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Yom Daled

 

On Wednesdays at my Jewish sleepaway camp, when most of the kitchen staff took the day off, we made our own sandwiches, right after breakfast (egg salad, tuna, peanut butter and jelly), and tossed them, and some pieces of fruit, into a black garbage bag to be kept in the fridge for later. The scary part was that we had to tell our counselor what kind and how many sandwiches we wanted, so that two delegates could stay late with her and make the sandwiches. And then during lunch I had to sit there with everyone in my bunk knowing that I’d asked for two peanut butter and jelly, plus an egg salad sandwich. I wanted more sandwiches than a pre-teen girl was supposed to want. I was always hungrier than I was supposed to be. I could eat three bowls of cereal at breakfast, but at least no one was announcing it to the whole room. It’s possible that the other girls ate as much as I did, but they hid it better.

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“Did you say sandwiches?”

Wednesdays were called Yom Daled, or day four, because everything had to have a Hebrew name in camp. I’m not sure why it was Yom Daled, which is the fourth letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, instead of Yom Revi’i, which literally means “the fourth day” in Hebrew. This is a mystery I may never unravel. The other days of the week weren’t named after Hebrew letters, though. In fact, I think we just called them Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, like everyone else.

Anyway, Yom Daled was meant to be a break from our regular schedule of sports and arts & crafts and swimming and Hebrew classes. We went on day trips, off campus, a couple of times each summer, but otherwise it was up to our counselors to create an “experience.” Like the time they set up a trip to Russia, in the auditorium, and taught us about the Refuseniks (Russian Jews who weren’t allowed to leave Russia). I remember waiting on a long line to get my imaginary passport, and then having it ripped out of my hands (paper cut!) on another line. And I remember feeling like I was wearing a tattered woolen coat, and still shivering, even though in real life I was in a t-shirt and shorts, and sweating to death.

We learned a song that day called “Leaving Mother Russia,” written by a group called Safam, and inspired by Natan Sharansky. I don’t remember singing the song at any other time, but the chorus has stuck with me for thirty years: we are leaving mother Russia, we have waited far too long, we are leaving Mother Russia, when they come for us, we’ll be gone.

Another time, they set up the whole camp as if it were the State of Israel, and we visited a shuk (a marketplace), and had to haggle over prices, in Hebrew, and then we made pitas on a hot stone, and, of course, we had hummus and falafel and Israeli salad for lunch.

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“I’m sure I like falafel, Mommy.”

On another day, in a different summer, we learned about terrorism. Our counselors lined us up in chairs and had us pretend to be on a plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. It was an interesting thing to see our counselors interpret their roles as terrorists; some tried to make us understand the sorrow and pain of losing their land, and the hopelessness of being refugees under the control of strangers; others played their roles with anger and violence and scared the crap out of us.

We also spent a day learning about cults, because it was a hot topic on college campuses that year, and our counselors wanted to prepare us for being tempted to give up our individuality and free will, or something. They didn’t do a very god job of explaining how cults were different from religion or camp, though. I was used to being brainwashed in each new environment I went into, having to buy in to a new set of beliefs, and having to give up things that mattered to me just to fit in. I wasn’t sure how different a cult would be, maybe just in intensity rather than in spirit.

We went on hikes at least once per summer, and it was always exhausting and too hot, but we couldn’t opt out. By the end of each hike dozens of kids were claiming health issues and trying to cadge lifts back to camp with the counselors who had driven to the lunch spot, bringing the food and supplies. I never bothered to beg for a ride, for some reason, even though I hated every second of the steaming walk back to camp.

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“That sounds exhausting, Mommy.”

I don’t remember a lot of our day trips off campus, though there was one memorable trip to New York City. We went to an art museum (I have no idea which one) and to something called The New York Experience, where we sat in seats that shifted around as if we were on the subway, and then fog blew in our faces. Once we were back outside on the street, I realized that I was closer to home than I was to camp, and all I’d have to do was get to Penn Station, and then catch a train home. Except, I had no cash, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go home, though I did wish I’d known ahead of time that we’d be in the city, so I could have called my mother and asked her to meet me.

