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The Comfort of the Chanukah Lights

            The word Chanukah means dedication, and refers to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, in the 2nd century BCE, after it had been won back from the Seleucid Greeks. So, to get my synagogue school students into the spirit of the holiday, we created a Human Chanukiah (complete with dance moves to represent each candle being lit), and I asked each of them what they wanted to dedicate themselves to this year, for Chanukah, or, given the time of year, for the New Year. And for the most part, they wanted to dedicate themselves to fun things: like sports, and candy, and getting more presents, and playing with their friends. Not one of them said they wanted to dedicate themselves to getting good grades, or doing their homework, or eating healthier food; they just wanted to live in the moment and live well, on their own terms.

“Sounds good to me.”

            I keep forgetting how much wisdom the kids have to share with us. As a teacher, I keep judging myself by my success at getting them to focus on Hebrew and prayers, and being good and generous and charitable, but that’s not what they want most for themselves. Just because their parents want them to do well in school, and be good at sports, and end up in successful careers that earn them enough money to send their own kids to synagogue school, that doesn’t mean that that’s what motivates the kids to get up each morning. And I think the most important thing I can do for them is to focus on what they really want and who they really are, so they know that they matter to the people around them. Because if, someday, they feel motivated to work hard and be kind and accomplish great things for society, it needs to come from their own values and feelings and beliefs, and not just from the hope of pleasing other people. When things get hard, which they always do, the thing that will keep them going in the midst of all of that work is the ability to find joy and meaning in who they actually are, and the light they have inside of them.

Miss Ellie, full of light

            I struggle with this all the time, because I keep getting confused about whose goals I should be working towards, mine, or the people who are judging my accomplishments or lack thereof. And I thought about this a lot this past week when I heard that Stephen “Twitch” Boss, a dancer and judge from So You Think You Can Dance and DJ on The Ellen Show, had killed himself, at age forty, leaving behind a wife and three children. I don’t know why he did it. There seems to have been a suicide note mentioning past challenges, but I don’t know if that made things clear to his family and close friends or if it was too vague even for them to understand. So, of course, I’ve been trying to process the loss in my own way.

            I felt a lot of different things at the news: disbelief, of course, because he was such a passionate, charming, talented, and seemingly happy person; grief, because even though I never met him, his dancing and his humor and his kindness and his patience with other people all made him seem like someone I’d want to know; anger, at him, for choosing to go and not to continue to share his love and talent and light with us; sadness, at how much pain he must have been in to see suicide as the only answer, and to so completely prevent anyone from stopping him once he’d decided to die; and anger again, that he had a gun, because guns are the most efficient way to kill yourself, and maybe if he’d used another method he could have been reached in time to receive the life-saving help he didn’t know how to ask for; and then I felt fear, that if he could be overcome by his darkest emotions, despite all of his talent and love and resources and friends, what’s going to save me if I fall into the deep dark again? And then I felt survivor’s guilt, for being so lucky as to have found the right kind of support, and medication, and therapy, to not be in the place he was in.

I’ve been comforted by how many people loved him, and cared about him, and were deeply impacted by his death. Grief is easier to bear when it’s shared, and when the value of the lost one is so completely acknowledged and understood.

            And I’ve also seen a lot of posts and videos on social media professing knowledge about why he killed himself, looking for clues and conspiracies or people to blame. It’s his wife’s fault, or Ellen DeGeneres’ fault, or he was in a financial hole because someone cheated him, or he didn’t kill himself, he was murdered. And I understand the impulse, the need, to make sense of a loss that is so hard to accept. I want something to grab hold of too. I want an explanation. Most of all I want it to not have happened. Even if he never danced again or never showed himself in the public eye, it would be better to be able to think of him as alive, and living the life he wanted for himself.

But I’ve also been watching his old dance routines on YouTube, and I can’t help wishing that he could have been given more opportunities to share his gifts, more time on stage and screen, more time with great choreographers. His dancing reminded me of Gene Kelly, with the charismatic full body presence he had, and the humor and warmth and energy that filled every step, and I could picture him in those MGM musicals, dancing on the ceilings and singing in the rain, because he was the kind of leading man you could believe in, and love, and root for. And he was a dancer who could capture your heart no matter what style of dance he tried. But maybe that’s just me wishing for things for him that he didn’t want for himself.

            What I want to learn from his death, and what I want to make sure my students know, is that even when you don’t achieve all of the goals you set for yourself, or the goals others set for you, you still matter and you still deserve to take up space in the world. And if you can hold onto who you really are, and the things that bring you joy, that can be what brings you back from the brink when the darkness sneaks up and tries to convince you that life isn’t worth living anymore. We all deserve joy, and love, and time to play with our friends, and all of the presents we want, even if we can’t always get those things.

