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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 Choir is Back

            I recently found out that my synagogue’s choir will be singing in-person at High Holiday services in September. Up through most of June, we thought we’d be recording one or two more videos (to add to the collection we made last year) and using them for services – both online and on screens in the sanctuary. But with the changes to the protocols in New York, our plans have changed.

“Am I singing?”

            In-person choir performances mean rehearsals all summer, starting right away, and also early morning services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – which I’m really not looking forward to. Instead of waking up late and eating breakfast and leisurely strolling with the dogs and then getting to synagogue for the 11:30 AM service, the way Mom and I used to do before I joined the choir, I will have to be up and dressed and ready to sing by 8:45 in the morning.

            I’d actually gotten pretty comfortable with the distance singing – making the videos and singing along to a voice in my ear – and now I will have to re-acclimate to four-part harmonies, and ignoring what someone else is singing (loudly, next to me).

“Grr.”

            I’m also anxious about what to wear for services, and which shoes to wear for all of the standing; and I’m worried that I won’t have enough time to get all of my planned writing done this summer, with my Hebrew classes and choir rehearsals and doctors’ appointments and on and on.

            Before the first choir rehearsal could take place, though, a former choir member (whose wife still sings with the choir) died, at age 95. It wasn’t unexpected, given his age and overall health, but it was still a shock. He was full of life, and jokes and opinions, and participated in all of our study sessions and services over zoom during Covid. Almost as soon as the congregational email went out, letting us know of his death, the Cantor wrote to the choir members to ask if we’d want to reschedule our first choir rehearsal and instead go as a group to the first night of Shiva, to sing for our friend. And we all agreed.

This was our first communal funeral since Covid began – the first time we could fill up the sanctuary and sit side by side to mourn one of our own. And it was very sweet. We were able to hear from the children and grandchildren of our lost friend, and share their memories and jokes and tears. And then at Shiva that night, the choir members gathered around his wife, arm in arm, to sing Oseh Shalom (a prayer for peace), which we sing together at the end of every choir rehearsal.

I’d forgotten the power of this, I think, in my fear of the social obligations that come with returning to an in-person world. And maybe I hadn’t even realized what a big part the choir played in these connections – these physical, in-person connections, where we sing to each other and come together.

Sometimes I worry that my social anxiety, and the holes in my social skills, mean that I can’t be a real part of a community, and can’t be a good friend. I worry that I don’t have the gregariousness or the generous instincts other people have by nature. But these are the times when I feel the power of ritual, of having a scaffolding to hold me up as I figure out how to be of use.

It shocks me every once in a while that I’ve found this community, and that I can find a place in it for myself, despite my fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. I’ve learned, slowly, over a long period of time, that everyone says or does the wrong thing sometimes, maybe even all the time, and the world doesn’t end as a result. I still keep a mental list of all of my gaffs and awkward encounters and missed opportunities, but I’ve also collected enough memories of others doing the same things that I’ve learned that it’s okay. We’ve survived a bad joke, or a social misstep, or an inappropriate story, or a missed connection thousands of times, and we are still here.

“How bad are these bad jokes?”

Community can be a fragile thing and requires a lot of work and commitment, and a willingness to speak up when you feel hurt, and to apologize when you are the one who hurts others; but I’ve learned that communities are the safety nets that keep us afloat when our jobs and families and friendship groups can’t quite catch us.

“I will always love you, Mommy!”

When Mom and I first joined the synagogue, nine years ago, I felt the power of going to Friday night services every week and hearing the list of people who had died over the past year, even though I didn’t recognize any of the names. I felt the sanctity in the idea that we mourn together; that these deaths matter to all of us and not just to the close relatives and friends. Over time, more of the names have become familiar, as people I knew, or the loved ones of people I knew, or people I’ve heard stories about from way-back-when have been added to the list. In a way, it feels like an honor to be able to help create a container for the grief, to be able to take on a small part of the weight of memory for someone else, knowing they will do the same for me.

So, I will listen for my friend’s name every week for the next year, and remember how much he valued this community and would want it to survive after his death, if only so we can continue to tell his stories to the next generation. And, as long as the current vaccinations can keep the Delta variant at bay, I will try to embrace the shorter than usual choir rehearsal period, and the earlier-than-heck morning services, because being an active part of this community means that I can help create a safe container for so many different feelings, including joy.

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?

Looking For Delilah

In my quest to write my own Midrashim (alternate explanations for gaps in the biblical text, AKA biblical fan fiction), I’ve found that I’m drawn to stories about wicked women, like Jezebel, because I always wonder if the biblical authors were telling the whole truth or slanting the stories to fit their prejudices. It also occurred to me that before I can write my own versions of those stories, or answer the questions I have about them, I need to understand the stories better as written. I decided to look at Delilah, as in Samson and Delilah, because I’ve heard her story from so many unreliable sources, including Hollywood, and I wanted to know what the Hebrew Bible actually said about her.

            Samson and Delilah appear towards the end of the book of Judges, after the ancient Israelites returned to Israel from Egypt, but before the kingdom of Israel was established. To set the scene, the Israelite tribes were ruled by various chieftains and prophets and judges, but mostly they were under the thumb of other nations, like the Philistines and the Midianites. Then an angel came to Samson’s mother, known only as the wife of Manoah, to tell her that she will finally have a child, and that her son will be the one to overthrow their Philistine rulers, and therefore he must be dedicated to God, as a Nazirite. A Nazirite is someone who pledges not to drink alcohol, eat unclean food, spend time around unclean things, or cut his hair (this is, supposedly, the source of Samson’s great strength). I think you can already see a problem developing, since it’s his mother who makes this vow, and not Samson himself of his own free will.

