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A Day of Rest

The defining story of the Jewish people is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The children of Israel were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, and when they finally escaped one of the first things they did (at Mount Sinai) was to proclaim that there would have to be a rest day every week. And, yes, the way the Hebrew Bible is written, it’s God who tells them what the Ten Commandments are, including the commandment to keep the Sabbath day as a day of rest, but even if we believe that it’s coming directly from God and not from the people themselves, the people had a choice, to embrace the new rules or forgo them, and they chose to take them on. Imagine what having a full day of rest every week would have meant to a people who had only known life as slaves? Setting aside a full day of rest meant that, for at least one day each week, their time and their priorities were their own. We think of a day of rest as a logical necessity, because of the body’s need for rest, but that day off also creates more space in our own minds, for our hopes and dreams and plans, instead of just thoughts related to work and getting by.

I like to think of Shabbat as a time to sit and listen carefully to those quiet voices inside of us, the ones we can barely hear during the busy work week, so that we can put ourselves back together and bring our full selves back with us into our daily lives. Shabbat is a chance to heal the wounds of the week, especially the times when we’ve pushed through, despite hunger or exhaustion or pain, and never bothered to apologize to ourselves for the harm done.

“How dare you!”

But even in the United States, where we supposedly have a five day work week, with two days off, many people still work on the weekends, or set that time aside for chores and errands. Maybe they go to a prayer service, or have a family dinner, but they don’t spend a full day (and certainly not two days) napping or reading or taking nature walks; instead, they spend the time ticking things off their to-do lists. I’ve found that most people find the idea of rest, especially for a whole day, uncomfortable. Which means that the ancient Israelites knew what they were up to; they knew that rest is essential to living a full life, and that we would have to be commanded to do it.

“You need to be commanded to nap? Humans are weird.”

But even with my deep appreciation for rest, I still don’t feel like I make enough use of Shabbat each week. Part of the problem is that creating a day of rest takes effort. Shabbat is supposed to be a mini holiday every week – a mini Chanukah or Christmas or Passover – and that means a lot of planning, and cooking, and inviting, and cleaning, and dressing up. It sounds crazy to say that I am too tired for Shabbat; too tired to rest. But I am too tired to create the right circumstances for my soul to rest and recharge, instead of just my body.

            Another block to making the most of Shabbat is that I don’t really feel like I deserve a special day of rest each week, given the amount of rest I need, and take, during the work week. I feel like I should be making up for all of that laziness by doing chores on the weekend.

            And then there’s the biggest block of all: my memories of celebrating Shabbat as a kid. Before my father became more religious, when I was four, five, six, and seven, Shabbat was a good day. My brother and I went to Junior Congregation – an hour of Bible trivia and songs and prayers with the rest of the kids and with one not-so-grown up adult – and then, if we could sneak into the Social Hall after the maintenance guys had set up the tables, we could steal brownies while the adults were busy praying in the big sanctuary. And then I’d go to gymnastics with my best friend, and then me and Mom and my brother would get meatball heroes from the tiny Italian sub shop on the way home. It was pretty great.

“Meatball heroes, yes. Bible trivia? Not so much.”

            But then my father became more religious, starting when I was about eight years old, and instead of meatball heroes and gymnastics, my brother and I went from Junior Congregation in the little sanctuary straight into the big sanctuary with the adults, and then to the Kiddish in the Social Hall, where the adults drank Slivovitz and ate gefilte fish and herring and talked for what seemed like hours. We were able to eat a few more brownies, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble. And when we finally got home, we weren’t allowed to watch TV for the rest of the day, or even get homework done. The boredom was mind numbing, except for the times when we played Trivial Pursuit as a family, which were brutal. At that point in my life, the best part of Shabbat was the end.

            I gave up on celebrating Shabbat entirely in my twenties, going to therapy and writing workshops and shopping trips on Saturdays, because it was easier to think of it as just another day than to wrestle with the fish hooks of the past, the memories that cut so deep into my skin that it’s hard to pull them out without damaging my internal organs. And even after joining our current synagogue, nine years ago, and consistently going to Friday night services each week, I still couldn’t find a comfortable way to bring Shabbat home with me.

            But I want to be able to find some peace each week. I want there to be a day set aside where I can put down my big bag of anxieties and truly rest and recharge. But while I know people who are good at dissociating from their feelings, who can even be specific in which of their feelings and memories to “put on a shelf” and out of their minds, for a time, I can’t do it. My internal shelves are not well constructed, so the nasty things keep falling back into consciousness, often in dreams or nightmares, or just in triggers throughout the day that I can’t control or ignore.

“The shelves are falling! The shelves are falling!”

So I’m left with all of my memories and emotions and internal conflicts, even on Shabbat, and no amount of challah, or grape juice, or matzah ball soup, seems to be able to overcome that. Except, if I look back at the beginning of this essay, the purpose for Shabbat that I came up with wasn’t to be happy and carefree, it was to take the time to put your whole self back together, to take ownership of your time, and your internal life, so that when you go back to your daily working life you can bring your whole self with you. Maybe, on those terms, I’m doing Shabbat pretty well after all. Maybe the real problem is that I expect my version of Shabbat to match what I’ve seen in other people’s homes. Maybe it’s not so much that I’m flawed and broken beyond repair, but that my expectations of myself just don’t fit me. And maybe, my goal for Shabbat each week should be to gradually change my expectations of myself until they match the person I actually am. Maybe if I can do that, some peace will follow.

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?         

Baking Bread Again

            I don’t know if the new dose of the antidepressant kicked in, or if it was just because of the cold weather, but the other day I finally felt like baking again. Mom and I looked through cookie recipes and cake recipes and then we settled on a Buttermilk Seed Bread, because it just sounded right. There’s something about the way bread dough needs to rest, and rest again, that resonates with me.

Ellie too.

            I didn’t knead the dough myself (that’s what Kitchenaid mixers and dough hooks are for, it turns out), but I helped mix in the ingredients (whole wheat flour, titular Buttermilk, cranberries, dates, poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.), and helped punch down the dough after the first rise (so satisfying!), and put it into the loaf pans to rise again. I fell asleep before the bread was ready to go into the oven, but at least it was a start.

