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End of the Synagogue School Year

            I need time to stop again. I keep needing time to stop; keep needing a chance to catch up with my life, because it’s running too far ahead of me.

“I’ll catch it for you, Mommy!”

            I’m looking forward to the end of the semester, and the beginning of summer vacation, because I need a break; but it’s sad that this will be the end of working with this particular group of kids, and probably this particular teacher’s aide, all of whom have had so much to teach me. There’s so much more I want them to learn, too.

            I feel pretty good about what my students have learned this year in Judaic Studies – both the ethical lessons from Leviticus and our virtual travels around the world to visit different communities of Jews throughout history. I keep finding more places and more eras where Jews have lived interesting and unexpected lives, and I love that I get to share all of this with the kids, and help them build a wider and deeper and more flexible idea of what it can mean to be Jewish. But their Hebrew needs work, and there are so many lessons I’ve had to cut from my lesson plans in favor of something else – a holiday, a musical event, etc. – and could never find time to add back in.

            But also, I get anxious before each class: worried I’ll leave something out, or miss something that’s going on with them. My expectations of what I should be able to do two afternoons a week, in eight or nine months, is out of whack with what’s truly possible, but still I always feel like I’m falling short.

“Did you just call me short?”

            Of course, part of my summer vacation will be spent revising lesson plans to see how I can fit more in, and teach things more effectively. I need to work on my ability to teach through games – especially games like Jeopardy, which my teacher’s aide did with the kids twice this year to spectacular effect. And I need to figure out how to repeat lessons more often, but in different ways, until the material really sticks, for most of them rather than just for some of them. And I want to revise my readings to better fit their current reading levels.

            But before I do that, I need a nap. And I need a chance to refocus on my own work and my own learning process and getting my own stories told. I tend to live in a state of high anxiety during the school year, and I need to transition out of that into something more sustainable that allows for more creativity and imagination.

“And you need to take your dogs for more walks.”

            But, I’m worried that my teenage teacher’s aide – a fourteen year old boy with the sense of responsibility of someone much older, and a really lively curiosity and comfort level with the kids, and of course, an endless supply of ideas for how to gamify learning and keep the kids on their toes – won’t come back next year; that he’ll go on to teach his own class, or leave the synagogue school completely in favor of brighter pastures, like, I don’t know, the school play, or an after school tech club, or starting his own business out of his parent’s garage. And I’m worried about all of the unknowns for next year – whether I’ll have a classroom of my own or stay in the cavernous social hall, whether I’ll have a teacher’s aide at all, and what new and unexpected challenges my next group of students will bring with them. And I’m excited that the kids from my first ever class are going into their B’nei Mitzvah year, and every other week I will get to see them coming into their own and claiming their Jewishness, surrounded by their friends and families. And I’m hopeful about our new educational director and all of the energy and ideas and collaborative spirit she will bring with her.

            But right now, I really need a nap. I need to rest and recover from all of the lessons I’ve learned over the past three years. I just need time to stop for a little while, so I can catch up with myself, and feel rested and ready for whatever comes next.

“Ah, nap time.”

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 of Rest

The defining story of the Jewish people is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The children of Israel were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, and when they finally escaped one of the first things they did (at Mount Sinai) was to proclaim that there would have to be a rest day every week. And, yes, the way the Hebrew Bible is written, it’s God who tells them what the Ten Commandments are, including the commandment to keep the Sabbath day as a day of rest, but even if we believe that it’s coming directly from God and not from the people themselves, the people had a choice, to embrace the new rules or forgo them, and they chose to take them on. Imagine what having a full day of rest every week would have meant to a people who had only known life as slaves? Setting aside a full day of rest meant that, for at least one day each week, their time and their priorities were their own. We think of a day of rest as a logical necessity, because of the body’s need for rest, but that day off also creates more space in our own minds, for our hopes and dreams and plans, instead of just thoughts related to work and getting by.

