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An Israeli Reality Show

            I’m not a huge fan of reality shows. I do watch things like Project Runway and Top Chef, because I like watching what the contestants can create and how they are able to create it, but even the commercials for any of the Real Housewives of Wherever shows or The Bachelor and The Bachelorette make me nauseous. So I wasn’t thrilled when my current Hebrew teacher (in my online language classes from Tel Aviv) said that the Israeli show we’d be watching as a class this semester, to practice our Hebrew listening skills, would be a reality show called Married at First Sight (Chatunah MiMabat Rishon, in Hebrew).

            Oy, God help me.

            The logic behind her choice was that she wanted us to practice listening to how people really speak Hebrew in daily life, with all of the repetitions and slang and run on sentences, as opposed to the scripted Hebrew of the comedy and drama shows I watched (and loved) in previous classes. And I can see her point. But…

            The gimmick of this particular show is that the couples don’t meet until they are under the Chupah (the wedding canopy). There’s a three member team of psychologists who interview the candidates and choose the pairings based on their deep knowledge of humanity, I guess, though they are limited in their choices by who is willing to be on a reality show like this in the first place.

“Are we on a reality show?”

            And then we, as an audience, get to know the future bride and groom and where they work and who their friends and families are, and we watch them trying on wedding dresses and suits and talking to the psychologists, and then the families and friends meet at the wedding venue, and then the bride and groom come out and finally meet each other for the first time under the Chupah.

The wedding ceremony itself is sort of Jewish-wedding-lite, except, they still have the “groom” stomp on a glass (an important symbol meant to remind us of the loss of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, so that even on our happiest days we still remember our saddest days), and even that much feels icky.

            We’re watching the fourth season in class, which means that this show has lasted quite a while, and a lot of people seem to enjoy it. This season was filmed during Covid, so there are face masks here and there, and they probably did a lot of Covid testing behind the scenes, and the only place the couples could go on their honeymoons, outside of Israel, was the Seychelles, for some reason.

“Can we go to the Seychelles? Do they have chicken there?”

            So far, every time one of the brides has been introduced at the wedding, her soon to be groom has been blown away by how beautiful she is, which gets under my skin. The women that are chosen are all thin, of course, and the makeup and hair people are excellent, and the dresses are beautiful too. The guys look a bit more average, though none of them has a beer gut. For me, all of this adds to the ugh-factor, because I am not skinny or perfect, and I don’t have a team of makeup and hair people on call, and I’d still like to believe that someone could fall in love with me, but shows like this keep telling me it’s not possible.

            Following along with the almost-like-a-Jewish-wedding concept, the couple first gets to spend some time “alone” together, with a cameraman, when they go to the Yichud room (the togetherness room) after the ceremony. This is a custom in orthodox, or strictly orthodox, weddings, where the Yichud room is the first time the bride and groom are allowed to be alone together without a chaperone, and therefore finally get a chance to hold hands, or even kiss (there isn’t much time for anything else, but now that they’re married they can do whatever they want). On the show, this really is just a time for the new couple to talk to each other for the first time and exchange small bits of information, like, I have a dog, I have ten tattoos, or I smoke (which, I guess, is still a thing in Israel).

            Then there’s the party, with all of the music and dancing and friends and such, and everyone comments on how wonderful the match is, just to reassure themselves that this whole thing isn’t crazy.

            Then the couple goes to an apartment for the night, to talk and eat and put on their wedding rings and find out where they’re going for their honeymoon (The Seychelles? Oh my God! Who knew!), all filmed by a camera person, or camera people. And then, at some point, the camera people leave and the door is closed for the night. Thankfully.

            So, each week in class, after we’ve watched the week’s episode on our own, we discuss what we liked, didn’t like, didn’t believe, laughed out loud at, wanted to scream about, etc. It’s such a silly show that our conversations about it end up being mostly fun and silly too, though there is quite a lot of backseat diagnosing (because some of the brides and grooms are crazy), and there are always a lot of questions about what the team of psychologists could have been thinking by putting these two people together. Oh, and all of this discussing has to be done in Hebrew.

            Not surprisingly, I can’t relate to most of the people on the show. They are presented to us as the most charming, gorgeous, successful and ambitious people, almost as if they are all the same person, though, clearly, they aren’t. The one thing they do have in common, though, is a willingness to have their intimate relationships recorded and aired in public, which I don’t understand.

I remember how awful it felt when I had to do a sleep study at home, and along with wearing all kinds of monitors I had to keep a video camera aimed at me twenty-four/seven, in case I had some kind of cardiac or neurological event and they needed to see what I was doing when my numbers went wonky. I hated knowing that some stranger might eventually be watching me sleep, eat, or watch TV, though the likelihood that even one person would ever watch a small part of the tape was really low.

“That was a really boring movie.”

            And even if I could tolerate being watched all day and night, I would be deeply suspicious that my “groom” would just be saying that nice/patient/compassionate thing because the cameras were on him and he wanted to look good on TV, and once the cameras stopped the real person would be an asshole and I’d feel like a fool.

            My teacher this semester is a beautiful, young, charming, funny actress/student from just outside of Tel Aviv, so in a way this show fits the energy of the semester overall: lots of silliness and fun, and nothing too deep or serious. She herself, she says, has not been tempted to try out for the show, and prefers making fun of the people who do, which makes her more relatable. She’s always friendly and full of praise for our attempts to speak Hebrew, and never negative or hurtful, but still, part of me worries that this reality show is telling me what real Telavivians are like, and if I go there, which I really want to do, they will rip me apart. Though that could be my old stuff playing up again, from back in elementary school when the beautiful, competitive, well-dressed girls in my class hated my guts.

