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My First Homegrown Pawpaw Fruit

            The one and only Pawpaw fruit fell from the big Pawpaw tree during a recent rain storm; not even the most vigorous storm, which meant the fruit was almost ready to fall on its own. It was still a little too green and a little too hard to eat, so we waited a few more days to let it ripen. With only one fruit from a whole tree it almost felt too precious to eat, and I worried I’d do something wrong: forget to take pictures, cut it open too soon, eat it all myself!

My first homegrown pawpaw fruit (tissue box shown for size reference)

            I waited, impatiently, touching it once a day to see if it had gotten softer, but mostly waiting until I could smell it; that was the real test. At first only the dogs could smell that distinct pawpaw aroma coming from the fruit, but then, if I put my nose almost against the green, mottled skin, I could start to smell it too. When I could finally smell the pawpaw from a few feet steps away, I knew it was ready. Or at least I hoped.

Cricket sniffing the pawpaw

            I dithered, though, because I was afraid that I’d exaggerated the memory of the pawpaw fruit in my mind. It had been fifteen years since my last bite and I worried that I had distorted the reality of it into something better than it could possibly be.

            But I didn’t want to let it sit there so long that it would rot, so I finally brought it into the kitchen and placed it on a cutting board, and, of course, took a picture. I tried to cut it in half, because I wanted to share it equally with Mom, but the seeds made it impossible to cut straight through. I had to accept that there is no fairness in the splitting of pawpaws, and, also, I was impatient, so I cut around the seeds and gave a small piece to Mom, and took a small piece for myself, and finally got to taste a pawpaw again.

Cut pawpaw, in bad lighting
Pawpaw seeds

            And it was delicious! The sweetness was more gentle and complex than I’d remembered, and the texture was perfect, soft but firm, and not slimy or mealy at all. It was perfect.

            The only problem was that in such a small pawpaw there were more seeds than fruit, or so it seemed, and after I’d removed the five almond-sized seeds and peeled the skin and shared half with Mom, there were only a few bites left. And then there was a wave of sadness, that the experience was over and that I’d have to wait another year, at least, to try it again. But after fifteen years of waiting for this one piece of fruit, and realizing that it was worth the wait, and knowing now that my tree could produce fruit, I decided that I could wait another year for my next bite.

            In the meantime, I cleaned the seeds and packed them in a Ziploc bag in the fridge (the article Mom found online said that we needed to add moss, not too damp and not too dry, to create the perfect pawpaw seed environment in the bag, but I left that part to her). So now the seeds are sitting in their bag in the fridge, waiting until they’re ready to be planted. And my wild pawpaw grove is building its strength as the saplings learn to stand straighter and taller every day. And the big pawpaw tree is readying for winter, its leaves starting to turn light green with a little bit of yellow here and there. Soon the leaves will all turn yellow, and then fall to the ground, and the tree will shiver through winter and start to leaf again in the spring.

Pawpaw Tree Fall 2021

And maybe next year we will have more than one fruit, so we can share the pawpaws with our friends, which is, really, the whole point.

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 Day Without Water

            It wasn’t quite that bad; just a day without hot or cold running water in our co-op while the workmen dealt with the pipes. We’ve had days without hot water before, often, because of repairs needed to the old pipes, but all that meant was that I had to delay taking a shower for a few hours, and therefore delay exercising, so I wouldn’t have to sit around feeling sweaty and gross waiting for  the hot water to come back on. But no cold water meant that we have to keep buckets of water in the bathtub in order to flush the toilets, and wash our hands (I made sure to wake up before the water was turned off so I could brush my teeth without resorting to the buckets).

“You could use my wee wee pads, Mommy.”

            It’s really just an inconvenience, a nothing, compared to what most people deal with on a daily basis, but it was enough of an interruption to give me anxiety, and nightmares, and something to think about.

I don’t like to suffer. I’m sure that’s true of most people (though there are some weirdos who think suffering is good for us). I also, though, feel guilty for my resistance to suffering. I feel guilty for wanting to be comfortable. I feel guilty for wanting to avoid pain. I even feel guilty for saying that I feel inconvenienced, as if it should matter.

But this is who I am, and I am annoyed at not being able to press a lever to flush the toilet, and turn a faucet to wash my hands, even if it’s just for one day, or less than a whole day. I’m annoyed, and I’m uncomfortable and I have to deal with it. But how?

