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Embarrassing a Person is Like Killing Them

 

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

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

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“Money for treats?”

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

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Ellie’s not sure either.

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

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

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

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“Why would I ever be silent?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“No. The answer is no.”

 

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

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

Emotional Contagion

There are no bombs falling, no explosions or fireworks. The world looks pretty nice, actually, and everyone I can see looks healthy, even with the face masks. There are no workers in Tyvek suits walking the streets spraying for errant Coronavirus droplets. At least, not yet. So, while doing the right thing, and staying home, I feel a bit silly. It’s hard to trust the experts on television instead of what I see with my own eyes. The President clearly struggles with this, too, but those images from Italy and Spain are hard to ignore (the horror stories on Facebook, about monkeys in Thailand starving for the bananas they used to get from tourists, and pets in China dying while their people went into quarantine, and dogs being euthanized because people believe – incorrectly! – that pets can spread the disease, are too much for me to take in).

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“People suck.”

I’m also feeling guilty because my life has not been disrupted as much as the lives of other people. And I feel guilty for being so comfortable with this social distancing thing, and I worry that I will revert to my old levels of isolation and not be able to get back out of it once the threat of infection is over.

Mom was getting cabin fever every day for the first week of the shut down, and looking for any excuse to go out and do “essential” errands, but by the second week she started to settle in and feel the pressure to stay home (from me, mostly). Now, she’s focusing her excess energy on gardening, and sewing, and sitting in on Zoom sessions at Noon each day with the clergy from our synagogue. Her biggest source of anxiety is my brother, who is an emergency room doctor. He’s been downplaying the risks he’s under, but at least he’s been in touch and letting Mom know that he’s still okay.

The more pressing contagion, for me, is being created on social media. There’s this idea that we should be making the most of our time at home, by writing novels, and learning ten languages, and reading hundreds of books, and virtually visiting all of the museums in the world. I don’t know how parents are managing the pressure to homeschool their kids, with every kind of free and not-free educational resource being advertised everywhere, with the implication that if their kids don’t do three years’ worth of school over the next three weeks they will fail life forever. Earn a Ph.D.! Build a robot! Learn how to make a Coronavirus vaccine in your own basement!

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“I won’t be doing that, Mommy.”

I think people might be overestimating how productive this time at home can be.

The instinct for community seems to be strengthening though, even at my synagogue, where we are all about community building, all the time. This crisis has brought out even more awareness that we need each other; that we need to see each other. And it’s so important to us that we’re all learning how to manage Zoom – though a lot of the seniors forget to mute themselves, so while we’re trying to listen to the rabbi’s lesson on census taking leading to plagues in the ancient world, we’re listening to couples arguing about toast, or answering their phones. Sometimes I’m not sure they know they’re on screen, let alone audible.

Ellie and Cricket have been able to go to all kinds of synagogue services and committee meetings and Judaic classes now that synagogue is online, but they’re not sure what to make of it. Zoom, especially, seems to unnerve them.

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“I am never unnerved. I am completely nerved.”

We’re posting our synagogue school lessons on the website instead of doing Zoom conferences with the kids, though the idea of being able to mute my students at will is certainly tempting. I didn’t realize how much I missed my students until a parent sent me a picture of her daughter holding up her class assignment. The sudden thought that I may not get a chance to see them again this year almost broke me.

Another issue during the shutdown has been the disorientation. Reality keeps changing every five minutes, after a phone call or a press conference, and I can’t process it fast enough. All I can do is eat my popcorn (I’m on a new version of Weight Watchers that allows unlimited air-popped popcorn) and watch the news. I’ve been listening to a lot of music too (Yo-Yo Ma is an incredible comfort).

The supermarket has been the most obvious sign of the apocalypse, with empty shelves where eggs and yogurt and chicken and pasta and frozen vegetables used to be. When did Almond milk become such a popular commodity? And frozen spinach? And oatmeal? The toilet paper thing has been disconcerting to everyone. I thought it was just a Facebook joke until I went to my local supermarket for my first Coronavirus-shutdown-shopping trip and saw the empty shelves between the tissues and the paper towels for myself. People are weird.

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There’s some relief to being in a shutdown, as opposed to the state of confusion we were in for the weeks leading up to it, when we were getting mixed messages from the President and the doctors and the news and social media; the constantly changing research about who would be impacted, and which measures could work to slow it down, didn’t help either. It’s a relief to at least know what’s expected of me now, though I still worry that people are looking at me funny when I go to the supermarket without a face mask (where are people getting all of these face masks?!).