Another day trip was to Mystic Seaport, where we went on a ferry ride and saw a shipping museum, where they showed us a lot of boats-inside-glass-bottles. But then it started to rain and we couldn’t do the rest of the outdoor stuff, so they took us to see a movie. The choice was between Bull Durham and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and since Bull Durham was R-rated, they chose to make us watch a movie about an animated rabbit, and his animated, non-rabbit, cheating wife, and murder, lots of murder.

For dinner on Yom Daled, the few kitchen staff who stayed on campus would do a barbecue, setting out piles of hamburgers and hotdogs, and watermelon and chips, for us to eat outside. I don’t remember any vegetables, but there may have been pickles. The barbecues were for whoever was on campus in time, and we could start and finish whenever we wanted and sit wherever we wanted, instead of at our assigned tables. We held our paper plates on our laps, and ate with plastic utensils, surrounded by bugs, but I couldn’t always find someone to sit with, and it reminded me of eating lunch at school, just hoping someone would be willing to sit next to me.

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“I’d sit next to you for a burger.”

You know, there’s something to be said for returning to routine, and schedules, and assigned seating, where you know what’s expected of you, and you’re not tempted to hop a train home, and know you won’t have to eat by yourself.

yeshiva girl with dogs

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

Musicals at Camp

 

My brother was recently in a community theater production of HMS Pinafore (by Gilbert and Sullivan), singing his heart out, playing for laughs, and even doing choreography! It was awesome! But watching him have so much fun on stage reminded me of how bad my stage fright turned out to be – worse and worse as I got older, instead of better and better.

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“Food always helps me when I’m anxious.”

At my Jewish sleepaway camp we did a musical every summer. My first year in camp we did Cats, in Hebrew (someone had the job of translating all of these musicals into Hebrew for us, which sounded like hard work at the time, but now sounds like a lot of fun). I think our bunk did a small dance number, in cat costumes. The next year we did You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and I had a duet with a boy. I was Lucy, standing in my psychologist-is-in stand (foreshadowing my future), but my duet partner couldn’t remember his lyrics, so I did most of the duet myself, either whispering his lines to him, or singing them out loud myself when he whispered back, “huh?” I don’t remember being scared, even with the whole camp watching and listening to me in my blue booth. It was something of an out-of-body experience, though, because I don’t remember the rest of the show, or the rehearsals, just that moment in my booth, singing out to the crowd.

The next year we did The Sound of Music, but just as separate songs, not the whole show. I had solos in two songs that year. We learned our second song the morning of the show – So Long, Farewell – but from this one I only remember the rehearsals and nothing from the show itself.

I don’t think we had auditions for any of those early shows. Maybe my facility with Hebrew got me those roles, now that I think about it, though I’d like to believe it was because of my voice, or at least my memory for lyrics.

It was when I was twelve years old, my fourth summer at camp, that I balked. I went up onstage for the audition and I couldn’t make any words come out of my mouth. It was horrifying. I’d been taking voice lessons at home, and I’d been in an after school acting club, and those three musicals at camp already, but on that day I almost threw up on stage from nerves instead of singing, and then I ran out of the auditorium. They cast me in the chorus with a bunch of other kids who didn’t really want to be in the show, and we sang a couple of songs from the fifties, behind the soloists, as part of a musical revue.

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“Run!!!!!!”

I didn’t even bother to audition the following summer, when our age group did Grease, though I do remember being very jealous of the new girl who came in and snagged the lead role her first summer. She had a smoky alto, and a lot of confidence, and actually had chemistry with our male lead (who was the lead every year, if I’m remembering correctly, because he had a pure tenor and everyone liked him).