“Yeah. How?”

The first step was the practical one: planning ahead. We had to make sure that we had the buckets of water waiting in the bathtub, and fresh water in the fridge. And I needed to get exercise and showering done the day before so I wouldn’t feel so guilty if I had to miss a day of exercise, in case the lack of water lasted longer than expected.

That was the easy part. But then came the anger: Why do I have to put up with this? Why can’t there be some way to fix the pipes without shutting off the water? Why do they have to replace the pipes and the heating system and raise the cost of monthly maintenance? Why can’t I stay in a hotel until the whole thing is over?

I call this stage the Railing-at-God stage, because all of those decisions were made months, or years, ago and there’s nothing I can do about it now (except go to a hotel, which costs way too much money). But I’m still mad and grumpy and I need to whine and get it all out. Most people feel guilty or out of control during this stage, because, logically, whining is pointless, and if something is pointless why would you do it? But I find that the whining happens anyway, whether you like it or not, so you have to find a way to tolerate yourself while you whine and complain, and try to be compassionate. You don’t get to skip this phase just because you’re a good person, or a smart person, or even the person in charge who’s making all of the decisions. You just have to go through it.

“Harrumph.”

But then, for me, there’s the echoing stage – where experiences from my past that are even slightly resonant with my current uncomfortable experience start to pop up. If it’s an issue I’ve dealt with already, it’ll just pop up a little bit and let me know it’s there and remind me of the lessons I’ve learned. I have to be patient and tolerant while I remember those lessons, even if what I really want to say is – yada yada yada, I’ve heard this a thousand times already.

But then there are the memories, or feelings, or snapshots pieced together in a kaleidoscope, that I haven’t fully dealt with yet, and will now have to feel, against my will, for as long as they need to be felt.

Damn them.

“Yeah. Damn them.”

This time, as usual, that phase came in the form of dreams. There was the truly horrific nightmare about babies being suffocated at birth by mothers who felt they had no choice; then there were upsetting dreams about being back in elementary school, at my current age, and dealing with girls who didn’t like me and didn’t think I was cool enough and yet wanted me to take care of them anyway; and then there were those those endless bad dreams about not being able to find a usable bathroom and opening one stall after another to find stopped up toilets or no toilets at all.

And then I woke up and I raged at my brain for giving me so much crap to think about when I was already annoyed and inconvenienced with the no-water-drama. Damn it!

“Yeah. Damn it.”

But this stage required my patience and my compassion too, and most of all, my attention, because if I didn’t pay attention this time I would certainly have to deal with the same issues again, and again, and again, because the universe is like that. Or humans are like that.

And what’s the lesson I was being taught here? Don’t suffocate the parts of you that you find annoying. Don’t shut out the voices that want to complain or rant or in any other way make you uncomfortable, and don’t imagine that ignoring yourself will make you go away.

We like to say that time heals all wounds, and that this too shall pass, but we don’t spend enough time talking about the work that takes us from one side of that gulf to the other. Time heals nothing on its own. We have to be willing to use the time to heal, or else time just passes and we don’t heal.

“I’m healing, Mommy.”

It all sucks, and I hate it, and I resent it, and it goes on forever and I want to scream and make it stop. But I still had to live through the inconvenience of the no-water-day, and feel all of the feelings and think all of the thoughts, and maybe, if I’m lucky, by the end of the day, another one of my deep wounds will have started to heal. And if I’m not lucky, I’ll get another chance to do this work in the near future, and then twenty times after that, until I get the lesson. And even then it will still pop up and remind me it’s there, just to check and make sure I’ve got that lesson and can move on to the next one.

“How about this one?”

I so wish it didn’t work this way. I wish there was a pill to take, or a cave to sleep in for twenty-some-odd years while Time Heals All Wounds. But nope. It’s this tedious feel-your-feelings, think-your-thoughts, grieve-your-losses thing, over and over and over again.

But the water did come back on at the end of the day, and I was able to wash my hands as many times as I wanted and flush the toilet extra just because I could. And the next day I was able to get on the exercise bike and do my forty-five minutes while watching a French murder mystery, and take a shower, and imperceptibly, feel a little lighter as I went on with the rest of my life. And over time, each of these obnoxious, uncomfortable, interminable lessons can stack up into real change, and real relief, and real healing. Because, time heals all wounds, just not by itself.