Most of the time I feel okay, and prepared, but then someone will say something that makes me worry that I’m not thinking far enough ahead, and the worst is yet to come, and people I know will die, and food will run out, and the financial hardships will last for years in the aftermath of all of this. People are really good at creating disaster scenarios that I’d never have thought of on my own.

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I’m worried for my brother and his kids. I’m worried for the elderly people in my life who are so vulnerable and so important to me. I’m worried about the impact the stockmarket will have on Mom’s retirement fund (an important source of income for our household). And I’m worried for myself, which seems selfish and petty when other people are in so much more danger. And I feel guilty, all the time, for all of my good fortune, and so terrified that it will go away.

I’m still angry that we didn’t get out ahead of this in January, when news from Wuhan, China was so devastating. And I’m angry that we didn’t have testing in place when other countries did, which meant that the virus was able to spread undetected for weeks, or months. I want to feel peaceful and Zen and accepting of my fate, and sometimes I do, but sometimes I really don’t. And it sucks.

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Acceptance is a myth, Mommy.”

My rabbi, who is hyper-rational and proud of it, was brought to tears seeing all of us on Zoom for his class about the concept of the Death of God after the Holocaust, because he does believe, as I do, in the I and Thou of God, the extraordinary Godness of community and togetherness, and how sitting in our separate homes we are still able to come together and learn.

Here’s hoping that as time passes, and the virus passes, we can catch joy and meaning from each other as easily as we catch fear. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?!

Fingers crossed (from at least six feet away).

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Or closer.

 

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 Passover Blessings Workshop

 

Before the shutdown of all life as we know, I ran another blessings writing workshop at my synagogue, and the rabbi asked me to focus on blessings for the Passover season this time. In the first blessings workshop, I had focused on the basic purpose of blessings, and the possibility that we can create our own blessings to fit our unique perspectives, or tweak existing blessings to adapt them to what we really feel, and what we aspire to. And the workshop went really well. At least, I enjoyed it.

Even though most Passover Seders will be tiny, or run on Zoom, this year, I hope some of these ideas will be helpful, for anyone, Jew or Non-Jew, who needs a little help finding blessings at this point in our lives.

The rabbi had mentioned the possibility of this second workshop while I was running the first one, so while everyone else was free-writing ideas for how to refer to their idea of God, and how to include the bad with the good to create a fuller picture of the blessings in their lives, I was trying to figure out what a Passover blessing might be.

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“We were wondering the same thing.”

Passover is a big holiday for Jews. It commemorates the central event that shaped us as a people, the Exodus from Egypt. The simple goal of the Passover Seder is to remind us that we were slaves once, and that we were freed from slavery (by God, if you believe in God), so, we should be grateful for what we have, and help others to freedom whenever we can. But most people only go to one Seder, instead of the two required of Jews who don’t live in Israel, and they go back to school or work for the rest of the week of Passover, so there’s really not much time to get these messages across and really absorb them. Add to that the fact that Passover, like American Thanksgiving, is a family holiday, where family members who agree on nothing choose to sit at the same table for hours at a time. It’s an opportunity to learn and grow, but a tense one.

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“Do I look tense to you?”

I wanted to create an opportunity for people to plan their Passover season ahead of time, and shape it consciously to fit the lessons they would like to learn, and to teach, this year. There are, of course, all kinds of traditional blessings that already exist for Passover. The first one I wanted to work with is the blessing over the search for Chametz (unleavened bread). You say this after you’ve already cleaned the house from top to bottom, and changed the dishes and utensils, and thrown out, or sold, all of the Chametz left in your house. In elementary school they gave us kits for the special night-before-Passover-Chametz-searching-ritual; with a feather, a candle, and a wooden spoon. After all of the bread had been removed from the house, we had to turn off the lights and place a few saved-for-this-purpose crumbs on the floor to “find” and then burn, while saying the blessing. Our dog found this terrifying every year.

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“Nobody likes the dark. It’s not just me.”