I like to think of Shabbat as a time to sit and listen carefully to those quiet voices inside of us, the ones we can barely hear during the busy work week, so that we can put ourselves back together and bring our full selves back with us into our daily lives. Shabbat is a chance to heal the wounds of the week, especially the times when we’ve pushed through, despite hunger or exhaustion or pain, and never bothered to apologize to ourselves for the harm done.

“How dare you!”

But even in the United States, where we supposedly have a five day work week, with two days off, many people still work on the weekends, or set that time aside for chores and errands. Maybe they go to a prayer service, or have a family dinner, but they don’t spend a full day (and certainly not two days) napping or reading or taking nature walks; instead, they spend the time ticking things off their to-do lists. I’ve found that most people find the idea of rest, especially for a whole day, uncomfortable. Which means that the ancient Israelites knew what they were up to; they knew that rest is essential to living a full life, and that we would have to be commanded to do it.

“You need to be commanded to nap? Humans are weird.”

But even with my deep appreciation for rest, I still don’t feel like I make enough use of Shabbat each week. Part of the problem is that creating a day of rest takes effort. Shabbat is supposed to be a mini holiday every week – a mini Chanukah or Christmas or Passover – and that means a lot of planning, and cooking, and inviting, and cleaning, and dressing up. It sounds crazy to say that I am too tired for Shabbat; too tired to rest. But I am too tired to create the right circumstances for my soul to rest and recharge, instead of just my body.

            Another block to making the most of Shabbat is that I don’t really feel like I deserve a special day of rest each week, given the amount of rest I need, and take, during the work week. I feel like I should be making up for all of that laziness by doing chores on the weekend.

            And then there’s the biggest block of all: my memories of celebrating Shabbat as a kid. Before my father became more religious, when I was four, five, six, and seven, Shabbat was a good day. My brother and I went to Junior Congregation – an hour of Bible trivia and songs and prayers with the rest of the kids and with one not-so-grown up adult – and then, if we could sneak into the Social Hall after the maintenance guys had set up the tables, we could steal brownies while the adults were busy praying in the big sanctuary. And then I’d go to gymnastics with my best friend, and then me and Mom and my brother would get meatball heroes from the tiny Italian sub shop on the way home. It was pretty great.

“Meatball heroes, yes. Bible trivia? Not so much.”

            But then my father became more religious, starting when I was about eight years old, and instead of meatball heroes and gymnastics, my brother and I went from Junior Congregation in the little sanctuary straight into the big sanctuary with the adults, and then to the Kiddish in the Social Hall, where the adults drank Slivovitz and ate gefilte fish and herring and talked for what seemed like hours. We were able to eat a few more brownies, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble. And when we finally got home, we weren’t allowed to watch TV for the rest of the day, or even get homework done. The boredom was mind numbing, except for the times when we played Trivial Pursuit as a family, which were brutal. At that point in my life, the best part of Shabbat was the end.

            I gave up on celebrating Shabbat entirely in my twenties, going to therapy and writing workshops and shopping trips on Saturdays, because it was easier to think of it as just another day than to wrestle with the fish hooks of the past, the memories that cut so deep into my skin that it’s hard to pull them out without damaging my internal organs. And even after joining our current synagogue, nine years ago, and consistently going to Friday night services each week, I still couldn’t find a comfortable way to bring Shabbat home with me.

            But I want to be able to find some peace each week. I want there to be a day set aside where I can put down my big bag of anxieties and truly rest and recharge. But while I know people who are good at dissociating from their feelings, who can even be specific in which of their feelings and memories to “put on a shelf” and out of their minds, for a time, I can’t do it. My internal shelves are not well constructed, so the nasty things keep falling back into consciousness, often in dreams or nightmares, or just in triggers throughout the day that I can’t control or ignore.

“The shelves are falling! The shelves are falling!”