Despite the mass baking on social media (sourdough and banana bread especially) that occurred during the stay at home orders and boredom of Covid, I haven’t done much baking, or even cooking for the past two years. I made cookies once or twice, from a mix, and I chopped vegetables here and there, but mostly I reheated frozen dinners and opened cans of soup and smeared peanut butter on almost everything, while Mom did the actual cooking.

“Where’s the peanut butter?

            I used to cook every day, and bake a lot too, but I’ve been so tired, for so long, that I’ve gotten used to not wanting to do things, especially in the kitchen, where standing on the hard floor and leaning over the sink or the counter or the dishwasher leaves me feeling like I’ve been stabbed in the back with a cleaver. But for some reason, the other day, I felt like baking, so that’s what we did.

            Each day this past week we lit our Chanukah candles – either with our congregation on Zoom or just me and Mom and the dogs – and even though it often felt like a chore, like something I just had to get done, sometimes the sparks of light reached me and made a difference.

Day 4

            There’s something about the way the fire grows by one candle each night of Chanukah that makes sense to me. It fits the way I live my life, growing slowly each day, doing a little bit more and a little bit more, until seemingly out of nowhere, I’ve achieved something I didn’t know I could do. The way the Chanukah candles grow brighter each day of the holiday, instead of dimmer, makes me feel like it’s okay to pace myself, and to make the most of each day in whatever way works for me (naps, snacks, more naps, repeat), allowing me to focus on letting the fire grow instead of dim as I go forward.

Day 7

            I’m not suddenly cooking every day, but I’m noticing that I want to do more. I want to go to the Costco near us and buy…something, and I want to take a trip…somewhere. I’m not up to it yet, but for now it’s enough to know that I want to do these things; that they even sound like fun.

            After a few days of making sandwiches with the new bread (pastrami with mustard), I found a recipe for marzipan filled rugelach. I haven’t made them yet, but I bought all of the ingredients, so those Chanukah candles are adding up to something. I’m not setting the world on fire yet, but I’m wondering what else might start to sound good again, and I’m looking forward to finding out.

“We’re ready!”

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?

Everyday Miracles

            This year at synagogue school we’re focusing on miracles for Hanukah (last year we focused on the lights from the candles), and I’m doing a writing workshop with the kids based on Walt Whitman’s poem Miracles (https://poets.org/poem/miracles), to help them see the everyday miracles in their own lives.

            There have been times in my life when I was able to feel the level of wonder Walt Whitman felt at the miracles all around him, but I haven’t been in that state of mind lately. My first thoughts are of what I don’t have, or what’s wrong, or what I’m failing at. My hope is that by actively pushing myself to think about the daily miraculous things, I might be able to regenerate my sense of wonder: like the miracle of Ellie running through the leaves, or the miracle of Cricket giving a five minute diatribe, in the form of an Aria, about why I shouldn’t be allowed to leave the apartment, or the miracle of packages arriving at my door just because I typed a few things into my phone.

“Where’s MY iPhone?

            I want bigger miracles, though. I want to stop feeling so hungry – for food or love or success or whatever else. I want to feel less pain, physical and emotional. I want all of my hard work to kick in so I can finally feel successful and capable and healthy, and safe. It’s hard to be satisfied with the little miracles when I want so much more.

The fact is, I’m struggling. My psychiatrist upped my dose of antidepressants, because my lows have been more persistent lately, even prior to my father’s death. It feels like exhaustion, but I don’t know if there’s a medical cause or a psychological one, or a mix of both. All of the research being done on Long Covid (which I don’t have, because I never got Covid, thank God) promises to offer some insight for those of us who have other long term pain disorders, but I’m not optimistic, honestly.

            My latest experiments with Intuitive Eating have led me to look into self-care more deeply, to see if there are things I could be doing to help lift my mood that I haven’t tried yet, or haven’t tried enough; things, especially, that would take the place of extra food, because I’ve been relying on food as self-care too much lately. My current project has been about collecting good memories (times when I’ve felt cared for, safe, and accepted as I am), so that when I find myself wanting to eat beyond physical hunger I can fill the space with a good memory instead.

            Some of the memories I’ve been working with are: when I was four years old and my grandfather bought me a stuffed panda that was as tall as me and he walked me and the panda, hand in hand, down the driveway to the car; and the time when my brother and I sat on the lawn during a rainstorm with a towel over our heads; and the time we stayed over at Grandma and Grandpa’s house and they took us to Lickety Split for ice cream (I probably had mint chocolate chip) and then we were allowed to choose whichever candies we wanted, and my brother and I sat in the guest room, next to the cuckoo clock, sharing our candy dots and ingesting enormous amounts of paper along the way.

“Yum, paper!”

            I’ve also been collecting songs and TV shows and movies and books that have relieved anxiety or depression in the past, so that if the sweet memories don’t help enough I can move on to visiting YouTube or Spotify mid-meal, or I could even act out a scene from Harry Potter with the dogs if nothing else works.

            I just want to feel better, but it’s all trial and error and lately I’ve been feeling like I’m treading water. I remember this feeling from summer camp, when we had to do a Buddy Call at free swim in the lake. The water was deep and opaque, so we had to go in as pairs, with each pair given a number, and midway through the session we had to call out our numbers, to make sure we were all still alive. If you weren’t at the dock when the whistles blew then you had to tread water through the whole Buddy Call, which could take a while. Under the water I was kicking my legs furiously, but above the water I had to pay close attention to the numbers being called out, so I wouldn’t miss our turn. It was exhausting, and panic inducing. I worried that I’d forget my number, or forget how to count in Hebrew letters, but most of all I worried that my legs would give out and I’d fall under the water and the lifeguards would have to dive in to search for me and they’d be pissed off at me for the rest of the summer. I didn’t have faith that my buddy would remember our number, or call it out, or save me if I started to drown. I didn’t have much faith in other people, period.

“I would save you, Mommy!”
“Yeah, sure. Me too.”

            So this writing workshop on miracles is coming at the right time, and maybe when the kids tap into their own ideas of what’s miraculous in their lives I will remember my own miracles too. My hope is, always, that if I keep trying, keep working at this process of healing, good things will come. I just wish they’d come a little bit faster.

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?