   “You can’t tell me what to do.”       

It’s possible that Samson was a real historical figure, but it’s more likely that he was the Jewish version of the Hercules myth (or the Sumerian Enkidu or Greek Heracles), both because of the implication that the angel may be Samson’s real father, making him half divine, and because his story is filled with feats of supernatural strength, like slaying lions with his bare hands and killing a thousand men with the jaw bone of an ass.

“Isn’t that a bad word?”          

When Samson grows up he marries a Philistine woman, rather than an Israelite, despite parental objections. But at his wedding, his betrothed “nags” him for the answer to a riddle he has told to the men of her tribe, and then she tells the men the answer so that they can win the bet they’ve made with Samson. Despite the trivial nature of this betrayal, Samson is enraged and kills thirty random men and takes their clothes in order to give them to the men at the wedding, as their “reward.” Samson then burns the grain of the Philistines, and when they go in search of him, he kills a thousand more of them with the jawbone of an ass. Oh, and then his wife marries someone else.

The biblical authors suggest that God is creating all of these situations to inspire Samson’s hatred of the Philistines so that he will destroy them, which implies that Samson has no particular issue with the Philistines to start with and needs to be pushed. But the fact is, Samson kills a lot of people in this story, always in a rage, and always for his own reasons rather than for the betterment of his people. The biblical authors tell us that, somewhere in there, Samson rules Israel for twenty years, but no details are given on how he leads them or what he does for them.

Then, after twenty years of leading Israel, Samson falls in love with Delilah. The text makes a point of saying that Samson loves Delilah, but not that she loves him. The name Delilah is wordplay on the Hebrew word for night, Lilah, while the name Samson in Hebrew (Shimshon) is related to the Hebrew word for Sun, Shemesh. So there is an implication that night is set against day, but Samson does not seem like an especially sunny character. Delilah also means “delicate,” which is either an ironic touch or suggests another way of interpreting her behavior, or even her role in the story.

After the affair is established, Delilah is approached by the Philistines and bribed to find out the secret of Samson’s great strength. There is no explanation for why she goes along with this request. Does she need the money? Is her life threatened? Does she have her own grudge against Samson? We can only guess. Delilah asks Samson about the source of his strength, and he lies to her, and she believes his lie and ties him up and calls in the Philistines to capture him. But Samson, still at full strength, fights them off. Delilah complains to him that he doesn’t love her enough to tell her the truth and tries again, with the same result, three times. But, on Delilah’s fourth attempt to learn his secret Samson finally tells her the truth, that the secret to his strength is in his uncut hair. Delilah waits for him to fall asleep, calls in a servant to cut his hair, and then turns him over to the Philistines. The Philistines blind him and imprison him, but they forget to keep his head shaved. As his hair grows back he regains his strength, and when they bring him to dance for them at a festival, he pulls down a Philistine temple, killing himself and 3,000 Philistines with him.

But, why does Samson go along with Delilah’s game, knowing that she will betray him to the Philistines each time? She isn’t hiding her intentions at all. Is Samson so in love that he misses her obvious malice? Is he so arrogant that he assumes he will be able to fight off the Philistines no matter what? Is he very very stupid?

“Yes.”          

How has the story of Samson come down to us as a hero’s story about a naïve strongman taken down by a wily woman, when even a cursory reading shows him to be a mass murderer with a hair trigger temper (pun intended)? And how is Samson even a hero in this story? There are no heroic acts, no acts done for the sake of others. Even his final act of killing the enemy is for revenge rather than for the advantage of his people.

            In the movie version the story of Samson and Delilah was re-told as a great love story, where, after her terrible betrayal of him, Delilah then sacrifices herself with Samson, helping him to bring down the Philistine temple; the assumption being that she agrees that the Philistines are the enemy, and that Samson really is a hero. But there’s no basis for that interpretation in the text itself.

            Even though my goal in re-reading this story was to figure out Delilah, I’m wondering if she’s not really that important to the outcome after all. Yes, Delilah tries to manipulate Samson with her womanly wiles, but Samson should be able to see through her, and see everything else in his life much more clearly. He should be able to use his superior strength to lead his people to victory, but he doesn’t even try. Long before the Philistines blind him, Samson is already blind – to his own purpose in life, to the welfare of his people, and to God. Delilah is barely a cardboard cutout in this story, there to be blamed for Samson’s capture (because she’s a foreign woman), when clearly it was his own weaknesses that got him into trouble.

More than anything, I think this is a story about how it’s not enough for God to choose you, and to believe in you; you have to believe in God, and you need to have a moral purpose to guide your choices in life, or you’re lost.

The final story in the book of Judges, the one set up by Samson’s failures to lead, is a brutal rape and a resulting civil war, and the biblical author repeats, over and over again, that this is what happens when there is no leader and every man can do as he pleases. But beyond a lack of leadership, the people lack a sense of right and wrong. They see their relationship with God as covenantal, as a deal: we do for God and God does for us. And the lesson they learn from the period covered in the book of Judges is that each time they break their covenant with God, they are overtaken by their enemies, or destroyed from within.

