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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?

Abraham the Father of Multitudes

            There’s a belief – that you are supposed to take on faith – that all of the books of the Hebrew Bible, and even the Oral Torah (the commentaries on the Hebrew Bible written later by the rabbis, called the Mishnah and the Gemara) were given by God at Mount Sinai, along with the Ten Commandments. According to Jewish dogma, in fact, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were all written by Moses (and inspired by God) in about 1300 BCE. Unfortunately, it’s more likely that these stories were written and collected during the Babylonian exile, after the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE, and a long time after the events described would have taken place.

            My Rabbi likes to say that the early stories in Genesis, pre-Abraham, are meant to be like Rudyard Kipling’s Just-so-stories, fables really, to explain the origins of things in our world. Why is childbirth painful? Why do we wear clothes? Why do we speak so many languages? Why are we scattered across the earth? And the answers were often adapted from what surrounding cultures had come up with to answer those same questions.

“Just so you know: dogs don’t wear clothes, and we all speak Woof.”

            There’s a well-founded theory, new to me but not new to biblical scholars, that everything before the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the central story of the Hebrew Bible, was written to make that Exodus more meaningful, and to explain why the Israelite tribes were able to escape slavery and enter freedom in the land of Israel. Others say that even the Exodus story itself is a fiction, created by a mixed group of tribes living in the land of Israel centuries later, to create a cohesive story of how they became a nation.

            This idea makes me feel seasick, as if the ground under my feet has been pulled away, but in another way it’s freeing. It allows me to see my ancestors, and these stories, as less concrete and more open to interpretation. There are reasons why every culture writes its own history, creating its own heroes and villains. Even the American story, so much more recent in history and therefore much easier to fact check, is full of exaggeration and idealization and interpretation meant to bolster certain values. This is what people do: we tell stories about our lives and our families. Some of these stories are even true, but many of them are meant to be symbolically true and to be emblematic of the life lessons we want to teach our children, rather than sticking strictly to the facts.

            And in the ancient world, history and chronology and literature were treated very differently than the way we treat them today. The idea that we fact check our stories at all would have seemed strange to them, and the idea that the science of a story would have to be correct would just seem silly. They didn’t care if the splitting of the Sea of Reeds was possible, just that it felt true to them.

“I never let facts get in my way.”

            Despite my endless questioning of the biblical authors, I always took it on faith that Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob) were real people. I assumed that the authors of the Hebrew Bible were mythologizing and interpreting every which way, in order to make these patriarchs seem more important and to make them stand for more than just individual people doing idiosyncratic things, but I assumed that at least some of the stories were based in fact. It never even occurred to me to wonder if Abraham himself was a fictional character, created by later generations, to validate cornerstones of the Israelite faith. Part of me even accepted that the mythological characters of Adam and Eve, and even Noah, were historical in some way. My questions, when I had them, were more often about the way the biblical authors interpreted events, editorializing and exaggerating to particular ends, rather than whether or not the events themselves had ever taken place.

            But, if the stories of the Hebrew Bible are fiction, why do the patriarchs, and especially Abraham, matter – so much so that three world religions see Abraham as their forefather?

            The name Abraham basically translates as Big Daddy, or father of multitudes. And yet, Abraham is a mess as a husband and a father, which makes him an interesting choice for patriarch. He’s certainly not a good role model, except, maybe, in his faith in God.

            So what is the point of this Abraham character? And why has he resonated with so many people for so long? We can ask that question whether we believe that God wrote the Hebrew Bible or that many different authors wrote it for their own different purposes, actually. Why has Abraham lived up to his title as the father of multitudes, inspiring so many people to believe in monotheism and this Yahweh version of God?

            The Hebrew Bible doesn’t present us with a paragon of goodness who is born knowing how to do everything right – no, Abraham is flawed, and makes terrible mistakes, even life threatening mistakes, in his misreading of what God wants from him.

            He learns.

            And God is with him every step of the way, not always cheering on his actions but trying to guide him and be with him as he makes his mistakes. Maybe his imperfection is what allows us to relate to him, and go on this journey with him, and believe that, maybe, we can have our own, similar, relationship to God.

“I’m imperfect too, and you love me anyway.”

            This is a God who will stick with you when you struggle, and continue to spur you on to be better, and give you second and third chances to learn. Isn’t that what we all want, really, to be supported along the way and not required to be perfect from the start, or even at the end, in order to earn that support?

            So, does it matter if these characters really existed thousands of years ago? Maybe it’s even more powerful to think that our ancestors were able to imagine these characters and their stories, and create this vision of God. I’m a fiction writer after all; I believe in the power of a good story, whether it’s factually true or not.

“Tell us another story, 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?

Israeli Music

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

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

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

My Israeli Music Mixtape

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

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

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

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

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

Ofra Haza

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

“I can dance!”

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

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

Netta

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need more music, Mommy.”

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

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

The Choir is Back

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

“Am I singing?”

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

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

“Grr.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How bad are these bad jokes?”

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

“I will always love you, Mommy!”

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

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

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

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

The Hebrew Class

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

         “I dream of chicken.”

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

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

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

“Harrumph.”          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking For Delilah

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t that a bad word?”          

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Back to In-Person Synagogue Services

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

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

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

“I’m ready!”

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

“Ugh. I’m gonna vomit.”

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

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

“Oy.”

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

“People are over-rated.”

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

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

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

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

“We have no idea.”

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

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