It was much more fun to go to the shows the other age groups put on, than to be in one myself, which should have been a clue that I didn’t really want to be an actress, but I didn’t take the hint. I even went to an Artsy day camp the next summer, dancing and singing and acting all day, every day, for two months. I kept expecting my fear to go away, but it refused to budge. And then I went to summer acting classes, when I was sixteen, and even signed up for The Actor’s Studio in the city, after dropping out of college that fall, but I had a severe panic attack on the first day and ended up in the bathroom, hyperventilating and crying, before the end of the first class. That was the final death knell for my career on stage.

It’s a big deal that I joined the choir at my synagogue this year, and have performed in public twice already. It’s a small step forward, but a good one. I don’t see myself doing community theatre any time soon, given the flashbacks of terror I felt while my brother was on stage, even though he himself was having a great time. But at least I’m not throwing up anymore. That’s progress.

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“I want to be on stage, Mommy! I’d be great!!!!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

yeshiva girl with dogs

 

Going to sleepaway camp

 

Each summer, for five years in a row, starting when I was nine-years-old, I went away to a Jewish sleepaway camp for eight weeks. Me and Mom and my brother spent weeks ahead of time buying everything on the camp list: collapsible drinking cup, soap dish, seven pairs of shorts and shirts and underwear and so on, flashlight, bathing suits, flip flops, beach towel. And a trunk. We only had to buy those once, for the first summer, and then store them in the attic during the school year: a huge treasure chest-like box to fill with all of our stuff. Oh, and labels, everything we owned needed a name tag.

A few days after school ended for the year, in the last week of June, Mom drove me and my brother, and our trunks, to a nearby synagogue to catch the bus to camp. The bus ride itself was an orientation. First there was the sharp pain of watching Mommy stand in the parking lot, waving, as we drove further and further away. Then there were the bus songs – 99 bottles of beer on the wall, If I had a hammer, etc. We had counselors on our bus with us, to keep order and manage any traumas along the way, and I met my first new friend on the bus up to camp. She was blond and pretty and bossy, just like my best friend from home, and she started to talk to me right away and asked me to sit next to her on the bus. My brother proceeded to ignore me, almost entirely, as he would continue to do for the next eight weeks.

When we reached camp, we met up with our own counselors, and walked across campus to our bunks, while the maintenance men loaded our trunks and dropped them off on the porch of each bunk (after unloading each trunk we stowed them under the bunk for the summer). The counselors had to come out and meet each bus, and car, when their campers arrived, so back at the bunk we either had a junior counselor or our peers for company, which was not quite enough. I wasn’t really prepared to be away from my Mom, or to manage so many new relationships at once. The saving grace would be the daily schedule, there was almost always something we were supposed to be doing, just not on day one. We also had no TV and very few books, and this was long before smartphones, so socializing was our entertainment.

The blond girl from the bus turned out to be the most popular girl in our age group, and we were in the same bunk, so I was sort of initiated into the popular group right away. I had no idea what to make of that. They were sort of a girl posse, and one of the other new recruits was a nine-year-old outlaw, planning all kinds of trouble for the posse to get into. I was still me, though, and it became clear that I didn’t quite fit in with my new friends. I didn’t have the right clothes, or the attraction to danger, and I didn’t know how to flirt with boys. At first it was exhilarating to be with them, because finally I wasn’t the outcast, the way I was at school, and I wasn’t picked on (too badly). But then they started expecting me to be mean, to make fun of other girls and not just behind their backs, but to their faces.

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“Harrumph.”

I did it once, without realizing how awful it would feel until I was in it up to my knees. I was a good mimic (I still am, just ask Cricket), and they liked to have me play this and that character, like the male counselor with silly dance moves, or one of the boys who wiped his nose with the hem of his shirt, constantly. I loved the attention! I loved getting the laughs! And then they asked me to do an impression of one of the other girls who was sort of on the outs with the group at that moment. And I did it, because she had such obvious body language and her vocabulary was so specific and I could see the whole performance in my imagination without even trying. I felt like a super star, until I realized that she was suddenly there too, and instead of laughing with me, the other girls were sneering at her and using me as a weapon against her.

