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Choir Videos

            One of the more nerve wracking parts of my summer has been the process of rehearsing for and recording choir videos. Since my synagogue will be all virtual for the high holidays, and singing in a group over zoom is a non-starter, the cantor and the musical director came up with a plan to create ten choir videos to add to the Zooms, cutting together individual videos of all of the singers and musicians. This means that I listen to a guide track on my headphones, and sing at my computer screen, day after day. It is awful.

“Oh God, she’s singing again.”

            I hate looking at myself. I look like Mrs. Potato Head, but when I tried to look just over the computer screen to stare at the wall instead of at my face, the videos came out disturbing. I deleted one attempt after another until I finally decided to ask my mom to help me decide when it was good enough to send in (because left to my own devices it was clearly never going to be good enough).

            The first song took twenty rehearsals and ten to fifteen deleted videos, the second was not that much better, but by the third, maybe because we were finally singing just the Alto part and I could sing along with the head Alto on the guide track, I did the video in one shot. Three days of rehearsal leading up to it, of course, but even with the Mrs. Potato Head thing still going strong, I was happy with my vocal and willing to send it in.

            We’ve been having zoom rehearsals every two weeks, to familiarize us with the two or three pieces we need to perform before the following rehearsal, and to review the technological issues, like accessing the google drive folder where all of the music is hiding, and how to send in the oversized videos. I was so proud of myself after I finished the first batch of videos, and even had two days to go back to ukulele practice before the next rehearsal, but then, of course, the next set of songs were harder than the first.

            My favorite pieces are the ones where I can sing along with the head Alto, both because it’s comforting to hear her voice and because I can focus on the best parts of my vocal range. When we sing along with the cantor I’m usually singing an octave above him, so the notes that are easy for him are tough for me, and it feels more like harmony than unison. There’s something magical about singing the exact same note as someone else, as if there’s a sort of “ding” that goes off in my head that tells me I got it just right.

“Ding!”

            We won’t be doing much communal singing this year at my synagogue. During a normal year we would have a choir rehearsal every other week, just to hang out and learn new music, but with the average age of the choir members in the seventies, and the extra danger of passing Covid while singing, we’ll be staying on Zoom for the foreseeable future, which means we can learn a song, but we can’t sing it together. So I’m trying to make the most of the singing I get to do this summer. There’s some small sense of community from the Zoom rehearsals, but the real power comes from singing along with one other singer and the piano on the guide tracks, and knowing that, eventually, all of the voices will come together, somewhere in the cloud. And if that means I have to sit in front of a computer and stare at my potato head for minutes at a time, so be it.

            Cricket and Ellie have been kind enough not to laugh.

“It’s hard work.”

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 Writing Workshop for Tashlich

Last year, I ran two writing workshops at my synagogue, to help empower people to write their own blessings, and to validate more of their real emotions and experiences on a daily basis. I only had a small group of writers with me each time, but the work they did was revelatory and worth the effort. So, with the very unusual world we are living in today, and with High Holiday services scheduled to take place entirely on line, my rabbi asked me to come up with another workshop, on Zoom this time, to prepare for the ceremony of Tashlich, which usually takes place on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, outdoors. This will be our only chance to connect in person at a safe distance as a community during the holidays, and the rabbi wanted to give people a chance to prepare for it more fully, and also a way to include the people who, for reasons of health or age, would still not be able to participate in person.

The word Tashlich means “casting off,” and it is a ceremony where we gather together at a body of water to cast off our sins from the past year. This is when my congregation usually goes to a nearby pond, to hop over goose poop, meet everyone’s dogs, sing with the cantor, and toss our sins out to the ducks, in the form of birdseed or anything else that won’t kill them.

“Are we going to shul with you?”

It is one more avenue for doing Teshuvah (Repentance, or Return), which is the goal for the whole month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on through Yom Kippur. It’s sort of like a six-week version of the twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, including making amends for past bad actions. There is a heavy emphasis on sin and guilt, and the implication is that we’ve all got big garbage bags full of sins from the past year that we need to empty out.

I’m not a huge fan of the emphasis on Sin and Repentance, but I do see the value in looking back on the year to see how we’ve inevitably veered off track, or gotten preoccupied by too much external noise. And I like the idea of making the process of casting things off more concrete, creating a safe container for our more difficult realizations about ourselves, and the emotions connected to them, and then physically throwing them away.

Despite all of my experiences of Tashlich occurring at duck ponds, it turns out that the preference of the rabbis was that the body of water would have fish in it, because fish can’t close their eyes and therefore they remind us of God’s constant protective watch over the Jewish people. But, if you can’t get to a body of water, you can also toss your sins into a bucket of standing water, or into running water from the kitchen sink, or you can even flush them down the toilet. You can write your sins on paper towels, or tissues, or rice paper, or you can even write them in sidewalk chalk and wash them away with a hose, or water balloons!

“Don’t be silly.”

But the words Repentance and Sin were still holding me back, until Jon Batiste, the bandleader of The Late Show with Steven Colbert, said something I found really helpful. Colbert had asked him his thoughts about the late Congressman John Lewis’ influence on the world, and Jon Batiste said that he saw John Lewis’ legacy as an invitation to growth and change, as opposed to Steven Colbert’s feelings of guilt and shame as motivation for change.For me, an invitation implies that there’s a party to go to, and a pool of energy to tap into that doesn’t have to rely solely on what I can bring with me. That’s what I love about community (and about this blog community especially), that whatever I bring with me takes me to a place where there is so much more of what I need. I’m invited, with all of my questions and doubts and confusion, to join a party that will energize me for the next step in the journey.

At its best, that’s what a writing workshop can do (though if your experiences of writing workshops took place in graduate school, with strict deadlines and competitive classmates, you are probably scoffing right now). My goal with each writing workshop is to respond with a “yes, and” to everyone; to let their ideas lead all of us to more of our own thoughts and feelings, so that we walk away with more gifts than we could have created on our own.

This period of Teshuvah, which starts in mid-August this year, is also coming along at a good time, given the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence, and the time for reflection offered by the Covid 19 shut down, with its inevitable emphasis on mortality. In preparing for the writing workshop, I had to think about what I might want to cast out of my life this year, and the first thing on my list would be the time spent beating myself up for the passage of time, and for my turtle slow pace. If I can stop looking at the clock, and the calendar, and the competition, and just focus on my own next step, next year will be a lot more productive, and a lot more fun than this one.

