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Be a Mensch

            This past week in the United States has been stressful, for everyone, and because my synagogue school students are part of that everyone, I wanted to focus on teaching a lesson that would reassure them, somewhat, that there are areas of their lives where they really do have some control. And, because I love teaching Yiddish words, the lesson for this week was: what does it mean to be a mensch?

Mensch is a Yiddish word, from German, meaning “human being,” or a person of integrity and honor. The opposite of a mensch is an unmensch, a person treating others cruelly and without compassion, as opposed to the word ubermensch (Nietzsche alert) which is usually translated as “the superman,” someone who is superior to other humans. The word Mensch has gathered a lot of associations in American culture (bearded, male, Jewish) but it really means a person who is striving to be good every day, and doing what is right, even when it’s hard. We already have Yiddish words for the most righteous among us (a Tzaddik), or the smartest (a Chacham or a Maven) or the most powerful (a Macher). But being a mensch isn’t about being the best or the most, it’s about being human.

“I’ll take Maven and Macher.”

            There’s something wonderful about a compliment that can be given to everyone, instead of just to an elite few. Someone with a physical or intellectual disability has just as good a chance of being a mensch as someone who is born privileged in every way, because it’s not about your talents or your circumstances or your luck, it’s about how you choose to navigate the world you happen to live in. Oh, and mensch is not a gendered word, and it’s not limited to Jewish people, so it really can apply to anyone.

“Can I be a Mensch?

            We are so often looking for ways to be better than others, or to be the best, or to earn our place, and it’s exhausting, but the opportunity to be a mensch is always there, and there’s always something you can do that will fit you and your skills and interests.

            You can still have your foibles and be a mensch. You can fail a test, or lose your job, or struggle with substance abuse, or struggle to finish a Sunday crossword puzzle and still be a mensch. What you can’t do, is intentionally cause harm to other people. You can’t be a liar, or a bully, or be arrogant, or prejudiced and still be a mensch.

“I always tell the truth, whether you like it or not.”

            I’m a big fan of menschlichkeit, or mensch-iness. It’s like a pass fail course, where as long as you do the work, you’re golden. And we need things like that in a world that is so driven by competition and achievement and striving to be in the top one percent of everything.

            Being a mensch is about valuing other human beings for themselves, instead of for what they can do for you. And this, more than anything, is what I want to encourage in my students. Yes, I will be thrilled for them when they learn to write Hebrew words, or lead the prayers at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I will cheer them on when they swim or dance or act in a school play, and I will celebrate with them when they get into the college of their dreams, or find a cure for a rare disease, or create calorie-free chocolate frosting that tastes like the real thing (!). But all of that is secondary to how proud I am of them, right now, when they notice that a fellow student is struggling and needs help, or when they realize that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings and they are willing to take the risk of offering an apology that may not be accepted. Each time they re-learn the lesson that it’s more important to be good than to be great, I puff up with happiness, because that’s what’s going to get them through their lives; not being the best at anything, but being a mensch through everything.

            It can be hard, when we are thinking in such enormous terms as national politics and life and death, to remember that our real lives, and our real impact, comes locally – in our towns, communities, schools, and families.

            May we all make it through this election, and the pandemic, with our appreciation for mensch-iness intact.

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?

Hope For Tomorrow

            The weather is finally getting colder, and despite the rising Covid 19 rates around the United States, things in my little world are inching closer to normal. We’re still living most of our lives masked and/or on Zoom, but we have plenty of toilet paper, and imported television shows from Canada, and the library is open for browsing again.

Except, people are still dying. 230,000 is the current estimate, but it grows every day. We’re so used to Covid that the numbers of dead barely make it into the headlines anymore.

The autumn Hallmark movies have already given way to the Christmas movies, and even though I could have used a few more weeks of fall festivals and leaf peepers and corn mazes, I’m still happy to cozy up with the dogs and watch all of the happy endings unspool. Given the temperature of the world right now, with political debates and health debates and tension and drama from every direction, I find great relief in spending a few hours embraced by a pool of kindness, generosity and love. All I would add is some chocolate fudge ice cream, with whipped cream, and peanut butter sauce, and then it would be perfect.

“Did you say chocolate?”

The schools in my area have been reporting more Covid cases recently, so synagogue school may have to transition from hybrid to fully online any day now, but at least I’ve had almost two months with my students in person, getting to know them and build relationships. The kids are doing their best to squeeze some normalcy out of their current abnormal: planning Halloween costumes, hoarding jelly beans, running and playing and making a lot of noise whenever possible. They make me believe that everything might be okay, someday.

“Did you say Jelly Beans?”