There’s also the disorienting fact that while this is a reality show taking place in Israel, there is no sense of the politics, or violence, or the social divides between Jews and Arabs and between secular and religious Jews. Even in my lovely, fun, cheery Hebrew class this semester, we still had to talk about the terrorist attack that happened in Tel Aviv recently, where sirens and ambulances and death took over the city for a while. But those things don’t come up on the show, or at least, they haven’t so far.

Hopefully, as the season goes on, there will be a little bit more reality in this reality show, and maybe one or two people I wouldn’t mind meeting in real life. But even if nothing improves on the show, I’m definitely improving my Hebrew listening skills, and learning more about how real Israelis talk when they don’t have a script; which has been reassuring, actually. Clearly I’m not the only one who struggles to find the right words.

“Don’t worry, Mommy. I have trouble with words too.”

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?

Disappointment

            I applied for a fellowship related to my teaching gig at the synagogue, which would have included a free trip to Israel this summer, but I didn’t get it. It was a long shot, because I didn’t have all of the prerequisites, but I applied anyway, because my boss recommended me for it, and because I wanted to go to Israel. It was a big reach, though, and I pushed myself to fight for it, and pushed myself to imagine that I could handle the trip to Israel in the heat of the summer, and I got as far as being wait-listed, which isn’t bad. I know I can apply again next year, and, really, three weeks in the heat of the summer in Jerusalem was probably more than my body could have handled, but…rejection is rejection.

“You were going to go to Israel without us?!”

            It was painful to feel all of that wanting again, too. I’ve almost gotten numbed to all of the hope and rejection around my writing, but this was a new kind of thing and the anxiety and pressure and hope of it didn’t sit well in my particular nervous system. It’s easier just to not think anything big or new is possible, because then I can go along day by day, living in the present, and managing my small amounts of energy while working on long term goals one step at a time. But hope and excitement and possibility revved me up again, and got me thinking about the future, and all of the things I want (and don’t have yet), and all of the things I can’t have and can’t do.

            It’s as if there’s a certain amount of hope my body can tolerate and anything bigger than that is overwhelming and sets up a roller-coaster ride I don’t want to be on. And I’m realizing that I’ve been actively stopping myself from trying a lot of different things, for fear of getting on the hope-and-rejection-rollercoaster. And that’s not good.

“Would I like rollercoasters?”

            I envy people who can tolerate more anxiety than I can, because they can take more risks in life without worrying as much about the mental health consequences if they fail. I want to become one of those people.

            The sadness I’m feeling now, for the most part, is that I don’t have a plan for how to get to Israel yet, and I really want to go. But this opportunity came up out of nowhere, so maybe others will too. And in the meantime I can continue working on my Hebrew, and saving money to pay for the eventual trip, and most of all working hard to build up my tolerance for the hope-and-rejection-rollercoaster, so I’ll be ready to take the risk when the next opportunity arrives.

“I’ll just rest here while we wait.”

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?

Speaking Hebrew

            I’m in my third semester of Hebrew classes with the school in Tel Aviv (online), and I’m still loving it. Each semester is ten weeks long, with about a month off in between, and it’s work, but their method lowers the stress level from where it would be in a regular academic class (no tests, short lessons, lots of repetition and variety). And I love that I’m meeting so many different people: from Italy, and Germany, and South Africa, and France, and India, and Australia, and, of course, the United States and Canada. It surprised me, at first, that aside from the fact that we’re speaking Hebrew, and we don’t have class on the Jewish holidays, there’s almost no Jewish content to the class. I don’t even know if all of my classmates are Jewish, because it never comes up. Sometimes I miss the Jewishness I was expecting, but this way I’m getting a real sense of what it must be like to be in a country where Jewishness is so much in the background, and so taken for granted, that it doesn’t need to be discussed.

            My original goal in taking these classes was to overcome my fear of speaking Hebrew, and especially of making mistakes, and I still feel a pinch when I get something wrong in class, or forget something I should have remembered, or lose focus for a second and have to ask for instructions again – but the pinch is so much smaller than it used to be. The accepting, non-judgmental style of the classes seems to be helping to change the wiring in my brain in a way that will, hopefully, translate into the rest of my life as well.

            I keep trying to figure out why I like these classes so much, despite the amount of time and money I’m spending on it that I should be spending on more practical things. I think part of it is that I like getting a chance to meet new people in a controlled environment, where I know what’s expected of me and where the boundaries are. But I’m not sure that that would be enough to push me to take a French or Spanish class, even in the exact same format. There’s a little girl inside of me who fell in love with Hebrew early in life, and she’s reveling in this chance to speak her language.

“Shalom!”

            But maybe my favorite thing about these zoom classes, especially since in-person gatherings have required face masks for so long now, is that my facial expressions are visible. There’s so much of who I am that comes through on my face and it’s been such a relief to be  seen again and to have people say – oh, Rachel doesn’t like that – without my having to say a word!

“Hmm.”

            I’m still – three semesters later – finding stores of vocabulary and grammar that I haven’t accessed in decades. The more I practice, the less time I have to spend rifling through the dusty attic of my brain, with its sticky closets and creaky drawers, for each word I want to say. But I still get anxious when I first log onto the zoom class and the teacher asks each of us how we’re doing and I have to think of a simple, polite answer to the question, in Hebrew. Even in English I would struggle to eke out an everything’s fine, but in Hebrew I feel even more tongue tied.