It takes much longer for them to even consider the question of morality, or the idea that our actions have consequences, in this world. These are my ancestors, and while they are not who I would have hoped for, we don’t get to choose our families. We can only learn from their mistakes and strive to make the world we live in a better place, through our own actions.

We chose our family, Mommy, and that worked out well.

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

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

Going Back to In-Person Synagogue Services

            I’m on the Ritual Committee at my synagogue and we were tasked with deciding whether or not (but really when) to go back to Friday night services in person. The re-opening committee (a group with health and building expertise, brought together by Covid) gave us the go ahead, saying that we could safely have one hundred people in the sanctuary – as long as they are masked and socially-distanced. Our job was to decide whether to take them up on the offer, and if so, how to manage the transition, especially whether to do a hybrid service or not.

We’ve had in-person Bar and Bat Mitzvah services all along, adapting to changing protocols as necessary, with limited in-person guests and a lot of Zooming and masks and social distancing and temperature taking. They even started to have food trucks outside of the synagogue, to allow for some kind of celebration. But most of our congregational events have been on Zoom for the past year. We had a few hybrid beach services last summer, but the Zoom side of those services was not very good. And while the hybrid synagogue school classes have been acceptable, they haven’t really been successful.

But now, with so many congregants vaccinated, and planning for High Holiday services in September underway, it seemed like the right time to consider in-person Friday night services, for those who would want them.

“I’m ready!”

            (By the way, I had my second vaccine shot a few weeks ago and survived; there was that one day when I felt like I was on a creaky rowboat in the middle of a thunderstorm, but the feeling passed. Sort of.)

“Ugh. I’m gonna vomit.”

We decided immediately that, if we returned in person, we would have to do a hybrid service, including interactions on Zoom, because we couldn’t go back to a one way/streaming style for online services, with a single camera catching the service from a distance and no chance for online folks to participate in discussions. Over the past year of zoomed services, congregants who wouldn’t usually be able to get to the synagogue on a Friday night, because they were out of town or not feeling well or not up to driving at night, have been able to attend by Zoom and feel like full members of the community. We’ve had members who were wintering in Puerto Rico or Vermont, or living full-time in New York City or Albany zooming in on a regular basis and participating in ways that used to be impossible. We couldn’t go back to what we used to do and leave those members out.

            The problem is, in order to do this right, we are going to need better technology – like overhead microphones to capture the in-person audience singing and speaking, and more cameras placed around the sanctuary, and someone to keep track of the tech, and…it’s a lot.

“Oy.”

            Given the difficulties involved in hybrid services, and the fact that we still can’t have an Oneg (coffee and cake and schmoozing in the social hall) after services, and we’ll still have to wear masks and social distance in the sanctuary, and we may not even be allowed to sing indoors, it’s hard to get excited about returning to in person services again. And going in person will mean leaving the dogs at home, and actually having to get dressed, and drive. These are definite downsides. I get tired by eight o’clock at night and just want to sit around in my pajamas and watch TV, not get dressed up and drive and worry about how my hair looks from the back. And spending most of the service on mute means I can try out new harmonies without feeling self-conscious that someone will hear me and object, and I can turn to Mom and make snide comments about whatever I’m seeing on screen, as long as I cover my mouth to avoid the lip readers. But, there’s something special about getting to see people in person, and I feel an obligation to at least try to make it work.

“People are over-rated.”

And yet, chances are high that people will be impatient and obnoxious, out of frustration with the inevitable glitches, and online folks may unmute themselves in the middle of the service to tell us that they can’t hear what’s going on, or to complain that they are being neglected. And the in-person folks may get angry about all of the pauses, and having to repeat themselves. We are not a quiet, what-will-be-will-be sort of congregation, so the complaints will be plentiful. And a lot of the stay-at-home people still haven’t figured out zoom etiquette, so we will have big screens in the sanctuary full of people’s foreheads or ceilings, and I will definitely get seasick from the constantly moving iPhones.

            I don’t really want to go back yet, honestly, but I feel like I should. I can’t donate thousands of dollars to a fund drive to pay for new technology, but I can sacrifice a few hours to be a Guinea pig and help figure out how to make the hybrid services work a little better. And I miss being in an actual space with other people, instead of just a virtual one. But, the singing part really is a deal breaker for me. If we can’t sing in person I’d much rather be on Zoom. Progress be damned.

            But, despite all of that, we decided to go ahead with the experiment, even with the costs and complications involved, even though I will miss being able to turn off the computer and instantly be at home, without having to make awkward small talk or try to signal Mom across the social hall that I really want to go home, even though she is in the middle of a fascinating discussion of how best to protect her plants from the insect hordes. She has a tendency to “misunderstand” my signals, or ignore them entirely, when a conversation really interests her.

            I’m not sure I’m optimistic about how this will turn out, but I am determined to try. And we’ll see how it goes. It might be terrible, but it could also be the first step on the road back to normal. Whatever that might be.

“We have no idea.”

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?