“We need more fun.”

            May we all live kinder, happier, and more fulfilling lives in the year to come. And let us be there for one another on the journey, if only to answer: Amen.

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 Mumble Grumble Prayers

            One of my jobs as a synagogue school teacher is to teach my students how to pray, but sometimes I worry that I’m the wrong person for the job. I grew up going to a Conservative Jewish day school, where half of each school day was spent on Hebrew language, and Jewish history and customs, and prayers. But I don’t remember actively learning the why behind the prayers. I learned how to sing the prayers, and which prayers and blessings to say when, but the Kavanah, the intention, was most often left for last, or for never.

The assumption, I think, was that little kids couldn’t understand the deeper meaning yet, but by seventh grade I’d switched over to an Orthodox school where there was a sudden descent into the mumble grumble form of prayer. We didn’t focus on the music of the prayers much anymore, instead we gave value to the words of the prayers, with a requirement to read or say every single word. The problem was that the girls were given very little time to say the morning prayers, and it was mumble grumble, or nothing. Even at my most fluent, I couldn’t have even skimmed the Hebrew of the prayers in the short time allotted to us, though many of my classmates were able to do it, and even seemed to feel something. In orthodoxy, our teachers told us, the belief was that if we did the right things, and read the right things, and said the right things, we would become good Jews, even if we never understood the why of any of it. But for me, that method didn’t work.

“Harrumph.”

 I’m only responsible for teaching the kids a few prayers each year in synagogue school, which gives us time to learn the tunes, and the words (often in transliteration), but most of all the intention behind each prayer, which meant that I needed to know what those were; and in some ways I had to start from scratch. I did my research and reading, but most of my learning came from going to services myself. At my synagogue we learn a lot of different versions of the prayers, to emphasize different ways of looking at the words and meaning, but even when we use the same version over and over, we often stop to read a poem or hear a story first, to shed new light on the purpose of the particular prayer. And that has given me a lot of material to share with the kids, but, more often than not, I ask the kids if they can explain it to me.

“Huh?”

For example, the Mishaberach is a prayer for wishing someone healing from physical or emotional pain, so we spend some time talking about how a prayer might be able to comfort us, or give us strength, even if we don’t believe that God is answering our wishes directly. And when we look at the words of the Ve’shamru, a prayer we say on Friday nights to remind us of the obligation to celebrate Shabbat, I’ll ask them why we might need, or want, a reminder in the form of a prayer every week, especially one that we say after the Sabbath has already started. And then we can look at the Modeh Ani, one of the weekday morning prayers, in which we thank God for letting us wake up in the morning, returning our souls to us after a night in God’s safe keeping (go ahead, try to teach that concept to children without accidentally referencing zombies, I dare you).

“Zombies?!”

A lot of this focus on creating meaning is due to the fact that most progressive Jews (Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Conservative, etc.) don’t feel obligated to pray. In orthodoxy, you are supposed to accept the burden of obligation, in rituals, and daily behaviors, long before you ever learn the why behind the what, which is what makes mumble grumble prayer a help to them. In progressive Judaism the why always comes first, because many of the obligations have been made voluntary, which has its own risks.

Sometimes I worry that my synagogue school students are missing out by spending so little time on their Jewish education each week. I wouldn’t have been able to fill my brain with so much of the how of Judaism, and the history of Judaism, without half of each day of my childhood being set aside for learning how to be Jewish. And I feel lucky to have the background I have, and the wealth of information to tap into. My hope is that, in the time my students and I have together, they will learn to see the obligations of their religious community as more than worth the gifts they will get in return, especially because there are so many fewer obligations in Progressive Jewish life. And maybe this lighter touch will keep them from falling into the mumble grumble form of religion, where the obligations drown out the inspirations.

            In my ongoing search for ways help the kids to feel connected to the prayers, I went to a Zoom presentation by the founders of a musical group called the Nigunim Ensemble, based in Israel. They have created new versions of old prayers, incorporating chants and new rhythms from Arab, Persian, and popular Israeli music. Their message to our Zoom class was that the Jewish world can, and should, widen its ideas of prayer music, not only to include more people in our community, but to add more layers of emotion to the experience of prayer. And I was excited by all of the new sounds they were introducing to us, but for me, the message that came through most strongly was the sense of joy I heard in their voices. And I realized that not only singing good music, but singing in community, allows me to feel heard and accepted, as I am. And, when I feel heard by my community, I start to think that maybe God can hear me too.

“We can hear you, 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?

Writing Music

            As soon as I admitted to myself that I wanted to write a song, I stopped practicing the ukulele and the recorder. It wasn’t intentional, or even conscious, but when I look back, that’s the timing.

“I’m keeping it warm for you, Mommy.”

            I had been practicing three or four days a week at that point, not every day the way I’d promised myself but not too bad. And I’d been thinking about songwriting for a while, wondering what was stopping me, and wandering around the edges of the idea. And then, I think it was part of Holocaust Remembrance day at my synagogue, the Cantor shared songs with us during his Zoom, and showed us a version of  “Blessed is the Match” in Hebrew and English, based on a poem by Hannah Senesh, and, almost immediately, I wanted to rewrite it.

            Some background, Hannah Senesh was born in Hungary and immigrated to Palestine as a teenager. She joined the Haganah, the precursor to the Israeli army, and in March 1944, at age 23, she and others parachuted into Yugoslavia to assist with the rescue of Hungarian Jews who were being deported to concentration camps. She was caught by the Nazis, tortured and then killed by a firing squad. “Blessed is the Match” was written in Yugoslavia as she prepared for the rescue mission.

            This is the English translation the Cantor taught us:

            Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

Blessed is the heart that knows, for honors sake, to stop its beating.

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

I went looking for other versions of the song, hoping to find something wonderful, so I wouldn’t have to do the work. I found a few versions, one that sounded like a march, and another that sounded like a dirge, and I was still annoyed by the vague and sentimental way the English sounded, as opposed to the original Hebrew, and I hated the saccharine and schmaltzy orchestrations. Don’t get me wrong, I like sentiment and sweetness, but not for this.