My Father Died

            I found out that my father had died by listening to Mom’s side of a phone call. It took a while for me to figure out that she was talking to my brother, and then even longer to figure out that he was telling her my father had died. I had to wait until the call was over to get the details – that my father had been in and out of nursing homes and hospitals for the past three years (which we sort of knew, from clues but not from direct information), that he didn’t have dementia (which is what Mom had assumed), and that there was drama around when and where the funeral would take place.

            I wrote to four people after I found out – two good friends, my therapist, and my rabbi. And my rabbi rushed out of a committee meeting (reluctantly?) to call me and see what I might need from him. He already knew the backstory, about the sexual abuse and the estrangement (I hadn’t seen my father in 23 years), and he said something that really stuck with me. He said that the commandment to Honor your father and mother is often misinterpreted. The word in Hebrew is Kaved, which actually means weight or weigh, not respect or honor. It means that you should weigh the role of your parents in your life when you decide what you owe them in return; you are not required to blindly honor or respect a parent simply because they are your parent, but because they acted as a parent should and raised you with love and respect and guided and protected you. The commandment to Honor your father and mother is not meant to be a get out of jail free card for any parent who abuses or neglects their children.

            I am not orthodox, like my brother and his family, and I don’t believe that my rabbi is the final word on what I can and can’t do as a Jewish woman, but it helped to have validation and support, both from a person I trust and from the tradition of my ancestors.

            I made sure to tell my rabbi not to put out an announcement that my father had died or to add my father’s name to the list for the Mourner’s Kaddish at our synagogue at Friday night services. I didn’t want to receive messages from people who care about me but don’t know my situation, telling me that they are sorry for my loss and may my father’s memory be a blessing. It isn’t a blessing. He wasn’t a blessing in my life.

“Grr.”

            Jewish funerals are required to take place as soon as possible after the death, but I did not go (though Mom watched it on Zoom to support my brother and his children). And I didn’t go to sit Shiva at my brother’s house, though Mom went to visit and to offer support, avoiding discussions about what did and did not happen in the past.

            I stayed home and sought comfort from my friends and my dogs and my therapist, but I was jealous of my brother’s ability to mourn our father, and all of the Jewish rituals that would support him through that process. I found myself feeling jealous of anyone who could find comfort in hearing their lost loved one’s name read out each week before the Mourner’s Kaddish, or who found comfort in saying the Mourner’s Kaddish and praising God in the memory of their lost loved one. I’m jealous of people for whom the traditional rituals work – like giving nostalgic eulogies and having friends and family over to reminisce and tell stories and share food for a week. Those mourning rituals are so beautiful and powerful, but only when thinking about the lost loved one is a comfort.

“Oy.”

            My situation doesn’t fit into the traditional framework. My father sexually abused me, and others. He was a pedophile and a narcissist and a manipulator, and he denied what he’d done and denied the significance of the things he couldn’t dispute having done, and never made any attempt to make amends. If anything, he continued to try to convince important people in my life that I was lying and he was a victim. The fact is, I still live in a world that doesn’t want to reckon with the reality that abuse and neglect are everywhere, and that they destroy lives every day.

            This was brought home to me, vividly, that night, when, after writing my emails and texts and making my phone calls, I tried to distract myself with an episode of New Amsterdam on NBC. It’s a hospital show with an idealistic bent, often too simplistic, but still hopeful about making the world a better place. It’s not my favorite show, but I watch it regularly and often find it comforting and/or interesting. But for whatever reason, that night, out of nowhere, the writers chose to go down a rabbit hole about Recovered Memories.

            Recovered Memories is a somewhat generic term that people often use to describe traumatic memories that have been forgotten at some point and then remembered later. A lot of how you define the term Recovered Memories depends on what your intentions are: if you want to debunk the idea that it’s even possible for memories to return after a period of forgetting, you will probably define Recovered Memories as wholly forgotten and then remembered only with the help of a therapist or a drug; if you believe that trauma can cause memories to fragment or be blocked for some period of time, you’ll probably define Recovered Memories more generally, as partial forgetting and partial remembering over time, often triggered by events in the present that remind you of the past trauma (like your own child reaching the age you were at when you were abused).

            On this episode of New Amsterdam, the writers decided to take the loveable psychiatrist on the show, who is more often than not empathetic and kind, and have him testify in court that all Recovered Memories, of any kind, are unreliable. They even had him quote a study about The Shopping Mall Experiment, where the researchers said they were able to “implant” memories in susceptible adults of having been lost in a mall in childhood. The study has been debunked for any number of reasons, but the biggest reason is that traumatic memory and “normal” memory are not the same, and while being lost in a mall might be scary, it would not qualify as a traumatic memory unless something traumatic happened while you were lost.

            But still, I wanted to believe that the writers on the show were going to handle the issue sensitively, and in the next scene they gave me hope when the psychiatrist’s female colleague confronted him with her own recovered memory (though not of abuse), and with the terrible impact his testimony would have on millions of women and children who had been abused and tried to testify to that in court. But then the psychiatrist doubled down on his belief that not only Recovered Memories, but ALL memories, are unreliable. He went on to specifically attack the legitimacy of his female colleague’s memories, by researching the probable season and location where the memory would have taken place, disputing her memories of the weather on that day in order to prove to her that it could not have happened the way she remembered it. He was relentless and wildly inappropriate, and the writers gave no explanation for why he would feel so strongly about this particular issue or why he would be willing to be so cruel to his friend.

By the end of the episode it seemed to me that the writers’ intention was to use this whole storyline as a way to question the female colleague’s memories of how her father had left her when she was little, so she could reassess her feelings towards her still living mother and therefore change her plans to move to London, which threatened the status quo at the hospital; but they could have found hundreds of other ways to change her mind without invalidating millions of people.

            I was in shock. The violence of the psychiatrist’s attack on his friend seemed to come out of nowhere, and the female colleague’s willingness to forgive him right away was out of character and bizarre. But more than that, the way the writers were misrepresenting the research was horrifying, especially because it is well known in the field that traumatic memories often have missing or distorted nonessential details, like the time of day, or the weather, or the clothes you were wearing, and those mistaken details have no bearing on whether or not the crux of the memory is true.

