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Required Reading

 

In a recent New York Times article, Alice Walker was quoted as praising an author whose works are notoriously and outrageously anti-Semitic. First this brought up the question, Can you judge a person by what she reads? But, as a result of the publicity, many people went looking back at Alice Walker’s previous works, and found that she had her own history of anti-Semitic writings.

Prior to all of that, I had, of course, read The Color Purple as part of my American education, and the rabbi at my synagogue had used a number of Alice Walker’s poems in religious services over the years. Most likely we won’t be reading her work in our services from now on, but the question is, Should we continue to read her books, or any books by authors that disturb us? My own answer is yes, with the caveat that I always want the chance to speak out about those things that disturb me, or disturb others. I don’t want to shove everything that offends me into the back of a dark closet, where I can’t do anything about it.

But, I still find it very difficult to push myself to read, and watch, things that disturb me. Over the years, I’ve had to develop a way to manage that sort of difficult reading. I’ve put together a pile of books by my bedside that I read a little bit at a time, mixing together books that challenge me and books that I enjoy, as a brain cleanser, so that I don’t have to feel overwhelmed by other people’s points of view, at least when I don’t want to be. I’ve pushed myself to read all sorts of political tomes, including books about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and when the emotions (anger, frustration, confusion, and often fear), get to be too much, I just switch over to a chapter of something else, to balance the scales.

I’m in a bit of a quandary, though, now that my official schooling is over, to decide which books to put on my required reading pile. I know that I need to continue to challenge myself going forward, but in which particular areas? And exactly how challenging do these books need to be?

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“Can’t we just watch TV?”

 

As of now I have about twelve books on my reading pile, with another thirty on standby. I’m still plodding through Harry Potter in Hebrew, though I’m not sure why it’s so much harder for me to read than the Harry Potter books in French. It undermines my confidence in all of those years of Jewish education that I never learned the Hebrew word for magic wand. I’ve also been reading through the Hebrew bible, in Hebrew, for years now, a page at a time. Biblical Hebrew is even harder to understand than Harry Potter Hebrew.

 

When that gets too frustrating, I can move over to my Beginning Spanish Reader, though that has recently become too hard for me, and I had to go back fifty pages or so for remedial reading. And then there’s a Spanish vocabulary and phrase book for Social Workers, but most of that just flies over my head.

I’m also reading the review book for the social work licensing exam, slowly, because it’s so freaking tedious, and balancing that out by reading a book of essays by David Rakoff that is even funnier than I remembered. Then there are the psychology books, most recently on Addiction and Body Therapy and Non-Directive Play Therapy, which sometimes interest me and other times make me very angry, and then books on Jewish philosophy by Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others, which I don’t really understand. I’ve been trying to cushion that particular torment with a book of dog essays that I got as a present for my birthday.

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Ellie prefers being a dog to reading about them. Weird.

Oh, and I am very proud of myself for finally finishing Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. It only took me three and a half years. And as a reward for that effort I let myself add a book of memoir essays to the pile, by fellow blogger Sheila Morris, called Deep In The heart. Unfortunately I finished that one too quickly for my own good, and I will need to go and buy her new book to fill the void.

Of course I’m also reading mysteries, but they don’t go on the study pile; they get pride of place next to my writing notebooks, because I can read whole chapters of them at a time without wanting to scream at anyone. I take as much time as possible to revel in books by writers like Rhys Bowen, and Louise Penny, and Jacqueline Winspear, and Donna Andrews, and Ellen Crosby, and Charles Todd, and Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). And more recommendations are welcome!!!!

I’m not quite sure why I need to have such a tall pile of books to read at any given time, except that there are too many parts of my brain that need to be satisfied. Having a brain that likes to run in twenty directions at once is kind of inconvenient, but I don’t really want to go back to having someone else tell me what to read either. I’m sure Cricket would agree with me on the subject of reading autonomy, if she could read. As it stands, she finds all of my reading annoying, and time consuming, and she thinks I would much prefer sniffing individual blades of grass with her for hours at a time. At the very least, she would enjoy that more. Ellie would too, come to think of it. Though she’s more of a squirrel chaser than a grass sniffer.

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“This is the only grass I could find!”

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“There was a squirrel! I had to go!”

 

While we’re on the topic of required reading, if you haven’t had the 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 for the book, I’d be honored!

YG with Cricket

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, 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.

 

My Duolingo Addiction

 

I am addicted to Duolingo, the language learning app. I liked it well enough when I was using it on my desktop, but now that I have it on my smartphone, it’s my nightlight and my blanky all wrapped up in one. This could explain my recently developed wrist and hand pain, but I can’t give it up. I love the little trumpet bursts when I’m successful, and I love when a previously red or green circle turns gold, because I have (temporarily) mastered a skill. I do a little bit of Spanish, French, and Hebrew every day (who am I kidding, I do A LOT). I have to force myself not to add a fourth language to my training program (Italian? Russian? Yiddish? Do they even have Yiddish?).

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Cricket is, of course, fascinated.

It’s hard to know how much I’m really learning and how much I’m just punch drunk with the positive reinforcement. I was never much of a video game player as a kid. I tried Pac Man and Miss Pac Man and Frogger, but I never bothered to compete for high scores or move on to the more intense role playing games. But if I’d had a smartphone programmed with Duolingo and Typing Tutor (one of my old time favorites) and other learning games, I would have been a goner.