Other than missing the chance to see the kids in person, though, the possibility of renewed restrictions doesn’t really interrupt my life. I’m not a trick or treater (I prefer to choose my own candy, thank you very much), and Thanksgiving isn’t a big deal in my family, and I get at least two months’ worth of Christmas spirit through my TV, so that won’t be any different for me this year either. The fact is, other than the masks and the Zooms, I don’t feel especially inconvenienced by Covid anymore, which, in itself, is horrifying. How did we get used to all of this death so easily? Why is it so easy to adapt to the worst news?

I’ve never gotten used to Donald Trump, though, maybe because he is always creating chaos, uprooting us from our placid acceptance of the current evil to force us to face a new and crazier evil.

I’m ready for the election to be over, and I’d like to believe that Joe Biden will win, but I’m afraid that the damage will linger long after the cause of the damage has left the building.

In the meantime, Cricket has been helping me collect leaves for Mom’s craft projects, nosing her way past the green ones and focusing on the reds, and browns, and yellows, with sharp edges and mysterious wormholes. She likes the leaves that have been sniffed, pawed at, stepped on, and yes, probably peed on too, because those are the ones with the richest stories to tell.

The Leaf Sniffer at work.

Mom is deep into her craft projects, melding her photography and quilting and weaving and painting and eco printing, into all new works of art. And I’m jealous. I haven’t had the patience to make anything lately – no knitting, not much baking or cooking – I haven’t even done much cutting or gluing, since I can’t hang things on the walls of my temporary classroom in the social hall. It takes energy and focus to create new things and lately when I’m not teaching or writing, I’m watching TV or sleeping.

But there’s something about the impermanence of the autumn leaves that makes me want to collect them and make them into something, or just to keep them between the pages of books, or in photos, or in my memory. It’s the same with my students. I keep wanting to freeze certain scenes in my memory, so that I’ll remember how wonderful these moments have been, despite everything else.

“I can fly!”

I would like to say that I am hopeful about the future, and that I can picture a world that is freer from meanness, and full of healing and compassion and the right kind of compromise, where the best of each of us is respected and encouraged to grow. But I’m not quite as optimistic as all that. Instead, I’ve been trying to hold on to the hope that tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, will give me the chance to watch something good on TV, or listen to a podcast that makes me feel better about the world, or watch my students run around in circles and scream and play, whether I see them in person or on Zoom.

Tomorrow has to be better than today, right?

“Are you sure?”
“I don’t think she’s sure.”

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?

Antisemitism

            I don’t want to write about antisemitism. I don’t even want to think about it. I have been lucky to live in the United States, and in New York, and especially on Long Island, because for most of my life anti-Semitism was a vague noise in the background, or a lesson from history, instead of an everyday reality for me. Even in High School, when I knew that my Jewish school was receiving bomb threats, I still didn’t take it in as a real danger. I was comfortable being an American Jew. It seemed normal, just like being a Catholic or a Methodist, or nothing. If anything, I experienced more conflicts within the Jewish community, especially between liberal and Orthodox Jews, than without. I knew I was part of a religious minority, but it didn’t seem to matter. Yet.

“Uh oh. That sounds like foreshadowing.”

            I’d heard about the blood libels in previous centuries, when Jewish people were accused of killing Christian babies in order to use their blood to make matzah. Setting aside the obviously unbelievable claim that Jews were killing babies for ANY reason, it’s important to know why this accusation would actually make religious Jews laugh. Jews who keep kosher salt their meat (this is where the name Kosher Salt comes from) in order to remove as much blood as possible before cooking, because blood isn’t kosher. And matzah, which is eaten at Passover, is made under very strict conditions, using only flour and water, under rigid time limits, so that the idea that anyone would add anything to the matzah, let alone human blood, is unthinkable.

“Matzah is boring.”

            But I remember, after 9/11, when an outspoken minority of people blamed Israel for the attacks on the World Trade Center, either with wild conspiracy theories about Mossad agents disguising themselves as Muslim Terrorists, or arguments saying that if Israel had never existed then terrorists would never have targeted the United States. The rhetoric made me anxious, but I didn’t see many people taking them seriously. And the extreme backlash against anyone who looked like they could be from the Middle East, or who seemed to be practicing Islam, was much more of an issue. It seemed wrong to focus on some anti-Semitic theories, when there was anti-Muslim violence going on all around me.