            After a Jewish funeral, and then yearly on the anniversary of the death, Jews light a memorial candle, a yahrzeit candle, that is meant to last twenty four hours, to mark the memory of the loved one and the light they brought to the world, and I feel like Chanukah, with its eight days of light, came at just the right time to support me through the loss of Twitch and his light; eight days of manufactured light, to fill the void left by the passing of his natural bright light. It’s a small comfort, a metaphorical comfort, but it is real.

            I feel so lucky that Twitch existed and had a platform to share his light for as long as he was able. I wished for more for him, and from him, but what a gift he already was! I hope that his friends can bring light into the lives of his wife and children, and his mother and grandfather, for as long as they need it in order to get to a place where their own light can shine again, and when the memory of Twitch can bring them more light than grief.

            Zichrono livracha, may his memory be a blessing.

Here are some clips to watch, if you want to share some of the light Twitch brought to the world:

Katee and Twitch – Mercy - https://youtu.be/nhrxfHCtMJA
Alex and Twitch – Outta Your Mind - https://youtu.be/TLtSfYX8tJk
Kherington & Twitch - Dreaming With a Broken Heart - https://youtu.be/cufPoqE21ko
Sasha and Twitch - Misty Blue - https://youtu.be/l4cbpCs_E9g
SYTYCD Stephen "Twitch" Boss solos - https://youtu.be/3KlCG9OpWNM
Twitch and Allison dance to "Bebot" by the Black Eyed Peas - https://youtu.be/giqyscyp9XY

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 Power of Magical Thinking

            In this season of miracles (for Hanukah) and magic (for Christmas) I’m always inspired, and a little bit confused, about what’s possible and what’s not. I don’t think Santa is going to come down my chimney, wearing a blue suit covered in Stars of David, with a bag of presents just for me; if only because I don’t have a chimney of my own. And I don’t think my Chanukiah (a menorah with an extra candle for Chanukah) is going to stay lit for eight days; in fact, I’ve never had candles that lasted more than half an hour at a time. But there’s something in the air, and in the lights and presents and TV movies and special foods and decorations, that makes it feel like anything is possible.

“Can we plant chicken trees this year?”

            I don’t really believe in magic, though I really, really, want to, but I’m intrigued by it and by all of the things we’ve called magic in the past that turned out to have understandable, if complicated, causes.

            Recently, my rabbi talked about how, when the ancient Israelites first entered the Land of Canaan, the Canaanites taught them all of the latest agricultural science, including the rule that you should only make unleavened bread in the spring, so that all of the leavening (AKA fertility) could go to the land itself. As a result, we have a Jewish holiday each spring which features unleavened bread, or matzah (at some point, the holiday of unleavened bread was combined with the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, to become the single week long holiday of Passover). Over time we gave new meaning to the ritual of eating unleavened bread in the spring, combining it with the memory of the way the Israelites had to escape from Egypt quickly and therefore had no time to let their bread rise, but the ritual is the same and its source is a belief in sympathetic magic.

“Matzah does not count as food.

Sympathetic magic is magic that derives its power from a connection between similar objects, like a voodoo doll, with a lock of the enemy’s hair on the doll to create a link, so that whatever happens to the doll happens to the enemy. You don’t have to believe that this is magic in order to understand the metaphoric value of a ritual like this: the voodoo doll creates a catharsis, so that an individual can cause harm to a lookalike doll instead of going out and physically harming their enemy, allowing the person to work through their pain, and the fantasy of killing the other, without actually hurting someone else or putting themselves in danger. Isn’t that an incredibly powerful, and even magical, thing for a ritual to be able to do?

The Jewish ritual of Tashlich, where we throw our sins into the water (in the form of bread or birdseed) on Rosh Hashanah, has power because it offers us the chance to feel unburdened, as if we’ve really released a weight from our lives. It’s similar to the therapeutic practice of having a patient who has lost a limb use a mirror to create the illusion of two healthy limbs, so that she is then able to relax the muscles and nerve endings leading to the missing limb, creating real change in the body as the result of an illusion.

Some sympathetic magic hasn’t aged quite as well, like using herbs with yellow sap to cure jaundice, or eating walnuts to strengthen the brain (because walnuts look like miniature brains), or drinking red beet juice to benefit the blood. And yet, at the time that these cures were used they must have seemed like powerful magic, or even the science of the day.

            And that makes me wonder, what if the ideas we call magical thinking are simply hypotheses we’ve come up with over time to explain phenomena we don’t yet understand? When there is proof that a hypothesis is wrong then it would be delusional to continue to hold onto that theory, like eating walnuts because they look like brains rather than because of their actual nutrients, but when there is no means to prove or disprove a hypothesis then is it really so unreasonable to hold onto these magical ideas if they offer us comfort?

