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A Summer of Singing

 

At the first official choir rehearsal for the Jewish High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, starting Sunday night, September 29th), I received a loose-leaf full of music from the choir director. Most of the other choir members have been there for years (some for over thirty years), so while they mostly had to show up at rehearsals and sing, I had to take my loose-leaf home and study. Even the songs I thought I knew had to be relearned, because I was used to singing the melody with the congregation, and now I was singing the harmony with the other altos.

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“Do you really have to sing that again?”

The music kept repeating in my head all summer long. I knew my brain was doing this to be helpful, so that I could learn what I needed to learn in a hurry, but it meant that I was drowning in melancholy music for months. I couldn’t even escape it while I was sleeping.

The dogs are probably sick of hearing about repentance and atonement, but they seemed to like finally being able to participate in synagogue services, in their own way, in their own home. When the summer rehearsals started, I spent a lot of time being mute and grumpy, because I couldn’t sing along. But after months of studying I’ve learned most of the songs, and even figured out how not to be completely distracted by the other voices around me.

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Except for Cricket’s voice. That still distracts me.

Starting in September we had choir rehearsals once a week, and by then I knew most of the music, though some things were still beyond me, especially the songs where the altos just sing the oohs and ahhs in the background (it’s so hard to learn the music without words to hang the notes on!). There are a few pieces of music that still confound me, especially one that requires us to sing ten notes on one word, over and over again. I get three notes in and then shut my mouth and wait.

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“I’ll sing for you, Mommy!”

Unfortunately, no one seems to have noticed all of the progress I’ve made, even though I make a point of singing out when I know what I’m doing. Maybe they think it was as easy for me to learn all of the music, or they forgot that I’m new to the choir altogether. I was kind of hoping for some praise; you now, gold star stickers to put on my loose-leaf, something like that. Maybe someday.

One very lucky break is that our temporary conductor is one of the altos, so she has been able to help us out with finding notes and some much needed attention. She also has her own interpretive dance style of conducting that’s really easy to follow, so that even when I’m looking down at the music and can only see out of the corner of my eye, I can understand what she’s telling us.

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“I bet I could lead a choir!”

For the High Holidays, the choir will be sitting on a raised platform, in our newly redone sanctuary, and I am not looking forward to that. I’m used to being mostly invisible in the crowd at the high holidays, able to be grumpy or tired or whatever I am in relative obscurity. But this year I will be on public view, so I may have to put on a happy – or at least normal – face. This is also when I start to wish I’d lost more weight already, and bought a whole new wardrobe, and maybe had plastic surgery, because otherwise I just look like me. We don’t even get to wear robes to hide behind.

The biggest downside of being in the choir is that I can’t sit with Mom during the services. Hopefully she’ll be able to sit near the choir area, so that I can roll my eyes at her discreetly during the services. I think it might be frowned upon if I actually took out my cellphone to text my ongoing commentary during the services, but it might come to that. I mean, these are long services, and I have a lot to say!

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“Do you? We never noticed.”

I’ve made some friends among the altos, though, so I should be able to nudge someone and whisper when something especially ridiculous happens. Which, of course, it will. With a new sound system, and echoing acoustics, and everyone stuffed together in one big room trying to express all of the repentance and atonement and misplaced guilt of a whole year, laughing fits are inevitable.

I wish you all a Shana Tovah U’Metukah (a good and sweet new year) with as much laughter as possible!

Happy New Year!

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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?

 

 

Writing Our Own Blessings

 

There’s a long list of blessings in the Jewish tradition, most of which are over food. The official purpose of saying blessings in Judaism, according to Wikipedia, is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessings, and to transform everyday actions and occurrences into religious experiences. There are blessings on giving charity, and hearing thunder and seeing lightning, on smelling a fragrance, or seeing a rainbow (though that last one is focused on blessing the memory of the covenant between God and the Jewish People, which isn’t really what’s exciting about rainbows). There are blessings for seeing the ocean, or the blossoming of trees, or undergoing a medical procedure, or crossing an ocean, or being released from prison. There are blessings you’re supposed to say each morning, to thank God for straightening the bent, and releasing the bound, and opening the eyes of the blind, and “making me a man.” There is an alternate blessing for women to say, but, spoiler alert, it’s not equivalent to the blessing for men. There are blessings on seeing a miracle, and on receiving good or bad news, and then there’s the blessing thanking God for not making me a Goy (non-Jew), which I just refuse to say.