            Maybe things started to change with the onset of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, an umbrella movement that included groups that were specifically protesting the presence of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, and groups that believed Israel had no right to exist, the Holocaust never happened, and Jews should be pushed into the sea. As the BDS movement became more popular on college campuses, I heard more stories about Jewish college kids facing demonstrations against Israel on campus that supposedly focused on anti-Zionism as separate from anti-Semitism. The problem with that argument is that Zionism started as a movement to save Jews from life threatening situations in Europe, especially in Russia, in the 19th century, and grew in intensity after six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, just for being Jews. If the criticism had focused on the policies of the current government of Israel, without bleeding into a criticism of the existence of Israel, I could understand; just like you can be a patriotic American, or a friend of the United States, and disagree with the policies of the Trump administration. But anti-Zionism, if it means antagonism to the existence of the state of Israel, and unwillingness to recognize what led to the creation of the state by the United Nations, IS anti-Semitism.

None of this is to say that the Palestinians have been treated well, by the British, or the Jordanians, or the Egyptians, or the Israeli government; damage has been done and continues to be done. But if activists refuse to look at the causes of the complicated and painful current reality in the Middle East, and instead decide that everything is the fault of the Jews, for being there in the first place, then they are falling into old tropes that lead us all back into the darkness. When voices at the edges started to say, out of anger or ignorance, that the word Zionist was comparable to the word Nazi, they crossed a line that is hard to ignore, or forgive.

“Grr.”

But, even with all of that rhetoric, I still felt safe at home, in America. And then, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups grew in strength, and terrorist attacks took place in Europe, and then white supremacists carried their tiki torches in Charlottesville, to protest the removal of confederate statues (that shouldn’t have even been there in the first place), and they yelled, “Jews will not replace us.” Wait, what? What do Jews have to do with this?

            And then I started to hear about swastikas on bathroom walls, in Long Island schools, and then synagogues in the United States were attacked. But… so were mosques and churches and schools and movie theaters, and the news people said that it was terrorism in general, not anti-Semitism in particular, no matter what the shooters, or the internet trolls, were saying. I wasn’t sure what to think, or how to feel. I had never directly experienced antisemitism. Microaggressions, sure. Lack of knowledge, or insensitivity about Jewish issues, or lack of historical memory, sure, but nothing like what I’d heard from older Jews, about how it used to be, even in America, when Jews were excluded from professions and schools and towns and clubs just for being Jewish, before and after the Holocaust took six million Jewish lives.

But still, I thought, I’m an American. Three out of four of my grandparents were born in the United States. That should make me safe.

“Safe, American Cricket.”

And then, a few weeks ago, for the first time, someone left anti-Semitic comments on my blog. I couldn’t read those comments from a distance, as if it were news that had nothing to do with me, because it was on MY blog, and it was directed at me. Reading those comments, three by the same author, highlighted for me the fact that I had never been targeted like that before, not on my blog, and not in person, ever. I was always more worried that I would alienate readers by writing about Jewish stuff on my blog because it would be too niche, or boring, than I was worried about facing antisemitism. I was able to remove the comments from my blog easily, and there has been no recurrence, but, I couldn’t forget about them.

            I still feel safe, or as safe as I am capable of feeling. But, anti-Semitism is real to me now in a way it wasn’t before. And the lessons of the Holocaust (be wary of hatred and targeting of people because of their race, religion, sexuality, gender, disabilities, or ethnic group) are more prominent again, for everyone.

It is so easy to blame someone, some group, some minority that you don’t identify with, when things start to fall apart. It’s so easy to project your own self-loathing and guilt and fears onto someone else who is not you, when you feel overwhelmed and hopeless. And it is shockingly easy for a leader in trouble, or seeking more power, to target vulnerable groups and aim societal anger and fear like a firehose in order to gain even more power.

I didn’t realize how easy it was to create baseless hatred, honestly. But now I do. And that really does scare the crap out of me. Because it could all happen again.

“Uh oh.”
“Don’t worry, Mommy. I only hate people who deserve it.”

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?

Hebrew Through Movement

            This year at the synagogue school we are trying out a new way of teaching Hebrew, called Hebrew Through Movement (HTM). The idea behind HTM, and James J. Asher’s Total Physical Response before it, is to try to follow the process by which infants acquire their first language. The examples Asher gives are: parents will say “take the bottle” and then put the bottle in the baby’s hand, or they’ll say “wave bye bye” and then model how to wave a hand. The child then responds physically, rather than verbally, with a long silent period before words are spoken out loud.

I watched a ton of videos on how to teach Hebrew through Movement, and I read the background articles exploring the whys and wherefores, and I studied the official curriculum multiple times to create my lesson plans, but I still wasn’t sure if it would work in real life. I even tried to practice with the dogs ahead of time, but they were not especially enthusiastic. Cricket resented having to follow any command at all, and Ellie was constantly in a distracted (squirrel!) frame of mind, and I was worried that their reactions were a harbinger of things to come.