“I always like sweet stuff!”

I started working on a new translation that afternoon, looking up possible variations in Google Translate until I came up with a formulation that sounded close to the original Hebrew, at least to me. Except, then I had to match the rhythm and meter of the English to the Hebrew, because I wanted the song to be sung in both languages, and that process helped me understand where the vague and sentimental versions had come from in the first place; matching Hebrew and English rhythms is very hard, because Hebrew is so much more terse than English.

Anyway, this is what I came up with:

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame.

Blessed is the match that burns in the depths of their hearts

Blessed are the hearts that know death is near and go on

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame

“Blessed” isn’t really the right translation for the Hebrew word “Ashrei,” but the more accurate translation, of “grateful” or “happy,” feels misleading, or at least uncomfortable in this context, so I stuck with Blessed.

            I still wasn’t thrilled with my version, but I wanted to start thinking about the music. I wanted a simple, clear, melody. I wanted the melody to do a lot of the work that my translation couldn’t do; I wanted the melody to convey the conflict hiding in the lyrics.

“Ask me. I know about conflict.”

            Hannah Senesh’s poem rides a very thin line between suicidality and heroism; a line that needs to be delineated clearly when you are talking about freedom fighters or soldiers. How do you stand up and say that you are willing to put your life at risk, without also sounding like you want to die? How do you express a desire to save others, without pretending to a kind of complete altruism and selflessness that you don’t feel?

            The central image of the poem is of a match that willingly goes out, or knowingly risks going out, for the sake of others. And that image is both beautiful and horrifying; it’s a sacrifice that no one should have to make, and that no one should be asked to make, but it’s a sacrifice that some people will choose to make anyway, in order to save those they love. This is why I didn’t like the saccharine iterations, where the assumption is that you would feel complete happiness in dying for those you love, or the military march versions, which suggest that your patriotism will make you so single minded that you will lack any regrets. I wanted the darkness, and the fear, and the love, and generosity, to be in the music all at the same time. No pressure, though.

            I’m not sure yet why this poem resonated so deeply for me. I am not selfless, and I don’t dream of being a hero and sacrificing myself for others, but something compelled me to sit down and write music for the first time in forever, just to capture some resonance I couldn’t articulate in words.

“Have you ever tried barks instead of words?”

            But working on the music, and trying different combinations of notes, and trying to count syllables and quarter notes, and trying to remember which keys have which flats and sharps, all opened a wound that seems to have been sitting there, full of puss, for years. I’d managed to tap into a dark morass of feelings of worthlessness and stupidity and guilt and shame that I didn’t know were there.

            As a writer, a long time ago, I was able to find mentors to help me get past the endless rules and criticisms I found in school; I read Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott and others, and I used freewriting to get to what I wanted to say, instead of what other people found acceptable and impressive. It took a lot of work, and I still get stuck, but I found a path to go down. With music, though, I never found that path. I tried listening to classical music, and I studied voice and piano and guitar, and I really tried to understand what people were saying about how to do it all correctly, but the theories and the math and the rules never made sense to me.

            I have a notebook full of songs from my early teens, but at some point I got stuck and I couldn’t write one more measure. All I heard in my head was, You Don’t Understand Music, Your math is wrong, your harmonies are stupid, and you don’t even know what a chorus is.

            I’ve made a tentative return to practicing ukulele and recorder, though. And I even wrote a poem in Hebrew a couple of weeks ago (most of which came to me in a dream), but the unfinished draft of “Blessed is the Match, with its unmoored musical notes scares me too much. I’m afraid it will be awful, and wrong, and explode in my face if I look too closely.

            I asked Cricket and Ellie to look at the draft for me and, though they are not trained bomb sniffing dogs, and they didn’t notice anything explosive on the paper. But I still can’t look at it, or, God forbid, try to sing it, or sound it out on the keyboard on my phone. Instead I’m writing about it, or trying to, and doing my best to build a bridge, one word at a time, to make my way across this dangerous sea.

“Are we going swimming?”

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 Problem with Charity

            I’ve always felt uneasy about giving charity. I can’t figure out which charities to help, or how to be helpful, or how to not feel guilty for all of the other charities I am therefore ignoring. As the Covid-19 pandemic has grown, I’ve watched others act generously, and give generously, and the peer pressure to do the same has been enormous, but still impossible to live up to.

“I don’t have peers, so I’m safe.”

We had a discussion about charity one Friday night at my synagogue, after hearing the results of a study that said the younger generation of Jews (AKA me) are not giving as much money to charity as previous generations. The consensus opinion among the older congregants was that young people don’t understand that charity is an obligation, and therefore they don’t even think about giving, either to their own communities, or to the needy, or to the arts, or medicine. The older congregants remembered their parents setting aside specific times to give Tzedakah to different charitable organizations. They would do this once a year, or once a month, or before major holidays, and they were purposely involved in the process by their parents, in order to teach them that this is an obligation they would need to live up to as adults.

The discussion then veered off into how we could (and should) use peer pressure to encourage people to give more money to charity; how we should purposely press on those guilt buttons and encourage competitive giving, and offer rewards to those who give, because people need to be pushed to do “the right thing.”

“Do NOT push me.”

And I was left feeling confused, and guilty, and troubled. Because I don’t want to be left to give charity on my own. I don’t have enough money to make a difference, and I don’t want to watch my single coin drop to the bottom of an empty well. I felt like something was missing from this discussion but I couldn’t figure out what it was, at least not right away. I needed to take some time to think about it.

            The word charity feels Christian to me, both because it is, and because it is so often paired with the word “Christian,” especially in all of the Christmas movies I inhale in November and December. The Hebrew word Tzedakah, though, has a somewhat different connotation, even though it is often translated as charity. Tzedakah literally means “righteousness” and refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just. The Torah requires that 10% of a Jew’s income be allotted to righteous deeds and causes.

            Except, from where I sit, giving charity is much more complicated than that. For example, in the United States, people can receive tax refunds for giving money to charity, and many corporations see giving charity as good publicity. Does charity given for selfish purposes still count as charity? Does charity given out of guilt still count as righteous?