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“Hey, what’s that about?”

My question is: are these existing blessings sufficient to fill our needs? Every blessing in the canon was written by a human being, at a certain time and for a certain purpose. If the blessings we say throughout the day impact how we feel about our lives, it only seems fair that we should have some control over what they will be. I want to feel empowered to say the blessings that mean something to me, today, and not be stuck repeating what generations of men have seen as worthy of gratitude.

First of all, I want to be able to alter existing blessings when they don’t work for me. For example, I would change the blessing over rainbows so that it focuses on the beauty of a rainbow, or on the hope that leprechauns and gold coins will appear at the end of it. And since I can’t say the thank-god-I’m-a-man blessing and I refuse to say the thank-god-I’m-not-a-Goy blessing, I need to find alternatives. Maybe, thank God people are all different so we don’t get bored with all of the sameness, or, thank God I am the specific person I am, whoever that may be.

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“That sounds much better.”

I like the idea of spontaneously expressing gratitude when good things happen, even if those good things don’t fit into some universal pattern. Ellie might say Thank you God for giving me a mommy who knows that I want chicken right now. And Mom might say, Thank you, universe, for this little bird who landed on my window sill to eat the leftover matzah from Passover that the other birds ignored. And for me, Thank God I have enough pens and yellow narrow-ruled legal pads to write down all of my random thoughts.

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“Did you say chicken?”

            I feel strongly, though, that we should be allowed to acknowledge that life is complicated, and that I can feel more than one thing at a time, without cancelling out the gratitude. I’d call these the “Thank you, but…” blessings, as in, Thank you, God, that I can still walk, even though my hips ache on rainy days, and I have to take pain killers and wear orthotics in all of my shoes; thank you for helping me tolerate people who disagree with me, even though they are still, clearly, wrong; thank you for giving me a nervous system that is extra sensitive to smells and sounds and feelings of all kinds, even though it makes me feel awful half the time; thank you for the joy I feel when I hear a bird singing outside my window, but, you know, it’s five o’clock in the morning and I’d rather be sleeping. And of course, thank you, God, for this piece of chocolate, but next time could you make it Godiva?

            I also want blessings that can acknowledge pain as part of my life: Thank you God for seeing me in my pain, accepting me as I am, and knowing that I am doing my best; thank you God for making it rain on a day when I feel like crying; thank you God for sitting next to me in the muck and not being in such a hurry to leave; Thank you for hearing me when I’m angry and sad and confused, as much as when I’m happy and inspired; Thank you God for teaching me the power of kvetching; blessed art thou, oh lord, our god, ruler of the universe, for not giving a f**k that my hair is a mess today.

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“Stop talking about my hair!”

            And I need some aspirational blessings, to help me imagine that things can improve: may we, one day, remember what it’s like to wake up to actual birds chirping instead of to twitter alerts; may God, or the force, be with me during my exam so that I don’t forget everything I learned in a fog of anxiety; may we all learn to hear one another with empathy and compassion, even when we do not understand.

            And last but not least, because it’s the category we usually think of when we think of blessings, I need some more blessings that celebrate wonder and gratitude, like: a blessing for every time I see a new tree or bird or flower; a blessing on making a new friend, or having an “aha” moment. A blessing for pushing myself one centimeter further into a stretch, or being able to stand up again after sitting on a low chair, or having enough tissues during allergy season. A blessing for practicing a musical instrument, or taking medication that actually works, or reading a good book, or having a nice phone call, or receiving a kind email. A blessing for the ability to think for myself, and a blessing for the miracle that is chocolate mousse.

But I still have a lot of questions about blessings, and the role they play in our lives. Why do some people find deep meaning in saying blessings all day long, and others find it tedious? Is there still value in saying blessings even if you don’t believe in God? Is there a right way or a wrong way to say a blessing, and if I say the “wrong” blessing will it make me feel worse?