I don’t do this ritual anymore, and I’m inconsistent about removing the Chametz from the apartment, or my diet, at all, for Passover week. But I still wanted something meaningful to come from this Chametz idea, so the first category was: Blessings over the search for Chametz, both literally and figuratively. Maybe, when I am vacuuming under the couch during the big house cleaning, or trying to crawl under the bed to see if my dogs have left a Chametz-laden treat hidden in the dark, I could say a blessing of gratitude for their ingenuity. Or when I find things I’ve lost I can say, I am grateful that among the Chametz I have been able to find lost treasures.

And, if I decided not to do the whole cleaning ritual, maybe instead I could focus on cleaning out my heart and mind, and I could say, Thank you for creating such a fascinating brain, with so many crevices and crawl spaces, so that I will always be surprised by something I find there.

We had a small group for the Passover blessings workshop, but everyone participated and had their own associations to the concept of Chametz and the need to clean something in their life. It was interesting to go back to teaching adults, after the chaos and immediacy of teaching children. The adults who showed up were excited and engaged and willing to share their thoughts, and I didn’t even have to bribe them with candy!

My next category of blessings was inspired by the idea that, just like the search-for-Chametz ritual, with feather, candle and wooden spoon, was made up by someone, our own families have come up with rituals over the years that are just as meaningful, to us. I was kind of hoping that the workshop participants would use this prompt to give me ideas for things to try this year, and someone mentioned that he planned to look through his old family photos, and bring them to the family Seder, so that past celebrations and lost loved ones could be present again, and introduced to the next generation. I thought that was a great idea to steal, because we still have a box filled with old photo albums from my grandmother, via my aunt’s basement, that need to be scanned into an archive before the last relatives who could identify those faces are gone.

My third category was Blessings over asking and hearing challenging questions, even if they are unanswerable. People usually resent unanswerable questions, or fail to ask them because they don’t want to bother anyone. But what if we could take a moment to bless those questions for their un-answerability, and for the challenge they pose to our equilibrium. Maybe we could even offer a blessing of forgiveness for not having all of the answers. This was, predictably, a rich vein for me, and I filled up a page with my messy handwriting. Thank you, God, for listening to my questions and requiring no answers; thank you God for this opportunity to face the unknowable without feeling hopeless.

Category four was the hardest one for me, and therefore essential to include: Blessings over accepting the things that are good enough for now. There is so much in life that is disappointing, and even more so on family holidays like Passover when we’re expected to feel joy and love and maybe we don’t, or, I don’t. But this is an opportunity to take a breath and say, I don’t yet have what I want, and it hurts, but maybe soon things will change, and until then I will be okay. This topic actually made me think about the little things that I wanted to celebrate, like a blessing over eating the first chocolate-covered jell rings of the season, and a blessing over choosing to pass by the cans of macaroons in the Passover section of the supermarket without buying any. I really hate those coconut macaroons. But these blessings also made me think that maybe I’m not the only one who feels imperfect and not quite there yet, so I wrote, Thank you for this opportunity to face our brokenness together.

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Then there was the big category of blessings to address, the center of the whole endeavor, Blessings over telling our own versions of the exodus story. The telling of the Exodus-from-Egypt story, especially as written in the Hagaddah, can feel rigid and calcified and hard to relate to. But the reality is that we all have Exodus stories, we’ve all felt oppressed in one way or another. This category of blessings could be a way to recognize that each of us has a story, or a thousand stories, that are as important as the Exodus from Egypt, and they don’t always have to be heroic, or even successful.

May we hear all versions of the story, Rashamon style, so that we can experience the escape to freedom from every perspective. Let us hear from Pharaoh, and the slaves, and the courtiers and magicians, from those who were left behind and those who aided in the escape, from those who were afraid and those who were determined despite their fear and everyone in between. Let us hear from the ones who stepped into the Sea of Reeds before the water parted, and those who stepped in after the miracle had already occurred.

My final category of blessings for the workshop was, Blessings over our successes from the past year, and our hopes for the future. Passover marks the original new year of the Jewish people, and conveniently arrives halfway between one Rosh Hashanah and the next Rosh Hashanah. So why not take this moment to assess our progress on our resolutions, and encourage more change for the future? We don’t always remember to acknowledge our successes. We’re used to marking lifecycle events, like marriages and childbirths and deaths, but not necessarily the courage it takes to look for a new job, or to change an unhealthy habit, or to go to the doctor when you really don’t want to.

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“No one wants to go to the doctor. Ever.”