            I don’t think I’m the only person from my generation who has noted the hypocrisy, and been put off by it. But for me, there’s also a more personal set of issues in the way. When I was a child, my father often made a show of putting a twenty dollar bill into the pushka (the tzedakah box) at our synagogue, after weekday morning services, or buying gifts for people at our synagogue that he didn’t really know, or helping other congregants when they were locked out of their cars. And at the same time, he refused to pay the bills at home, or fix things that were broken at home. My mother was often left to seek out hand-me-downs, or to buy furniture at St. Vincent De Paul, or to go to consignment stores and flea markets (though the last two she’d have done anyway), to make sure we had what we needed. And then my father would suddenly give us generous presents, though rarely what we asked for, or needed. At the same time, he spent a lot of money on clothes and shoes and hats and books and classes for himself.

            It was very hard for my brother and I to figure out what we could actually afford as a family, and my brother just decided that we were poor, even though in reality we were solidly middle class, given our parents combined incomes, where we lived, and where we went to school, even with scholarships.

“Did you have to walk six miles, uphill, in the snow, to get your chicken treats?”

In graduate school for social work, I heard a lot about the debate between needs-based and rights-based approaches to poverty. Needs-based thinking leads to charity and philanthropy, or voluntary giving to the “deserving” poor. Rights-based thinking includes changes in government policy, income redistribution, wage floors and cash subsidies, so that poverty can be eradicated and no one is seen as “undeserving.”

            As a child, I believed (often incorrectly) that paying taxes would mean lifting everyone up out of the risk of poverty, and creating a social safety net. I thought taxes equaled that ten percent we were required to give to good works, plus some more for roads and bridges. I believed that we paid our taxes so that we could all have our basic needs met. Over time, I started to realize that this wonderful safety net I’d imagined was more like a Swiss cheese umbrella, and I could easily get rained on. I heard screeds against anyone who would apply for disability or Medicaid, like me, instead of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. And I realized that, in the eyes of a lot of people who did not know me, I would qualify as the “undeserving” poor.

            Often, the excuse for not covering the holes in our social safety net is that “charities can handle that.” Except, why would we prefer something as unreliable as charity over obligatory protections?

I think that a big part of why people prefer charity to taxes is that giving charity feels good. I see it in my synagogue all the time. The same people who grumble at having to pay yearly dues (to pay for salaries, building maintenance and repairs, taxes, and other boring things), will gladly give money at a fundraiser, or offer money to charity, or give time as a volunteer. Partially it’s because it looks like generosity, but more often it’s because it feels like generosity. It feels so much better to give a gift that you are not required to give, than to give what is required.

            I remember an episode of Law & Order where a man became addicted to giving away his organs. He wasn’t selling them, or selling his blood, or skin, or whatever else he was giving away, but the feeling of giving and of being generous was so intoxicating for him that he couldn’t stop, even when it put his own life at risk. But, he insisted that the person who received his generous gift be “deserving,” and he was the only one who could determine their worthiness. In fact, he felt justified in killing someone in order to re-gift an organ to someone he deemed more worthy. Giving charity gave him the power over life and death, literally.

            As, as a child, I would have preferred to have an allowance, or clear guidelines for what I could and could not have, instead of randomly receiving gifts (or charity) from my father, when he wanted to give them. And I feel the same way now. I’d rather know what kinds of support I can rely on, and where it will come from, so that I can plan ahead, and not feel constantly on edge about whether the needed gift will come in time, or whether I even deserve that gift.

“When do I get my chicken treats?”

In response to Covid-19, at first, the federal government of the United States seemed to be stepping up and taking responsibility for compensation, not just because we needed help, but because we had a right to it. We wouldn’t have to pay for testing, and we could rely on unemployment and subsidies and rent freezes to allow us to stay home as long as necessary. This made sense to me, both because other countries were doing their own versions of the same thing, and because it was clear that our government could have limited the impact of Covid-19, by testing early and often, providing adequate protective equipment to health care workers, and doing contact tracing as soon as the first cases were discovered.

Pretty quickly, though, it became clear that the measures put in place were wildly inadequate, with underfunded and understaffed unemployment plans, and much of the loan money meant to go to small businesses going to companies who had pre-existing relationships with the big banks. And despite those clear failures, congress was unwilling or unable (depending on your perspective) to offer further support. In response, some politicians advocated reopening businesses and throwing senior citizens into the volcano to appease the Covid gods. And then, because we thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, it became clear that the federal government’s already weak response to the coronavirus had dropped precipitously at the same time as studies began to show that poor people and people of color were being disproportionately impacted.

And, as usual, kind and generous people stepped in with charitable organizations to try to fill the gaps. Except, charity means that each individual gets to choose who they want to help, and who they don’t, and many people who needed help were left with nothing.

I have a tendency towards cynicism and hopelessness, expecting failure at every turn, but lately I have been seeing evidence that real change is possible, if you fight for it. I want to learn how to be hopeful and to believe that the current wave of protests and education and political change will take us further than we’ve been able to go in the past. Because honestly, if we don’t make a change soon, I think we’re screwed.

“Uh oh. Mommy used a bad word.”

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?

I want to be back in the classroom in September, not on Zoom

            The staff of the synagogue school where I work is spending the summer, just like every other school, planning for the unknown. We’re doing curriculum development and lesson planning, for every scenario, and we’re building our technical abilities, and looking for ways to re-interpret our current ways of teaching for a two dimensional world.

            But it sucks.

“Harrumph.”

            I mean, I’m grateful that we’re doing all of this preparation, so that it won’t feel like we’re being dropped into a sea of ice cold water, again. And I’m grateful that the technology exists, both to allow us to work together from afar all summer, and to build up our online classrooms into more interesting places. But I want to see my kids. I want to hear them; without one person’s microphone blocking out everyone else’s, or all of their voices coming at me through a delay, or some of the kids not coming through at all because their internet connections are spotty or because every member of their family is online at once. I want to be able to talk with one of my kids privately, if they seem upset, without everyone else noticing or listening in. I want to be able to make eye contact with the quiet kid in the corner who thinks he’s invisible.

“Can you see me, Mommy?”

            Zoom, even with all of the bells and whistles, and integration with other apps and games and videos, is not the real world. I miss being able to talk to my students and forget what I look like, or what I’m wearing, or how silly I look when I’m trying to dance. I miss seeing all of the other kids in the hallways, and catching the eye of another teacher as we silently ask each other “are you okay?” And I miss being able to shut the door of my car at the end of the day and feel the transition from work to home starting to sink in.