And yet, given how awkward these opening conversations are for me, it’s ironic, or perfectly reasonable, that I decided to teach my synagogue school students how to have a simple opening conversation in Hebrew. Person one: Hi, how are you. Person two: choose from everything’s fine, very good, and terrible. The kids love saying Al HaPanim (I feel terrible) so that’s been a hit. I love that the kids giggle and smirk when they say it, because that means it will stick with them. And I know from my own experience that there’s such relief in being allowed to say, “I feel terrible,” if only because we are usually expected to say we’re fine when someone asks. And when I explained to them that the literal translation of Al HaPanim is “on the face,” as in “I’m falling on my face,” or “I’m covering my face with my hands because it’s so bad,” they loved it even more. For me, just saying, “it’s on my face,” when my emotions often are right on my face, resonates.

            We’ve also started watching Israeli TV shows for homework between Zoom classes, and it’s exciting to see how much I’ve been able to understand (because even the subtitles are in Hebrew!). The first show we watched was a romantic comedy about the fashion business, and now we’re watching a drama about a group of army buddies with PTSD getting back together to solve a mystery. The TV shows are much more my speed than a lot of the Israeli movies I’ve been able to find, and it’s giving me a better sense of what Israelis themselves might choose to watch.

She has it/The Stylist
When Heroes Fly

            And, as a result, it’s getting more real to me that I may, eventually, be able to visit Israel. Even a few years ago it felt like a dream, or something for my bucket list, but now it feels inevitable. I feel like these classes are giving me the solid ground under my feet that I will need on the trip, in order to really appreciate the experience and not feel unmoored and overwhelmed. I still worry that Israelis won’t like me, because I am too soft, too American, but I’m learning more and more with each class about how Israelis, at least in Tel Aviv, think and speak in real life, and I’m finding that, just like Americans, they are all different, almost like real people.

            In the meantime, I keep practicing my Hebrew, reading slowly through My Hebrew copy of Harry Potter, watching Israeli TV shows and movies, and speaking Hebrew at home, at least with the dogs. They really seem to understand what I’m saying, though they might just be humoring me. It’s hard to tell. They can be especially inscrutable when they’re overdue for a visit to the groomer.

“We don’t need haircuts, and we understand every word you say.

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?

Israeli Music

(Note: I was originally planning to post this essay back in the spring but decided to pull it when the violence broke out in Gaza and Israel, because it felt like the wrong time to share my lighthearted adventures in Israeli music. Since then I have had a lot of time to think about my silence, and the value of silence and expression at different times. I still don’t have a clear mathematical equation to tell me what to say when, so I have to trust that my readers will take this essay for the love letter it was meant to be, with the understanding that love doesn’t mean perfect acceptance of the loved one’s behavior.

Israel is imperfect and Israeli governments have made problematic decisions that are at odds with world opinion. Israel is also the ancient homeland of my people and the modern miracle that gave many Jews a place to thrive after the Holocaust. Should that miracle have come at the cost of Palestinian peoplehood? No. Were there ways to allow for both peoples to live peacefully in their homelands? Possibly, possibly not. Can things change going forward? I hope so.

Israel is a complicated place, with conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Jews of Ashkenazi and Mizrachi or Sephardi descent, and between secular and religious Jews. It’s a place where emotions run high and violence and spirituality and hope are all deeply ingrained. Sometimes the only thing that can make it all bearable, for me, is to listen to the music and sing along – expressing all of the hope and bitterness and love and anger at full voice.)

My Israeli Music Mixtape

            My best friend in Seventh Grade was Israeli. She had come to the States with her family a year or so earlier, and we became friends because I was new to our orthodox Jewish school and willing to help her with her English homework. I also understood more Hebrew than most of my classmates, and we shared a love of music. She made me a mix tape of the Israeli songs she thought I should know, to fill out the list of Israeli songs I’d learned in school and camp (she was also a big Billy Joel fan, so I learned his songs too). Eventually she switched to public school and we drifted apart, but I heard years later that she’d become a DJ in Israel, which seemed appropriate.

            Last summer, the Cantor at my synagogue did a Zoom session on Jewish music (of the Non-liturgical kind), and one of the songs he played was an Israeli song, and it was like a time capsule, sending me back to junior high and afternoons singing along with my mix tape. As soon as the Zoom was over I went searching for that old mix tape, and found it. When I tried to play it in my old tape deck from college, though, the tape crumbled in the machine. Not to be deterred, I went to YouTube to re-find some of those songs, and found a bunch of other familiar Israeli songs as well. I made a short playlist, and searched out the lyrics, in Hebrew and English, thinking I could use them in synagogue school in some way, and then filed them away.

            Then, a few months later, I came across an American podcast called Israel Hour Radio: one hour a week filled with Israeli music, both the classics and the modern stuff. I started listening to the archives, with theme episodes on classic songs of the seventies and eighties, and Eurovision hits, and countdowns of the best songs of each year.

On Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day) this past year, I played some of the Israeli music videos for my synagogue school students. Unfortunately, the sound from my computer diffused quickly in the cavernous social hall that we’d been using as a classroom during Covid, and, more importantly, most of the songs were in Hebrew, which turned out to be the real deal breaker.