I stopped, but it was too late. I tried to apologize, but all that accomplished was getting me kicked out of the cool group; the other girl certainly didn’t forgive me.

I was alone for a few days, but then some new kids came for the second month (in the early years of camp we could choose to come for both months, first month, or second month), and I made some new friends. They were nicer and quieter and preferred playing jacks to getting into trouble. I got a few splinters because the floors of the bunks weren’t perfectly sanded, but there was something reassuring and satisfying about playing jacks. If you played fair and didn’t cheat and didn’t show off just because you were a better player, people stuck around.

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Friendship is a good thing.

I went to camp for four more years, but I was never put in the same bunk with the cool girls again, and they barely even looked at me, except for the blond girl from the bus. Every once in a while she’d look over at me with something like regret, but then she’d look back at her friends and shake it off and go back to her popular life.

And yet, I liked being at camp. I liked my less than popular friends. I liked always having something to do and someone to talk to. And if there was also loneliness and conflict and disappointment, well, I had that at home too, and at least at camp I felt normal. I had the same problems as everyone else: sunburn, sand in my shoes, friendship drama, cardboard pizza, too many chores, and homesickness. I think, if we could have had a bunk dog, and if my Mom could have visited every weekend, I’d have wanted to stay all year long.

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“I could be the camp dog!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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 Opioid Epidemic

 

Recently, the media has been filled with glee around the guilt of the Sackler family (Purdue Pharma) in the origins of the Opioid Epidemic. I have no interest in arguing on their behalf, because the avarice and lack of compassion in their decisions is obvious and really not up for debate. But it interested me that they were singled out, and that the media was willing to simplify the whole epidemic down to the choices of one, rich, Jewish family. I am sensitive to the specter of anti-Semitism, because of the endless role it has played in history, and this struck me as worth examining.

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“Are you sure we need to discuss this?”

The Sackler family is responsible for OxyContin, one of the opiates that flooded the market in the nineties, and they attempted to downplay the risks of addiction in their marketing campaigns and ignored misuses of their drugs in favor of making an enormous amount of money, but they could have accomplished none of this on their own. Doctors, who knew that opiates were addictive (Morphine has been around for a long time, Opium for much longer), over-prescribed these medications, and some even made an illegal business out of the underground market for opiates (though most did not). Pharmacies and distributors bought larger amounts of opiates than could ever be used responsibly, knowing they were feeding addiction and illegal markets and doing it anyway. We, as a society, defunded and underfunded addiction treatment, ignoring and demonizing substance abusers so that they could not find a way out, even if they’d wanted to. Families ignored, friends ignored, schools ignored, government ignored, and the FDA approved more and more variations of opiates for the marketplace.

It’s also important to recognize that the Opioid Epidemic has become national and world news in the last few years largely because of the rise of Fentanyl, and then Carfentanyl, both of which are more lethal than Heroin, and have led to many overdose deaths. And Fentanyl has nothing to do with the Sacklers. It’s also important to see that when people of color were losing the war against drugs we didn’t call it an epidemic, instead we blamed the addicts themselves for their problems. This time it is young white people who have been dying, and that seems to have made a difference in the coverage.

Another big difference for the current epidemic is the growth of social media, and technology in general. In the past, a teenager might have had to drive forty minutes to the bad side of town to buy drugs. Now, with a text, you can have anything brought to you in ten minutes. Anything. You don’t have to go to the bad part of town, or spend a lot of money; sometimes all you have to do is open the medicine cabinet in your friend’s house. If we are having an opioid epidemic, then we are having a Benzodiazepine and Marijuana Tsunami, with an alcohol chaser. Vapes, which are everywhere now, can easily be adapted for use with all kinds of different, hard, drugs, and used out in the open. In middle school.

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“You can’t take my Benzos!”

The question is, why did this happen? Why were we so eager to believe the lie that opiates could be made non-addictive? Or that addiction is a small price to pay for pain relief? Or that the market can be trusted to make moral decisions?