Jezebel and Polytheism

            During my search for something in the Hebrew Bible to write a Midrash (AKA biblical fan fiction) about, I realized that I haven’t read the book itself closely enough yet to know how I want to re-write it; I’m still grappling with what these stories were meant to teach me in the first place. I have to remind myself that the goal of the Hebrew Bible is to convince the reader to believe in one god, Yahweh, rather than to tell the absolute truth, and therefore, anything that detracts from belief in that one god is characterized as evil, even if, in our modern view of morality, it isn’t evil at all. Given my cursory understanding of history, it seems like women were given more power and authority by the polytheistic religions that came before, and were then put down by monotheism. And I don’t understand why that was a necessary part of the transition to a One God system, or if it was.

“Girl Power!”

The story of Jezebel, in the book of Kings, focuses on this transition from a female-friendly polytheism to a male-centric monotheism, and it portrays foreign women, and the worship of any God other than Yahweh, as evil. And we have taken this portrayal of Jezebel as fact, because the Bible says it’s so. But is it?

            I know that many modern women have tried to find redeeming value in Jezebel (I did that myself by naming a protagonist after her), but I was willing to believe that she was as wicked as advertised, because I think there’s value in recognizing that women are capable of unforgivable harm; that you don’t have to be a man to be evil. Except, often in the Hebrew Bible, what the evil women are accused of seems more like rebellion, or a different opinion, than true evil.

Jezebel was a priestess of Baal and the daughter of the Phoenician king, and she was married to Ahab, the king of Israel, in a political alliance. She was raised with her own gods, including Baal and Astarte, and did not switch over to Yahweh when she married Ahab. Why? Because she came from a place where both male and female gods were worshipped, and when she married and moved to Israel there was only one, lone, Male God, and, not surprisingly, she didn’t appreciate the change.

“Me neither.”

            The biblical authors don’t like that her husband, the king, builds a temple of Baal, rather than forcing her to worship his national God. They accused her of interfering with the exclusive worship of Yahweh among the people of Israel and bringing in her own gods, as if that is her main crime. In one parenthetical sentence it says that Jezebel has been killing off the prophets of Yahweh, so she may also be a murderer, but there’s no explanation for why she’s doing it, or for how she would have the power to do so without the King’s okay.

            Her crimes seem to be: being a powerful woman able to hold her own against men, and being a polytheist instead of a Yahwist. Her own morality and use of power are questionable, but not more so than her husband’s or other kings of Israel. In fact, King Ahab is considered one of the worst kings of Israel. He reigns for twenty-two years, and the Bible says, he did what was displeasing to God even more than his predecessors.

The prophet who speaks up against Jezebel and Ahab in the Book of Kings is Elijah, and he asks the Israelites how long they will keep hopping between Yahweh and the other gods. His fight is with Polytheism and with the temptation to worship other gods. Elijah and the prophets of Yahweh fight the prophets of Baal and win, and then Elijah kills all 450 prophets of Baal. So Jezebel is evil for killing the prophets of Yahweh, but Elijah is pure for killing 450 prophets of Baal? Doesn’t that make both of them killers?

Elijah confronts King Ahab and predicts that he and all of his heirs will be destroyed, and that dogs will devour Jezebel. Eventually, the King is killed in battle, and his sons become kings for short periods of time each and then they die too.

            We finally return to Jezebel in chapter nine of the second book of Kings. She is sitting in her room in the palace, putting on her makeup, when the new king arrives and has Jezebel thrown out of the window by her eunuchs. He drives over her body with his chariot, and she is devoured by dogs, as the prophecy foretold.

“Eeeeew.”

But is she being punished as a murderer? Or for worshiping foreign gods? For me, it matters.

            Polytheism is the worship of multiple gods, often assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses representing forces of nature and ancestral principles. Sometimes these gods are seen as completely separate individuals, and other times they are seen as aspects of a single god – which resonates with how God is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. God is given many names in the Hebrew Bible –  Yahweh, El, Elohim, El Shaddai, Tzevaot, Yah, Adonai, etc. – and many attributes – healer, merciful, warrior, infinite, strong, omnipresent, shepherd, righteous, Rock of Israel, etc. Possibly the variety comes from so many different authors, but, conveniently, absorbing the names and attributes of the surrounding gods helped the biblical authors to convince the Israelites to stop worshipping foreign gods; if you prized strength or mercy or healing or war, you could find any and all of those qualities in the one god, like in a big box store.

            Polytheism is actually a more comprehensive way of depicting the multiple aspects of the self, and the contradictory nature of the universe. Monotheism attempts to determine what is good (loyal to God) and what is evil (antagonistic to God), and tries to explain how all of our different qualities can exist within a single person, or a single universe. But that doesn’t mean that the particular forms of monotheism that we believe in are right, or lead to more moral behavior in human beings. If anything, Monotheism encourages more black and white thinking, ignoring the grey areas, and giving in to totalitarian leadership systems, whether they strive for actual goodness or not.

            Jezebel’s role in the story is to play the straw (wo)man, that Elijah, as God’s representative, is able to tear down. But even a surface level reading of Kings tells us that Elijah’s behavior is no more moral than Jezebel’s, no more compassionate or reasonable or just. Elijah wins because he backs the protagonist of the book: Yahweh.

“Where’s MY book?”

            So where does that leave me? Why do I believe in one God rather than many? Do I believe in the Yahweh portrayed in the Bible, or a more modern iteration that my ancestors wouldn’t recognize? Can I find fault with the Hebrew Bible and still look to it for guidance?