            Another example of sympathetic magic that resonates for me is the horcruxes from Harry Potter, where part of the person has been transferred into an object, and therefore the person can’t be killed until the object is destroyed. J.K. Rowling made this concrete in her books, to prolong the life of Voldemort and make him that much more dangerous, but don’t we often use works of art, or clothing, or photographs, to represent our connection to the person who owned them, allowing us to feel their presence even when they are gone?

Miss Butterfly
Miss Dina

            There’s a reason why the Harry Potter books were so successful with adults, as well as with children: because the magical logic resonates. Magic is a powerful metaphor for the things we struggle to give full weight in our emotional lives. It is often used in fantasy stories and superhero movies to bring hard-to-explain feelings to the surface, like the Dementors in Harry Potter who represent the unbearable feelings of grief in physical form, so that they can be seen and fought off. Or like Superman’s one weakness being kryptonite, because it is the raw material of his home planet; this is powerful sympathetic magic and deep psychological truth all at once.

In Harry Potter, Voldemort’s name was replaced with he-who-must-not-be-named, because they believed that saying his name would make him appear, and we have this in Judaism too. We are never supposed to say the “true” name of God, the unpronounceable four letter name in the Torah – the Tetragrammaton – that some pronounce as Yahweh, and we are supposed to save the other names of God only for prayers and blessings, because we’re not supposed to say God’s name in vain, or for no meaningful purpose. All of this is because we recognize that words have power: to create, to shame, to guide, to honor, to express love.

            There are lots of things that I don’t believe in literally that bring me comfort and allow me to keep going, even when reality is deeply disappointing, and I think that’s often the purpose of magic, and religion too. And sometimes, inexplicably, the magic works: a call comes just when you prayed for it, you wish on a star and the wish comes true, or you get a feeling about someone you love far away, and it turns out to be true. Maybe it’s a coincidence, or an educated guess based on deep knowledge of the other person, but it feels magical, as in, unexplained and powerful. And who’s to say it’s not? Especially at this time of year.

“If we put our heads together and think hard, maybe the chicken will come!”

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?         

Shabbat is sort of like Christmas once a week

Each year, my synagogue school class has to sing two prayers at a Friday night service, one about the requirement to celebrate Shabbat (the Sabbath), and one hoping for peace (there are many, many prayers hoping for peace, even within a single service). And each year I look at those prayers again, through the eyes of my new class, or through the lens of my ever-changing experience of my own life, and I see new things. This year, after watching dozens of Christmas movies, even before Thanksgiving, I started to think about how celebrating Shabbat is like having Christmas once a week (though when I tried this idea out on my students, they rolled their eyes and said, but we don’t get presents on Shabbat!).

“Where are our presents?”

Shabbat, as the day of rest each week, is, for Jews, about taking a time out to think about how your life is going, and being with family and friends, and singing familiar songs, and eating familiar foods, often to excess, and focusing on joy and connection and comfort instead of on accomplishment and being busy. And those are the goals at the heart of most of the Christmas movies I watch too – along with all of the romance and silly subplots and misunderstandings, of course. Each movie, in the end, is about the search for a version of joy and comfort and love that fits the individual characters in that story. There’s also a lot of family drama, and rigid rules to overcome, and the race to get everything done in time, and awkward socializing, and odd food you don’t really want to eat, just like on Shabbat.

“What’s this food I don’t want to eat?”

It’s possible that I’m just seeing this comparison between Shabbat and Christmas as an excuse for the many many Christmas movies I watch each year, but I think it’s also the reason why I watch the movies in the first place: each one, or at least each of the good ones, is a chance for my soul to reset and refill with hope and wonder, so that I can get through the difficulties of the rest of my life.

When the kids learn the prayers in class they have to do a lot of talking, and writing and drawing, about what they want their own versions of Shabbat to be, and, inevitably at least one of my students tells me that she shouldn’t have to do the work because her family doesn’t celebrate Shabbat, because they don’t celebrate it in the traditional ways. And I tell the kids that, even though I don’t always celebrate Shabbat with all of the rituals, I’ve been able to take things from the tradition that work for me and add my own ideas in order to reach the goal of connection and rest. Shabbat is a weekly holiday of aspiration, as much as of ritual; it’s about finding a way to fill your soul so that you can get through the rest of the week feeling whole, instead of fragmented or out of whack. And really, anything you can do to fill your soul is like your own version of Shabbat. Maybe you meditate or do yoga, maybe you spend time with friends and reconnect with the version of yourself that you can’t be at school or work, or maybe you spend time reading, or talking to your family, or playing board games, or making art, so that you can take a deep breath and feel like yourself again before going back out into the world and doing what’s required of you. To which most of my students roll their eyes, of course.