The dogs seem to say blessings throughout their day, like when Cricket sighs a deep sigh as she stretches herself out across Grandma’s lap, or when Ellie flies off the steps to chase a squirrel. They haven’t told me who they say their blessings to, or if they believe in God or some other universal force, and I have no idea if there are words attached to the blessings they mutter to themselves all day long, but it makes them happy. I can see how meaningful it is to them, to acknowledge, with a sound or a smile or a stretch, how wonderful they feel when they smell chicken in the air, or when they scratch their backs on the rug. They are fully present in the moment and acknowledge their gratitude, but also their disappointment and grief, all at the same time. Taking that extra second to acknowledge it all seems to really work for them.

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“Aahhh.”

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Some blessings don’t need words.

 

I wonder if there is a collection of blessings that dogs have access to that helps them find the exact right thing to bless, because I could use something like that. But, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure they didn’t find any of their blessings in a prayer book. They just know what they are feeling, and feel free to say it to whoever might be listening. That seems like a good place to start.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

 

 

Reconstructing Judaism

 

My synagogue belongs to a small branch of Judaism called Reconstructionism. I think there are something like a hundred Reconstructionist congregations, and three hundred and fifty Reconstructionist rabbis, in North America, so it is a small, but not invisible movement. I’ve never quite considered myself a Reconstructionist Jew, though, the way some people identify as Modern Orthodox or Reform or Conservative. I’ve only belonged to this synagogue for six years now, so it’s more that I like my congregation in particular. I still just consider myself Jewish, without a specifier.

I like that the Reconstructionists emphasize that we can make our own choices, about what to believe and how to practice, instead of having to go to the rabbi for his or her dictum. I like that the Reconstructionist movement ordained one of the first female rabbis (way back when), and celebrated the first official bat mitzvah (even further back), two things that are now common place in liberal Judaism. But I get overwhelmed by the social activism, or Tikun Olam, that is emphasized daily at my synagogue. It’s hard to watch eighty year olds go on protest march after protest march and retain any sense of self-respect when I say that I can’t go, or don’t even want to.

I was not educated by Reconstructionists as a child. I went to a Conservative day school and sleep away camp, and then to a Modern Orthodox junior high and high school. Pressure came from every direction, to fit in, rather than to choose for myself or think for myself. And it took a long time for me to find a synagogue, as an adult, where I felt comfortable just as myself. I like that I can choose to get involved in the things that fit me, like Friday night services and discussions, and avoid the things that don’t fit me, like committees, or getting on a bus to Albany to try to convince politicians to change laws. And really, until they accept dogs on these marches and trips, why would Cricket ever let me go without her?

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“Don’t leave me!”

My graduate program in social work has a (very) activist bent as well, so I get a lot of pressure from certain teachers to pursue societal change, rather than to focus on individual people and hearing their stories (which is my favorite part of social work). The fact is, I don’t want to convince people of things; I want to know them, and I want them to know me. And if that changes something for each of us, so much the better.

All of this came up recently because a couple of speakers from the Reconstructionist movement came to speak to my congregation on a Friday night. I was hoping for some wisdom and inspiration, but instead they talked about branding, and the need for more resources from us (money and time, two things I don’t have). It was exhausting, and alienating, and I had to work very hard not to walk out. Cricket would have been barking her head off if she’d been invited to the service, which may explain why she, and her doggy cohort, was not invited.

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“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mommy. I’m a good girl.”

For legal reasons that I still don’t understand, the leadership of the Reconstructionist movement had to change its official name this year, and they came up with Reconstructing Judaism. One of the speakers told us, defensively (because they’ve heard a lot of pushback), that it’s a great name because it’s a verb and implies action. And I felt like she was saying that being a Reconstructionist is an activity rather than an identity.

We are Jew-ing instead of Jewish.

But, what if I’m not up to Jew-ing one day? What if I’m tired and need a nap, does that mean I lose my identity? I don’t want to be told that my belonging to a community depends on the activities other people want me to do; that’s the same kind of rigidity I experienced growing up with Orthodoxy, just with a new set of rituals.