            But I’d had such high hopes! I wanted the kids to love the music as much as I did at their age! I wanted them to hear Ofra Haza singing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and be knocked out by the clarity of her voice and the way it soared and how her technique seemed so transparent that you could hear her soul right through it.

Ofra Haza

And I wanted them to know that Israel has won the Eurovision song contest a bunch of times, with Hebrew songs, on a world stage! Most of all, I wanted them to know that Hebrew is more than just a language to pray in; that you can even dance to it!

“I can dance!”

            Growing up, so much of my education about Israel was focused on politics and religion, and not on the daily lives of the people who live there. It didn’t even occur to me that they had their own radio stations, let alone that they’d gone way beyond folk music and Israeli dancing into Rap and Hip Hop and Rock and Techno and Pop and Reggae. There’s also a deep strain of humor, silliness, and protest music, as well as a lot of love songs.

            My favorites are still mostly in the category of Shirei Eretz Yisrael (Songs of the Land of Israel), because they are like love songs, filled with longing for a better world, acknowledgement of the bitter and the sweet, and hope for the future. My dream is that, with time, my synagogue school students will like these songs as much as they like Netta (the Israeli Eurovision winner from 2018 who became famous singing a song in English, with lots of clucking noises and chicken-like dance moves – no, really).

Netta

            There was always a strong tradition of public singalongs in pre-State and Modern Israel, as a way to build a national identity from the patchwork of Jews from Eastern Europe and America and Asia and the Middle East. That tradition landed in my American life, in summer camp and synagogue and school, so that I could sing more in Hebrew than I could speak. In my endless YouTube searches this past year, I discovered a relatively recent phenomenon called Koolulam, an Israeli group that creates public sing along videos. They choose a song and prepare the lyrics in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and then they bring together people from all across the country – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, single and with families, young and old – and they teach them the song and make a video of the final version. They call themselves a “social musical initiative” dedicated to bringing disparate groups together. In a way, Koolulam is an extension of the original Israeli imperative of nation building through singalongs – but now the goal is to bring everyone in the country together, not just the Jews. And the resulting videos really are inspiring.

            So, maybe next year, when we can sing together again, I’ll be able to teach my students some of my favorite Israeli songs, even if they are in Hebrew, and no one is clucking. Though I’m sure we could find an excuse to add in the clucking.

“Really?”

            In case you’re interested, I’m adding links to a few of the songs on my Israeli music playlist, but for a deeper education I recommend listening to back episodes of podcast.

NettaToy (the chicken song) - https://youtu.be/CziHrYYSyPc

Ofra HazaYerushalayim shel zahavwith English subtitles https://youtu.be/72QC8EGnxTw

David Broza Yihieh Tov with English subtitles https://youtu.be/qtI7h5A9eEQ

Nina Simone - Eretz Zavat Chalav (A land flowing with milk and honey) - https://youtu.be/YBAAkJyEhlA

Koolulam – Al Kol Eleh for Israel Independence Day https://youtu.be/oxzR9Z-kG6Q

Koolulam One Day (3000 people Muslim, Christian, Jewish) https://youtu.be/RjPpMXMjIj0

Ishay Ribo and Nathan Goshen - Nechakeh Lecha https://youtu.be/ryTO71_eMO4

English translation for Nechakeh Lecha https://lyricstranslate.com/en/%D7%A0%D7%97%D7%9B%D7%94-%D7%9C%D7%9A-nechake-lecha-we-shall-await-thee.html

Amir Dadon and Shuli Rand – Bein Kodesh lechol https://youtu.be/sCJh9YcrL3k

English translation for Bein Kodesh lechol https://lyricstranslate.com/en/%D7%91%D7%99%D7%9F-%D7%A7%D7%95%D7%93%D7%A9-%D7%9C%D7%97%D7%95%D7%9C-bein-kodesh-lechol-between-sacred-and-profane.html)

“We need more music, Mommy.”

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

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

The Hebrew Class

            My first fear about taking an online Hebrew conversation class this summer was the half hour Zoom interview and assessment I’d have to get through first. I was afraid I’d be convinced to spend more money than I wanted to spend, because my social anxiety would kick in and get me to agree to terms I wasn’t okay with, just to please the interviewer. But as one of my readers recently pointed out, Duolingo can only take you so far, and I really wanted to overcome my fear of speaking Hebrew (or any of my other foreign languages) out loud. My hope was that pushing my boundaries in this way would help me make progress in my life overall, but I also just wanted to become more fluent in Hebrew; it’s been a life-long dream.

         “I dream of chicken.”

   I was nervous about the interview for days ahead of time, and tried to think of every excuse to skip it, but in the end I forced myself to sit in front of my computer and click the Zoom link.

            First there was an initial greeter, a young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked about my background in Hebrew and where I lived and if it was anywhere near the Five Towns (it depends on what you mean by “near.”) And then he sent me off to a breakout room to meet with a teacher for an assessment. The teacher was another young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked me about my background in Hebrew. I thought I was supposed to answer him in Hebrew, since he was assessing me, but it was a struggle to find the words and he said I could use English to start with. Eventually, though, he started asking me to translate things, and answer questions in Hebrew, and then he had me repeating phrases in rapid fire scripted conversations. When I had trouble hearing him a few times early on we both assumed that the problem was coming from his computer, and he was apologetic and tried everything he could think of to fix the problem. Some things seemed to help for a short period of time, but then the problem would come back, and go away, and come back. We doggedly made it through the whole interview, though, and he told me that I’d be at the third level, out of eight. He told me that I’d be a little advanced at the beginning of the class, but it would be good for me to get a chance to build my confidence, rather than feeling too challenged right away.

