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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.

The Shul Rat

 

I grew up going to synagogue (Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue) every week, starting when I was four years old. Mom would drop me and my brother off at junior congregation on Saturday mornings, and then pick us up an hour later to take us to our afternoon activities (gymnastics for me and computers for him). I liked that the service for the kids was only an hour and in a small sanctuary, and that the leader of the services was kind of a kid himself, in his early twenties and doing bible trivia with us and giving out candy for correct answers. There was something special about being there with only my brother and no parents around. It gave us a chance to take ownership of our Judaism, and our synagogue, and not have it be filtered through anyone else, or through a sense of duty.

I also liked that after services we could wander around the synagogue, until Mom got there, and it was like wandering through the White House without supervision. We’d sneak around and make it feel really mysterious and dramatic. The ceilings were high, and the setting was so formal, and everyone was quiet so as not to disturb the goings on in the main sanctuary. There was also something wonderful about having a community outside of my family, and a building to explore. My extended family was not next door, or down the block; we didn’t even have big family dinners more than once or twice a year, so the synagogue was my sense of family.

I liked the older people at shul. They weren’t always warm, but they paid attention and looked me in the eye. I felt like my best self there. At school I was a good student, but got teased constantly. At dance and gymnastics classes, I was barely keeping up and certainly not a star. At home…eh. But at shul, I mattered.

When I was seven, my father started to go to Saturday morning services regularly, and not long after that, my brother and I stopped going to afternoon activities and just stayed for the rest of the adult services with our father. The main sanctuary was a big deal. There was a high ceiling and stained glass windows, and tapestries on the walls, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. I liked the smell of the prayer books, and the hard covers, and the golden type on the cover. I liked that I knew who was a regular and who was new. I liked having a set seat that I went to every time. I loved when the Torah reader, the mother of one of my brother’s good friends, would sing harmonies, and I could sing along with her, and learn from her.

 

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My synagogue was not quite this grand, but I can dream.

For special occasions, like an engagement, bags of candy were made up and thrown onto the bima, and the kids ran up to get as much candy as they could reach. I never see this at my current synagogue. Maybe it’s been outlawed because someone could get hit, or someone could miss out on candy. Better to just have a table full of candy to choose from after the service, they think. Phooey.

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Bags of candy! (not my picture)

After my father got involved in the synagogue, we started to go to Friday night services, which were a formal affair. Kids came with their parents, and the cantor sang his complex loops of song, and everyone dressed up.  After the service there was a sit down oneg (dessert and talk) in the social hall. Tables were set up in a u-shape, and tea and desserts were set out. There were always non-dairy brownies with chocolate frosting, and I always ate off the frosting and left the brownies behind. Then the rabbi would hit his teacup with his spoon to start the discussion, and the kids would rush out just in the nick of time. The rabbi resented this, and forced his own children to stay put, but the other adults seemed to understand that kids could not sit through a long and boring discussion so late at night, when there was a whole building to explore.

Sometimes we’d end up sitting in the dark, in the far reaches of the building, looking through the toys left out by the preschoolers, or telling ghost stories. Other times, we made up elaborate games that required running through the building, and hiding under benches in the small sanctuary, and even sneaking up onto the bima in the main sanctuary to see what the rabbi kept in his lectern.

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“Are there toys at shul?”

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“Or pizza?”

I would have loved to bring Cricket and Butterfly to shul with me, to run through the halls of the building and play tag and have an excuse to laugh and jump and not be so self-conscious. But I never struggled to feel “spiritual” at shul, it was just there, in the building, in the occasion, in me. I wish every kid had a place like that, where God is infused into the walls of the building and doesn’t have to be spelled out; where history is just there all around you, waiting to be discovered.

Cricket would be more interested in searching for the left over bags of candy, but then I’m pretty sure God is in the candy too.

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“Candy?”

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“Candy!”

My Voice

My Voice

When I was little, I used to sing stories to myself. I would walk to the library, make up a story, and revise it over and over, all to some endless tune in my head. My mother loved that I would sing around the house, and she wanted me to sing more. It was her idea to find me a voice teacher when I was in eighth grade. She wanted me to know that my voice was worth taking seriously.