So maybe I will just remain a Jew, without a specifier. The fact is, I don’t mind doing the daily work of reconstructing my own version of Judaism, at my own pace, and based on my own feelings and beliefs. I just don’t want to be told that we all want, and think, and do, the same things; or that we should, if we want to belong. That’s not reconstructing Judaism, that’s reconstructing me to fit into Judaism. And I’m not okay with that.

Cricket thinks it’s ridiculous too. No one tells Cricket who to be.

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“No one tells me what to do, Mommy. No one.”

The Music

 

I haven’t been going to synagogue as much this year. I try, but my internship hours keep me from events during the week, and I am so freaking exhausted by the end of the week that even if I can make it to Friday night services, I don’t have the energy to kibitz afterwards. As a result, I feel more like an outsider again. I’m not making connections the way I used to, and I’m missing out on a lot of things.

I don’t know what to do about this, except to hope that it will reverse next year, and I won’t have lost too much. Except that next year I’ll actually have to look for a job, and that’s terrifying and all-encompassing in itself.

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“NO!”

At least I can still get to services often enough to hear the music. Even on a random Friday night we now have congregant/musicians sitting in, and singing with the congregation does something to fix me. I can’t say I understand the process. Maybe it’s just that singing encourages me to breathe more deeply and settle down, but I think it’s more than that. Singing with other people, with the express purpose of feeling connected to community, and to history, and to myself, really seems to work for me.

The other night we had a full musical service, with guest musicians, including a new (to us) Israeli saxophonist/flautist. It was magical. The musicians are always good, but this was above and beyond in some way I can’t explain.

Music has always intrigued and confused me. Learning to play piano was frustrating and detail oriented, like learning calculus, or trying to press my feet into first position in ballet: there was nothing inspiring about it. The same went for guitar and voice lessons. And often the music I listen to on the radio has a similar pieced together feeling, like paint by numbers. It’s pleasant, but, eh. But then there are moments when a certain voice, or a certain instrument, captures some transcendent melodic moment, and I feel so much, and so transformed, and I have no idea how it happened.

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“Cricket is very relaxed, or sleeping, it’s hard to tell.”

Music also seems to bring out my contradictions, the deep darkness and the bright joys, with all of the knotted places in between. There is music that makes me angry and frustrated, or violently bored, and there is music that barely reaches me, and then there is this other level of joy. I don’t know where it exists in space, but it seems to take me somewhere else, where the rules of gravity and time and connection are completely different than they are here, in the everyday world.

It’s a relief that the music comes to me at synagogue, and I don’t have to go out to a new place to find it. The fact is, I know I like live music. I was entranced by a classical guitar player way back in college, but I only went to the tiny concert because it was required for school credit, and have never had the motivation to look for such a thing again. The fact that the music comes to me, in a place where I already feel (mostly) comfortable, is a blessing.

Now if only Cricket could come to services too. She’d love to join in with the band and add her own special sound. She’s also a pro at interpretive dance, and we don’t have much dancing at my synagogue, yet.

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The dancing doggy!

The Purpose of the Sukkah

 

I don’t have a Sukkah at my apartment building; not only because the co-op board would frown on it, but because I really don’t want to. I have a lot of grumpy “I refuse” moments when it comes to religious practices. I don’t want to bow or bend during services. I don’t want to kiss the Torah scroll when it is carried past me at synagogue. I don’t want to wear a Tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, even though many liberal Jewish women now wear them, and there are beautiful ones to choose from. And I don’t want to build a Sukkah and eat and pray in it for seven or eight days.

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This is a drawing of a Sukkah that I found on google images.