This is our culture. American culture. The Sacklers were certainly not acting on Jewish law and morality in their decision making; they were, actually, following the prevailing American value that money is good, and drugs are good, and let’s not think too hard about the downsides, or address the complexities, or look at the people who are struggling, because, really, it’s their own fault if they can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

There are reasons other than Anti-Semitism to explain the hatred and blame of the Sackler family in particular. One, there was a recent document release from their trial, and the information in it was really juicy and obnoxious and therefore caught people’s attention. Even more important, a lot of Americans recognized in the Sacklers a stand-in for the Trumps, and there is great satisfaction in seeing a similarly rich, and corrupt, family being brought down.

But their Jewishness made me nervous. It’s always scary for me to see a Jewish person in the news for criminal, immoral, or unjust behavior – not just because what they did is upsetting, but also because of my fear that their crimes will be used against the whole of the Jewish people. The Holocaust is not as far in the past as some people would like to believe, and we’re seeing an upsurge in anti-Semitism everywhere.

I still don’t know if anti-Semitism played any role in the coverage of this. The origins of the Opioid Epidemic are complex and interwoven and need to be addressed from multiple directions. Simplifying it all down to the greed of one company, and one family, felt good for a moment, because it made us feel like we finally had a handle on what happened. But the epidemic is still happening. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to change our laws and policies and culture, in order to prevent more overdose deaths and lives lost to addiction in all kinds of ways. We want to blame someone, like the Sacklers, or Central American migrants, or corrupt doctors, because we want it to be someone else’s fault, and therefore someone else’s responsibility to fix. But that won’t work. This is our problem, and it belongs to all of us.

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“Is she serious, Ellie? This is so not my fault.”

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“Just pretend to be sleeping, Cricket. It always works for me.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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 Book is Ready

 

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I’ve spent many years trying to publish my first novel, Yeshiva Girl, through the traditional publishing route: sending it out to agents, and then watching as my agent collected rejections for me, and then sent it out again, and again. I had hoped that the #MeToo movement would be a sign that the world was ready for Izzy, but the rejections kept rolling in. Izzy has a story to tell that I think a lot of people can relate to, in one way or another. And, fundamentally, I didn’t want her to be alone on a shelf anymore, I want her to be out in the world, so I decided to self-publish on Amazon.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, 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.

I want to thank my brilliant and talented Mom, Naomi Mankowitz, for the beautiful cover design and page layout for the book, and for every day of love and support throughout my life. And, of course, I need to thank every dog who has passed through my life and taught me about unconditional love and healing. And thank you to all of you, for your support and encouragement for me through the blog, and for inspiring me to take the leap into self-publishing!

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We’re sort of ready for the leap.

 

Please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl And if anyone feels called to write a review of the book on Amazon, I’d be honored.

 

 

 

 

 

The Interfaith Bible Seminar

 

Leading up to our yearly ecumenical Thanksgiving service, the local clergy decided to try out an interfaith bible seminar, including two liberal synagogues (one being mine) and a Methodist church. It’s a trial run, to see how we all do, and then maybe more churches and synagogues will be willing to join the group for next year.

I had a lot of questions. Are we all reading the same translations? No, but they are surprisingly similar. Do we read the books in the same order? Nope. The Methodists read from the Old Testament, but also from other books, and on a three year cycle that excerpts pieces out of order. Jews, in general, read the first five books of the Bible, chapter by chapter, in order, throughout each year (though we may excerpt different parts of those chapters, for speed, and then there’s the prophets and the writings, but I won’t overwhelm you with that here.). Do we get the same messages from these stories? No, but no one does. We all see the words through our own kaleidoscope of different life experiences, as it should be.

I was excited to see how the whole trial run would go, because my rabbi has an unorthodox style of Bible study to begin with, pulling in references from Ancient Near Eastern mythology, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Reform Bible commentators, and Christian Bible scholars as well. But there’s plenty he doesn’t know about Christian philosophy and how different denominations respond to the Bible (clearly five years of rabbinical school was not enough).