But I really believe in the power of using Shabbat as a lesson for our lives as well as making it a special day of the week, and the dogs, as always, are great role models for this. For example, I think the dogs have their own mini-Shabbat each time they go outside (unless Kevin is outside, in which case Ellie runs back to our door to wait for us while Cricket plays out her romantic comedy). Even on a bad weather day (though not in the rain), the dogs sniff all of the messages from their friends and neighbors, and they listen to the sounds of the birds and trains and children and buses, and they run and play and scout out good places to pee, and then they go back inside rejuvenated and ready for their next nap. Although, I think Cricket and Ellie would agree with my students that all of this Shabbat stuff would be made much better with presents, preferably food-related. And I can’t disagree.

“We need presents!”

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 High Holidays

            I made it through the Jewish high holidays. It was touch and go there for a while, because I couldn’t go to the last few choir rehearsals, and because three of the other synagogue school teachers got Covid at the same time, including the Cantor! So I was relying heavily on my KN95 mask to get me through.

            I made sure to wear my sneakers (because there’s a lot of standing at the high holiday services, especially on Yom Kippur), and I practiced the music as much as possible on my own, and I even started to do breathing exercises (there’s an app for that!), to build up my breath capacity after months of not singing much at all.

“I breathe all the time without an app, Mommy.”

            The surprising thing was how much fun it was to sing with the choir again. I’d forgotten that it was more than just work. When, after missing Rosh Hashana with Covid, the Cantor made his triumphant return for Yom Kippur, it was truly joyous to hear him sing again, and to be able to sing along with all of the tunes the choir doesn’t lead, and realize how much of the music that we only hear once a year is actually familiar and comforting and really powerful.

            It was fun to be with a crowd again; to have so many people in one place, at one time, experiencing the same things, hearing the same stories and singing the same songs and laughing at the same jokes, and it was wonderful to see the children of the congregation (many of whom have been my students over the past few years) go up to the bima and take pride in opening the ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept, but even more so at just being seen.

            The high holidays are still a lot of work, don’t get me wrong. And waking up early, and dressing up, and singing and praying and standing and sitting, over and over and over again, was grueling. And the dogs really hated the constant coming and going (mostly the going), especially when we had more than one service to go to in a single day.

“Harrumph.”

            But it was worth it. Beforehand, I was so focused on how hard it would all be, and how much pain I would be in, and how tired I would get, that I forgot how extraordinary it can feel to be surrounded by a community I truly like, and share history with, and can sing with, and even sometimes dance with.

            I’m sure I will forget all of this again by next summer, when it’s time to rehearse with the choir again and build up to the high holiday services again. I’ll probably spend hours, and days, and weeks, dreading the whole thing and resenting the choir rehearsals and worrying about what to wear, but so far, I can still feel the joy, and it’s wonderful. There are so many difficult things in life that really don’t feel worth all of the effort and pain and anxiety; but some things, like this, are totally worth the effort. Thank God!

“Sleep is always worth the effort.”

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

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

A Blessing a Day

            Just before sunset on Erev Rosh Hashanah (the first night of the Jewish New Year), my Mom noticed that one of the pawpaws (from a tree we grew from seeds 15 years ago, that only gave its first fruit last year) was starting to blacken in one spot, and when I got close to it I realized that the distinct pawpaw smell was already filling the air, and the fruit was becoming soft. There were eight or nine pawpaws on the tree this year, but we’d been waiting for a sign that they were ready to be picked, and for this one piece of fruit, this seemed to be the sign. So we plucked it from the tree, and brought it inside, and said the Shehecheyanu blessing (the Jewish blessing for new experiences), before sharing the first new fruit of the year.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.

            It’s not so much that I believe God magically gave me a pawpaw just in time for the New Year, it’s more that I believe in the power of recognizing these moments of wonder in my life, as a way to remind myself that there will be many more of them in the future, in case I’m beginning to lose hope.

“I never lose hope that there will be more chicken treats!”

            One of the new things I’m trying this year with my synagogue school students is a blessing a day – or, really, a blessing a week, because we only have Hebrew class once a week – and we started the year with the Shehecheyanu blessing, because it’s associated with the Jewish New Year, and because it gives us a chance to talk about all of the new things we are starting in our lives, and maybe feeling anxious and excited about at the same time.

            I want the kids to know that there are hundreds of pre-set blessings that they can use, but also that they can create their own blessings, and celebrate things in their lives that are unique to them, or even just use words that have more meaning to them. For example:

            I am so grateful that the new KN95 masks are cheaper and more plentiful than they used to be, so I can wear them all the time instead of relying on less protective masks.

            I am grateful that people not only read my writing but invest in it enough to respond with their own thoughts.

            I feel blessed when Ellie sees that I am in pain and comes over to lick my hand, to let me know she’s there with me and loves me.