I had to remind myself that the levels he was talking about were Israeli levels; being a good Hebrew student in America is not the same as being an Israeli native speaker. But it still hurt my pride.

“Harrumph.”          

  Anyway, then I was sent to the third young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked about my background in Hebrew and then gave me an overview of the program, including the costs and class schedules. When I had trouble hearing him he said that the problem was coming from my side, and it turned out that he was right. I pressed every button I could think of and then unplugged my headphones, just to see if that would change anything, and the problem went away. I’d never had problems with those headphones before, so I hadn’t even thought of them when I was having my assessment with the teacher, but discovering that the problem had been coming from me all along sent me into a shame spiral. That poor guy had worked so hard to fix a problem he had no control over, and it was my fault. I get into shame spirals very easily, and I was already feeling guilty about not being more advanced in Hebrew, and for being uneasy with all of the young male energy, and for just being so uncool. But I was able to keep my head up and when the third young Israeli guy tried to convince me to sign up for a year of classes at a time, saying there would be discounts for each added semester, I was able to politely and firmly say No, I only want to sign up for one class right now. Even so, the cost of the class was more than I’d expected, and I felt guilty for spending so much of my salary from synagogue school learning advanced Hebrew that I wouldn’t really need in order to teach my beginner classes.

And yet, I decided to take the class anyway, because I really really wanted to. There would be two one-and-a-half hour sessions per week, for ten weeks, plus up to four hours a week of more casual conversational zooms for practice. There was also something about What’s App and Facebook, but at a certain point I wasn’t able to take in any more information. It was a relief when the Zoom was over and I could shut off my computer and take a breath, but almost immediately the shame spiral sped up and I went over and over my internal transcript of the conversations and worried that I’d said and done a million things wrong, especially signing up for the class at all.

  “You could have bought more chicken treats, Mommy.”       

   When I got the follow up emails, reiterating all of the information, there was also a video explaining how they used What’s App in their program (which was helpful because I’ve never used What’s App in my life), and even better, the teacher in the video was female. The tidal wave of young male energy on the Zoom had clearly been more overwhelming than I’d realized, because seeing a relatable woman, not my age but not twenty-two either, was an incredible relief.

            Why do I want to do this now? Because teaching synagogue school has been reminding me of how much I loved learning Hebrew growing up, and how much more I want to learn; and because I want to push myself to build my social skills, and my tolerance for being uncomfortable. But there’s also the extra push of the recent situation between Israel and Hamas, and even more so the media and social media reactions to it.

            I’m not an Israeli, and I have no plans to move to Israel, but the existence of a Jewish state has always been important to me. Israel is the only place in the world with a Jewish majority population and where Jewish holidays are celebrated as state holidays. In the United States, Christian holidays are the default holidays for school vacations and days off from work and national celebrations, etc., but in Israel, being Jewish is the default. It’s kind of like being a Trekky and going to a Star Trek convention, and suddenly you’re not a weirdo anymore. Or at least not the only one. Just knowing that a place like Israel exists makes me feel more acceptable for who I am.

            But a lot of the barbs thrown on social media recently have been questioning Israel’s right to exist at all, and have used many old anti-Semitic tropes and even outright support of the Holocaust in their arguments for why the country should be wiped off the map. As a result, anti-Semitic attacks in real life, in America and Europe, have increased, on top of the four years of rising anti-Semitic incidents during the Trump era.

            I can’t fix anti-Semitism. And I can’t fix the problems in Gaza and Israel and the West Bank. But I have had a lot of feelings about all of it, and the answer for me has been to deepen my understanding of Israel and the people who live there. There has been solace in spending time in Jewish spaces and reading articles from many different perspectives, and listening to Israeli music, and remembering my childhood joy when I first learned about the State of Israel.

            So, I’m going to take this very scary online Hebrew conversation class, and try to build my tolerance for things that are uncomfortable: like grammar, and making mistakes in public, and talking to people I disagree with. Because all of my reading and listening and thinking and remembering has left me believing that Israel is strong enough to withstand the criticism, and to correct her mistakes and accept multiple viewpoints in order to find a new way forward. Just like me.

“That sounds exhausting. We’ll just wait here.”

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

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

The New Year of the Trees

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

“We’re Jewish children too!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

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

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

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

One of Mom’s indoor seedlings

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

“I’m ready to help. Again.”

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

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

Antisemitism

            I don’t want to write about antisemitism. I don’t even want to think about it. I have been lucky to live in the United States, and in New York, and especially on Long Island, because for most of my life anti-Semitism was a vague noise in the background, or a lesson from history, instead of an everyday reality for me. Even in High School, when I knew that my Jewish school was receiving bomb threats, I still didn’t take it in as a real danger. I was comfortable being an American Jew. It seemed normal, just like being a Catholic or a Methodist, or nothing. If anything, I experienced more conflicts within the Jewish community, especially between liberal and Orthodox Jews, than without. I knew I was part of a religious minority, but it didn’t seem to matter. Yet.

“Uh oh. That sounds like foreshadowing.”