I didn’t roll my eyes or make snotty comments in the Sukkah at my synagogue during services for the first day of Sukkot. I sat amidst the greenery and decorations and prayed with everyone else. But I refused to borrow the Rabbis Lulav and Etrog (palm frond and other species, plus a large citron) to say the prayer and shake the Palm frond in every direction, like the Jewish version of a rain dance. I didn’t have a good intellectually-driven reason for skipping the ritual. My internal monologue sounded something like, “I don’t wanna! You can’t make me!” One woman suggested that I didn’t want to do it because it was a man’s ritual. (There’s something to be said for that, but not in the way she thought. The lulav has a phallic quality to it, especially with the Etrog – only one bulbous shape rather than two, but still – right next to it.) Someone else said that maybe I didn’t like the magical thinking of it (eh, I tend to be a fan of magical thinking).

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Not my Lulav and Etrog.

I’m not an expert on the religious significance of Sukkot – the seven or eight days when Jews are supposed to eat and pray in a hut-like temporary shelter, with greenery overhead, instead of a roof, so that you can see the sky and the stars. There are various points of view to choose from. There’s the historical significance: to remember when we were nomads in the desert. There’s a social action interpretation: sit in the temporary shelter and think about what life is like for those without a secure home. There’s a self-awareness angle: to force us to think about the ways that we are too protected in our daily lives, and separated from nature and the world around us. It goes on and on. Just ask your nearest rabbi, who has to come up with new sermons about the holiday every year.

I remember putting together our Sukkah as a child, with my father and brother, and getting my fingers stuck between two of the flattened pipes that my father used as the frame for the temporary building. I remember having to carry full dishes of food, to and from the house late at night, while my father sat at the table in the Sukkah on our front lawn, like a king.

There is so much baggage left in my Judaism; personal, crummy, anecdotal baggage that I don’t want to have to relive constantly. It’s a funny mix. I love going to shul. I love singing the prayers, and being with my community, and studying. I love just looking at the Hebrew letters in my prayer book, as if they are my old friends returning to me. But then I hit these bumps, like the Sukkah, or candle lighting, or kissing the Torah, and I trip over the invisible rubble in my mind.

I’ve been told that, next year, our synagogue will be inviting animals into the Sukkah for a visiting day, as they’ve done in the past. There will be dogs, of course, but also snakes and gerbils and parrots and on and on. Maybe, when I can bring Cricket and Butterfly with me, I won’t find the Sukkah quite as intimidating. Or maybe Cricket will think the plastic fruit on the walls were put there just for her delectation, and I’ll have a whole new set of horrible memories of Sukkot to carry with me in the future.

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Cricket is ready to go!

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She’s training herself, to see how much she can fit into her mouth at one time.

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Butterfly is practicing her facial expressions, for after Cricket misbehaves in public.

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This is her “I’m the cute one” face.

Yoga Shabbat

 

The junior Rabbi at my synagogue has been developing a yoga class for Saturday (Shabbat) mornings. She did her yoga teacher training last summer, and started the monthly classes last October. I was curious about what the class would be like, because I’d always been bothered by the feeling that, even in the most secular versions of yoga, there are remnants of the religious culture it comes from. The history of Jews being forced to convert or conform to the dominant religion of given societies is a big part of my discomfort. I see a lot to like in every other religion I’ve ever come across, but participating in another religion is a completely different thing. It feels like a co-opting of my Jewish soul, but more than that it feels disloyal, like you would feel if you were in love with one man and yet kissed someone else. Prayer, and yoga poses, are not just thoughts or feelings, they are actions, and they count.

My hope was that the rabbi had found a way to make yoga feel a little bit more at home with Judaism, or at least less at odds with it. But I put off going all year long. I told myself that the classes were too early in the morning, or that I would have to rush to get to therapy afterwards, or I just had too much school work to do. But really, the idea of sweating and stretching into strange positions in front of my fellow congregants brought up a lot of old fears. When I finally decided, no excuses, that I would go to the last session of the year, I spent the two days leading up to the class flooded with awful memories of gym class in elementary school, and ballet classes, in my ill-fitting gym clothes or mismatched leotard and tights.

But I fought through the anxiety, and went to the class anyway. I took a spot near the back of the room, up against a brick pillar, both to hide, if necessary, and to have a stable wall to lean against, just in case. I brought my own Pilates mat, which is a little bit more cushioned than a yoga mat, and has a few holes in it from the dogs. At home, yoga means trying to stretch while scratching Butterfly with my arm twisted behind my back, and tossing a tug toy for Cricket, while trying not to lose my balance. But at least they haven’t peed on the mat, recently.