            I sense a power bigger than myself when I discover a new food/song/book that fills me with wonder and a sense of connection.

            I feel like the sun is shining down on me when my students smile and laugh and really seem to enjoy being in my class.

            For some reason, the girls in the class took to the Shehecheyanu blessing immediately and began fighting for the chance to stand in front of the classroom and give dramatic readings – as if they were on stage reciting Shakespeare. Who knew blessings could be so loud, and entertaining?!

“Me!!!!”

            I’ve been collecting blessings to teach to the kids this year, and of course I have to include the most used blessings, the ones over food, because the kids are always hungry! The Jewish food blessings are well documented – you’ll find yeshiva boys competing over who knows which blessing to say over which kind of food (for example, you have to say two different  blessings for an ice cream cone, one for the cone and one for the ice cream!). I’m not a big fan of getting into the weeds of the pre-set blessings, but I appreciate that they exist and can give me a reference point for how to create my own blessings.

            We often think of a blessing as something that is given to us – we are blessed by luck, blessed to be loved, blessed to survive a flood – but I like the idea of a blessing as what we say in response to that good fortune; so we’re giving the experience our own stamp, our own interpretation, to make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed, by us.

            I specifically went looking for a blessing over putting on a face mask, because I needed a reminder that I’m still wearing one for a good reason, and I found a blessing (at ritualwell.org) written by Rabbi Michael Knopf that blesses God for commanding us to protect life (this actually is a commandment, called Pikuach Nefesh, where we are told to break many of the other commandments if it will allow us to save a life).

Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to protect life.

It’s sufficiently vague to use for all kinds of protective behaviors: like getting a vaccine, or wearing a mask, or forcing yourself to go for a regular checkup even when you really don’t want to.

“I never want to go to the doctor.”

There were also blessings on Ritualwell for taking off masks, and all sorts of other things that don’t already have existing blessings in the canon. I’m hoping that by the end of the year I’ll have a whole file of blessing from my students to send in to the website, because kids are really good at seeing the specifics of their lives and the wonder in the every day. I’ll teach them the blessings for seeing a rainbow, or meeting a wise person, or surviving a life threatening experience, and then it will be their turn to teach me: how to bless an endless session of playing video games, or sharing a peanut butter and pickle sandwich with a friend, or rolling down a snowy hill until you can’t breathe for laughing.

I can’t wait!

“Peanut butter and pickle sounds pretty good.”

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 New School Year

            I’m the only teacher wearing a mask this year at synagogue school, so far. And I know that part of the reason I chose to keep wearing it is because I’m self-consciousness about my teeth, post-surgery, but mostly it’s because I wear a mask to go to the supermarket, and the doctor, and the dentist, and the drug store, and it seems odd to take the mask off just when I’m faced with a room full of children. I don’t want to get sick, and even more important, I don’t want to get Mom sick, especially after the breathing issues she’s been having this summer.

            I have even less energy than I had when school ended last spring, but I’m hoping that that’s a temporary result of the oral surgery, just like the numbness and tingling on the right side of my face, and that I’ll start feeling better soon. I don’t think my exhaustion shows in the classroom, though, because I tend to go into performance mode, spending two hours making weird noises (we all pretended to be shofars on day one!), and acting things out, and making funny faces (which probably go unnoticed under the mask, now that I think about it). I definitely feel the pain later, but in the moment, when the adrenaline takes over, I feel like I can do pretty much anything.

“I can fly!”

            The rest of the time, my mind is still full of noise: worrying about my health, and Mom’s; worrying that I’m a terrible teacher/friend/daughter/human; worrying that I will always be in debt, and always be disabled, and always be worried.

            Mom has been feeling better, thank God, but now she’s so busy that when I want to whine about one thing or another I have to wait until she’s done with her physical therapy/board meeting/photography exhibit/quilting meeting just to get a word in. Harrumph.

“You must listen to me.”

            But, really, it was so exciting to meet my new students! And I have so many ideas for how to teach things more clearly this year, and to add more music and fun and creativity to my classroom. I’ve learned so much from my fellow teachers, and from the kids and the teenage teacher’s aides, and I hope I’ll be a better teacher this year as a result. But no matter how much I plan ahead, as soon as class starts I feel like I’ve been shot out of a cannon, and my feet don’t touch the ground until I leave the building and take off my mask. That’s when my brain kicks back in and I start to remember all the things I meant to do, and all of the things I actually did, and my head starts to spin and the pain and exhaustion start to seep in, and I feel lucky to make it home safely before I can’t stand up straight anymore. But even then, sitting on the couch for hours trying to recover, incapable of doing anything else, I still love my job.

            Crazy.

“Yep. She’s crazy.”

