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The Month of Elul

            The last weekend in August marked the beginning of Elul, the Jewish month set aside for doing Teshuva, leading up to the Jewish high holidays. Teshuva means different things to different people, but basically translates as repentance, or returning to the path. You are supposed to take this time to look over your behavior from the past year and see where you went wrong, in your treatment of others, or of yourself, and warm up for the big communal repentance Olympics that is the high holidays. So it’s not a fun, happy time, and I just don’t have the energy for more self-flagellation right now.

“We’re all exhausted.”

            Intellectually, I see the value in a month of self-reflection and taking stock of our lives and what we’ve done wrong and could do better. But emotionally, and spiritually, it feels like I’m beating myself with a hammer after having already been beaten by ten hammers. At some point, being told to blame myself for all of the wrongs done within my community, and in the world at large, feels like overkill.

I would much rather have a month full of peace and kindness, and people telling me how wonderful I am. I want my dreams to be filled with cotton candy trees and happy puppies, but that’s not how it goes in my brain. Most likely I’ll continue to have nightmares accusing me of failing to save puppies and babies, and the trees will all be rotten and dying.

            One custom I don’t usually participate in leading up to the High Holidays, but maybe should, is the blowing of the shofar every weekday morning of the month of Elul. The idea is that the shofar, the ram’s horn that sounds like a dying ram calling out to its mother, is expected to wake you up from automatic pilot, the state where most of us spend most of our time. And the hope is, if you hear it a little bit each day, and build your awareness bit by bit, the long shofar calls and deep guilt work of the high holidays won’t feel so overwhelming.

            Each shofar, or ram’s horn, is distinct. It has been emptied out and polished, but it still retains the individual character of the animal who wore it. It can be small or big, with one curve or more, each twisted in its own unique way. Like us.

(Not my pictures)

Part of the power of the shofar, for me, is its imprecision. Whereas a musical instrument, like a trumpet, can make more beautiful and melodic sounds, the shofar captures something animal, something deeply human, that we often try to ignore. So we’re not just being woken up by a random loud sound, we are being reminded of our need to cry out for help, and reminded that we are supposed to cry out for help. Maybe listening to the shofar could remind me that repentance doesn’t always have to be about recognizing and correcting my flaws, instead it could be my reminder that needing other people, and asking for help, is a good thing.

“Help! They won’t let me drive the car!”

            And, maybe, just maybe, we’re being woken up out of automatic pilot in order to experience joy and hope more fully, instead of just being awake to what’s gone wrong.

But, still, what I really want for Elul this year is peace. I want to rest under my paw paw tree, in a cool breeze, with a pile of books, a sleeping dog or two, and a glass of ice cold chocolate milk. Is that so much to ask?

“We’re ready!”

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 Cardinal’s Song

We have a lot of birds in our backyard. There are the Baltimore Orioles and the Blue Jays and the Cowbirds and the Phoebes and the Starlings and these tiny little birds that seem like extra-large flies that crowd together in groups, and the Robins, and the Cardinals.

There was a Cardinal, back in the spring, whose song was like a Rosh Hashanah shofar blast – three long notes and nine short blasts, shvarim truah.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

This is someone else's picture of a shofar.

This is someone else’s picture of a shofar.

This is someone's picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

This is someone’s picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

The cardinal came before the heat and humidity, when I didn’t mind spending extra time outdoors, just to catch the end of a song or hear it repeated. We might as well call the backyard of the co-op a wild life preserve, given the feral cats, birds, raccoons, squirrels, and random humans who hang out back there. The retaining wall is a massive overgrown hill, full of various plantings and weeds and trees and flowers, and the birds have found plenty of places to live in there. Mom tossed out some quilting scraps to help them build their nests, and the fabric disappeared, so someone made use of it. It’s possible that the squirrels are fantastically well dressed this summer.

A local squirrel.

A local squirrel, not noticing me, yet.

Feral cat.

Feral cat, yawning.

When I went inside and reenacted a whistled version, Butterfly went nuts barking in response. It’s possible she was objecting to my rusty whistling technique, but maybe she understands bird, and I was singing a very offensive song.

Butterfly, offended.

Butterfly, offended.

My mom can pick out a few birds accurately by their songs, and what she’s not sure of, she can check with Google. (Google sounds like something a bird might say, after all, or it’s what Cricket says when she sees a bird and tries to run after it and her leash stops her.) But Mom had never heard a bird sound like a shofar before, and neither had Google.

Cricket, mid-google.

Cricket, mid-google.

The shofar blowing is supposed to be a wakeup call, or a call to arms, but at our synagogue it ends up being a competition between the shofar blowing guys for who can hold the long note (the tekiyah gedolah) the longest. By that point in the service, I’m starving and feeling faint and I wish they had just a bit less lung capacity so I could go home and go to sleep.

I’m not a fan of the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), which start the Jewish calendar each year with a heavy dose of guilt and atonement. They probably throw in the apples and honey because otherwise we’d all shoot ourselves halfway through. The services are longer than usual, the clothes are more formal, the rabbis actually give speeches, and the synagogue is full to bursting with people I’ve never seen before.

When I was a kid I resented that we couldn’t sit in our regular seats for the high holidays, because someone else was already there, someone I’d never seen before who should really not be allowed to sit in my seat. Instead, I ended up in the folding chairs in the way back, because we were always late.

I would much rather have a bird service and sit outside on the lawn, and listen to the birds talking to each other. I wouldn’t have to dress up for that, or even comb my hair, if I didn’t want to. I wonder what the bird calls would wake me up to, the way the shofar wakes us up to do penance or atone or forgive or ask for forgiveness. Maybe the bird calls would simply be there to remind me to sing to someone, or to speak my piece to someone who will listen? Wouldn’t that be a great idea for a holiday? Cricket would love that! But she would probably spend all day singing and forget to listen to anyone else.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Lately we’ve had the cricket and katydid chorus blasting at us each night in the backyard when we take the girls out for their final pee, and Cricket thinks that’s as it should be.