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?

Cricket Can Play!

            Cricket has changed a lot since she started taking the DES (Diethylstilbestrol – a non-steroidal estrogen medication) last winter. First of all, the incontinence problem disappeared, which was the point of the medication in the first place. She takes her pill – buried in hamburger – every other night, and she hasn’t had an accident in months. But there are other changes too. For some reason, her voice is higher pitched than before. She’s always been loud and barky and anxious about strangers, but now when she screams at them her voice gets even higher. She’s also clingier, if that’s possible. She used to make do with sleeping next to her Grandma, attached like a barnacle, but now she tries to sleep on top of her, like a cat (she’s fourteen pounds, at most, so no bones have been broken in the process). She’s been very attached to Grandma since she was a puppy, but it’s a little more intense now. She even sits on Grandma’s lap at the computer now, instead of just on the couch, where it’s easy.

Cricket, the barnacle.

            The big change, though, came up recently, when a new mini Golden Doodle puppy arrived at our co-op. Well, he arrived a few months ago as a little red ball of fluff, but he had to wait until he had all of his shots and did his potty training before he could meet everyone.

This is not Kevin, or my picture. But Kevin is this cute.

            Then Mom came in one morning a few weeks ago, after taking the girls for their first walk of the day, and she said in wonder – Cricket was playing!

            Cricket is fourteen years old and she has never played with another dog. Dogs have tried to play with her, doing their play bows and zooming around her, but she would just stand still and wait for it to be over, or hide behind one of her people, or just raise an eyebrow in disdain at the strange creature and walk away to sniff someone else’s pee.

“Harrumph.”

            Butterfly and Ellie had both tried to play with Cricket over the years, and learned quickly that she couldn’t be bothered. And when we had other dogs over to visit, or she met dogs at the dog park or in the yard, she’d just sniff and be sniffed and then look off in the distance, bored, or confused about why the dog was still there, staring at her.

This is as close as Butterfly (top) and Cricket (bottom) came to playing.

            The closest she came to playing was with her friend Teddy – a black miniature poodle she’d known since puppyhood – but they tended to play consecutively rather than together. Teddy would throw his toy in the air and zoom around the room and scratch his back on the floor, and then he’d go lie down and watch while Cricket did her own play routine.

Teddy and Cricket, tandem napping.

            But with Kevin, the five month old mini-Golden Doodle, Cricket actually went into her own version of a play bow and hopped around with him. No one watching her could believe she was fourteen years old. Ellie, meanwhile, who’d had more than enough of boy dogs when she was a breeding mama, stayed back and waited for it to be over. She allowed Kevin to sniff her a little bit, but she really really wasn’t interested.

“Ugh. Boys.”

            Kevin is a very social dog, and especially social with other dogs. He’ll tolerate a scratch on the head from a human, but he’s really dog-centric. His humans say that they struggle to train him with treats because he’s not food-motivated, but he’ll do anything for a trip outside. I’m sure Kevin’s playful personality plays a role in how Cricket is reacting to him, but I’m pretty sure the DES has changed something for her.

            The thing is, Cricket had her spaying surgery when she was six months old, so she never had the surge of hormones rushing through her body. Now, the advice would be to wait until a dog is a little older before spaying or neutering, because it’s healthier for the dog to go through a few hormone cycles, but that wasn’t the advice when Cricket was little. So when she started taking the synthetic estrogen (DES) to solve the incontinence problem, that was her body’s first real experience with Estrogen, and one of the side effects, it seems, is that she’s learned how to play.

            Cricket has had a full life with her people, and she’s had rich, complicated relationships with her sisters (Butterfly and Ellie), and she’s eaten all kinds of interesting foods and barked in all kinds of different places and sniffed a million different smells, and she chased sticks, and ran like the wind, and rolled in the mud, but I always felt bad that playing with other dogs wasn’t in the cards for her.

            I had some theories: about her being the runt of her litter and therefore under attack from her brothers from day one and therefore not trusting of other dogs; or about her being the runt of her litter and therefore suffering from an unfinished nervous system that caused lifelong neurological issues that made her too hypervigilant and suspicious to play.