“Who me?”

            So, I was nervous on the first day of synagogue school, when I would have to try out HTM on actual children. I modeled stand up and sit down, while saying the commands in Hebrew, and then I asked for volunteers to try the actions with me, but no one raised a hand. I took a deep breath and smiled and asked one of my teenage teacher’s aides to do the actions with me instead, so the kids could see someone else following along and not falling on her face. The kids started to follow along, anxiously. Part of the problem was the mask muffling my voice, and part was that we’re in a social hall instead of a classroom this year to allow for social distancing, which also creates an echo, but most of the issue was stage fright with their new teacher. Me.

            One girl in the back of the room told me straight out that she wouldn’t be participating, and I told her that was fine, because I always accept No as an answer. I want synagogue school to be fun, but more importantly, since we don’t have tests or homework or grades, I don’t really have the leverage to convince someone to participate if they don’t want to, and I refuse to yell or shame someone into going along.

            Gradually, I added the commands for walk, and stop, and the kids decided that stop meant stop exactly where you are, even if one foot is up in the air and you are about to fall over. When the giggling started I knew we were onto something. Within a few more minutes everyone was participating, including the girl in the back who definitely didn’t want to participate, and it had become a game, and fun!

            When we went outside for a mask break a while later, we did another session of Hebrew through Movement, adding the commands for run and spin to our repertoire. We added balletic arms to our spins, and funny faces to our walks, and each time I said the Hebrew word for run the kids acted like they’d been shot out of a cannon.

“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!”

            The only downside was that, with all of the standing and sitting and walking and stopping and running and spinning, my body started to rebel and I got very close to throwing up a few times, despite filling my thermos with gingerale before I left home. When I finally left the building for the day, I felt like I’d been run over by a truck.

            But still, it was so much fun!

            By week three I was getting into trouble for the noise level, because the kids really like to shriek while they are running, and then they fall on the floor and giggle hysterically, but it’s such a joy to see them having fun that I’m reluctant to tell them to keep the noise down.

            When I realized that my remote students were having trouble participating (even for our in-person day we still have some kids who zoom into class), I planned some doll-participation exercises, and suddenly stuffed animals were launching into the air, spinning themselves dizzy. I don’t think the kids even noticed that they were learning Hebrew, because they were so busy putting face masks on their Sloths and Teddy Bears and action figures, and racing around their bedrooms.

“I didn’t do anything.”

            Eventually we’ll move on to more complex sentences, like, walk slowly to the door, or run to the window and touch your head, or point at the Rabbi, laugh, bark, and run away, but for now we’re still on simple commands.

            I would love to invest in cushioned Hazmat suits, with helmets, for the in-person students, or better yet, full bubble wrap for each kid, and sound proofing for the walls so we can make as much noise as we want, but that’s a little bit beyond our budget, and some of the parents might object. Party poopers.

“Harrumph.”

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

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

Ushpizin

            I know, it sounds like I just sneezed on you, but Ushpizin is an Aramaic word that means “guests.” It refers to a Jewish custom, during the holiday of Sukkot (which we are in now), where we are supposed to not just build a temporary hut/booth outdoors and invite real guests to eat with us, but also invite our ancestors. I knew about the idea of inviting friends to eat in the sukkah, and about our patriarch Abraham’s penchant for inviting dusty strangers into his tent, but I didn’t know about the Ushpizin ceremony until recently.

“Did you say Pee?”

            According to tradition, each night a different exalted guest enters the sukkah, and each of the ushpizin has a unique lesson to teach us based on the Sefirot. The Sefirot, translated as attributes, emanations, or illuminations of God’s infinite light, are seen as the channels through which the Divine creative life force is revealed to humankind (according to Kabbalah). The traditional Ushpizin are meant to represent the “seven shepherds of Israel”: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. Some streams of Judaism also recognize a set of seven female shepherds of Israel, called Ushpizot (using the Modern Hebrew feminine pluralization), or Ushpizata (in reconstructed Aramaic).

            The custom of Ushpizin was established by the Kabbalists in the sixteenth century, and while there’s something a little bit woo-woo about the inviting-dead-people-to-eat-with-you thing, there’s also something comforting about it. It reminds me of how the past Jedi masters returned to support new Jedis in the Star Wars movies, and how Harry Potter got to see his parents, and Dumbledore, when he really needed their support, even though they were gone.

            Especially now, when we can’t really invite our friends and neighbors to eat with us, there’s something magical about being able to invite our ancestors to sit with us instead. But, of course, I would prefer to come up with my own list of guests, instead of being stuck with the biblical characters each night.