“Be quiet. I’m sleeping.”

            But I really miss being able to close the door of my classroom and knowing that it’s just me and the kids for a while, with no one looking over our shoulders, or recording our conversations, or judging each move we make or each word we say.

            It’s not that my classroom is so awful that it can’t withstand the scrutiny (I hope), but there’s something intimidating about having so many virtual doors and windows open at all times, and not knowing who’s listening in or watching from two feet out of camera range.

“Is somebody watching me?”

            Zoom is so public.

            We had a Zoom class just before Mother’s Day, and I was helping the kids create blessings for their mothers (and fathers, since school was going to end before Father’s Day), and one of the kids started miming at the screen, and then messaged me privately that she couldn’t answer with her mom in the room. Up until that second I had no idea that her mother had been there, just out of range, for the previous forty-five minutes.

            I can be silly with kids in a way I can’t with adults, at least adults I don’t know. I can play the role of the-one-who-knows-things with the kids, whereas with other adults around I’d be more self-conscious, recalibrating each time a new person came in. Just like I would feel different, and probably act differently, with my boss in the room.

I’m the boss.”

            And the kids are different too.

            A lot of the things the kids would have said in the classroom could barely even be thought when they were at home; not because they were unsafe at home (though I don’t know), but because they are different people at home than at synagogue school, and they are much more aware of being overheard, and of being their home-selves; being the big sister, or the good kid, or the chatterbox they are presumed to be when they are at home.

            In the classroom they can try on new behaviors, and say things they wouldn’t say with an audience. At home, even with Mom and Dad in a separate room, their internal censors are on and they are much more careful.

            I don’t really care if I ever step into a shopping mall again, and while I miss movie theaters, I actually like the variety and control and cost of streaming better. I do miss going to synagogue in person, but the alternate-universe-Zoom-synagogue has been a pretty good substitute. But, I miss my classroom, and my kids.

            And it sucks.

“Harrumph.”

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?

Cricket’s Bat Mitzvah

            Cricket will turn thirteen later this summer, and I have been wondering how best to mark this monumental birthday. For humans of the Jewish persuasion, thirteen means it’s time for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, to mark the onset of adolescence (Orthodox Jewish girls may have a Bat Mitzvah at age twelve instead). But, what about for a Jewish dog?

Cricket at (almost) thirteen

To be honest, thirteen seems too young for a transition into adulthood, at least for humans. A hundred years ago, kids might have left school at thirteen and gone out to work, but now that’s not even legal, and certainly not practical. But we’ve kept the Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations at the onset of puberty, or thereabouts, because…tradition. And because it would be impossible to convince kids to stay in Hebrew school for even more years before they can have their big party.

But dogs, even Jewish dogs, are a different story. If anything, the age of thirteen would mark old age, rather than the first steps into adulthood. And a lot of dogs don’t make it to thirteen, especially the larger breeds. I don’t understand how a religion that has rituals for almost everything, has missed the opportunity to designate lifecycle events for our pets, so I’m stuck with this somewhat inappropriate and misleading event that has come to be called, at least on social media, the Bark Mitzvah.

“Is that a celebration of barking?!”

            When we first brought Cricket home, twelve and three-quarter years ago, I looked up Cockapoos on an aging chart and it said she could live eighteen to twenty years. Dina, my Labrador mix, had lived a miraculous sixteen years, twice as long as the Doberman who had preceded her. But twenty? That’s more like a cat!

“Hey! I’m not a cat!”

At almost thirteen, Cricket is showing signs of aging, with a little cloudiness in her eyes and a habit of hearing things that aren’t there, and a tiny bit of slowing down (though not much). But she has amassed an enormous amount of knowledge in her thirteen years, and many useful skills: she can beg, and guilt, and manipulate; she can bully and wheedle and whine; she can love and cuddle and sniff like a scientist; she could have been a gardener or an archeologist or a detective very easily, if we lived in a world that allowed dogs to go to school, and she has always been the de-facto Sherriff at our home. She has also been a surprisingly effective big sister, to Butterfly, and now to Ellie, who both needed mentoring in how to be dogs after growing up under less than ideal conditions as breeding mamas. Cricket has even learned how to offer comfort, rather than just to receive it, and can, on very rare occasions, even share food with her loved ones (though she would rather not).

“Cricket never shares food. Never.”

            There’s no escaping that thirteen is old age for a dog, but maybe that’s what we could celebrate with Cricket’s Bat Mitzvah. She has accomplished an enormous amount and now she is graduating into the last third of her life; finally becoming the wise old crone she has always wanted to be.

“I am very wise, it’s true.”

I don’t think Cricket is prepared for the rigors of a traditional Bat Mitzvah, though. She understands quite a few words in Hebrew, but she has trouble with articulation, and her sense of melody is iffy (though she is, at this very moment, singing the song of her people. I think I can make out the words “chicken” and “I want”). And, really, no one with any sense would ever let Cricket into the sanctuary or anywhere near a Sefer Torah (the holy scroll, kept in the sanctuary, that Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids dread having to read from at their services). But that actually works out well this year, since all of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah services at my synagogue are being streamed, while we can’t attend in person. Maybe Cricket’s Bat Mitzvah could be in our backyard, with the support of the big Paw Paw tree (also turning thirteen this year, coincidentally). They could have a service of their own, to mark their individual, and complex, journeys to their current stages of life. A very short service.

“Grandma, how did Mister Paw Paw get so much taller than me? Rude.”

            The fact is, Cricket could care less about having a Bat Mitzvah to celebrate her accomplishments, and her quirks, or to set a hopeful tone as she marches into her senior years. She just wants the food. So I will have to stock up on chicken treats and liver and all of the other good stuff she loves to eat. In moderation, of course, because I want her senior years to last a very long time.

“Did you say food?”

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?