            I think the lesson I learn over and over is that this book is the memoir of a flawed people, groping towards a vision of God and community that will be able to sustain them and help them find peace. But, clearly, the Hebrew Bible is not always meant to be taken literally; even great rabbis have understood this. This book is not the last word on morality; it’s a starting point.

If seeing the Hebrew Bible this way makes me a Jezebel, so be it. I’m in good company.

“Do you mean us?”

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 Other Door

            Since the beginning of the Covid shutdown last March, the clergy at my synagogue have been hosting zooms to discuss both serious and unserious topics, to maintain our social connections from home. Sometimes I can’t make it to a session with the Rabbi or the Cantor, but it’s reassuring to know they’re always there and always coming up with something interesting to talk about. Ellie comes to every zoom, sitting on my lap, while Cricket sleeps in her bed next to me.

The one time Cricket came to Zoom

A few weeks ago, at one of our clergy connections, the Cantor was asking us how our idea of time has changed during the pandemic. He looked into references to time in biblical and Talmudic sources, but to me it seemed obvious, as in so many other areas, that dogs are the secret to mental health in general and to structuring time in particular; having to take the dogs out four times a day – marking breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime – has kept me on a regular schedule all year, despite not always remembering which day it is.

“I’m ready to go again!”

            The dogs even make sure we stay aware of the seasons, because they don’t believe in skipping walks on cold days or rainy days or hot days. In reality, they do have preferences, but until they get to the front door and see and feel the weather for themselves, they are always confident that it’s beautiful outside. Often, when I open the door and the front steps are covered with snow, or rain and wind are aiming themselves straight at us, the dogs look up at me as if I’ve betrayed them, I told the group, and the Cantor said, yes, they want the other door.

What?!

Our cantor is a big fan of science fiction, so he would be the one to see that connection, but it sounded so right.

Is it possible that my dogs actually believe that I am choosing this snowy/rainy/windy world on purpose, just to annoy them? Of course it’s possible! They want the door that opens to the outside world that’s warm and smelly and rich with sounds, none of this weather business, and they are convinced that I could get that for them, if I wanted to. Mean Mommy.

“That’s my line.”

            Of course, this idea sent me cruising down a rabbit hole and I mostly missed the rest of the discussion about the nature of time. I was too preoccupied with the possibility that we could choose a different door and get a different world. If it were possible, would I choose the door to our world, or to somewhere else? I don’t know. There’s something reassuring about not having a choice, and having to make do with what reality brings. I love the Harry Potter books, and the idea of magic wands and magic words, but, too much magic could mean that there would be no rules and no consequences to our actions, or to anyone else’s. How would we learn how to adapt to other people and take responsibility for our behavior, if when one world gets tough we could just choose another door? Would there be infinite other doors? How would we know which one to choose? If we could choose the more pleasant, easy world, would that lead to a happier life?

            It’s a truism that reality is stranger than fiction, and often more frustrating and chaotic, but it can also be more interesting and definitely more varied than what we could imagine for ourselves. The desire for alternative facts, and the belief that all news is fake if it’s not what we want to hear, have become prominent (again) over the past few years. And I understand it. I understand finding reality overwhelming and incomprehensible and wanting it to be something different, something more comfortable and less challenging.

            But isn’t that what fiction is for? We get to read and write stories about what’s behind that other door, as a way to escape reality, but also as a way to reshape how we understand our realities, and find ways to cope with them, and tame their chaos. When we return to the real world from the fictional one we can feel rejuvenated, and use the knowledge and insight we’ve gained from our trip through that other door to make our real lives better.

            This is just a thought experiment, unless you know something about alternate dimensions existing in our world that I am not privy to. But sometimes it helps to think through these impossibilities, like if we’d choose to live forever, or what we’d do if we won the lottery, in order to appreciate the value of the world we actually have.

            Except, does this thought experiment really lead to more contentment with the here and now? I wonder if Cricket and Ellie would find such joy in a breezy spring day, full of smells and sounds to explore, if that’s what they experienced every day. And I think, probably yes.

            But we’ll never know for sure. Right?

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?

Life in the Absurd

            Out of the blue, one evening, Mom got an email about a pop-up vaccine site taking people over 65, and she called and got an appointment for the next morning. And then, after she’d gotten the vaccine and scheduled her second shot, she felt so guilty that she’d gone without me, and that so many of the sites on Long Island were reserved for older people and not for essential workers or teachers, that she started obsessively watching for new sites, and nagging me to do the same. I didn’t enjoy having to jump onto the computer each time she saw a hint of a possibility of an appointment for me, especially because they all turned out to be nothing. But then, three weeks later, an email arrived saying that there was a site taking people over 60 and teachers, from our town. She emailed back and got me an appointment for that evening.

            The only problem was that I was still at synagogue school, where I was so overwhelmed with the laptop and iPad (to teach the remote kids), while also corralling the in-person kids, that I didn’t think to check my phone. By the time I got home Mom was standing in the parking lot, waiting for me. She yelled through the window of the car that I had an appointment, and I screamed back, for what?