            And now she’s fourteen, and she’s discovering how to play. She still has a lot of energy and, despite a number of signs of aging, she’s still young at heart, and my hope is that she’ll have plenty of years left to figure out what else these synthetic hormones can do for her and take them out for a spin.

Cricket practicing her play bow with the grooming brush.

            Every once in a while I notice those signs that she’s aging – the thinning of her hair, the age spots and cauliflower-like growths on her skin, her skinniness despite eating plenty, the missing teeth in her smile – and I feel this void readying to open up, this reminder that Cricket won’t always be here. And then she barks at a leaf and hops across the lawn like a rabbit and then, out of nowhere she learns how to play (!!!!), and, for a few moments, she’s a puppy again, or better, she’s ageless and she seems like she will live forever.

            These are my favorite moments.

Cricket is ready for more!

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

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

Egyptology and Hieroglyphics

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s beyond magic? Is it food?!!”

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

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

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

“We believe in the power of chicken.”

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

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

Prayer is Work

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

“Aha!”

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

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

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

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

Cricket was not happy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellie wasn’t convinced either.

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

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

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

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

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

Mom and the girls, exhausted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellie’s Grey Eye

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

“Really?”

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

            I was freaking out.

“EEEEEK!”

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

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

            Oh Lord.

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

“Hey! Don’t forget about me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who me?”

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

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

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

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

It’s Hard to Respect a Body You Can’t Trust

            I’ve been having stomach pains since mid-March, so when I went for my yearly check up with the cardiologist I told him about the pain and he sent me to the gastroenterologist in his practice. I haven’t been to a gastro since I was a teenager, on purpose, so the referral was not a happy thing for me, especially when the cardiologist casually told me it was also time for a colonoscopy.

“Never. Absolutely never.”

            The new doctor was nice, though. And he actually listened to me, and read through my records, and even recommended a geneticist to figure out what type of Ehlers Danlos I have (in case it means that my tissues are too fragile for a colonoscopy, which would be a pretty cool escape). But he also sent me for a few ultrasounds, and even though I knew I should be happy that he was looking for answers, I was dreading the scans, especially the more invasive one. I want to feel better, magically, not go for more humiliating tests.

“What does invasive mean?”

            When I told my therapist about the latest medical drama, and my concurrent struggles with Intuitive Eating and trying to learn how to respect my body, she said, it must be hard to respect a body you can’t trust.

            I’d never quite thought about my lack of trust in my body as coming from my health issues; I’ve thought of it more in terms of the childhood sexual abuse I experienced, and feeling like my body was always in danger and not a safe place to live. But my therapist was right: the way my symptoms come up intermittently, and don’t show up on traditional tests, has made it hard for me to develop a feeling of trust in my body as an adult.

            But maybe the more apt question is: How can I respect a body that my doctors don’t trust? How can I ignore their doubts about my symptoms when they are the only path available for seeking help? The way doctors tend to focus on blood tests and scans, and ignore basic details of how the person is or is not functioning, is frustrating. They are supposed to be empiricists, and yet they ignore so much of the information that’s right in front of them.

            I went for the invasive scans, despite my reluctance, telling myself that even if I don’t trust my body I still need to do whatever I can to heal it. And hours later I was able to check my virtual medical chart and see the results: mostly normal, but with areas obscured. It was already late on a Friday when I got the test results, so I couldn’t call the doctor’s office for more information, or to find out what to do next.

            By the following Monday afternoon I still hadn’t heard from my doctor, but I put off calling, not wanting to be a burden, and not really wanting to hear what he might say. When I finally called, after a few more days of dragging my feet, his secretary said that she hadn’t received the results of the tests, and that’s why I hadn’t heard from the doctor; he would definitely have called by now if he’d received the results, she said. That was something of a relief. And she told me that she was going to reach out to the testing location to get the results and then call me right back. Except, I didn’t hear from her that day, or the next day, or the next. I probably should have called again right away, but I didn’t want to. I resented all of the work that had to go into getting only mildly useful healthcare.

            I was finally able to speak to the doctor about two weeks after the ultra sounds had been done, after calling the office again and speaking to the secretary again, and the doctor told me that he wanted me to go for a Catscan this time, with contrast, in order to see whatever had been obscured on the ultrasounds.