            For Day One the divine characteristic is Chesed, usually translated as loving kindness, but generally meaning generosity, compassion, and maybe something like the unconditional love of grandparents. The examples in the Reconstructionist prayer book are Abraham and Sarah, but I would choose my grandfather, for his humor and his good conversation, and most of all for how clearly he loved us. I’d invite him every night, if he would come.

“Can I come too?”

            For Day two, the quality is Gevurah, meaning strength, discipline, and adherence to the law. The examples given are Isaac and Rebecca for some reason, but I think I’d invite Ruth Bader Ginsburg for day two.

            For day three the divine quality is Tiferet, or beauty, harmony, and the ability to see the whole picture. The examples given are Jacob and Leah, which makes no sense to me. Neither of them was known for their beauty, as far as I remember. And Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, while Leah stole her sister’s husband, so, not especially harmonious either. I’d like to pick an artist for day three, but I don’t know which one to choose.

“Oooh! Pick me! Pick me!”

For day fourthe characteristic isNetzach, meaning patience, endurance, persistence, and the willingness to demand justice, even from God. The examples given are Moses and Chanah, and though we all know about Moses persisting in his fight to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites from bondage, Chanah, or Hannah, is more obscure. She is one of the many women in the bible who struggles with infertility (which was a serious affliction in a society where women were only seen as valuable if they could provide children), and she prays to God to give her a son, promising to dedicate his life to the service of God. She ends up becoming the mother of the prophet Samuel (in the first book of Samuel), and when she hands him over to the high priest she is rewarded with the ability to give birth to five more children. So both Moses and Chanah are good examples of persistence, and worthy of attention, but really, I’d rather have a second visit with Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Netzach, to give me some insight into what it took to fight for women’s rights to be considered valuable whether they were wives and mothers or not. Really, someday, I’d like to be someone else’s idea of Netzach myself.  

For day five the characteristic to celebrate is Hod, or holiness with humility, someone who is powerful but not always announcing her strength. The examples given are Aaron and Miriam, and I think I would like to spend some time with Miriam, if only to get to know her better. She doesn’t get much air time in the Torah.

For day six the divine quality is Tzedek, meaning righteousness and self-sacrifice, and the examples given are Joseph and Esther, though each of them actually received quite a lot of earthly riches for their sacrifices. An alternative for day six is Yesod, meaning “foundation,” with a focus on investing in the foundations of our world and creating connections between people. And that sounds like a parent to me. Like my Mom.

Cricket’s home base – Grandma’s lap.

For day seven, the final divine characteristic is Malchut: sovereignty, leadership and sensitivity to the needs of others. The examples are David and Rachel, and David actually makes sense for kingship, though his sensitivity to the needs of others is questionable. I’d like to meet a leader, or a president, who could lead with sensitivity and compassion for her people. Someone who could give me hope for the future.

There is a lovely idea in the Talmud that all Jews should sit in one sukkah together, living together under a shelter of peace, even if we live across the world from each other, or have different beliefs and different life circumstances. I’d like to think we can expand this concept to all of humanity; that we should act as if we all live under the same roof, because, really, we do.

            There’s a line in the Ushpizin ceremony in the Reconstructionist prayer book that really works for me: May this sukkah, vulnerable to sun and wind and rain, teach us that real peace comes not from an external structure, but from the strength of the community that gathers within.

            May we all feel that strength, within us and between us, even as we live in our own vulnerable bodies, minds, homes, and countries.

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?

Choir Videos

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

“Oh God, she’s singing again.”

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

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

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

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

“Ding!”

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

            Cricket and Ellie have been kind enough not to laugh.

“It’s hard work.”

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

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

A Writing Workshop for Tashlich

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

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

“Are we going to shul with you?”

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

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

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

“Don’t be silly.”

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

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

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

“We need more fun.”

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

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

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

The Mumble Grumble Prayers

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

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

“Harrumph.”

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

“Huh?”

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

“Zombies?!”

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

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

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

“We can hear you, Mommy.”

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

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

Writing Music

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

“I’m keeping it warm for you, Mommy.”

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

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

            This is the English translation the Cantor taught us:

            Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

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

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

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

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

“I always like sweet stuff!”

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

Anyway, this is what I came up with:

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame.

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

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

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame

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

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

“Ask me. I know about conflict.”

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

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

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

“Have you ever tried barks instead of words?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we going swimming?”

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

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

The Problem with Charity

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

“I don’t have peers, so I’m safe.”

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

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

“Do NOT push me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When do I get my chicken treats?”

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

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

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

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

“Uh oh. Mommy used a bad word.”

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

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