I thought of this category, and put it last, because I really needed the encouragement to be proud of myself for all of my small steps, even when they don’t fit into the obvious categories that everyone knows how to celebrate. So, thank you, community, for allowing me to share my thoughts and teach some of the things I know, because the sharing of it makes me feel more fully myself; And, may we all have these big and small successes to celebrate, all through the year; and, Thank you to all of you for reading this blog post and allowing me to feel connected to so many different, and fascinating, and complex, human beings, and dogs.

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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 Exodus-from-Egypt Song

 

For the Women’s Passover Seder at my synagogue, for the second year in a row, the female rabbi asked congregants to share their own escape-to-freedom stories ahead of time, and have songwriters put those stories to music. I said no last year, because I was adamant that I didn’t want someone else telling my story. I had just published my novel and I wanted people to read it; and to read it in my voice. But this year, when the Rabbi asked me again, I said yes.

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“You did what?!”

I decided that, imperfect as the method might be, I needed to take the opportunity; my community needed to hear from me. And maybe, in the form of a song, in a room filled with friends and good food and music, my message could be heard, and received; and maybe someone in the audience of women would feel like they could come forward and tell their story as a result of hearing some version of mine.

My synagogue has not made much of the #MeToo movement. If anything, a lot of the older congregants have found it disturbing to have to look at Woody Allen, or any of the other famous cases of sexual assault, more closely. What they were really mad about was the way Al Franken was “forced” out of the senate, by “women with an agenda.” This wasn’t coming from the men in the congregation; it was the women who rejected #MeToo.

So I hoped a song could help make a difference. But I was still uneasy about having someone else interpret my story. The rabbi asked me to write up a short summary of my exodus story, so that the songwriter wouldn’t have to “read the whole book,” and I took the opportunity to not just write another summary of what happened to me, but to explore some of the metaphors I’d want to use if I were up to writing the song myself, and to reference some of the Jewish prayers that have resonance for me. I wanted to make the process easier for the songwriter, yes, but more than that I wanted to make sure that my voice, and not just my story, were heard.

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“Woof!”

This is some of what I wrote:

I was sexually abused by my father when I was a child, and emotionally and psychologically abused by him throughout my childhood and adolescence. He relied on his considerable intelligence, and his midlife discovery of Orthodox Judaism, to protect himself from consequences, but he was still accused, multiple times, of inappropriate sexual contact with young girls. I was also sexually abused by my best friend’s older brother when I stayed over at her house. Incest families, I’ve discovered, are like alcoholic families: they tend to find each other.

            My mother and I were able to leave my father behind when I was twenty-three, after we’d both been in therapy long enough to feel ready to escape. The process of recovery, for both of us, has been long and difficult. We are each other’s support systems. I’m a writer, with three masters’ degrees, but I still struggle every day. My time line is very different from other people, with a lot of “normal” life events out of reach.

            My hope for this song is that it will focus on the liberation part of the story, and the work of recovery, because I think that’s the part most people don’t see or understand. They’re used to seeing the dramatic moments of the abuse itself, or the heroic escape. They’ve read Lolita, and gotten a distorted (and sexualized) view of abuse, or they’ve watched Oprah and believe that abuse victims can all pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and fast, if they just try hard enough. Neither version is the truth.

            I like the comparison to the Exodus from Egypt, because that story isn’t just about one person, it’s about needing a group to go with you on the journey; and it’s about the difficulties that come with liberation: the years of wandering, the struggle to survive, the overwhelming nature of freedom, etc. Liberation is painful and full of effort. The Exodus requires faith that God will part the Sea of Reeds to let you pass through, and that manna will fall from the sky when you are hungry, and that you will not have to walk through it all alone.

            It’s important to remember that leaving the place where the horrors happened doesn’t mean you leave the memories of the horror behind. You bring yourself with you when you leave.

            People have unreasonable expectations of the victims of abuse. They think that the victim must save herself in order to feel empowered, but that’s just not how it works. The victim needs to feel safe and loved and honored and supported and believed in order to begin to empower herself. Our idea of the hero as the lone wolf fighting the bad guys is unrealistic. The reality is that groups of people defeat monsters together. If you see only a lone hero then you are not looking closely enough; look for the friend, the parent, the teacher, the neighbor, the doctor, the therapist, the librarian who smiles at a little girl who has been taught to believe she is nothing.