Jews of Color

            The world is exploding and I am angry and afraid, and maybe hopeful too. I know I can’t handle being part of the protests in person (because my health won’t allow it, because I’m still afraid of the coronavirus, and because the potential for violence scares the crap out of me, no matter who’s causing it), but I want to do something, or add something, or learn something. But…there is so much information available on racism in general, and police violence towards people of color in particular, and mass incarceration, and how racism impacts educational opportunities and the ability to accumulate wealth, and, and, and…I don’t have the bandwidth to take in all of the books and articles and podcasts and Facebook posts that are out there. So when the cantor at my synagogue took the time to offer a zoom-cast on Jews of color, and what they might need from their Jewish community during this time, I felt like, that’s a lane I could go down.

“Did you say we’re going for a walk?”

            The cantor showed us a YouTube video of Ilana Kaufman, discussing her goal of counting every Jew of color, so that we can see all the Jews in our communities and recognize and welcome them. As it stands now, she said, Jews of color are experiencing racism out in the world, and then experiencing racism again within their own Jewish communities, where they are seen as “other.”

            My own synagogue on Long Island is not especially diverse, especially if you experience the community by going to regular services, or adult education classes, which are often filled with older, Ashkenazi (of eastern European descent) Jews. But if you go to the synagogue school, you start to see the next generation, the children of interfaith and interracial marriage, adoption and conversion. In other communities, the process of integration has been going on longer and now includes the children of adult Jews of color raised in the Jewish community. And in Israel, Jews from China and India and Africa and France and Russia, and all around the world, of all shades and traditions, are trying to create community out of diversity.

“We like when the community brings food.”

            Historically, the great fear of intermarriage in the American Jewish community assumed that the children of interfaith and interracial marriage would all disappear from Judaism, but, in fact, a lot of those families have embraced being Jewish (along with being Christian or Moslem or Hindu or Buddhist). We have children in our synagogue school with Asian features or darker skin; and we have children who proudly discuss their Christmas celebrations, or their trips to visit family in India or Greece or Israel. And instead of feeling like our Jewish world is dying out, I’ve started to feel like our world is growing wider and richer, and more people have started to feel like family.

            When I watched Ilana Kaufman’s Eli Talk (the Jewish version of a Ted Talk) during the cantor’s zoom-cast, I felt like I knew her, even though she is a multi-racial queer women from San Francisco whom I’ve never met. She spoke my language. I don’t mean simply that she speaks Hebrew, or knows Torah and Jewish history, which she does, but she challenged me, with compassion and patience, to see more than I could see on my own, just like the clergy at my synagogue do. She talked about a young girl named Tova, who wore a Star of David necklace to school every day, and went to her synagogue regularly, and yet her classmates still couldn’t believe that she was Jewish, because of the color of her skin. And Ilana Kaufman warned that children like this will be lost to us if we don’t learn how to deal with our own racism.

            And, no, most progressive Jews are not the obvious kinds of racists that that word seems to represent. In fact, many progressive Jews are social justice oriented, and have marched for civil rights and Black Lives Matter and everything in between; but if we continue to see Jews of color as outsiders who need to prove their Jewishness, or if we fail to see them at all, then we are hurting them, and hurting ourselves. It’s a more subtle form of racism than we are used to addressing. It’s a form of racism caused by a natural human tendency to stick to what we know, instead of reaching out to what may be new to us and feel challenging. Ilana Kaufman laid down the gauntlet for Jews-who-are-considered-white to look a little more carefully at our communities and at ourselves, and I want to try to do that.

            Approximations vary, but the most common count is that 20% of North American Jews are Jews of color. The counting is complicated because some include Mizrachi Jews (of Middle Eastern and North African Heritage) and some don’t. Some include Jews converted only by Orthodox rabbis and some include conversions by liberal rabbis as well. But right now, many Jews with African American ancestry need their Jewish communities, because watching the murder of George Floyd playing over and over is exhausting, and frightening, and heartbreaking, and enraging, and when you are going through trauma you need your family, and your community, to see you and hear you.      So, even though I’m not out on the streets, I wanted to say that I’m listening.

“We’re listening too. And napping. We’re multi-taskers.”

I’m including a list of links to a few articles written by Jews of color, but this is by no means a comprehensive list, so if you have recommendations, please add them in the comments.

For an overview of the current situation: https://www.jta.org/2020/05/31/united-states/believe-us-black-jews-respond-to-the-george-floyd-protests-in-their-own-words

Some background: http://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/racism-in-the-jewish-community

Ilana Kaufman: https://www.schusterman.org/blogs/ilana-kaufman/keeping-our-multiracial-jewish-community-safe, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/eli-talks/who-counts-race-and-the-jewish-future/, https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/waking-up-and-showing-up-for-our-jewish-youth-of-color-because-our-community-is-at-stake/

Erika Davis: https://www.ritualwell.org/blog/black-gay-and-jewish-east-coast-jew-pacific-northwest, https://www.kveller.com/not-all-jews-look-like-barbra-streisand/

Orthodox Jewish women of color: https://globaljews.org/articles/identity/frum-women-of-color/

Jewish and Chinese and American: https://forward.com/opinion/355898/what-i-learned-about-being-jewish-and-chinese-on-my-birthright-trip-to-isra/

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?

Passover on Lockdown

 

By the third week of lockdown I started to feel the isolation kicking in. I don’t know what made the difference; maybe it was when I started to feel pressure to make videos for synagogue school, or when I rushed to the local grocery store (on news of toilet paper) and found out that I was the only person not wearing a surgical mask (the cashier sold me some at the checkout counter, but by then I already felt like I’d been branded with the cooties). It was the first time I’d been at a store for a week, and it made me feel like hiding out in a bunker for another few months.

IMG_1414

“That works for us.”

I’m having a hard time concentrating, and sleeping, and my nightmares have followed me into lockdown. The anxiety seems to be creating weird attention deficit symptoms (ADD is not usually one of my diagnoses), and I’m having trouble focusing on any one thing for very long. I keep interrupting myself and jumping around from task to task, and then falling asleep for hours because I’ve exhausted myself. Even trying to write this essay feels like grabbing at thoughts trapped in helium balloons that are trying to escape out the window.

I’ve been outside a lot, because of the dogs, but we mostly stick to the backyard of the co-op. Most of our neighbors are careful about keeping ten or twenty feet away, instead of just six, but that’s what they did before the virus too. We walked the dogs up the hill one day, when I had more energy, but seeing the empty train station parking lot, and the empty streets, was disconcerting.