            The emotions I couldn’t produce in response to the news of my father’s death came roaring up as I watched this show and felt invalidated and manipulated all over again. You can’t prove it and therefore it didn’t happen. You have no pictures and I don’t want to believe you and therefore it didn’t happen. Your memories, your symptoms, your feelings, are nothing in the face of what I want to believe.

            But I’ve done the reading that the writers on New Amsterdam clearly did not bother to do, and I’ve done the listening, to many people who have been abused, and I know that the brain often tries to protect us from knowing things we are not ready to deal with. I just felt so let down that a show that had seemed thoughtful and kind was no longer trustworthy.

“Oh no!”

            I am still processing my father’s death, and trying to figure out how it changes things, if it changes things. I am safer now than I was as a child. I am loved and supported and listened to and believed; and I cherish the people who have brought me comfort and made my world a better place. But the mourning process is still ongoing, for the loss of the childhood and the father I could have had, and for the years spent trying to recover, and I wish there could be established rituals to help me through this kind of mourning. There are so many of us in similar situations, trying to cobble together the support we need to move forward. I can’t be the only one who struggles to create those rituals on my own, and I can’t be the only one who feels let down by a world that refuses to acknowledge the pervasiveness and validity of the need for those rituals.

“Would hugging a puppy help?”

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?

Sodom and Gomorrah

            This year I was asked to teach a few extra classes in the synagogue school, on Saturday mornings, focusing on the week’s Torah portion (the chapter of the Hebrew Bible that is read by Jews around the world at the same time). I was nervous and excited about the opportunity, because it was new to me, but also because I’ve never really had the chance to teach the stories from the first and second books of the Hebrew bible. I usually teach the book of Leviticus, which is full of laws and holiness, but not many plotlines or characters or dramatic scenes. And then I found out which Torah portion I’d be teaching the kids, and I thought, when it rains it pours, because I would be teaching the Torah portion that contains Sodom and Gomorrah, The banishing of Ishmael, and The Binding (and almost sacrificing) of Isaac. You know, the light stuff.

“Eek!”

            I could, almost, imagine how to teach the drama of a parent who is willing to risk the life of his child on the say-so of God (kids sort of feel like this is what happens every day of their lives when their parents insist on sending them to school against their will), but Sodom and Gomorrah, with its themes of unforgivable evil and sexual violence, and God turning two whole towns into rubble? Not so much.

            I wrote up my lesson plan, tap dancing and editing and omitting my way to a version of the Torah portion that would be interesting to the kids, without giving them too many nightmares. But I still found myself thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah, and how hard this story is to reckon with, and why.

            The biggest problem, for me, is that the English word “Sodomy,” clearly based on the town of Sodom, has come to refer to homosexual acts, and many religious people have decided that this story is meant to teach us that God will punish you with death and destruction for engaging in homosexual acts, or allowing/supporting others to engage in those acts. Now, I know that the Hebrew Bible is often brutal, and I know that there is a biblical law against homosexual behavior (it’s in Leviticus, so I see it a lot), but it still felt unreasonable that God (and/or my ancestors) would see homosexuality as such a heinous crime that it should earn the destruction of whole towns, whole families, including children. So I decided to re-read the story to see what I was missing.

            In Genesis 18-19, three men come to Abraham in the plains of Mamre, two angels and God in disguise, to tell him that the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah will be judged and punished for their grievous sins (unspecified). Abraham tries to bargain with God, because his nephew Lot lives there, and he says, if there are fifty righteous people, or forty, or thirty, will you save the town? And God agrees to save the town even if there are only ten righteous people, but there aren’t even ten, so God tells Abraham that he will have to destroy the towns after all. But he sends his angels to warn Lot ahead of time, so he can save himself and his family.

            The two angels, in disguise, then go to the main square in the town of Sodom, and Lot invites the strangers into his home, without knowing who they are, and serves them a meal. The men of Sodom then surround Lot’s house and tell Lot to bring the two strangers outside so they can know them (to “know” is sometimes a euphemism for sex in the Hebrew Bible). Lot refuses to hand over his guests and instead offers up his two virgin daughters to the crowd. The men of Sodomrefuse his offer and try to break down Lot’s door.

            The angels then blind the men of Sodom and tell Lot about their mission to destroy the city. They command Lot to gather his family and leave, and not to look back. And then the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed with fire and brimstone, and Lot’s wife looks back at the destruction and becomes a pillar of salt (I could do a whole essay on Lot’s wife, and how looking back at what you’ve lost is natural and not a crime, but I’ll save that for another time).

            Israelite prophets, in later books of the Hebrew Bible, named the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as adultery, pridefulness, and un-charitable behavior. Many Rabbinic commentators have focused mostly on the lack of hospitality to the stranger as the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, hospitality being the one Mitzvah (commandment) that Lot performs in the story, by inviting the strangers into his home.

“Strangers? In my house?!”

            The habit of blaming homosexuality for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is much more recent. No Jewish literature, until the writings of Philo in the first century of the Common Era, actually mentioned same-sex behavior as a possible cause for the destruction of the towns. And the term Sodomy wasn’t coined until the 11th century of the Common Era, and even then it was widely used to refer to all non-procreative sexual acts (including heterosexual acts) rather than specifically to same sex relationships.

            There is a strikingly similar story to Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter 19 of the book of Judges. An unnamed man from the tribe of Levi is traveling with his concubine and his servant. He arrives in the town of Gibeah and plans to spend the night in the town square. A local man, from the tribe of Ephraim and therefore not a native of the town (like Lot wasn’t a native of Sodom), offers the Levite and his concubine and his servant shelter in his home. Soon the men of the city surround the house and demand that the owner send out the Levite “so that we may know him.” The owner, like Lot, offers up his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead, and the crowd rejects the offer, just like the men of Sodom did. Except, in this version there are no angels to intervene, and to save himself the Levite forces his concubine out the door, and the men of Gibeah rape her to death. There is no response from God, no fire and brimstone, instead the Levite carries his dead concubine home and cuts her corpse into twelve pieces, sending one piece to each of the twelve tribes, showing them the results of their baseless hatred of strangers.

            It’s a brutal way to send such a message, and the Levite doesn’t seem like the best messenger, since he offered up his concubine to save his own life, but the message in this version of the story is clear: If you don’t wise up and learn how to treat the strangers in your midst, destruction will come to you. If only because, at some point in your life, you yourself will be the stranger.