            As a child I was always hiding: under the porch, curled like a snail in the wet dirt; in the closet, behind my big stuffed panda; under the bed, with the blanket hanging down; under the piano, where no one thought to look. I hid, and I ran, and I held my breath. That’s the part I can talk about. The rest is unspeakable. The smells. The slick on my skin. The weight on me. The suffocating smell of polyester as I tried to breathe through the blanket smothering my face, and counted and counted until it was over. And the words. So many awful words aimed at me like a pistol at my head. A real pistol, dull matte black that smelled of fireworks. My father liked to say that I was the cause of all evil; that all of the problems in our family, and in the world, were my fault in some way. I have never been able to completely let go of that belief.

            We are often mute about sexual abuse because the crime itself is unspeakable, not because it shouldn’t be spoken of. How do we talk about the unspeakable – or do we sing about it instead?

            There’s a song in Hebrew that has always troubled me: The whole world is a narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid. But I am afraid every day. I cross the narrow bridge every day and sometimes it feels so narrow that I can barely put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes I barely make it across. But, to me, the important thing isn’t to not be afraid, the important thing is to be afraid and to cross the bridge anyway, because if you don’t you’ll die.

            The danger of telling is that you won’t be believed. The danger of telling is that no one will care. The danger of telling is that even when they know, they won’t do anything to stop it. The danger of telling the secret is finding out that you are not the only one, that there are millions of you crossing that narrow bridge, each alone.

            This is not a song of forgiveness.

            Update: I received a draft of the lyrics from the songwriters and it looks good. They focused on that image of crossing the narrow bridge, and the need for support. Unfortunately, the Women’s Seder has been cancelled this year due to the Coronavirus. I hope that the song will survive the impact of the virus and make its way into the world at some point, because I really want to hear the song, and share it with my community, and see what happens.

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“We’ll see.”

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

When My Therapist and I Disagree

 

My therapist and I usually agree, so when we don’t it’s jarring and upsetting, to me if not to her. Most often when we disagree it’s about how I’m doing. She generally thinks I’m further along in therapy than I think I am. And it’s annoying, because when I walk into her office feeling discouraged or overwhelmed by tasks I don’t think I can do and she says, Nah, that’s not a problem, I feel, suddenly, all alone. Because she’s not offering me any path forward. She’s telling me that I’m somewhere I know I’m not, and that means I’ll have to make the rest of the trip from A to B alone.

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“Alone?”

Usually, my therapist is able to hear me when I say that I’m struggling, and she’ll ask me questions to figure out what the real struggle is made up of. Is it a general self-esteem issue, or a wave of panic or depression? Is it a concrete problem that we can solve with some detailed plan of action, or a temporary low caused by a negative experience that will pass?

All of the years spent working through these things with her have made this process automatic for me, and I go through it a lot on my own, sitting down and going over an event to find out where the negative mood set in and why, or coming up with practical steps to address a problem that genuinely needs solving. But it still hurts when I tell her that I’m struggling and she doesn’t understand.

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“Harrumph.”

There are times when I’ve been on the other side of that kind of glitch. When I see my students struggling, part of me just wants to say – but look how smart you are! You’ll be fine! And you know who will be reassured by that? Just me. Not them. Because what I’m actually saying is: I trust you to handle this yourself, without any help from me. Why would I choose to say that? Maybe because their anxiety is scaring me, or frustrating me. Maybe because I don’t know how to help them, or I don’t really understand why they’re struggling and I don’t have the time to find out. But all of that is about me, and for me.

If Cricket, God forbid, got off leash and ran into the street, I would be terrified and I would be yelling at her and chasing her – because I wouldn’t be able to think strategically with my baby racing out in front of cars. Intellectually, I know that chasing her makes her run faster, and yelling at her makes her ignore me and act more erratically. But in my anxiety, I wouldn’t be able to think all of that through.

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“Grrr arrgh!”

I don’t know what it is that causes my therapist to not be on the same page as me sometimes. I know she always believes that she knows better than me, or has more perspective than me, because of her wider experience in life and in therapy. In those moments, she probably believes that I am temporarily thinking with the wrong part of my brain, and if she lends me her confidence then the right part of my brain will snap back online.

I think sometimes the gap opens up when my therapist is most aware of her own age, and my mom’s age, and she’s scared that I won’t be better in time to take care of myself. Her fear, for me, makes her try to push the therapy faster by brute force. But, if anything, that just scares me more and sets off my anxiety, and despair, and prevents me from seeing any path forward.