            I’d heard about the blood libels in previous centuries, when Jewish people were accused of killing Christian babies in order to use their blood to make matzah. Setting aside the obviously unbelievable claim that Jews were killing babies for ANY reason, it’s important to know why this accusation would actually make religious Jews laugh. Jews who keep kosher salt their meat (this is where the name Kosher Salt comes from) in order to remove as much blood as possible before cooking, because blood isn’t kosher. And matzah, which is eaten at Passover, is made under very strict conditions, using only flour and water, under rigid time limits, so that the idea that anyone would add anything to the matzah, let alone human blood, is unthinkable.

“Matzah is boring.”

            But I remember, after 9/11, when an outspoken minority of people blamed Israel for the attacks on the World Trade Center, either with wild conspiracy theories about Mossad agents disguising themselves as Muslim Terrorists, or arguments saying that if Israel had never existed then terrorists would never have targeted the United States. The rhetoric made me anxious, but I didn’t see many people taking them seriously. And the extreme backlash against anyone who looked like they could be from the Middle East, or who seemed to be practicing Islam, was much more of an issue. It seemed wrong to focus on some anti-Semitic theories, when there was anti-Muslim violence going on all around me.

            Maybe things started to change with the onset of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, an umbrella movement that included groups that were specifically protesting the presence of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, and groups that believed Israel had no right to exist, the Holocaust never happened, and Jews should be pushed into the sea. As the BDS movement became more popular on college campuses, I heard more stories about Jewish college kids facing demonstrations against Israel on campus that supposedly focused on anti-Zionism as separate from anti-Semitism. The problem with that argument is that Zionism started as a movement to save Jews from life threatening situations in Europe, especially in Russia, in the 19th century, and grew in intensity after six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, just for being Jews. If the criticism had focused on the policies of the current government of Israel, without bleeding into a criticism of the existence of Israel, I could understand; just like you can be a patriotic American, or a friend of the United States, and disagree with the policies of the Trump administration. But anti-Zionism, if it means antagonism to the existence of the state of Israel, and unwillingness to recognize what led to the creation of the state by the United Nations, IS anti-Semitism.

None of this is to say that the Palestinians have been treated well, by the British, or the Jordanians, or the Egyptians, or the Israeli government; damage has been done and continues to be done. But if activists refuse to look at the causes of the complicated and painful current reality in the Middle East, and instead decide that everything is the fault of the Jews, for being there in the first place, then they are falling into old tropes that lead us all back into the darkness. When voices at the edges started to say, out of anger or ignorance, that the word Zionist was comparable to the word Nazi, they crossed a line that is hard to ignore, or forgive.

“Grr.”

But, even with all of that rhetoric, I still felt safe at home, in America. And then, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups grew in strength, and terrorist attacks took place in Europe, and then white supremacists carried their tiki torches in Charlottesville, to protest the removal of confederate statues (that shouldn’t have even been there in the first place), and they yelled, “Jews will not replace us.” Wait, what? What do Jews have to do with this?

            And then I started to hear about swastikas on bathroom walls, in Long Island schools, and then synagogues in the United States were attacked. But… so were mosques and churches and schools and movie theaters, and the news people said that it was terrorism in general, not anti-Semitism in particular, no matter what the shooters, or the internet trolls, were saying. I wasn’t sure what to think, or how to feel. I had never directly experienced antisemitism. Microaggressions, sure. Lack of knowledge, or insensitivity about Jewish issues, or lack of historical memory, sure, but nothing like what I’d heard from older Jews, about how it used to be, even in America, when Jews were excluded from professions and schools and towns and clubs just for being Jewish, before and after the Holocaust took six million Jewish lives.

But still, I thought, I’m an American. Three out of four of my grandparents were born in the United States. That should make me safe.

“Safe, American Cricket.”

And then, a few weeks ago, for the first time, someone left anti-Semitic comments on my blog. I couldn’t read those comments from a distance, as if it were news that had nothing to do with me, because it was on MY blog, and it was directed at me. Reading those comments, three by the same author, highlighted for me the fact that I had never been targeted like that before, not on my blog, and not in person, ever. I was always more worried that I would alienate readers by writing about Jewish stuff on my blog because it would be too niche, or boring, than I was worried about facing antisemitism. I was able to remove the comments from my blog easily, and there has been no recurrence, but, I couldn’t forget about them.

            I still feel safe, or as safe as I am capable of feeling. But, anti-Semitism is real to me now in a way it wasn’t before. And the lessons of the Holocaust (be wary of hatred and targeting of people because of their race, religion, sexuality, gender, disabilities, or ethnic group) are more prominent again, for everyone.

It is so easy to blame someone, some group, some minority that you don’t identify with, when things start to fall apart. It’s so easy to project your own self-loathing and guilt and fears onto someone else who is not you, when you feel overwhelmed and hopeless. And it is shockingly easy for a leader in trouble, or seeking more power, to target vulnerable groups and aim societal anger and fear like a firehose in order to gain even more power.

I didn’t realize how easy it was to create baseless hatred, honestly. But now I do. And that really does scare the crap out of me. Because it could all happen again.

“Uh oh.”
“Don’t worry, Mommy. I only hate people who deserve it.”