“I was a stranger once.”

            The mitzvah of hospitality to strangers was very important in the ancient Middle East, where traveling on arid land was a life or death venture. The conventions of hospitality were created to protect both the traveler, who would die without food and water, and the host, who could easily be killed by a traveler in need. These were basic codes of behavior that were meant to keep everyone safe, so when the Sodomites tried to attack the two men in Lot’s house simply for being strangers, it threatened the moral code of the area, and the safety of everyone.

            Sodom and Gomorrah feels like a lesson we keep having to learn, and a lesson we keep choosing to learn incorrectly. If you recognize rape as a weapon, rather than as a variety of sexual behavior (heterosexual or homosexual), then you can see Sodom and Gomorrah for what it is: a story about how selfishness, and violence, and baseless hatred of the stranger ultimately leads to the destruction of the people who commit these sins. The punishment doesn’t have to come from an outside force, like God, because it is already an inevitable result of making enemies out of everyone around you. If you send your daughters out to be raped by a crowd, they will die, or they will come back to you full of rage; either way you have destroyed the future of your family. If you treat strangers as enemies and abuse them, you will not receive any help from future strangers; in fact, they may strike out at you first, to protect themselves, knowing your reputation.

            If we read Sodom and Gomorrah through the lens of its sister story, the evil here, the “sodomy,” is clearly the baseless hatred of people who are not like us, and has nothing in particular to do with homosexuality. At some point the story was turned inside out, but that doesn’t have to be the last word. We can re-read the story and turn it right side out again to see the power of hospitality and welcoming the stranger to save all of our lives.

            By the way, when I taught my students about the banishing of Ishmael from his home, after the birth of his half-brother Isaac, they said that Ishmael should have been allowed to stay so that he and Isaac could have grown up together. And if Ishmael had been able to stay, then the descendants of Ishmael (commonly seen as today’s Arabs) and the descendants of Isaac (the Jews) would have been one family, one people. We are so quick to see each other as strangers, imagining that our differences are unbridgeable oceans, but maybe we are all half-brothers and sisters, feuding over our birthrights and our parents’ love, fighting over resources that don’t have to be scarce if we can heal the wounds of the past. Maybe, if we re-read our own stories, we can find a way forward that makes all of us safer and better off.

“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?

Back to School

            Before we started the new synagogue school year, I had a million ideas for how to improve my teaching – lessons learned from my two years of teaching synagogue school so far, and from reading and googling, and from my online Hebrew classes and virtual tours of Israel. I had too many ideas to fit into the few hours a week that I would get with my students.

            I wanted them to learn more about Jewish history than the Holocaust: like the Babylonian Exile in 587 BCE and how it taught the ancient Israelites that they could bring God with them wherever they went; like the transition to Rabbinic Judaism, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, when all seemed lost without the Temple, and yet the rabbis found a way forward by canonizing the Hebrew Bible and continuing the traditions in study and prayer and laws and customs; like the Spanish Inquisition and the forced conversions and the massacres and endless exiles of the Jews from one European country after another that spread the Jews around the world, where they were able to learn from different cultures and bring the world’s customs into Judaism; to Modern Israel, where Jews from around the world have been able to make a home and attempt to blend different cultures and races and customs and foods into one country; to modern antisemitism, and antizionism, and conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, and conflicts between different branches of Judaism. There’s so much for them to know!

“It’s too much.”

And I wanted them to have a sense of what’s in the Hebrew Bible, and that they have a right to question any and everything in it, and I wanted them to be able to sound out Hebrew words, and begin to understand Hebrew when they heard it, and begin to build a love for the language. I wanted them to be familiar with the prayers, but more than that, I wanted them to feel empowered to create their own prayers and to know that their own thoughts are just as valuable as those of the rabbis who wrote our prayer books. And I wanted them to have fun and make friends and be silly and feel like part of a community that embraces them as they are.

“We’re perfect!”

My first in-person day of Synagogue School, back in September, was a bit chaotic, but not terrible. We were in a nursery school classroom, because our space was being used for the High Holiday services, so I told myself that any excess difficulty I was having with the kids came from being in a crowded space, with too many toys (there’s something about toys meant for younger kids that makes the older kids lose their minds). I also had thirteen students, with more boys than girls for the first time, and when I told people that I had a boy-heavy class this year they looked horrified and said things like, better you than me. But the boys I had in my class last year were wonderful; they were thoughtful, and creative, and kind, so I thought that if even a few of this year’s boys were anything like last year’s I would be very happy. I wasn’t too worried.

            And during the break from in-person classes we continued to have zoom classes, which went really well. I was a little bit nervous about going back to in-person classes after a three week break, especially because we’d be returning to our regular “classroom” in the social hall, but I still thought everything would be okay.

The kids dribbled in one or two at a time for our second in-person class, in October, so we got a sort of relaxed start to class, but as time passed and more kids showed up I realized I’d forgotten how hard it is to hear in the social hall, and how much space there is for the kids to get into trouble. And I was at sea. The kids were screaming and wandering around and struggling to concentrate on the lesson. But I still wanted to believe that it was the fault of the room, and the long break between in-person classes, and that it would get better on its own.

I had a short break from my class, to teach an elective to my students from last year, and then I walked back into my classroom and I saw my students sitting calmly and listening to the teacher who had been working with them for the past half hour, handling the same exact kids with the same exact problems; and I suddenly realized that the problem was me.

“Uh oh.”

After I got over the humiliation, somewhat, I emailed the teacher who had performed this miracle, and asked for her help. And she was wonderful. She’s been teaching for a long time, both in Synagogue School and before that in regular school, and she said, first and foremost you need to create structure in the classroom so that the kids can feel safe. She said, they need to know what’s expected from them, or else the world feels chaotic and they don’t know what to do. Kids don’t come pre-programmed, they need help building the skills to stay focused and be kind to each other, and to me.

            The master teacher calmed me as successfully as she had calmed my students, setting clear guidelines for what I needed to do, and explaining the reasons for each behavior, and helping me problem solve different situations while firmly sticking to her overall goal: create structure so the kids know what’s expected of them.