My therapist is very well trained and very experienced, but the horrible fact is that she is a human being. And it sucks. I preferred it when I believed that she was perfect and all-knowing and that I could rely on her to tell me everything I needed to know.

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“You know everything, right Mommy?”

The thing is, a lot of things are harder for me than they seem. When I tell people that I need two naps a day just to function, they think I’m kidding, or exaggerating. It used to be one nap a day, and it will probably go back to that eventually, but I’m in a two-naps-a-day phase at the moment, and it makes everything hard to do. Like laundry, or driving or teaching or writing.

I tend to schedule my naps so that I can have the most possible energy when I know I’ll need to be around people, which means that they then think I’m fine, because I look my best when they see me. And most people, including my therapist, trust what they see with their own eyes over what I tell them about myself. My therapist only believes that I’m struggling when she can see me looking exhausted or walking badly or she can hear me slurring my words or forgetting simple words in front of her.

Mom and the dogs, who see me in every mode, have a better sense of what’s going on with me, but even they get confused sometimes, between what I can do and what they want me to be able to do.

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“Huh?””

And the thing is, I don’t want people to lower their expectations of me. That’s probably why I try so hard to be at my most functional in public. I hate how it feels to be around strangers when I can barely hold my head up, and I don’t feel safe being away from home when I’m so close to the edge. I want there to be a way for people to adapt their expectations of me to fit both what I am capable of and what I want to do. But maybe, and this makes my head spin, I’m expecting other people to be able to do more than they can do, and I’m being just as unreasonable in my expectations of them as they are being unreasonable in their expectations of me.

Now my head hurts.

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“Mine too.”

 

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

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

I Am Struggling with the Sequel to Yeshiva Girl

For years I thought I had a solid draft of the second Yeshiva Girl book tucked away, just waiting for the first book to be published so I could neaten it up and publish it soon after. But last year, when I opened the file on my computer and looked at the draft, I was underwhelmed. It was a mess. There were at least three competing versions of the story running around, all incomplete. I had added to, and revised, the file over the years without remembering most of what I’d done.

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“Like I forget that I already ate breakfast?”

 

Reading through what I had, finally, I realized that I was still undecided about where the book should even be set, in time or space. Parts were set in high school, parts were set in college, parts were set in Izzy’s grandparents’ house, and parts were set in a skating rink.

One of the dangers of writing autobiographical fiction is that it’s hard to know which details from real life to keep, and which ones to change. The second Yeshiva Girl book will have to be even less memoir than book one, because I made such a point of giving Izzy a soft place to land in book one, something I didn’t have in real life.

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Happy girl!

I want Izzy to have a better life than I’ve had, with love and children and professional success, but I don’t want to downplay the impacts of trauma, because I know better. I want to find a way to let Izzy struggle, so that other survivors can be validated and recognize their own struggle in hers. I want people to know that child abuse, of every kind, leaves deep scars, and that expecting victims to recover on their own, without support, is unrealistic. That’s just not how humans work. But, I still want Izzy to have a happier life than I’ve had. That’s why I gave her a living grandfather, even though my own grandfather died when I was eight years old. And I want to play that out for her, how having that safe place at age sixteen makes a difference in her life, but also, I want to show that it won’t be a magical cure either.

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“I prefer magic, Mommy.”

It feels like there are at least ten ways to write the second book, and I almost need to write out all ten in order to feel like I’ve done the work and gotten as much as I need to get out of the process of writing it. In the end, that’s what I did with the first book. I was satisfied with what was on the page because I’d had the chance to write, and delete, every other possible version of the story.

One of the decisions I have to make is about using flashbacks. I have been told, too many times, about the danger of telling stories in flashback. I had a fiction teacher in graduate school who was fierce about the things we shouldn’t use in our writing. Like, no dreams, no flashbacks, and no stories about girls getting their periods.

I really think the second Yeshiva Girl book would benefit from flashbacks, so that I can set the book further in the future without losing good details from the in-between years. And I want to use dreams. I have found dreams to be incredibly vivid in their ability to show how things feel.

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“Like when I catch the squirrel?!”

Also, for my own wish fulfillment, I want Izzy’s father to go to jail, or die, or get some fair comeuppance, because my real father did not. I joke that God sent at least ten plagues his way, but none of them worked. The fact is that he has never acknowledged his guilt, or responsibility, for anything.