            The Pharmacy was in a small strip mall two towns over, down a badly lit hallway and behind a non-descript door. It was some kind of specialist compound pharmacy, with one pharmacist and two helpers, and I was one of the last appointments of the day. I made sure to tell the pharmacist that I teach synagogue school, in case she wanted to disqualify me on the spot as not a real teacher, but she just nodded and asked where I teach, and then she told me that I was getting the Moderna vaccine, and stuck the needle in my arm. One of her assistants filled out a vaccine card and scheduled my second appointment, and then they sent me on my way.

            It took all of five minutes, and I had a hard time processing that I had really gotten the shot, even while holding an ice pack against my right shoulder. Two days later my left shoulder started to hurt, in the same spot as on my right shoulder. I tried to find a reasonable explanation for it, like maybe I’d been sleeping on my left side to protect the right shoulder, though that didn’t explain the pinpoint nature of the pain. But I was still wiped out from synagogue school, or from the vaccine shot, or both, and I couldn’t really think it through.

 The next day, which turned out to be the second windiest day of the year, I decided I had plenty of energy to do the food shopping on my own, even though Mom said it was too cold to go out and she and the dogs all gave me funny looks. Instead of wearing my hair in braids or a pony tail, which is what I’ve been doing since my hair got so Covid-long, I left it down, and it rose in a whirlwind around my face until I couldn’t see a damn thing. Then I went into the supermarket and filled my cart with everything on the shopping list, and only realized at the checkout that I didn’t have my pocketbook with me. I asked if they could watch my cart, melting ice cream and all, at the customer service desk, and then ran out to the car, hoping my pocketbook would be sitting on the passenger seat waiting for me. It wasn’t.

“Oy.”

I knew I had to drive home and find my pocketbook, but I was afraid someone would see me driving away and think I was a criminal of some kind, racing out of the parking lot. It was only when I’d pulled out into traffic, heart racing, that I thought to check under Mom’s cushion on the passenger seat, and of course my pocketbook was right there. I was relieved and flustered and had a hard time figuring out where to make my U-turn back to the supermarket. I parked in the same exact spot I’d just left and then ran out, forgetting my mask in the car, so I had to race back and find it on the floor, under Mom’s cushion, which I’d managed to toss into the air in my frenzied search for my pocketbook.

I tried to walk back into the supermarket like a sane, rational person and gracefully guide my cart from the customer service desk to the next open checkout lane, but there were no open lanes, except for the self-checkout. I hate self-checkout. I don’t understand how this is supposed to be more convenient when every time I try to buy a fruit or a vegetable someone has to come over and play with the machine to get it to recognize my broccoli. But I paid for all of my groceries and managed to put them in my reusable and refrigerator bags, piled to the top of the cart. As soon as I got outside, of course, the bag on top of the pile fell off the cart, and the receipt flew away in the wind, never to be seen again. By the time I got home I felt like I’d been through all of the Herculean labors, and fell into bed, exhausted.

“I totally get it.”

            I’m pretty sure my life isn’t the only one falling into the absurd lately, but I like to tell myself that mine is the most absurd, just so I can feel like I’m winning at something.    

The fact is, everything has seemed nonsensical for a long time now, as if we’ve all been suffering from pre-Covid brain fog for years. There was that weird four year period when our president was a white supremacist, and then that year when people refused to wear face masks to protect them from a deadly disease. And then there were those news outlets that only believed in alternative facts. It was weird. Okay, it’s still weird. States are rapidly putting new voting restrictions into place, after what was deemed the most secure election in US history by the Republican in charge of cyber security. And US senators are proclaiming that they didn’t feel threatened by men with bear spray and flag poles attacking the Capitol police and setting up a gallows to hang politicians, but one little black woman knocking on a door in the Georgia Legislature clearly scared the bejeezus out of them.

“Humans are weird.”

            There are times when I believe that God is everywhere, and that the universe is a web of invisible circuits that bring us all together. And then there’s the rest of the time, when I still believe that God is everywhere, but I’m pretty sure the web of invisible circuits is broken, or at least rotting at significant junctures. Hopefully, once we’ve all been vaccinated we can start to do the work of fixing those connections.

To that end, I thought I’d share some new liturgical music from the musical director/composer/rabbinical student from my synagogue whom I’ve mentioned in the past (I make a short appearance in the choral section of the video.) The title of the song is HaRofei, which means the healer, and it’s based on Psalm 147. The lyrics alone are wonderful, but with the music and all of the voices and instruments he was able to bring together, it’s a stunner. https://youtu.be/fmsMljlUWok

“Where are the dogs?”

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

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

Miriam’s Well

            Tonight is the first night of Passover, and I’ve been thinking about how this Jewish holiday makes me feel – this weeklong commemoration of the escape from slavery to freedom – and why it doesn’t make me feel free. Maybe it’s because so much of Judaism, both in its ancient and modern forms, leaves out the stories of women; the Hebrew Bible, and the advent of Monotheism, were bathed in misogyny and the distrust and erasure of women, and that absence of women feels especially obvious at the Passover Seder.

“But I’m at the Seder.”

            People have come up with all kinds of ideas for how to make the Seder more inclusive, more fun, more meaningful, or shorter. At the yearly Women’s Seder at my synagogue we add something called a Miriam’s Cup to the table, but there was never an explanation for what the cup was meant to represent and I assumed it was an afterthought, a salve to make women feel included.