            But it’s hard. I tend to take everything the kids say to heart. When they tell me they’d rather be anywhere than in synagogue school, I think it’s my fault, because I’m boring. And when they can’t sit still, I feel like I’m evil for making them sit instead of letting them run around. When they drag their feet through an activity, or want to always do something else, I take that as a sign that I’m teaching the wrong things, rather than that they need some reinforcement that the lesson I’m teaching is worth their time.

            So now I am starting again; not from scratch though. I need to remind myself that I am the adult in the room and I actually do know what to do, even when the kids tell me that I don’t. And I need to remind myself that structure and discipline do not equal abuse or squashing of potential, if done with careful intention and empathy. But most of all, I need to keep reminding myself that I cannot be perfect and it’s not even required. I can make mistakes and learn from them, and I can choose what to teach, based on what matters to me and what I’m good at, and that doesn’t make me a meanie or a bad teacher.

“Mommy’s a meanie!”

            And maybe that’s one of the best lessons I can teach my students; that we don’t have to do everything and be everything and learn everything right away, or ever. We can each be our own imperfect selves and, maybe together, as a whole, we can get where we want to go.

            With all of my hopes at the beginning of the school year for what I could teach the kids, I think if I could teach them that they are enough as they are, that would be enough. But first I have to learn it myself.

“We’ll help you, after our nap.”

            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?

Egyptology and Hieroglyphics

            I took two Egyptology classes in college, basically because they fulfilled requirements for my philosophy major and for my honor’s scholarship. One class was on Hieroglyphics and learning how to draw them, and the other was on Egyptian philosophy. I hated my teacher, but it turned out that I actually loved the class where we learned how to draw the Hieroglyphics. There was something magical about seeing the origins of the letters in actual objects, like the ground plan of a simple house is the Hieroglyph for “house,” and an outline of a mouth stands for “mouth,” and a pair of legs in motion means “to come.” But there were also Hieroglyphs of animals, like an Egyptian vulture for the letter A, and a horned viper for the letter F, that hinted at even more meaning to be discovered.

Hieroglyphic translation chart from greatscott.com
“Why so many birds and no pictures of me?”

            The Ancient Egyptian language was written in four scripts, over the course of time. First Hieroglyphics, then Hieratic, (meaning “priestly”) which was a simpler cursive form of Hieroglyphics written mainly by priests, and then Demotic (meaning “popular”) which was a more rapidly written form of the Hieratic script, first appearing in the eighth century BCE and used by the common people, and finally Coptic, which was the final version of Egyptian writing, using the Greek alphabet in addition to seven Egyptian letters representing sounds that didn’t appear in Greek.

            Ancient Hebrew would probably have fit in between Demotic and Coptic, because it was a language that could be written quickly and by the common man, but it wasn’t yet filled out with vowels and spaces to allow for easier reading.

            One of the important differences between ancient Egyptian and ancient Hebrew, though, is that Hebrew continued to develop into what is now Modern Hebrew. Hebrew was eventually given vowels, and spaces, and punctuation to help modernize the language and allow people to read it and speak it more widely. Whereas the ancient Egyptian language stayed in Egypt, ancient Hebrew speakers were exiled from Israel, multiple times, and chose to bring their language, and their religion, with them into the diaspora.

            Despite not liking my Egyptology teacher, I still learned a lot from his class, especially about the influence of ancient Egypt on the development of Judaism. Take for example, the Egyptian belief in magic. In the Hebrew Bible, when Moses goes to Pharaoh to ask him to let the Israelites go, he turned his rod into a snake to show God’s power, but then the Egyptian magicians were able to do the same thing, and Moses had to level up, with the plagues. Was Moses using magic? He was raised by Egyptians after all. The Hebrew Bible is full of magical things, like burning bushes and the splitting of a sea. The magical realism of Egyptian religion and literature definitely influenced the stories in the Hebrew Bible, but then, in the minds of the writers of the Hebrew Bible at least, these acts of God took on a deeper meaning, a poetry, that was beyond magic.

“What’s beyond magic? Is it food?!!”

At the high point of Egyptian civilization there were 2500 gods, with different main gods in charge in different eras, and each god had a place to dwell and a personality and a backstory. And while we think of Judaism as absolutely monotheistic, early on, even though Yahweh was the main God of the Jews, other gods were still acknowledged and worshipped by the Israelites. Prophets eventually came along to yell at the people to stop worshipping other gods and only to worship Yahweh. But even then, Yahweh was considered the god of a particular place. It took exile for the Jews to invent the idea of a god who can travel. When they were exiled to Babylon, after the destruction of the first temple, they realized that they could take their religion, and their concept of God, with them. Eventually, this image of a God who can go wherever you go, became a God who can be whenever and whatever you need God to be. And if your god can be everywhere and anywhere, maybe your god is The God. Period.

            But this transition took a long time, and a lot of wrestling with the gods and ideas of other people and places. Many of the values we think of as particularly Jewish, or Judeo-Christian, were already there in Egyptian writings. One of the most obvious borrowings from Egyptian literature shows up in the book of Proverbs, in the Hebrew Bible. Proverbs is a collection of wisdom literature, addressing morality and good behavior, and is made up of six sections. Each section seems to have been composed at different times, but the third section in particular borrows directly from the Instruction of Amenemope (a piece of Egyptian literature composed between 1300 and 1075 BCE). Some lines are taken almost verbatim and others come very close in their messages, for example: give charity to the poor, avoid the “strange” woman, avoid harmful speech, use fair business practices, and tell the truth. These are all values embraced in Proverbs, and in the Hebrew Bible overall, but in no way unique to the ancient Israelites.

            Somehow, knowing some of the influences on the Israelites, and seeing what they chose to keep and what they chose to change, makes the ancient Jews feel more real to me. They didn’t appear out of nowhere; they were a product of their time, and interacted with the ideas around them. I can relate to that process of sifting, and it gives me more confidence in my own right to reassess their ideas, in order to determine what I believe in, and who I want to be going forward.

“We believe in the power of chicken.”

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?

Prayer is Work

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

“Aha!”

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

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

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

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

Cricket was not happy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellie wasn’t convinced either.