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“This is my idea of good yoga, Mommy.”

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Cricket can’t talk here, but she agrees with Butterfly.

The rabbi started the session by summarizing the weekly Torah portion, and then she turned on her iPhone, attached it to a speaker, and played variations of the Saturday morning prayers as the background music for the class. She started us off with “Shalom breaths,” and then we did a lot of Sun Salutations and Downward Facing Dogs, with more advanced poses in the middle of each flow. I pushed myself a little too hard to keep up, because I’m not really up to an hour and fifteen minute yoga class, but I didn’t want to seem weak or lazy. I had to skip a bunch of the advanced poses, and come out of others early, and I ended up resting in child’s pose a lot of the time (though it still took me four days to recover from overdoing it). I missed having the dogs with me. Focusing on them takes some of the pressure off of the need to achieve something beyond my abilities. Having Butterfly with me, sniffing my hair or licking my arm, would have reminded me that it’s okay that I can only do what I can do.

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“Om, Om, I mean, Shalom, Shalom.”

But most importantly, the feeling that I was doing something wrong just by being in a Yoga class on Shabbat was still there. There is a school of thought among Orthodox Jews that yoga is avodah zarah, worship of foreign gods, which would be a big no-no. Some people say that if you avoid the mantras, and chanting, and skip the Sanskrit names for the poses, and maybe skip prayer pose entirely, that would make it okay. But the rabbi kept the Sanskrit names for the poses, and used prayer pose, which upset me. Child’s pose doesn’t bother me, even though it looks very much like a Muslim prayer pose, because I think of it so completely as a child’s protective pose, making myself safe like a turtle in a shell. But yoga’s prayer pose, palms together at chest level, feels so clearly like what it says it is; it forces you to breathe differently and focus your attention in a specific way and it is a very good physical representation of open-hearted supplication.

A lot of yoga is meant to put your body in a position to teach your mind something. Warrior pose is meant to activate not just physical strength, but emotional strength and resolve. Child’s pose is not only a rest from exercise, it is a self-protective break from being confident and open and visible. These emotional and physical experiences are meaningful to me and make sense to me, but I cannot find a reason other than prayerfulness and supplication for me to be in prayer pose, and that feels too much like praying to a foreign god, and being disloyal to my Jewishness.

There’s a lot of talk, both in yoga and in liberal Judaism, about “intention.” You need to be aware of your intention when you say a certain prayer, take a certain action, or do a particular pose, in order to make it meaningful. The assumption then, is that your intention is all that matters, rather than the intention of the original creators of the prayer, or pose, or series of rituals. But, if yoga is part of someone else’s religious culture, what right do I have to take it for myself and strip it of its history? Is it really okay to take yoga poses and imbue them with your own intentions, like flavoring your ice cream base with vanilla or chocolate or salted caramel? Religion, to me, is cultural history, communal ties, rituals and behaviors, and the stories of my people. If Yoga comes from Buddhism and Hinduism, is it fair to take it out of that context and try to imbue it with Jewish feeling? Is it even possible?

Maybe I should just ask Cricket and Butterfly to create some fresh poses for me, like: Begging-for-treats pose, which really strengthens your core; and Barking-at-strangers pose, which gets your anger flowing and makes you feel at least three times your original size.

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Begging-for-treats-pose.

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Barking-at-strangers pose.

That could work.

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Butterfly’s idea of a resting pose.

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Cricket’s version, on Grandma’s lap.

Sitting Shiva

 

In seventh grade, when I was still new to Orthodox Judaism, the general studies principal at my school lost his mother, and the students were bused, grade by grade, to visit him at his home, where he was sitting Shiva. After the funeral, in Jewish tradition, comes Shiva. Shiva means seven, and the idea is that, for seven days, the mourners remain at home and visitors come to them. Maybe seven days was the limit people could consider taking off from work. Maybe seven days was the limit before people became restless and overwhelmed. If you are very observant, there are countless rules to abide by during Shiva – no shaving, always wear a torn piece of clothing, cover mirrors, sit on lowered seats (boxes are specially made for this purpose), etc. Visitors come at pre-set times, to help make a minyan (ten people) for communal prayer.