The Hebrew Bible describes Moses, and his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, as delivering the Jews from exile in Egypt, together: “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” Miriam’s claim to fame is that, as a child, she was the one who stood by the Nile to watch as her baby brother Moses was picked up by the daughter of Pharaoh. And then, after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, she encouraged the Israelites to sing and dance and praise God for the miracle of the splitting of the sea, even as the sea swallowed the Egyptian soldiers chasing after them in Exodus: “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her to dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’”

And yet, there are very few other references to Miriam in the Hebrew Bible, and no traditional rituals to celebrate her, in the Passover Seder or elsewhere. And that made me wonder why, if she was so important, she was largely left out of the telling of the story? There’s understatement and then there’s neglect.

Even her name is a problem: Miriam is a form of the Hebrew word for “bitter.” The assumption is that her parents gave her that name because of their hard lives as slaves in Egypt, but what you call a person matters; it impacts how you see them and how they see themselves.

“What does Ellie mean?”

When used at the Seder, Miriam’s Cup sits next to Elijah’s Cup (of wine) on the table. Elijah’s cup is set aside for the Prophet Elijah to drink when he comes to visit the Seder (Elijah is like a drunken version of Santa Claus, visiting every Seder in one night, through the open door instead of the chimney, but leaving no gifts). Elijah rode a chariot of fire into the whirlwind and was “translated” to heaven, without dying, and his visits to the Seder represent the hope for the coming of the Messiah. But Miriam had her feet solidly on the ground, and she died, like any other mortal, so her placement with Elijah at the table seems strange.

And yet, in 1987, Leila Gal Berber wrote a second verse to the song we sing about Elijah the Prophet, called Miriam the Prophetess, to be sung at the Seder, and weekly at the Havdallah service that ends the Sabbath each Saturday night. Miriam’s verse celebrates her as a redeemer, like Elijah, but that has never been her role. And, to me, it feels disrespectful to act as if the only way to honor Miriam is to tack her onto Elijah’s song, where she doesn’t belong.

“Harrumph.”

Why isn’t Miriam’s role as part of the leadership team that brought the Israelites out of Egypt enough? Why can’t she be celebrated with her brothers instead of with Elijah, who comes from a completely different part of the Hebrew bible? Aaron was the high priest, and Moses spoke to God, and Miriam acted as the first Cantor or prayer leader for the Israelites, teaching a people who had been raised in slavery to celebrate their freedom. Why isn’t that good enough? Miriam, unlike Moses, grew up as a slave. She never lived the privileged life Moses lived as an adopted member of the royal family. And yet, she celebrated God, who didn’t bother to speak directly to her. She had the faith and courage to help lead her people out of Egypt, despite having no experience of freedom to bolster her faith that life on the other side would be better.

            Why can’t we celebrate her for that?

But also, I didn’t understand why Miriam would be honored with a cup of water, while Elijah was honored with a cup of wine. And I was curious enough about that to go a-googling. I found out that Miriam’s Cup is meant to remind us of Miriam’s Well, the source of water that kept the Israelites alive through forty years in the desert, a story I’d never heard growing up. It turns out that the Rashi, a Medieval French Rabbi, derived the idea of Miriam’s Well from the description of Miriam’s death in the book of Numbers: “Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation.” He decided that the juxtaposition of her death and the sudden lack of water meant that while she was alive the Israelites had water, throughout the forty years in the desert, due to her. The connection is tenuous, but some explain it as a result of Miriam’s guardianship of her baby brother by the waters of the Nile, or because of her celebration by the Sea of Reeds. Others see the well as a universal symbol of femininity, like a womb.

The Seder does seem like the right place for Miriam, and the cup of water could be made into a meaningful symbol of her role in the Exodus, because without water there is no survival, let alone freedom. Water is the most basic thing we need in order to stay alive, and yet, it is also something we tend to take for granted, like women.

There’s so much potential here, for water as a symbol of the feminine, and of freedom and survival, but it only works if we spin the story out, and if it expands from just the Women’s Seder (which takes place weeks before the actual holiday) to being included in the official Seders on the first and second nights of Passover; where everyone is included, and everyone can hear.

The story of Miriam’s Well can teach the importance of having water in the desert, and having a sister who looks out for you, and having a prayer leader who reminds you to sing and dance and celebrate, even when you are afraid. There is another song about Miriam, by Debbie Friedman, that celebrates the way Miriam led the singing and dancing after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, which is sometimes sung at the Women’s Seder as well. Maybe if we can sing her song and tell her story at the Seder, Miriam can inspire us to add women back into our history and restore what has been erased. And, maybe then Passover will feel like a true expression of freedom, an experience of being free to speak and to be who we are, for all of us.

“Like us.”

This is a version of Debbie Friedman’s Miriam’s Song, by Project Kesher, working to empower Jewish women around the world – https://www.kveller.com/this-cover-of-debbie-friedmans-miriams-song-is-so-inspiring/?fbclid=IwAR3akG-p4sTMYJUpEGq9gG76U8HdfXctfVlRe_I09L-Oh6MRplAlEozF5UI

This is a version of Min Hameitzar, which is often sung as part of Passover services. The words translate, basically, to: From the narrow place I called on God and he answered me in the expanse. God is for me, I won’t fear, what can Man do to me? - https://youtu.be/EMe4-ggSkdY

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

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

A Purim Spiel

            The last thing we did in person at my synagogue last year, before the Covid shut down, was the Purim Spiel. Everyone was crowded into the sanctuary, with congregants of all ages singing from the “stage.” A few days later, the world stopped, but we had no idea that we’d be living on Zoom for an entire year, or more, and that our next Purim Spiel would be presented entirely on Zoom.