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

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

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

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

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

Mom and the girls, exhausted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellie’s Grey Eye

            For a few days in a row, Ellie’s left eye was a little bit red and she occasionally seemed reluctant to open it, but she’d had similar symptoms before and they usually cleared up on their own, so I wasn’t worried. The vet had given us an ointment way back when, but when we ran out we didn’t bother to get it refilled. When I saw the redness in Ellie’s eye I had it in the back of my mind to call the vet and ask if she should come in, or if we could just refill the old prescription, but it didn’t feel like an emergency.

“Really?”

            And then, at around ten thirty one night, Ellie looked up at me (to tell me that it was time to go out for the final walk of the day) and her left eye, almost all of it, was grey. It looked like a particularly opaque cataract, except that her eye had been clear just a little while before. I started to panic. My baby was going blind! She had multi-system organ failure that was showing up first in her eye! The emergency vet clinic would cost thousands of dollars I did not have, but how could I not rush her out to the car right away!

            I was freaking out.

“EEEEEK!”

            Mom went to the computer to google the symptoms while I watched Ellie dance around on her toes to let me know that she really, really, really wanted to go outside. There were a bunch of possibilities, like a sudden cataract or irritation, Mom said, so let’s wash her eye with warm salt water and see of that helps. We took the girls out for their walk, because they were now barking up a storm, but I was still freaking out. When we got back inside I made the salt water mixture and held Ellie in the bathroom sink and poured the water over her eye, over and over again, to her great frustration. I was hoping the greyness would just disappear with the water, but no such luck. At least the salt water didn’t seem to be hurting her (though she was very annoyed at getting wet and required serious treats as a reward).

            I went to sleep that night worried that I was condemning my baby to death, or at least blindness, by not rushing her to the emergency vet, but Mom said we would go to Ellie’s own doctor the next day and he would know what to do. I was not convinced. I had nightmares about stray dogs coming to my house for help with serious medical problems and I couldn’t help them. The guilt was endless and I woke up feeling like the most awful, selfish, hopeless, incapable person to ever live. And then Ellie came running into my room with a smile on her face and almost no greyness left in her eye.

            Oh Lord.

            We made the appointment with the vet anyway, and did everything we could do to distract Cricket while shuttling Ellie out of the apartment. Ellie cried in the car, but she always does that. She sits in the back seat and makes very high pitched conversation with us, to make sure we don’t forget she’s back there (when her sister is in the car with her, Cricket will climb behind my neck, in the passenger seat, to deal with her anxiety and leave Ellie in the back on her own anyway).

“Hey! Don’t forget about me!”

            By the time we’d reached the vet’s office, and the vet tech came out to get Ellie, I actually had to point out which eye was bothering her, because it was hard to see even the redness now. And then we had to sit in the car and wait. I hate this. Going to the vet is always anxiety producing (for me almost as much as for my dogs), but at least I can be there with them to give them comfort and ask questions and remind the doctor of whatever I think he needs to know. With Covid, I just have to sit in the car and wait while they steal my baby away from me.

            Eventually, the doctor came out and told me that Ellie had had a thorn in her eye (!) and he’d removed it, but there was an ulceration at the wound site and she would need eye drops twice a day, and she’d have to come back in a week to have her eye examined again to make sure it was healing. The vet has something of a hang dog face to begin with, but he looked even sadder this time, clearly upset for what my baby girl had been through; which sort of helped, but also sort of made me worry more.

            Then the vet tech brought Ellie back out to the car and, other than the yellow stain on the hair around her eye from the examination, Ellie looked fine. She was eager to get onto her own feet and get the hell out of there, and she had a lot to say about her adventure on the drive home.

            As soon as we got home, Ellie and Cricket had a tête à tête about the vet visit (mostly Ellie reassuring Cricket that she really didn’t miss anything good), and Cricket seemed to be reassured. They both got a treat for their different traumas and then bedded down for their afternoon naps.

            My first attempt at giving Ellie her eye drops that night was not especially successful (she kept closing her eye so that the drop just rolled down her face, but I eventually figured out how to tilt her head back far enough to get the drop into her actual eye). Once she got the hang of the eye drop routine, though, she got so excited about the treat-to-come that she started to dance around before I could get the drop into her. By the end of the week I just accepted that I would never be good at this, and if it took three drops before one got into her actual eye, so be it.

            We never figured out how Ellie had gotten a thorn in her eye, but given her propensity for rolling around on the floor, bed, and ground whenever and wherever she can, it’s not a big mystery. Days after her visit to the vet she managed to get what I hope was just poop on her back (we have dead mice out there in the yard, and who knows what else I don’t what to know about), and she had to have a full bath to wash it all off, and of course treats to make it better, which meant that along with the twice daily eye drop treats she and her sister had pretty much hit the jackpot.

            We went back to the vet after a week of eye drops and he stained her eye again and there was no sign of the ulceration. I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be, because of how healthy and wide open and brown her eye looked, but we had to check and make sure.

            So now we’re back to the usual problems – with Cricket intimidating Ellie away from Grandma, and off the couch, and away from the leftovers meant for both of them. Not that any of that went away while Ellie was suffering; Cricket doesn’t believe in having mercy on an injured opponent. She takes any advantage she can get.

“Who me?”

            G’mar Chatima Tova! To another year of silliness and treats and good health for everyone!

P.S. Ellie begs for treats even while she’s sleeping

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?

Traveling around the world with BeamZ

            I don’t remember when the BeamZ ad first showed up on my Facebook feed. I’d been looking for Hebrew language courses some time before then, so my feed was filling up with Jewish-related ads, and this one advertised a free virtual tour of the Jewish Quarter in Paris. Free? Paris? I looked into it a bit to make sure it wasn’t just a scam to get my email address or something, and it seemed genuine, so I decided to try it out.

            Mom and I dutifully sat in front of the computer to see what would happen, and it was, a bit, underwhelming. It was raining in Paris that day, and the host was sort of hitting the end of his rope, telling us that he wasn’t making enough money to keep working as a tour guide and would need to rethink his line of work. His internet connection was also spotty, but there was something about the whole thing; something charming about being on a real time tour of a foreign city.

            The way the BeamZ platform works is that instead of asking for a flat fee up front, they ask viewers to pay a tip to the host if they like the tour. You can pay from two dollars up to twenty dollars (with five to seven recommended), and if you leave early, or feel like it was a waste of your time, you just don’t pay. The guilt for not paying is relieved by the fact that there are so many viewers of each tour at the same time. That arrangement meant that we could take the risk of signing up for more tours, knowing that if we didn’t like the host, or the connection was bad, we could just leave without owing any money or feeling any (or much) guilt.