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 Month of Elul

            The last weekend in August marked the beginning of Elul, the Jewish month set aside for doing Teshuva, leading up to the Jewish high holidays. Teshuva means different things to different people, but basically translates as repentance, or returning to the path. You are supposed to take this time to look over your behavior from the past year and see where you went wrong, in your treatment of others, or of yourself, and warm up for the big communal repentance Olympics that is the high holidays. So it’s not a fun, happy time, and I just don’t have the energy for more self-flagellation right now.

“We’re all exhausted.”

            Intellectually, I see the value in a month of self-reflection and taking stock of our lives and what we’ve done wrong and could do better. But emotionally, and spiritually, it feels like I’m beating myself with a hammer after having already been beaten by ten hammers. At some point, being told to blame myself for all of the wrongs done within my community, and in the world at large, feels like overkill.

I would much rather have a month full of peace and kindness, and people telling me how wonderful I am. I want my dreams to be filled with cotton candy trees and happy puppies, but that’s not how it goes in my brain. Most likely I’ll continue to have nightmares accusing me of failing to save puppies and babies, and the trees will all be rotten and dying.

            One custom I don’t usually participate in leading up to the High Holidays, but maybe should, is the blowing of the shofar every weekday morning of the month of Elul. The idea is that the shofar, the ram’s horn that sounds like a dying ram calling out to its mother, is expected to wake you up from automatic pilot, the state where most of us spend most of our time. And the hope is, if you hear it a little bit each day, and build your awareness bit by bit, the long shofar calls and deep guilt work of the high holidays won’t feel so overwhelming.

            Each shofar, or ram’s horn, is distinct. It has been emptied out and polished, but it still retains the individual character of the animal who wore it. It can be small or big, with one curve or more, each twisted in its own unique way. Like us.

(Not my pictures)

Part of the power of the shofar, for me, is its imprecision. Whereas a musical instrument, like a trumpet, can make more beautiful and melodic sounds, the shofar captures something animal, something deeply human, that we often try to ignore. So we’re not just being woken up by a random loud sound, we are being reminded of our need to cry out for help, and reminded that we are supposed to cry out for help. Maybe listening to the shofar could remind me that repentance doesn’t always have to be about recognizing and correcting my flaws, instead it could be my reminder that needing other people, and asking for help, is a good thing.

“Help! They won’t let me drive the car!”

            And, maybe, just maybe, we’re being woken up out of automatic pilot in order to experience joy and hope more fully, instead of just being awake to what’s gone wrong.

But, still, what I really want for Elul this year is peace. I want to rest under my paw paw tree, in a cool breeze, with a pile of books, a sleeping dog or two, and a glass of ice cold chocolate milk. Is that so much to ask?

“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?

The Ritual Slaughter of my Nightguard

            There were so many things about the oral surgery that worried me: I was worried about the pain, and the anesthesia, and being out of commission for a couple of days, which meant leaving Mom to take care of the dogs, even though she was still recovering from her second hip surgery. And I was worried about how I would look, with the bruises on my face and the temporary 3D printed implant. And I was worried about the idea that they would be putting screws into my cheek bones, through my sinuses. How could that not cause problems? I wouldn’t even think of piercing my nose or lip, and now they were going to pierce my sinuses?!

            But I knew I had to do it anyway, because just since the surgery had been scheduled even more of my teeth had become obviously loose (rather than just looking loose in my x-rays).

“No, Mommy. Just no.”

            But the one thing I was looking forward to about the surgery, other than having a new set of strong, healthy, upper teeth, was that I wouldn’t have to wear my nightguard anymore. I’ve worn the same nightguard since my early twenties, when a periodontist told me that I grind my teeth every night while I sleep. I wasn’t sure how he could tell, but I assumed he was right. My dentist revised the nightguard once, without commenting on how impressive it was that this same piece of plastic, created by the periodontist a million years ago, was still holding strong.

I’m only finding out now, per Google, that I was supposed to be doing a monthly deep cleaning of the darned thing. I always brushed it with toothpaste and rinsed it and dried it before putting it away in its case (though now I’m also finding out that my toothpaste might have been too abrasive. Oops.). But I’d never heard about doing a monthly deep cleaning with denture cleanser, or alternating half hour soaks in hydrogen peroxide and vinegar. But then again, the article that told me all of this also said that a nightguard should last an average of five years, so… maybe I was better off without the deep cleaning after all.

“Hygiene is overrated.”