            I reluctantly made the appointment for the Catscan, and I also heard back from the geneticist’s office (for the Ehlers Danlos diagnosis) with a three page history questionnaire to fill out before my visit.

            In the meantime, my nutritionist suggested trying a low FODMAP elimination diet, to see if that could reduce my belly pain. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols, which are short-chain carbohydrates (sugars) that the small intestine absorbs poorly. She gave me a crazy list of foods to avoid for the next two to six weeks – like cashews and pistachios (but not walnuts or pecans) and mushrooms (but not oyster mushrooms) and cauliflower (but not broccoli). I could have tomatoes, but not prepared tomato sauce (because of the onions and garlic that are usually added), and I could have chickpeas and lentils and potatoes, but not kidney beans or barley or wheat. It’s totally non-intuitive; I could eat handfuls of table sugar on this diet, but not an apple.

“Sounds good!”

            I emptied most of the High FODMAP foods from the pantry and put them in boxes (like we do on Passover when, for religious reasons, we are supposed to avoid eating leavened foods), and I adapted our regular recipes to the best of my ability. But my mind was spinning.

            The low FODMAP diet was originally designed for people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and/or Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), with the goal of figuring out which foods on the list, if any, are problematic for each individual sufferer. I didn’t have the right list of symptoms for either of those diagnoses, but I was desperate to feel better, so I agreed to go on the diet anyway.

            And there was a lot of relief in being on a diet again; any diet, for any reason. It gave me the feeling that I was at least doing something to help myself, and that someone was watching over my shoulder to make sure I was doing it right. But the diet was hard, and even harder for Mom who had to go along with it for no good reason of her own, expect to support me; though she made a lot of “secret” trips to the Italian restaurant around the corner to make it bearable.

“Wait. What?!”

            After three and a half weeks on the diet, though, my belly pain was worse, if anything. And the limited number of foods I could eat was bringing up my old food panic issues, and leading me to eat more of the allowed foods (like low-lactose cheeses and gluten free cookies).

            My nutritionist had told me that people often lose weight on this diet – even though that’s not the purpose – but I’d actually gained weight. And it wasn’t over, because I still had to slowly reintroduce the high FODMAP foods, in case I had a reaction to any of them. Knowing that there would most likely be no relief going forward, despite the length of time it would take to carefully reintroduce each food, made me angry; but I’m such a good girl that I did it anyway.

            Oh, and I met with the geneticist. She will be sending me a saliva testing kit so we can see if I actually have a connective tissue disorder (I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos on clinical examination in the past), but she said that the tests only catch about forty percent of cases, so, even if the test comes back negative, the chances are 60% likely to be wrong.

            And the Catscan came back normal. So I’m at a loss. I was hoping that this summer of medical tests and diets and time off from teaching would re-energize me and allow me to start the new school year with more energy – but I’m still sick and tired, and we’re going back to masks and social distancing and possibly hybrid classes again in September.

I’m angry.

I’m angry that nothing has worked, and that my pain doesn’t qualify as significant because it’s not caused by the right things. I’m angry that I can’t lose weight, and that I can’t stop blaming myself for it. I wanted to make progress with Intuitive Eating and respecting my body, and I wanted to have more energy to live my life the way I want to live it, and it’s just not happening.

Next up. The nutritionist and I are planning an anti-inflammatory diet, to see if, one, nutrition can actually reduce the inflammation in my body, and two, if reducing overall inflammation will reduce my pain and give me more energy. I’m not especially hopeful, but I have to keep trying.

The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is coming up fast, and this is a time to make an accounting of the mistakes of the past year and start on a new path, so I’m not giving up yet. But I’m pissed off. Really, really pissed off.

“Grr.”

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

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

Traveling around the world with BeamZ

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

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

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

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

“A market for fleas?!”

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

“Did you say food?”

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

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

“Sushi in a cup!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re ready!”

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

“We’ll wait here.”

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

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

Abraham the Father of Multitudes

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never let facts get in my way.”

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

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

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

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

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

            He learns.

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

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

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

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

“Tell us another story, Mommy.”