I don’t know if Methodists in general are as laid back as this particular Methodist pastor, but ours was very friendly, and interested in all of our similarities and differences, especially because our congregations are, in terms of American politics in particular, very similar in our beliefs. He liked to connect the bible stories we were reading with current events, though we were all careful to keep the word “Trump” unspoken in our sacred spaces.

The books chosen for study were: Daniel, Esther, Ruth, and Ezra, though I’m not sure why. They do offer a lot of meaty discussion topics, though, including a lot of strangers-in-a-strange-land references, and conversion, and monotheism versus polytheism. In Daniel, there was a lot of My-God-is-Stronger-than-Your-God stuff, but luckily that’s not a bone of contention between Jews and Christians, since we’re talking about the same God, for the most part.

I tend not to read the Bible as a how-to book on life, more like a learn-from-our-mistakes sort of book. But, the books are written in a very understated style, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation, so that what I see as a mistake never to be repeated, someone else may see as a model for how to live a righteous life.

I feel like I could read through these books another hundred times and still find new things, which, as a reader, I love. And I like the feeling of being taken back in time, as if I am living in the desert with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It’s a form of time travel, and visiting my ancestors, that allows me to take a few deep breaths outside of my daily life.

We didn’t read through each book line by line in this seminar, the way we usually do, because we only had an hour and a half per book, so we just touched down in the text every once in a while, ready to hop away from any topic that seemed too heated, if necessary. I’m sure we would have been getting into a lot more tricky conversations if we’d been trying to read from the New Testament, though a lot of my fellow congregants would have enjoyed that, especially because they could bring up the Jesus-was-a-nice-Jewish-boy line of argument. We did hear a little bit about which readings from the Gospels were paired with the readings from the Old Testament, which was interesting, but not especially controversial.

I’m not sure what I’ve learned from this interfaith adventure so far, except that I want it to continue. Whether we study in Hebrew, or Latin, or English, and read the New Testament or the Koran, or the Bhagavad Gita, we are all searching for the same things – each other, and how to be the best versions of ourselves.

The fourth and final session of the Bible seminar was snowed out this past Thursday, so instead of reading Ezra, I was outside in the snow with Cricket and Ellie. And it was perfect, because I realized that snow is, just like the Bible, one more thing we see differently depending on who we are and how we feel at that moment. Cricket was in heaven, catching snowballs and digging tunnels and racing around, and Ellie was more circumspect, especially when she realized that her paws were cold, and getting colder. She ended up waiting on the porch for us, where it was dry and warm(er). Some people hear the word snow and feel oppressed by the amount of snow they will have to shovel, or the slippery commute home, and the layers of clothing they will have to pile on. Others think of hot cocoa and cozy family time indoors, and snowsuits and sleds. And everyone is right.

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Cricket, wondering where Ellie went.

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Ellie, hiding from the snow.

Except, Cricket is more right, because I agree with her. Snowball fight!

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Healer of the Broken Hearted

 

We had a solidarity service at my synagogue last Sunday, in the aftermath of the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Four synagogues came together in one building, and by the time Mom and I arrived, twenty minutes before the service started, there was no parking left. People had to stand along the sides of the sanctuary after all of the seats had been filled. The clergy of all four synagogues led the service, with readings by the rabbis and songs by the cantors. There was an enormous amount of crying, but I couldn’t cry. The music was beautiful. The presence of clergy from all of the local Christian denominations was meaningful (the local mosque was planning another service for the following day). But the words didn’t reach me. I just wanted to find comfort, and to feel something, but I couldn’t feel anything.

Maybe if I could have brought Cricket and Ellie with me, things would have been different; maybe if we didn’t have to feel such a sense of relief at seeing the police officers lined up in front of the synagogue to protect us; maybe if it were just small service, with my fellow congregants, on a Friday night. I don’t know. Maybe if there hadn’t been so much violence leading up to the shootings, with two black shoppers targeted in a supermarket, and pipe bombs in the mail, and church shootings, and terrorist attacks in other countries and in our own. We can barely breathe between horrific events, let alone mourn.