IMG_1408

Though some creatures like the wide open spaces.

I’ve spent hours on Pinterest looking for information on how to use Zoom, and Google Forms, and how to make and upload videos, and looking for games and puzzles and all kinds of things to share with my synagogue school students, on bible passages and Passover and moral lessons, but, you know, funny. And then there’s the time spent on Facebook and YouTube, which just seems to pass without my knowledge.

I’ve been exercising more than usual, trying to wear out the anxiety, and I found a murder mystery series from Australia starring Lucy Lawless (Xena Warrior Princess!), that was a lovely break from the news. But then I ran out of new episodes, and the panic returned.

We celebrated Mom’s birthday in lockdown, with a homemade chocolate chip yogurt cheesecake and lots of calls from family and friends. Oh, and I did the cleaning that day, not the next though.

We heard from my brother’s family for Mom’s birthday, and his wife, also a doctor on the front lines of this pandemic, said that my brother is doing more telemedicine than in-person ER work lately. Even if it’s not true, it was a nice attempt to reassure Mom that her baby boy is going to be okay.

delilah and scott2

My brother’s the one on the left

Mom has been sewing constantly. First there were the cloth grocery bags (because New York forbade plastic bags at the grocery stores starting March first – great timing!), but then most of the stores loosened the rules on plastic bags, probably because they didn’t want us dragging our germy cloth bags through their stores, so Mom moved on to making cloth masks. The first prototype was thick and had a hepa filter in it and suffocated me, but the next design was easier to wear and only made my glasses fog up a few times, so now she’s making tons of them to send to family and friends.

I finally received my latex gloves from Amazon this week, so now I feel a little better about doing the laundry, because for a while there I worried that I was picking up germs from one doorknob and transferring them to another, and killing everyone.

I hear different estimates for how long we’ll be in lockdown. We are supposedly, maybe, in the apex of the thing right now, but who knows. We could get multiple apexes, especially if we leave lockdown too soon. At the very least, we’re going to be practicing social distancing, and wearing masks and gloves, into the middle of the summer.

The hardest thing for me is trying to forgive myself for struggling through this. My expectations of myself are always much higher than I can live up to, and now is no different. I have to keep reminding myself that I am doing enough, even on the days when I’m not doing much at all. And I hate the anxiety. I hate the way it makes my heart beat too fast, and makes me nauseous, and makes it feel like shards of glass are traveling through my veins and airways. And I hate the way it makes me so sure that everything is my fault and everything would be within my control if I just tried hard enough. My little yoga practice helps, sometimes, when the anxiety starts to tell me that I should be able to earn more degrees, and write more novels, and learn how to fly, during all of this free time.

Even Governor Cuomo, Mister tough guy, acknowledged that mental health has been an issue for him, and his daughters, and his dog. Exercise helps, and being heard helps too. Maybe that’s why he does a press conference every day.

Ellie likes to sit on my lap for our noon Zoom sessions with the clergy from our synagogue. One day I even brought a pair of scissors over, to trim the mats from her ears and tail, because those forty-five minutes are her most docile of the day, but I can’t imagine what the other people on the Zoom must have been thinking.

IMG_1423

“They were thinking that my Mommy is insane.”

Cricket prefers the streaming services on Friday nights, probably because we sit on the couch to watch those in our pajamas. That’s more her speed. She needs the rest after long days spent screaming at possible zombies, or squirrels, passing by our door.

IMG_1520

Cricket likes when the cantor sings to her.

I’m too aware of how well other people are adapting to the shutdown, and adapting to the technology, while I struggle just to keep my head above water. I watch as my fellow synagogue school teachers make videos and run Zoom classes, while I’m still trying to learn how to do Google Forms. I watch all of the videos people are making on Facebook, where they’re making chair lifts and fake snow hills in their backyards, or singing incredible duets, or making Covid 19 parodies to keep people entertained, and I feel like a turtle, no, slower than a turtle, more like a snail.

I feel like the kid standing ten feet behind the diving board, watching while everyone else lines up to dive in. And all of this is making me even more anxious about what happens once the shutdown ends, and even more changes take place in the world, and I need to keep catching up, or at least running behind with the stragglers, to prove that I’m trying to keep up, even if I won’t ever actually catch up.

I guess Passover is an appropriate time for this type of internal crisis. I am in the Sea of Reeds, waiting for God to part the waters. I jumped in with everyone else, because I couldn’t stand the peer pressure of standing on the shore, and because I didn’t want to be killed by the Egyptian solders rushing to capture us, but while everyone ahead of me has faith that the waters will part, or that they will be able to swim to the other side, I am treading water, barely breathing, and holding onto the tiniest bit of hope that I won’t drown.

We never hear that version of the story. We hear about the brave ones who jump in first and lead the rest to safety, or the evil ones who chase them into the sea, but I’m the type of person who jumps in because I see no other option, and I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I’m already scared of what’s going to happen after we make it to the other side and have to then travel through the desert, which is full of even more unknowns. But I’m holding on anyway.

We had two communal Zoom Seders in our congregation, one for each night. They weren’t perfect, of course. Sometimes the sound dropped out, or the shared-screen froze, or people forgot to mute themselves. But we were brought together when we really needed togetherness to help us manage the fear and isolation. We have a virtual place to go while the real world is off limits, and I can bring my dogs with me to that safe place.

IMG_1412

 

So, yes, I’m scared, and overwhelmed, and feeling intimidated and not good enough, but I’m also feeling held and seen, and feeling like, just when I thought the bottom was going to drop out of the universe and send us hurling through space, we’ve created a magic carpet to catch our fall.

There’s a song that we sing a lot in our congregation, in Hebrew and English and in many different musical versions, but the line that resonates the most for me is:

“Spread a canopy of peace, a canopy of love, for everyone.”

And that’s what it feels like we are doing, with all of our Zooms and YouTube videos and group freak out sessions on Facebook. We are creating a patchwork canopy of peace for everyone to grab onto. It’s not like standing on solid ground, but when there’s no solid ground it’s a pretty damn good substitute.

Ellie and the Afikomen

“Okay, but what’re you gonna give me for this piece of Matzah I just found?”

 

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?