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“Grrr.”

It’s these endless inner conflicts that keep getting in my way, but they are also the reason why I need to write this book in the first place. I’m just not sure how to speed up the work, so that I’ll still have time to write everything else I need to write before I run out of energy. Or time.

 

YG with Cricket

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

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

 

 

I Got a Recorder for My Birthday

 

For my birthday, Mom bought me a recorder: the same instrument everyone learns to play in elementary school. Mom has a brown plastic one, like the one I had in fourth grade music class, and she uses it occasionally to soothe Cricket’s savage breast, but she wanted me to have a better one, with more resonance, so mine is a blond wood.

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Ellie likes the recorder.

I was kind of hoping for a new iPhone, or a new President, for my birthday. This present, instead, required me to work.

I hadn’t played recorder, or any other wind instrument, since fourth grade. I used to play the Melodica at my grandparents’ house (a tiny version of the wind keyboard Jon Batiste plays on the Late Show with Steven Colbert) but that was even longer ago.

So, along with my ukulele lessons on Yousician, and occasional choir practices, and daily breathing exercises, I took on the task of relearning how to play the recorder. My new recorder came with a book to teach me which holes to cover to play which notes, and exercises to practice for each new note. It was a pretty basic book and I assumed I’d get through it quickly; three months later I’ve finally made it through one octave. The breathless feeling I had at the beginning, even half-way through a four measure exercise, shocked me. I skimped on whole notes, pretending they were only half or quarter notes, just to get through a single page. I felt like my lungs were, at best, two tiny desiccated walnuts.

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“You should breathe like me, Mommy.”

I had started doing regular breathing exercises in the fall, after listening to the opera singer in the choir at my synagogue, who stood behind me when we sang for the high holidays. His voice sounded like it was supported by a huge reservoir of oxygen, and mine sounded like I was sucking oxygen through a tiny straw, so I looked up some breathing exercises for singers and started to do a set of them every day. But not much was changing, and I continued to feel like I was suffocating each time I tried to extend the counts on my breathing exercises. That’s when Mom decided to buy me a wind instrument for my birthday, thinking it could help me train myself to breathe better.

When I learned how to play the low C on the recorder, a few weeks ago, I realized that I was finally giving four counts to each whole note, but it didn’t feel like much of a success. It’s possible that I keep moving the goal posts, so that instead of recognizing the progress I’ve made, I’m much more aware of how far behind I still am. That sounds like me.

When the choir got together to rehearse for another performance this winter (Shabbat Shira at our synagogue, to celebrate the crossing of the Sea of Reeds when it comes up in the yearly cycle of Torah readings), I worked very hard to learn all of the songs and find the right places to breathe, but I still couldn’t hold the longer notes as long as I was supposed to (four counts, yes, six counts, no).

At the last rehearsal, our opera singer came in and learned the music by sight and held the notes for what felt like hours at a time. To be fair, he’s been working at this for his whole professional life, so comparing my five to ten minutes every other day with his lifetime of practice is pretty silly, but I do it anyway.

I want to feel the way he sounds – as if I could sing for hours without any friction or effort, as if the sound is just floating on a pillow of air. There’s something so reassuring about hearing that voice behind me, but it also makes me feel like a mouse, with barely a squeak to my name.

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“Sing like me, Mommy!”

The opera singer actually brought his whole company to perform at the synagogue the next day, as a fundraiser to support immigrants at the border. They did an hour of songs in English and Italian and German, from operas and musicals, in solos, duets, and group numbers. They, of course, didn’t need microphones. I had a sneaking suspicion that they all had lungs the size of hot air balloons hidden somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t prove it. (They’re called the New Camerata Opera Company, by the way, and you should look them up if you have a chance.)

I’m not sure if all of my sporadic efforts to improve my breathing are leading anywhere, and I still feel like a ne’er do well, but I’m realizing, more and more, how much I love music. Even when I’m exhausted, and driving to choir rehearsal feels like torture, I still love to sing; even when I struggle to understand how harmony works, or can’t hold the note long enough, I still want to try. And I’m enjoying learning how to play the ukulele, and the recorder; and I like the possibility that I might get up the nerve to write my own songs again someday, and sing them out loud, where people can hear me. But in the meantime, even though it makes me feel lazy and incompetent and silly, I keep practicing. And maybe someday I’ll be proud of myself for that.

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“Don’t bet on 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?