It was frightening to imagine that we were supposed to offer comfort to the principal of the school, someone so much more grown up than we would ever be. It was scary just to think of him as someone who might need comfort. And yet, my memory of that day isn’t full of fear and darkness. Somehow, the ritual of the visit, the way we each wished him well as he sat on his low chair and he let us see him be sad, and crying, and smiling too, made the day feel full of light, though it could just be that we happened to be there at the right time of day, so that sunlight was shining in through the windows.

I’ve had to go to a number of funerals and Shiva visits in the past few years, as I’ve become more active in my synagogue and gotten to know the older members. When you make friends with 90-year-olds, funerals become more common occurrences.

A friend of mine lost her father over Passover. His death had been a long process, and in large part she had done her grieving and letting go over the last few years of his life, as she lost pieces of him to illness. The last thing to go was his conviction that he had to stay in order to take care of his wife; that commitment outlasted hunger, even the ability to swallow, by months.

Shiva had to be delayed until after Passover, and then only lasted one day because an unofficial mourning period had already been going on, with friends calling from all over the country for a week. There were so many people at her house that I didn’t know, and I felt out of place and uncool. But then, before the Mourner’s Kaddish, my friend read the eulogy she’d written for the funeral, and as she read it I felt like she was conjuring her father into the room. I could almost see him in the corner, with a bemused expression on his face, wearing his white doctor’s coat and his college tie, and complaining about the driver who cut in front of him on the expressway.

I think that the value of a ritual like Shiva is that it forces you to ask for the things you really need, but maybe don’t think you deserve. When I’m depressed, I lose most of my social skills. But for those seven days, the idea is, your rabbi and friends and family and neighbors are given a schedule for when they can interrupt your isolation. They have a clear mandate to visit you, and bring you food, and pray with you. This is one of the benefits of belonging to a synagogue; there are set practices and communication paths to go by, for everything related to a death in the family, if someone calls and asks what you need, you can tell them. I wish there were more of this for other life events.

There’s a rule that you can’t sit Shiva on Shabbat. If you are three days into Shiva and Friday night comes along, you change out of your mourning clothes and wash and dress and go to the synagogue to say the Mourner’s Kaddish with your community. Maybe the message is that happiness and community will be there waiting for you when you are ready for them, or maybe it’s to remind you that the grief will not last forever, because all around you are people who were in mourning at one time, and now they are singing the prayers and smiling at friends, and one day that will be you too. But I’m not sure if I could bear it, seeing other people’s lives going on all around me, seeing happiness.

Ideally I’d have a sleep over starting from the moment of loss. I’d have people in sleeping bags in every corner of the apartment to help me through every moment. But then I think, if my mom actually died, I wouldn’t be able to host people at all. I’d be curled up in a ball, with Cricket, under the couch. Butterfly would have to take care of both of us.

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Cricket hides under the couch, a lot.

 

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Butterfly is very good at offering comfort.

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But paperwork might be too much for her.

Just like there is no sanctioned way to do a Jewish funeral for a dog, or to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for a dog, there is certainly no Shiva for dogs. Right after my last dog, Dina, died, my mother had a long-scheduled trip and had to leave town for two weeks, so I was home alone with the death, in silence. I cleaned obsessively, and having that mindless physical task to do was helpful, but I think I would have liked it if my friends with dogs could have come over and filled the house with their voices, and their dogs’ voices. Maybe I could have offered up the last of Dina’s dog food as a ceremony, or given away the leftover pee pads. But, in the event, I didn’t know how to ask for company, or accept help when it was offered. Maybe if there’d been a set ritual to follow, I could have forced myself to follow it. It would have been such a relief, to tell my Dina stories, and share my grief, and have people all around me who cared that I had lost someone so important to me.

 

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My Dina

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Grandma’s pretty good at offering comfort too.