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

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

Israel Story

            As part of my search for alternative sources of entertainment this summer, I went looking for more podcasts. I loved the Duolingo French and Spanish podcasts so much that I ran through them too quickly, and I was hoping to find something like them, both educational and fun to listen to at the same time. I started by searching for more French and Spanish language learning podcasts, but while most of them offered plenty of opportunities for learning, they weren’t quite as entertaining as the Duolingo stories. I also tried a series of podcasts recommended for people who liked the ones I already listened to, without much success, and then I put in every other search term I could think of that might spark my interest. In among the avalanche of new podcasts to try, I found one in Hebrew called Israel Story but I quickly found myself out of my depth. My Hebrew is improving, but it’s not Israeli level yet. It took only a few seconds of squinting to realize that there was an English version of the podcast, with just enough Hebrew in it to make me feel like I was challenging myself, but not so much that my brain would explode. I found that I could listen in on conversations in Hebrew, while focusing on the almost simultaneous English translations, and meet all kinds of people I would never hear about on the news.

“Any dog stories?”

            I started by listening to the present day episodes, set during the early weeks of the Covid shutdown in Israel. The podcast made a point of interviewing members of the Ultra-orthodox community to try to understand why they didn’t seem to take Covid seriously at first, and to hear about how they had been struggling since then, both from backlash and because they often live in very crowded, multigenerational apartments, without the ability to use Zoom on the Sabbath to join communal prayer services. I found their stories compelling, and irritating, and complicated, and heart breaking. And I was hooked. So I went back to the beginning of the show, four or five seasons earlier, and I’ve been binging ever since. I didn’t know how much I’d been missing that ground level point of view until I started hearing stories that could fill in the empty spaces.

            The original model for Israel Story, unabashedly, was Ira Glass’s This American Life on NPR, and the host of Israel Story, Mishy Harmon, even had a clip of Ira Glass on the first English episode of the show, giving his, sort of, blessing. The Point of view of the podcast is liberal, both religiously and politically, but it has respect for people across the spectrum. They didn’t shy away from telling the story of an Israeli Jew, originally from the Ukraine, in love with a Palestinian from the territories, even following the couple to a tent in the desert, because there was nowhere else where they could live safely together. But the show also takes the time to meet Orthodox and Ultra-orthodox Jews and explore their lives in a way that respects their beliefs and their individual lives. And there’s no attempt to offer answers, or to simplify moral quandaries, even when the host himself is desperate for some hope. He thought that one story they were following would turn out to be a beautiful, generous, multicultural story, but he learned that he had to accept people for who they are, even when it means you won’t get the story you were hoping for. If you follow the real story, you’ll learn instead the truth of someone’s real life and feel richer for it.

“No, I won’t.”

Of course, the host and his fellow producers are Jewish and Israeli, so their choices about which stories to tell, and how to tell them, are inevitably biased towards their own experiences, beliefs, and hopes. Any attempts to suggest otherwise would be silly.

            My long term hope is that once I catch up on all of the English episodes, I’ll be able to go back and try the Hebrew version again. Maybe when I’m more familiar with the stories, I’ll have a better chance of understanding the Hebrew narration. But in the meantime, I feel like my view of Israel is growing in complexity. I’ve listened to serious and not so serious stories of Israeli lives: learning about silly songs sung at the Eurovision competition, and Ultra-orthodox Jews living covertly secular lives, and a random campaign for one man to get his picture on the wall of a tiny Humus restaurant in Jerusalem.

            Maybe, someday, when I can finally get to Israel, I will feel like I’ve been there before; like I’ve been in that restaurant, or heard that voice, or met that tour guide telling stories on the streets of Jerusalem. People say that the best way to travel is to meet the locals, so maybe, for now, I can get the best part of travelling to Israel without having to leave my apartment. That works for me, and it works for Cricket and Ellie too.

I want to wish everyone a Happy and Sweet New Year, Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, human or canine or feline or bird. May we all be healthy and safe and have reasons to celebrate our good fortune in the year to come!

“Shana Tova!!!!!!!!”

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 Movie I Walked Out On

 

For the past few years, the Israel Engagement committee at my synagogue has been showing Israeli films a few times a year, as a way to explore the modern state of Israel from the point of view of its own citizens. This year the theme is movies made by Palestinian Israelis, and told from a Palestinian perspective. You might think this would be a weak draw at a synagogue on Long Island, but more people came to the first movie of the year than come to most Friday night services.

This was my first time going. When the series first started I was busy with graduate school and too exhausted to go back to synagogue for an extra night, to sit in uncomfortable chairs and watch movies I could easily watch online. I finally went this year for a practical reason: I’m on another committee that’s planning to show a movie in a few months, and I wanted to see how the Israel Engagement committee managed the scheduling, snacks and seating, and the actual showing of the movie (and no one else on the committee volunteered to go).

IMG_1035

“We’ll just wait here for you, Mommy.”

Mom came with me for moral support, and we both decided to skip the schmoozing period before the movie. It turned out that even though the movie was listed as starting at seven, it actually didn’t start until after eight o’clock, so many people were still arriving long after Mom and I found seats in the back of the sanctuary (the film was being shown on one of the new screens in the remodeled sanctuary, to justify the expense of building screens into the design). This was my first lesson from the movie – don’t plan for seven and show the movie at eight, no matter how many people talk about “Jewish Time”. Fifteen minutes for schmoozing and late arrivals, and then start the movie, because I don’t want to be there forever.

The head of the Israel Engagement committee gave a brief introduction to the theme for the year, and a warning to the one sixteen year old in the audience that he had just made the age cut off, because there was some drugs and other adult themes in the movie.