 

 

 

Embarrassing a Person is Like Killing Them

 

(This was written before The Covid-19 shutdown but it still seems to resonate now, with all of us watching each other on social media and Zoom, and trying to figure out who’s accomplishing the most or being the coolest or the most responsible, and who’s telling the truth and who’s lying and why. And most of all, we’re trying to figure out the rules of social engagement during a time of social distance. Let me know what you think.)

In sixth grade bible class, at my Jewish Day School, we learned that embarrassing someone is like killing them. At least theoretically. In the Talmud it says that he who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood, and it would be better to throw oneself into a furnace rather than embarrass another. We learned tons of other lessons in our mini-law school class that year, but the embarrassment law stuck with me most, because, for me, embarrassment was a daily occurrence. As with most crimes, the commentaries on the bible encouraged a financial recompense for the crime, instead of direct revenge, and I was looking forward to all of that money.

010

“Money for treats?”

Embarrassing me was a common sport among the girls in my class. They’d pull me aside to comment on my bra sticking out, or on my weight, or on my general un-coolness. They’d spent years criticizing me for my hygiene, my clothes, my vocabulary, my intelligence, my height, etc. They even humiliated me in my own home at my sleepover birthday party one year, hurling insults and tissues at me form the attic while the rest of my guests hunkered down with me behind the door to my room. The teachers did nothing. The parents did nothing. This was back when bullying was considered normal and teachers rarely intervened. I’ve been told it’s different now, but I don’t know.

281

Ellie’s not sure either.

Being bullied by the girls at school was bad, but my father was the biggest source of embarrassment in my life. The sexual abuse was covert, but his campaign to make me look foolish was out in the open. When I was four years old he told my then six-year old brother to take a picture of me sitting on the toilet – and for this he taught my brother how to use his good camera and how to break the lock on the bathroom door. My brother could barely keep his shoelaces tied at that age, so my father must have worked very hard to teach him such specific skills. He didn’t bother teaching my brother how to develop the picture, though; he made the full-sized print himself, and framed it.

I didn’t know about the anti-embarrassment law back then, but I still felt wrong criticizing my father, even for his obviously abusive behavior, and I was criticized by other adults whenever I did get up the nerve to complain about him. This taught me that I shouldn’t speak up if it might cause my father pain, even if my intention in doing so was to protect myself. Because why should I matter more than he did?

That history has made me very sensitive to my own desire to heap scorn on others. I want to be very careful that I’m being fair in my criticisms, and I don’t want to be mean just because it feels good to be mean. And, after reading more of the small print, I’ve found out that there is more subtlety to the anti-embarrassment law: You’re required to testify in court, even if it could cause someone embarrassment; and, if someone repents and asks forgiveness, you can’t remind them of their past behavior (though it’s unclear how one might know if someone has gone through the full process of repentance, most of which happens in private). So now I’m even more confused. You are directly told to speak up when you see someone doing wrong; but there are all kinds of punishments for having embarrassed someone. How can you know when to speak up and when to remain silent?

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“Why would I ever be silent?”

I started to think about this issue recently when a man I know was following me around. He never threatened to harm me, and he never left scary voice mails on my phone, but he would stand too close to me when I was talking to other people, and follow me to my car, even when his car was on the other side of the parking lot. I did my best to discourage his behavior, by creating physical distance, and not making eye contact or conversation. A normal person would have gotten the hint, but he did not.

He knew about my abuse history, or he’d been told, but it was a further sign of his own psychological and social issues that none of that seemed to register. With my Masters in Social Work in my back pocket, I felt like I should know how to handle his behavior in a compassionate and understanding way, but knowing about his problems only made me feel guiltier for wanting to feel safe.

I tried to tell some of the women around me, thinking they would understand and offer support and advice, but they saw him as harmless. Oh, he likes you, they said, as if I should be flattered. I wondered if I was making a big deal about nothing, except that it was jangling my nerves, and making me scared to go to places where I knew the man might be. Even my therapist pooh poohed it, saying, you’re an adult, just tell him to leave you alone. This, technically, is called minimization and blaming the victim, but she didn’t see it that way.

I wanted the behavior to just stop. I didn’t want to have to confront the man in some way that might embarrass him, or me. But I also wanted other people to notice what was happening and protect me, and no one did. So I finally reached out to someone in authority to ask for help, as carefully and discreetly as possible, and help was offered quickly, and with kindness. The situation still isn’t great, but it’s better. Most likely, I should have asked for help sooner, before the situation became so overwhelming. As it is, I still feel anxious when I see the man, even when he’s doing nothing wrong. But I also feel uneasy about writing this, unsure if I’m revealing too much detail that could allow someone to identify him and cause him embarrassment.

And all of that made me wonder, why do I believe that I have to be so much more careful about not embarrassing him than about taking care of myself? Did I learn that from home? From school? From society at large? And why didn’t I also learn about the requirement to speak up when you see wrong-doing? Was that left out of my education, or was it actively discouraged?

Recently, when I heard that some prominent men were criticizing Gayle King for even asking about Kobe Bryant’s well known past misdeeds, after his death. Some people were going so far as to send her death threats. And I wondered if this emphasis on not embarrassing people is exclusively focused on men, rather than on women.

This is the #MeToo movement encapsulated. Women stood up and said, No more, we are going to speak openly about sexual assault so that men will be stopped. And, immediately, the men invoked their version of the anti-embarrassment law. As if the embarrassment and shame caused by the abuser to the victim is not as important as the shame the victim causes by publicly accusing the abuser. Even if the man is never indicted, and he gets to go back to his regular life, he will already have been shamed. So, with statistics showing at most a five percent chance of a false accusation of a man, all women should be disbelieved, or worse, silenced before they can be believed or disbelieved.

When President Trump complains that his critics are mean and disgusting and causing him harm, there’s some validity to that. People are giving accounts of hateful, and disgusting, and embarrassing behavior committed by the president, and they do intend him harm in speaking up about his behavior. So, are they wrong for causing him harm? Is that the kind of embarrassment that is prohibited?

In my house growing up, and in my world growing up, the answer was yes. You are harming him by accusing him, even if he’s guilty, and you have no right to cause him harm. But, is that what the bible intended to teach us? And if it did, do we have to listen?

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“No. The answer is no.”

 

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?