I was always singing, or shouting, it's hard to tell.

I was always singing, or shouting, it’s hard to tell.

My first voice teacher had an opera background, but she spent most of my lessons on vocal exercises and breathing exercises, teaching me how to breathe from my diaphragm, and stand up straight, and relax my shoulders. I’d never much liked practicing scales on the piano, but vocal exercises made more sense to me. She taught me to sing through the mask of my face, like a raccoon, and to change the shape of my mouth to make the consonants clear and the vowels more open.

My father insisted that we sing songs together after Friday night dinner, as a family. But, he didn’t believe in normal limitations, like that a baritone might struggle to hit a glass-shattering high note. He refused to choose a key that everyone, including him, would be comfortable with, and he didn’t care about the quality of the note when he was done with it. He could rip it and strangle it, and drown the note in coughing, but if he hit that note, even for a second, he’d won.

And he did not like competition. He didn’t want me to practice singing between voice lessons. He would complain that I was “caterwauling,” even if I practiced in my room with the door closed. He’d complain about the money Mom was spending on my lessons. And eventually, he made it clear that he believed in the ban on kol isha – the voice of a woman – that we’d learned at school. I could sing at home, but it would be unacceptable to allow my voice to be heard by men outside of the family. He believed that singing, for a woman, is a salacious, sexually provocative act, and if I do it, I am a whore.

Unfortunately, around the same time as I was getting used to my voice lessons, we had a guest speaker at my orthodox Jewish school. Only the girls were invited to the gym to listen to her. She performed for us first, doing her own version of beat boxing, using her mouth like a drum and her hands as tambourines. The things she could do, the sounds she could create with no musical instruments to back her up, were incredible. There was something like bird song about her voice, as if she was born with these songs in her body and she just had to release them. She wasn’t just hitting notes, she was putting spin on them, like a tennis player, top spin and back spin, hollow sounds and full sounds, cold and warm, shivery and strident, all from one voice. I wanted her to be my teacher.

After her performance, she told us that she’d been a voice student at a prestigious conservatory, training for a professional music career, when she started to visit Chabad (a Chasidic Jewish outreach group) on the weekends. She gradually became more and more religious, until it became clear that as a religious Jewish woman she could never sing in front of men. She’d pieced together a career as a speaker, and sold her music to strictly female audiences. Her message was clear: being religious comes first, before anything else you might want, or love, or need in life.

Her visit haunted me. I didn’t stop singing altogether, but I felt her hand tightening around my throat.

My black lab mix, Dina, came along when I was sixteen years old, and she was a singer too. You had to hit a certain note, something in the howl-range, and that would set her off. Her pitch was pretty good and she could sing a nice clear note or series of notes, but she didn’t seem to enjoy it. She seemed like a button had been pressed in her brain and she had to sing, and had no control over it, and no choice. She seemed relieved when the singing stopped, as if it had taken so much out of her and now she could rest in silence.

Dina as a puppy.

Dina as a puppy.

I took a few years off from trying to sing, until my last semester of college, when I had two credits to kill. I’d been feeling like a robot, detached from myself and my voice, and I hoped voice lessons would help unlock something. I didn’t have to perform in public; my lessons would be in a safe, partially soundproof room. I still couldn’t practice at home, though, so I’d sing in the car on the way to and from school.

This was my first male voice teacher, and he was closer to my age, and friendly, and an opera singer. Whenever he actually sang something I sort of cringed, though. I’m not an opera fan. The vocal quality they strive for is bombastic and brassy and kind of hurts my ears, but he was very nice. He had me singing from an opera workbook, in Italian. There was something freeing about singing in a language I didn’t understand.

I sang to Dina at home, but not too loud, and never in full voice, and gradually, the hand around my throat grew tighter and tighter, telling me to stop singing, and I did.

Dina had a lot to think about.

Dina was a very good listener.

When I think back to that girl singer, though, telling us that she had to give up her dreams in order to be a good girl, I wonder if I ignored something important. With her words, yes, she told us to hide ourselves from the world, but her body carried a different message. Her voice seemed to be saying that, if you have a bird trapped in your chest, flapping its wings and trying to sing its song, you have to let it sing, or it will die.

birdie