            I continued to get e-mails from BeamZ, listing more possible tours, and I realized that this wasn’t only a Jewish-centric enterprise; there were tours from Quebec and Tokyo and Vietnam and Amsterdam and Scotland, too. We decided to sign up for another tour, this time to a Flea Market outside of Paris (because Mom is a big fan of flea markets) and that’s when we discovered Patrick. Patrick was relaxed and friendly and knowledgeable, and even though I’m not a flea market/antiques person, I still had a good time. Watching his tour, I started to understand how the platform could really work for a host who could build a following, because there were viewers on the tour who’d been with him week after week, and he kept adding more tours to his list – like a series on sacred places and another on famous Americans in Paris – and hundreds of people were showing up.

“A market for fleas?!”

            On our next Paris tour, Patrick took us to a popular foodie area and showed us the inside of his raspberry pate au choux and chocolate-covered macaron, and walked us through a kitchen supply store and a chocolatier. The immediacy of watching random Parisians walking down the street, some wearing masks and some not, with no one really aware of being filmed, or caring, made it feel like we were really there in Paris, except that I didn’t have to do the walking. And it only cost a few dollars for each of us, instead of having to pay for airline tickets and hotels and transportation. And each tour was only forty-five minutes long, so I didn’t have time to get (too) bored. It was like a little vacation in the middle of the day, and a chance to visit a place I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.

“Did you say food?”

            I tried a tour of Jewish Berlin by myself, but it felt too much like a history class, and a painful one, because we visited a Jewish cemetery in East Berlin that had been destroyed by the Nazis and remade as a memorial to Holocaust victims. There was a haunting sculpture depicting the people who’d been brought to the Jewish retirement home, in front of the cemetery, when it was made into a detention center for the Jews on their way to the death camps. I made it through the whole tour, and found it interesting, but I wasn’t up to the next three tours in the series.

            We tried a few other tours, to Venice and Quebec and Edinburgh and Loch Ness and Budapest, with mixed results, and then I signed us up for a Tokyo tour. Usually the television coverage of the Olympics is full of stories from the host country, and how the people live their lives, but because of Covid there were only a few overhead shots of Tokyo’s Olympic village, and I wanted more. Our guide, Eriko, walked us through a lotus filled pond – with a walkway running through it – and the lotus plants were as tall as she was! And then we visited a Shinto shrine, and a Buddhist temple, and then we went to a market under the train tracks where they sold pretty much everything, but especially seafood. And there was a candy stall at the end of the market that sold boxes of candy sushi, where you could put together your own little piece of sushi however you wanted! We even saw a pine tree bent by a bonsai master into the shape of a circle! It was placed in front of a Buddhist temple, so that if you looked through the circle you could see another Buddhist temple across the park. Eriko was lovely and seemed to enjoy the trip as much as we did, and we immediately signed up for another tour with her, this time to an area outside of Tokyo called Kamakura, where we could virtually sample Japanese street food.

“Sushi in a cup!”

            And then we went back to Patrick, for a second attempt at Paris’ Jewish Quarter, Le Marais. He told us from the beginning that this tour would be about the sweet and the sour; the memorials to the Holocaust, yes, but also the life of the Jewish quarter today.

            Le Marais means the swamp, because in the Middle Ages the streets in the area were flooded regularly, which is probably why the Jews were allowed to live there. The streets are still what they were in the middle ages, made of cobblestones with a channel down the middle for water to pass through. And there are plaques everywhere to commemorate the French Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. An especially painful one commemorates the 11,400 Jewish children collected in the Marais and sent to their deaths; one as young as 27 days old.

            One of the main streets of the Jewish Quarter is Rue Des Rosiers – the street of rosebushes – and it is filled with kosher restaurants and pastry shops and Jewish bookstores. Many Jewish people still live in the Marais today and it’s a lively place. I went to the Rue Des Rosiers as a teenager, but I didn’t really know what to look for back then, and I didn’t even get to try the food because I was struggling with a serious eating disorder at the time, so it was so nice to be back there, with Patrick and my virtual friends, in a very different state of mind.

I almost bought that hat when I was in Paris.
This was the best part of my Paris trip as a teenager. By far!

            Some of the streets in the area are set aside for pedestrians, but others have metal poles at regular intervals to prevent cars from ramming into people. Patrick acknowledged that there is still anti-Semitism in France, but he said that there is much more anti-Moslem sentiment among the French. When one woman asked about the number of Jews of color living in France, Patrick told us that French law forbids the counting of people by color, religion, or ethnicity, because of how the Nazis used those lists in the Holocaust, so any count would have to be approximate.

            The last stop on the tour was the Memorial de la Shoah – the Memorial of the Holocaust – which included a wall of names of the French Jews killed in the Shoah (in France they use the Hebrew word Shoah rather than Holocaust). In this memorial, there was a chimney-like installation, with the names of the death camps inscribed on it, and underneath they mixed together ashes from Auschwitz and earth from Israel, to both mark the horror and to provide some form of good burial for those who were murdered.

            The final moment of the tour was the wall of the righteous among nations, listing 3,800 non-Jewish French people determined by Yad Vashem to have helped save Jewish lives during the Shoah. Somehow the balance of the sour and the sweet on this tour was just right.

            There are more BeamZ tours of Prague, St. Petersburg, Glasgow, Lisbon, Barcelona, India, Vietnam, etc…and they’re adding more tours, and more countries, all the time. Covid be damned. My only real problem is deciding where to go next. I’m trying to remind myself that I don’t have to go everywhere right away, because there’s plenty of time to explore at my own pace, if only because Covid doesn’t seem to be going away.

            Cricket and Ellie tend to sleep through these tours, though every once in a while there’s a dog on the screen, barking in a completely different dialect, and they’ll perk up for a second and then go back to their naps. Maybe, one day, BeamZ will do a canine tour of Paris and the girls will be able to take part.

“We’re ready!”

            Until then, in case you’re interested in going on a virtual tour to visit the humans of the world with BeamZ, here’s the link: https://www.beamz.live/

“We’ll 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?