So I’m left with all of my memories and emotions and internal conflicts, even on Shabbat, and no amount of challah, or grape juice, or matzah ball soup, seems to be able to overcome that. Except, if I look back at the beginning of this essay, the purpose for Shabbat that I came up with wasn’t to be happy and carefree, it was to take the time to put your whole self back together, to take ownership of your time, and your internal life, so that when you go back to your daily working life you can bring your whole self with you. Maybe, on those terms, I’m doing Shabbat pretty well after all. Maybe the real problem is that I expect my version of Shabbat to match what I’ve seen in other people’s homes. Maybe it’s not so much that I’m flawed and broken beyond repair, but that my expectations of myself just don’t fit me. And maybe, my goal for Shabbat each week should be to gradually change my expectations of myself until they match the person I actually am. Maybe if I can do that, some peace will follow.

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?         

Meditative Quilting

            My Mom is a quilter, and while I’ve followed her into crochet and knitting and even doll clothes and mending, at different times in my life, I have never wanted to learn how to quilt. Until recently.

            A few weeks ago, she took a Zoom workshop on a style of African quilting that was billed as “mindful, improvisational, and intuitive,” and my ears perked up. The class focused on how to make Kawandi quilts, made by the Siddi, an African ethnic group in India. Kawandi quilts are traditionally made out of worn out clothes, either from family and friends or bought in bulk at a used clothing market. The fabrics are usually bright and light, to bring some joy into the darkness, and the various pieces can be cut small, or left recognizable as clothing, with necklines or buttons or sleeves as part of the design. They are made using an applique technique, traditionally using a cotton sari as the quilt’s backing, with the pieces of fabric sewn on top, overlapping to different degrees, depending on how warm of a quilt they want to make.

The quilter starts to sew at one corner of the sari and works their way around, usually in a counter clockwise direction, fixing the patches in place with a running stitch that eventually covers the entire quilt. In this way, a quilt can become a document of the family’s history, and when the quilt begins to fall apart it can be mended with new patches of old clothing. The final step is to sew a folded square patch at each corner of the quilt, a multi-layered triangle called a phula, or flower. The phula serve no function, but are an important finishing touch to each quilt, so that the quilt won’t be left “naked.”

“Mom’s Kawandi-style quilt

            The math of quilting usually intimidates me; matching edges and hems and stitches, and dealing with sewing machines and patterns is too much for me. But the Kawandi quilts, at least as taught by Mom’s teacher, looked doable. I could choose my fabrics as I went along, without any need for the pieces to match in size or shape or color, and I could tack them onto a backing, instead of having to plan ahead and work according to a pattern.

“I suggest this fabric.”

            I especially liked that there would be no set artistic goal in mind, and no pressure to make things perfect. And yet, immediately I started thinking of ways to make it useful and productive, like maybe making quilt squares of the Hebrew letters so I could use them in my classes, as a sort of touch and feel, three-dimensional object to learn from.

“I can help!”

            The official Siddi quilts are much bigger than anything I would try to make, and they often include religious symbols and decorative flourishes in the middle that would be too advanced for me. I will leave it to the experts to make the kinds of beautiful quilts shown in exhibitions and sold for thousands of dollars. All I want is a small square to work on, a needle and thread, and some bright colored fabrics, so I can fall into the quilt and forget about everything else for a while.

from the Soulful Stitching exhibition on display at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College (photo by Celina Colby)
Another Kawandi Quilt from the Soulful Stitching exhibit (not my picture)

            I’m not good at sitting mediation: I get distracted and self-conscious and my mind fills with all of the worst images I can imagine. I’ve always done better with walking as meditation, or writing as meditation, and my hope is that quilting as meditation will be in that category. There’s something deeply satisfying about making something with my hands, and I will need a lot of stress relieving activities this summer, to help me recover from a year of hybrid teaching, so that I can, eventually, wind myself back up for whatever comes next.

“All quilts are mine.”

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?