            It’s still possible that I will need a nightguard for my new teeth, once I get the permanent implant in a few months, but it won’t be the same one I’ve had all these years. And even though I will not miss this nightguard, I still feel like I need to come up with a satisfying ritual to say goodbye to it, instead of just tossing it in the garbage. It deserves my respect, if not my love, for watching over me every night and helping me keep my teeth in place as long as possible. The idea of ritual slaughter came to mind, even though the nightguard is not a living thing, because the temptation to hit it with a hammer, or chop it into tiny pieces with a cleaver is very high. But I also like the idea of burying it, like you would do with a ritual object you can no longer use. The problem with that idea is, one, the nightguard is plastic and won’t degrade underground, and two, if I bury it in the backyard, the raccoons might dig it up and then I’ll see it on someone’s porch one morning, after the raccoons have tried it on and realized it didn’t work for their teeth.

“What?!!!”

            But even if a ritual burial/destruction is impractical, maybe there’s a blessing I could say before throwing the nightguard out. Like, Thank you, nightguard, for keeping my teeth safe lo these many years. Now your work is done and you can take your long needed rest. But, again, anthropomorphizing a piece of plastic feels kind of creepy.

            Maybe instead, I could thank the periodontist who made it? Or the dentist who revised it? Or the inventor who came up with the idea of a nightguard in the first place? I’m realizing that I rely on many different inventions to keep me functioning like a semi-normal person: my glasses, and orthotics, and painkillers, and anti-depressants, on top of the nightguard and now the new implant. And there are so many other inventions that make my life possible: like air conditioners, and washing machines, and indoor plumbing (!!!), that did not exist for my ancestors a thousand, or a hundred, or even fifty years ago. So, maybe this should be my blessing: Thank you to all of the people who have worked hard to make our lives healthier, safer, and more comfortable. I hope you were paid well for your work. And, may I never have to see this little piece of plastic ever again. Amen.

“Amen.”

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

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

Envy and the Yetzer Hara

            There’s a Jewish concept called the Yetzer Hara, or the evil inclination, which (along with the Yetzer Hatov, or the good inclination) at first glance seems to be a version of having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, but it’s more complicated than that. As usual.

“Why is everything so complicated?”

            The Yetzer Hara has often been reinterpreted not so much as an inclination to evil, but as an inclination that can lead to evil. The rabbis say that the inclination to reproduce, or to create new things, or to succeed in life all come from this “evil” inclination, and therefore we need some amount of it in life even to survive, let alone to thrive. We need to have ambition and impulsivity and individual drive, but there’s a limit; though they don’t clarify exactly where those limits might be.

            The same rabbis say that if we took the Yetzer Hatov, the inclination for good, to an extreme we’d also have trouble. Because if we were always peaceful and calm, and never ambitious, we wouldn’t bother to grow crops, or have children, or make progress in science or art or philosophy, or even religion. We would be satisfied with whatever we had and peacefully die off. So the ideal is to find a balance between the two inclinations.

            But I’m not sure why the rabbis felt it necessary to call something “evil” that, in itself, isn’t evil at all, and to call something “good” which is more like peacefulness rather than goodness, and I think these names, and therefore these judgements on our inclinations towards creativity or peacefulness, are part of the reason why we struggle so much, both with accepting our ambitions and with accepting our need for rest.

“Rest is essential.”

            I’ve been thinking about this question of what’s really evil, and what is just called evil in our society, because I’ve been feeling a lot of envy for what other people have, or what they look like, or just who they are, and having these feelings has been making me feel like I’m a bad person, and stops me from being able to look at these feelings head on, because I’m afraid I will discover that I really am bad.

The Tenth Commandment says that we shouldn’t covet (or envy) what our neighbors have. The other commandments focus on doing or not doing something, but this one is about what we feel. Our ancestors, I guess, were afraid of their emotions and judged those emotions as if they were equal to bad action. But why?

Research on envy distinguishes between malicious envy and benign envy. Malicious envy is when you want to take something away from someone else, or hurt the person who has what you want, and benign envy is when you see that someone else has something you want and that motivates you to achieve that thing for yourself.       

But what if envy itself is neutral, not positive or negative, just a human emotion that we can feel, and learn from, without having to judge ourselves for having it? What if envy itself isn’t benign or malicious at all, and it’s only what we do with our envy that gets us in trouble. What if we could allow ourselves to feel the envy, and then go on to feel the disappointment or grief of not being able to have what we want, or the determination and passion that helps us keep working for what we want. What if, by allowing ourselves to feel the full weight of our envy, we would realize that we don’t want what someone else has, but we want to feel the way they seem to feel, and then we can start to work on finding a better way to reach that feeling.

            The problem is that most people, including me, have trouble looking at those shadow parts of ourselves without being overwhelmed by crushing guilt and self judgement. And who can sit with that for very long? And therefore we can’t get to all of the important insights that envy, and all of our other difficult and painful emotions, have to offer us.

“What’s guilt?”

The fact is, the danger doesn’t come from envy but from unacknowledged and unprocessed envy. If I can sit with the envy long enough, it can tell me what matters to me and what I want to change in my life or in the world around me.