I was a little apprehensive, partly because I’m always tense before seeing movies in movie theatres, worried that I’ll be trapped for an hour and a half watching a movie I don’t like, but also partly because the movie was billed as coming from a Palestinian perspective, and I had no idea what that would mean. The description of the movie had said that it was a story about three Palestinian women living together in an apartment in Tel Aviv, and it sounded like a sort of comedy/relationship movie, but there could still be anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli stuff going on, and while I’ve worked hard to challenge myself with different perspectives on Israel I tend to do it at home, where I can stop the movie or close the book and take a few deep breaths and pet a dog before continuing.

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Two dogs available for petting.

Once the lights went out I took a deep breath and told myself to accept the challenge of watching the movie, because, really, it wouldn’t kill me. I might get bored, or annoyed, but how bad could it be, especially with so many other members of my congregation filling the room. I rolled my eyes at all of the marijuana, and the smarmy men hitting on the gorgeous women at the beginning of the movie. I couldn’t really tell when the dialogue switched from Arabic to Hebrew, because they all spoke so quickly and fluently in both languages. The whole thing hurt my ego, because after so much effort to work on my Hebrew I was still stuck reading the subtitles like everyone else.

I noticed that even though some of the men in the movie were creepy, either overly smarmy or overly controlling, there were a lot of other characters worth watching, straight and gay, religious and secular, successful and not so successful. And the actresses in the main roles were very good, luminous really, and funny and smart and interesting. The friendships developing among the women, once the early partying and drug scenes were out of the way, were surprisingly gentle and sweet, and I started to really care about what happened to them, especially to the religious girl who seemed very familiar to me, despite being a religious Muslim rather than a religious Jew. I was almost patting myself on the back for my open-mindedness by then, for being able to look past the drugs and the sex and the politics and just enjoy the people.

And then the rape happened. I saw it coming when the controlling fiancé touched his girlfriend’s hair-covering and started to tug on it. No, I saw it coming before then, in the way he tried to control where she lived and what she planned to do for work once they were married. The conflict was all telegraphed from the beginning, but it was played light and sort of funny, and I figured that over the course of the film the religious girl would come to realize that some kind of independence would be great and maybe she didn’t have to do every single thing her fiancé or male relatives told her to do. I assumed that the movie would continue in the same light-hearted style, with the sex happening behind closed doors, and all of the challenging topics addressed with humor and ellipses.

And then the fiancé touched the religious girl’s hair covering (they didn’t call it a hijab in the movie, so I’m not calling it a hijab, even though that’s the only word I know for a Muslim woman’s hair covering). My whole body tensed, because I know what it means for a religious man to break what other people might see as a minor boundary. I don’t care if you are Muslim or Jewish or Christian, if you follow modesty laws and you suddenly break them, watch out.

IMG_0457

“I’m watching them. All of them.”

The rape started so quickly, and I was so busy telling the girl (silently) to get the hell out of there, that it took me a second to really freak out. I wanted to drag that man off of her, just reach up into the screen and toss him to the floor, and I couldn’t. The only thing I could do was run, or walk, out of there. If she couldn’t run, I would have to run for her.

I stood up awkwardly, because there wasn’t a lot of room between the rows of chairs, and quietly told my mother that I had to leave. I was willing to sit alone in the hall by myself for the next hour or two, if necessary, but I wasn’t going to stay in that room and watch a woman being raped. I felt like, by sitting there, I was allowing it to happen, even making it happen.

Mom followed me out immediately, and listened to me ranting all the way home, and even sat with me, and the dogs, while we watched a Hallmark Christmas movie to recover.

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It’s important to say that, even if they had warned me that there would be a rape in the movie, I’m not sure I would have known how it was going to affect me. Though, just the word rape would have been a trigger. No one used it. Watching people have sex on screen is embarrassing, and would have felt really weird in a room filled with fellow congregants, but not scary. Rape is scary.

 

As far as I know, no one else left. But I didn’t speak to anyone about it afterwards, so I don’t really know. I have no idea if they discussed the rape scene during the discussion after the movie, or if it had been eclipsed by other plot points by then. I don’t even know if anyone, other than the female rabbi who was sitting in front of me, even noticed that I left, or why. She emailed me after the movie, to make sure I was okay, and I sobbed with relief, because I was afraid that no one had even noticed that I’d left. Or why.

The thing is, a bunch of the people in that room have read my novel, or know about it, and know that I am an incest survivor. They do not talk to me about it, or ask me about it, though. And when I’ve offered to discuss it with the congregation, in person, in a letter, any which way, no one has taken me up on it. The fact that they can sit through a rape scene in order to show their support for Palestinian women and Palestinian filmmakers, but they don’t want to hear from me, hurts.

The rape scene, as much of it as I saw, still flashes through my mind over and over again. And I resent it. I have enough awful memories of my own. I don’t need more.

I felt selfish for walking out of the movie. I beat myself up about it for hours. I felt immature, and melodramatic, and I could hear my father’s voice in my head calling me Sarah Bernhardt and telling me that I was overreacting, again, just like I always used to do as a child when I got all riled up about my father’s behavior and the crazy conspiracy theories he liked to spin about why he kept being accused of sexual misconduct at work, with children.

But most of all I felt invisible and insignificant. I felt like, in the face of intersectionality and world issues, and the increasingly strong need for people not to think about certain things, I do not matter at all. That’s the scariest thing, to feel like I don’t matter to the people who matter to me. And I can’t shake that feeling any more than I can shake the etch-a-sketch of my mind and make the rape images go away.

 

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.

022

“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.

027

“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.

004

“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.

003

“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?