            I’d never seen a Purim Spiel (or even heard of one) before coming to my current synagogue nine years ago, but it turns out that they have been a Jewish tradition for centuries. A Spiel is a play (from the German/Yiddish) and a Purim Spiel is a comic version of the story from the Book of Esther that we read each Purim, with a lot of leeway for modern interpretations, humor, music, and especially satire. Many politicians and Very Important People have been lampooned in Purim Spiels across the world.

“Am I a Very Important Person?”

            At our synagogue, the Cantor writes the Purim Spiel each year, usually adapting popular songs to fit the Purim story: there was a Star Wars version, a Wizard of Oz version, a Billy Joel Extravaganza, etc. Once a year, it’s a chance for doctors and lawyers and teachers and children to get up on stage and sing their hearts out to an audience filled with every age group, including children dressed as unicorns and cowboys and princesses.

“That will never happen to me.”

            The goal of the Purim Spiel is to provide a catharsis and to give us a chance to laugh, and after the devastations of Covid and the economy and politics this year, we really need that. It will be easier to take a deep breath and move into the more sober tone of the Biden years after getting what we’ve just been through out of our systems, and then we can wash our hands of it, as much as that’s possible.

            Purim isn’t a major holiday on the Jewish calendar, unlike Passover or Rosh Hashanah. It’s very likely that the holiday of Purim was instituted by the rabbis to give Jews something Jewish to celebrate at this time of year instead of being drawn into the celebrations of their neighbors. Purim may have been based on an ancient pagan festival, celebrating Marduk and Ishtar, two of the important pagan gods of the ancient Near East, with the names changed only slightly to Mordechai and Esther.

            The story of Esther, considered by most scholars to be historical fiction, rather than history, highlights one of the major themes in Jewish life across Millennia: anti-Semitism, the baseless hatred of Jews because they are “the other.” But in this story the Jews win, because Esther, a Jew who hides her Jewish identity, becomes queen of Persia and is able to thwart an attempted genocide of the Jewish people. It’s a court intrigue, with all of the misunderstandings and frivolity and devious plans and feasting and blood lust you can imagine. The main characters are the King (silly and gluttonous), his first wife Vashti (smart and rebellious), his new wife Esther, her uncle/cousin Mordechai who encourages her to play her role to save her people, and Haman, the Grand Vizier and the bad guy.

            Imagine if, instead of going along with Hitler’s Final Solution, German leaders had listened to Jewish voices and turned around and killed Hitler and his henchmen instead – that’s the Purim story. It’s a fantasy, and a welcome one for a people who have often been the targets of prejudice and genocide and need at least one day a year to imagine what it would be like to turn things around.

Like if I sent You to the groomer?”

            The original commemorations for Purim were more sober and serious and focused on the formal reading of the Book of Esther; the custom of masquerading in costumes and the wearing of masks probably originated among the Italian Jews at the end of the fifteenth century. But whether it was originally intended as a party or not, the playfulness and laughter and blurred boundaries of Purim feel essential now.

            Usually our synagogue also has a Purim carnival for the kids, with games and rides and a costume parade, and Hamantaschen to eat, but that will not be possible this year. Hamantaschen were another late addition to the holiday, based on a German cookie called a Mahn-tash or poppy pocket, filled with sweet poppy seed paste. Hamantaschen are three-cornered cookies filled with sweet (or even savory) fillings, meant to resemble Haman’s three-cornered hat.

Triple Chocolate Hamantaschen (recipe from MyJewishLearning.com)

            For adults, Purim is also a time for drinking. The tradition is to drink until you don’t know the difference between cursed be Haman (the bad guy) and blessed be Mordechai (the good guy), maybe to let us know that feasting and drinking, and taking on the role of power, can make us into the bad guys if we’re not careful. We tend to learn these lessons best by acting them out, rather than just learning the theory, so this holiday is a low risk way to try out being one of the bad guys (with a mask), or to lose track of your moral rectitude for a moment (with alcohol), and re-learn the lesson that you need certain rules in place in order to be the person you want to be the rest of the year.

The masks and costumes are always fun, but resonate even more deeply this year. Many people who have been outsiders to society know how it feels to wear a mask in order to fit in, but we’ve all experienced the way masks can obscure aspects of who you really are, for better or worse, this year. Our Covid masks allow, or require, us to obscure who we are, and especially how we feel. I have masks for synagogue school, made by Mom, covered with chocolate chip cookies, or butterflies, or birds, or dogs, instead of plain surgical or black masks, because I can’t smile with a mask on and the colorful and playful fabrics can do that for me, even if I don’t feel like smiling underneath.

My Masks

            So this year the Purim Spiel was on Zoom, with wine and Hamantaschen optional, and without the music (because group singing on Zoom is heinous), but it still gave us a chance to act out our revenge fantasies, and laugh at ourselves. If nothing else, Jewish history has taught us that we can adapt to new circumstances, and make the best of what we have, as long as we continue to tell our stories and search for meaning, together.

“Where are the cookies?”

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?