Envy has been a constant companion for me, so maybe that’s why I take the Tenth Commandment so personally, and feel so judged by it. It feels as if God is leaning down from Mount Sinai and pointing a big finger at me and saying: you, you’re the bad one. But I can’t help feeling envious. I envy people who are healthy, or who grew up feeling safe, or who’ve had better luck in love and in their careers. But feeling envious is not the same as taking an evil or hurtful action towards another person.

            Our fear that our emotions will take over and consume us is clearly old, both ancient in our society and old in our lifetimes, from childhood, when we had so little ability to manage the emotions overwhelming our little bodies.

            But if we, as adults, can’t distinguish between our feelings and our actions, and call both equally evil, then we will forget to distinguish between the people who choose to act in destructive ways and the people who don’t, because we will think we are all the same. And if we stay in that place, then we won’t be able to take any real responsibility for how we react to our emotions, and that space between feeling and action, where we have the opportunity to choose the path we will take, goes unexplored.

            I think what the rabbis were pointing to in the Yetzer Harah and the Yetzer Hatov is that they are inclinations, not acts; having an inclination, or a longing, or even a need, does not determine the action we will take as a result. It informs it, yes, but it doesn’t make anything inevitable. And we are so lucky to have these emotions and inclinations, these little angels (though definitely more than just two extremes, I think) sitting on our shoulders and telling us the more complex picture of what we feel and what we want, so that we can look at our feelings and look at the facts before we choose how to act.

            I just wish we could give these inclinations better names, like, I don’t know, Maude and Henry, so we could treat them like the friends and confidants that they are meant to be, and not as the strangers, called Good and Evil, that they almost never really represent.

“We won’t have to share our chicken treats with Maude and Henry, will we?”

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?

End of the Synagogue School Year

            I need time to stop again. I keep needing time to stop; keep needing a chance to catch up with my life, because it’s running too far ahead of me.

“I’ll catch it for you, Mommy!”

            I’m looking forward to the end of the semester, and the beginning of summer vacation, because I need a break; but it’s sad that this will be the end of working with this particular group of kids, and probably this particular teacher’s aide, all of whom have had so much to teach me. There’s so much more I want them to learn, too.

            I feel pretty good about what my students have learned this year in Judaic Studies – both the ethical lessons from Leviticus and our virtual travels around the world to visit different communities of Jews throughout history. I keep finding more places and more eras where Jews have lived interesting and unexpected lives, and I love that I get to share all of this with the kids, and help them build a wider and deeper and more flexible idea of what it can mean to be Jewish. But their Hebrew needs work, and there are so many lessons I’ve had to cut from my lesson plans in favor of something else – a holiday, a musical event, etc. – and could never find time to add back in.

            But also, I get anxious before each class: worried I’ll leave something out, or miss something that’s going on with them. My expectations of what I should be able to do two afternoons a week, in eight or nine months, is out of whack with what’s truly possible, but still I always feel like I’m falling short.

“Did you just call me short?”

            Of course, part of my summer vacation will be spent revising lesson plans to see how I can fit more in, and teach things more effectively. I need to work on my ability to teach through games – especially games like Jeopardy, which my teacher’s aide did with the kids twice this year to spectacular effect. And I need to figure out how to repeat lessons more often, but in different ways, until the material really sticks, for most of them rather than just for some of them. And I want to revise my readings to better fit their current reading levels.

            But before I do that, I need a nap. And I need a chance to refocus on my own work and my own learning process and getting my own stories told. I tend to live in a state of high anxiety during the school year, and I need to transition out of that into something more sustainable that allows for more creativity and imagination.

“And you need to take your dogs for more walks.”

            But, I’m worried that my teenage teacher’s aide – a fourteen year old boy with the sense of responsibility of someone much older, and a really lively curiosity and comfort level with the kids, and of course, an endless supply of ideas for how to gamify learning and keep the kids on their toes – won’t come back next year; that he’ll go on to teach his own class, or leave the synagogue school completely in favor of brighter pastures, like, I don’t know, the school play, or an after school tech club, or starting his own business out of his parent’s garage. And I’m worried about all of the unknowns for next year – whether I’ll have a classroom of my own or stay in the cavernous social hall, whether I’ll have a teacher’s aide at all, and what new and unexpected challenges my next group of students will bring with them. And I’m excited that the kids from my first ever class are going into their B’nei Mitzvah year, and every other week I will get to see them coming into their own and claiming their Jewishness, surrounded by their friends and families. And I’m hopeful about our new educational director and all of the energy and ideas and collaborative spirit she will bring with her.

            But right now, I really need a nap. I need to rest and recover from all of the lessons I’ve learned over the past three years. I just need time to stop for a little while, so I can catch up with myself, and feel rested and ready for whatever comes next.

“Ah, nap time.”

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?