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

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

The Hebrew Class, Continued

            The night before my online Hebrew class started, I suddenly got anxious. I had the link to the class ready, and the WhatsApp group set up on my phone, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. I had nightmares that night about racing around Long Island trying to get to my class on time, and, of course, continually missing the class. And when I woke up, the anxieties just multiplied. What if the class was too hard? Or too easy? What if I didn’t like the teacher? Or my classmates? What if I couldn’t stay focused for 90 minutes at a time? What if there were too many students in the class and it was too easy to fade into the background? Or what if there were too few students and I felt like I was being watched and judged the whole time? What if the teaching method overwhelmed me? Or I forgot all of my Hebrew? Or I got bored? Or I was already exhausted by the time the class started and couldn’t keep my eyes open?

Huh?”

            The hours leading up to the class dragged by, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything except the endless worries. But, when I sat down in front of my computer and logged into class, it was fine. There were ten students, not too few or too many, and the teacher was friendly; she made sure everyone could participate and she repeated conjugations and sentences as many times as necessary for us to catch on. The class felt a little bit easy, but that was a relief for day one. The only real problem was trying to figure out the tech (I didn’t understand how to use the WhatsApp group or the Quizlet flashcards), but I survived, and the nightmares went away.

Sweet Dreams

            The second class, a few days later, was more challenging and moved faster, and I started to feel like a spigot was opening up in my brain and my long dormant Hebrew vocabulary was starting to flow again. Except, I felt kind of bad about how easy it all was, as if I’d taken the easy way out by accepting the level I’d been put in, instead of challenging myself to go into the next level up. And I felt lazy for not pushing myself to study more between classes, or watch more movies in Hebrew, or seek out random Israelis to talk to.

            The thing is, I still forget words in Hebrew that I should know, like the word for “to study,” or I confuse the conjugations for You (f) and She. And I feel the squeeze in my gut, and the beginning of humiliation that after all these years I still can’t master Hebrew. And then there’s this old feeling, where I worry that I’m showing off too much and that if I make a stupid mistake my classmates and my teacher will say, Gotcha, you’re not so great after all. But, actually, that hasn’t happened in this class, at all.

            Even in the practice groups, on different days, with different teachers and classmates, the overall vibe is eager but non-judgmental; everyone is trying and everyone is making mistakes and it’s kind of great.

“Yeah!”

            We spend a lot of time in our class just repeating the words the teacher gives to us, both asking the set questions and giving the set responses in turn; so not only are we saying the words, but we’re hearing them over and over, creating a sort of muscle memory for common phrases.

            My favorite thing is how much we’re learning about the Tel Avivians who created the class materials through the sentences they have us saying. We learn how to say: my back hurts, my teeth hurt, or my legs hurt because I was walking all day; I didn’t get to it because I had a crazy day; I missed the party because the traffic was crazy; and I’m tired because I work all day every day including the weekend. You can get a pretty good idea of a culture from the kinds of things they teach newcomers how to say.

“Woof.”

One of my favorite new phrases is Al HaPanim which translates as “on the face,” or “falling on my face” which basically means, I feel terrible. I definitely want to teach that one to my synagogue school students. By the time they get to class, after a full day at regular school, they really, really love to complain; why not give them a chance to do it in Hebrew?!

            My social anxiety is still an issue. I feel embarrassed when I have to make conversation about my life and my answers sound childish or uncool. I’m also self-conscious about the way I look on screen, especially because my living room is warm in the summer, even with the air conditioner on (it’s a big room and the air conditioner is far away from my desk), so I get kind of sweaty. Ideally, I would be the kind of person who blow dries her hair and puts on make-up before every class, but I am not, so my hair is usually up in a ponytail and my bangs are either stuck to my forehead or floating in the air willy nilly. So be it.

“MY hair looks fine.”

            I still get anxious before every class, of course, and I still hurry up and do my homework right away out of fear that I’ll forget everything I learned within minutes. I’m still me; but I’m trying. And even when I’m anxious or overwhelmed, learning Hebrew still seems to fill up an important place in my heart where my kindergarten self is always hungry for more; so it’s worth the trouble.

My hope is that all of this practice speaking Hebrew, and making mistakes and moving on anyway, will help create circuits in my brain that will be useful in other parts of my life as well. That’s always the goal – that each time I challenge myself to learn something new I’m actually healing my brain, and becoming more fully myself.

“Like me!”

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?