have found plenty of places to live in there. Mom tossed out some quilting scraps to help them build their nests, and the fabric disappeared, so someone made use of it. It’s possible that the squirrels are fantastically well dressed this summer.

A local squirrel.

A local squirrel, not noticing me, yet.

Feral cat.

Feral cat, yawning.

When I went inside and reenacted a whistled version, Butterfly went nuts barking in response. It’s possible she was objecting to my rusty whistling technique, but maybe she understands bird, and I was singing a very offensive song.

Butterfly, offended.

Butterfly, offended.

My mom can pick out a few birds accurately by their songs, and what she’s not sure of, she can check with Google. (Google sounds like something a bird might say, after all, or it’s what Cricket says when she sees a bird and tries to run after it and her leash stops her.) But Mom had never heard a bird sound like a shofar before, and neither had Google.

Cricket, mid-google.

Cricket, mid-google.

The shofar blowing is supposed to be a wakeup call, or a call to arms, but at our synagogue it ends up being a competition between the shofar blowing guys for who can hold the long note (the tekiyah gedolah) the longest. By that point in the service, I’m starving and feeling faint and I wish they had just a bit less lung capacity so I could go home and go to sleep.

I’m not a fan of the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), which start the Jewish calendar each year with a heavy dose of guilt and atonement. They probably throw in the apples and honey because otherwise we’d all shoot ourselves halfway through. The services are longer than usual, the clothes are more formal, the rabbis actually give speeches, and the synagogue is full to bursting with people I’ve never seen before.

When I was a kid I resented that we couldn’t sit in our regular seats for the high holidays, because someone else was already there, someone I’d never seen before who should really not be allowed to sit in my seat. Instead, I ended up in the folding chairs in the way back, because we were always late.

I would much rather have a bird service and sit outside on the lawn, and listen to the birds talking to each other. I wouldn’t have to dress up for that, or even comb my hair, if I didn’t want to. I wonder what the bird calls would wake me up to, the way the shofar wakes us up to do penance or atone or forgive or ask for forgiveness. Maybe the bird calls would simply be there to remind me to sing to someone, or to speak my piece to someone who will listen? Wouldn’t that be a great idea for a holiday? Cricket would love that! But she would probably spend all day singing and forget to listen to anyone else.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Lately we’ve had the cricket and katydid chorus blasting at us each night in the backyard when we take the girls out for their final pee, and Cricket thinks that’s as it should be.