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We’re all exhausted.

I keep swinging between anger, disbelief, fear, and confusion. At the solidarity service at my synagogue, the focus was on taking action against guns, which of course I agree with, but I can’t see that going anywhere now, any more than it has every single time this issue has come up after mass shootings in the past few years. More than a few years now. We can vote, certainly. We can stand in solidarity with the other victims of mass shootings, and against racist and anti-Semitic violence. But then what?

It turns out that one of the three congregations housed in the Tree of Life synagogue was also a Reconstructionist group, and they had celebrated Refugee Shabbat, as we did in my own synagogue, a few weeks ago. The shooter had found a list of the synagogues that participated in Refugee Shabbat, including my own, and that’s where he got the address for the Tree of Life synagogue, and that was the final straw in deciding which Jews to kill.

The subject of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has come up a number of times lately at my synagogue. There was actually an educational seminar about HIAS planned for Sunday. And then Saturday came, and a man decided to kill Jews at prayer, supposedly because Jews, through HIAS, are to blame for inviting refugees to “invade” our country. To be clear, HIAS does not choose who comes into the country, it works with the state department, along with many other organizations, to help new immigrants integrate into their new communities. If I had to leave my own country and seek safety elsewhere, I would like to believe that there would be an organization like HIAS there, to help me settle in and feel welcome.

One of the songs from the Solidarity Service on Sunday at my synagogue was “Healer of the Broken Hearted,” or in Hebrew, Harofei lishvurei lev. According to my rabbi, the image of a doctor in the Hebrew Bible always refers to God, mostly because every heroic role in the Hebrew Bible belongs to God, the ultimate multiple personality. But this is the image of God that I like best: the comforter, the healer, the one who sees that we are suffering and takes our pain seriously.

Healer of the broken hearted

            Binder of our wounds

            Counter of uncountable stars

            You know who we are

            Hallelujah.”

 

This week has felt strange: fragmented and confusing. I wanted to be at Synagogue, and I wanted to hide away at home. I needed to watch the news, and I hated to watch the news. And then there was a hashtag encouraging everyone, Jews and non-Jews, to come to Shabbat services. This week’s Friday night service at my synagogue was going to be a Family Service (kid-friendly, loud, and short), but I decided to go anyway. The sanctuary was packed again, and the music was great again, and the neighboring churches sent their clergy to add their words of support again, but it was more than that.

Maybe it was because a few more days had passed since the shootings, or because all of the children in the room changed the atmosphere in the room to something like joy. There was one little girl doing interpretive dance (including cartwheels and high kicks) down the far left aisle, and the five member kids’ choir remembered most of their songs, and the Bat Mitzvah girl ignored the tragedy in the air to celebrate her special day with her family. It didn’t hurt that there was cake after the service, with pink cupcakes and chocolate covered pretzels and an enormous amount of chocolate frosting.

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“Frosting?”

 

But, in the end, it’s always the music. On Friday nights at my synagogue we often exchange one of the traditional prayers (Ahavat Olam) for an alternative version, written by Rami Shapiro:

We are loved by an unending love.
We are embraced by arms that find us
even when we are hidden from ourselves.

We are touched by fingers that soothe us
even when we are too proud for soothing.
We are counseled by voices that guide us
even when we are too embittered to hear.
We are loved by an unending love.

We are supported by hands that uplift us
even in the midst of a fall.
We are urged on by eyes that meet us
even when we are too weak for meeting.
We are loved by an unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled

ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;
ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;
We are loved by an unending love.

Even if we can’t envision God as the healer of our wounds, we have something more

concrete to rely on: community. We have the power to see each other, and heal each other. Among all of the roles we can play in each other’s lives, this is one of my favorites.

Hallelujah.

 

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