 

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I always identified more with the ghosts than with Pac Man.

I’m pretty sure Cricket is learning by osmosis, just hearing all of these languages pouring out of my phone. But if she’s mastering any of it, she’s keeping it close to the fur. So far her primary language remains barking, and no matter how long she tutors me in this complicated communication system, I still can’t seem to master it. Clearly she needs to create an app for that.

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Cricket could be reciting her theory of how to achieve peace on earth.  I’d never know.

My long term goal with Duolingo is to improve my language skills to the point where I can actually use them, with people, but for now, there’s something so calming and low stress about it. Especially compared to all of the other learning tasks I have at the moment. Read two hundred pages and distill it all down to two paragraphs with citations, by tomorrow! Observe a group, without taking notes, and then produce a verbatim account of two hours of dialogue, and don’t forget anything important!

            The more stressed I feel, the more time I want to spend doing Spanish exercises. I am at risk of getting to the point where there aren’t enough hours in the day, and I’ll have to decide what’s more important, getting my school work done or fueling my addiction. I’m sure I’ll come to the right decision when the time comes. Well, mostly sure.

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“Do the right thing, Mommy.”

 

I Finally got a Smartphone

 

In the midst of all the drama of this summer, my flip phone stopped holding a charge. I would leave it on the charger overnight, put it in my pocketbook, and take it out later in the day to make a call, and, nothing.

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“Woof?” (not my picture)

So, after years of resistance, I finally gave in and bought an iPhone. The flip phone was embarrassing, but as long as it did what it was supposed to do, I could live with the shame. But once it wouldn’t even do the one simple thing I asked it to do. Pfft. That relationship had to end.

I was still not excited about dealing with the new phone and all of the unknowns though, like: invisible fees building up, the potentially addictive aspect of smartphones, the hacking issues, the dropping-the-darned-thing-on-the-floor issues, etc.

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“Please Mommy, don’t make me get a smartphone.” (not my picture)

I forced myself to take a class at the Apple store and realized how quickly I could fall down the rabbit hole, as my instructor clearly had, in choosing ten different ring tones, and buying apps, and staring at my phone at all hours of the day, spending all of my money on its care and feeding. That scared me off for a few days, but then I decided to go at my own pace.

I learned how to type with one tenth of one finger, and I even sent a text, or at least answered one. I haven’t really switched from my regular camera to the camera on the phone, though, both because I don’t know how to upload pictures from the phone to the desktop, and because I don’t know how to take good pictures with the darn thing yet. I thought I would be listening to podcasts and audio books all the time, but that hasn’t happened yet. I can check the news whenever I want to (but this is more of a bug than a feature).

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There is not enough peanut butter in the world to make the news bearable.

One thing that I love about my iPhone is that I can do my language courses whenever I want to. I don’t have to sit at my desktop computer, in the living room (where the air conditioner doesn’t reach), and practice my French and Spanish. I’ve become addicted to Duolingo. I can even use Google Translate to help me read Harry Potter in Hebrew (paragraph by painstaking paragraph). And I found some videos on YouTube of songs from the animated movie Moana in Hebrew, and they work very nicely as a way to block out Cricket’s barking when she’s trying to make me do whatever it is she wants me to do.

I still think there should be an iPhone for Cricket, so that she can call Grandma anytime she wants to, like, from the kitchen. She’d probably abuse the privilege, it’s true. But, what if there could be brain games for dogs on the iPhone? Find the Kibble? Or Catch the Leaf? Or Dig out the weeds?! Cricket would be addicted in no time. She might even forget to bark, once or twice.

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I have also recently discovered the value of having a phone to stare at when you are sitting and waiting somewhere and don’t want to look like a doofus with nothing to do, even if that’s exactly what I am.

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“Why are you looking at me like that?”

I should probably take more classes to learn how to take better pictures with the phone, and decide which apps are worth buying, but I haven’t had the energy, or the will, to tackle it yet. But I am up practicing my French at one in the morning, so that has to count for something. And, I even made a few phone calls.

Learning Spanish

 

I have been trying to teach myself Spanish. As an aspiring social worker on Long Island, I have belatedly come to realize that knowing some Spanish would be a good idea. Of course, I have unreasonable expectations of myself. I expect to be fluent (by, say, next Fall), to the point where I won’t need a translator to help me understand a client who speaks no English, and I will be able to catch every nuance of the different variations of Spanish spoken by Mexicans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, and maybe I’ll pick up some Portuguese while I’m at it. The fact that I can barely say Hello and How are you, at this point, is irrelevant.

I’ve been using a basic Spanish language learning program through my local library, online, and I learn a few new words each day. Ayuda (Help!) looks like it will come in handy. The thing is, I love languages. I’m still trying to work on my French and Hebrew (since childhood) without much success, but with endless effort and enthusiasm. I am currently reading the Harry Potter books in French, and have a Hebrew copy en route.

There’s something wonderful about learning a new language. It gives you an automatic sympathy for the people who speak it that you may not have had any other way. There’s been great joy in discovering that I can pronounce a lot of Spanish words exactly as they are spelled (as opposed to French, where letters drop out without warning). I was thrilled, until Y’s and double L’s started to sound like G’s out of nowhere.

I have tried to practice my Spanish on the dogs, but they are not interested in learning a new language at this point. Cricket is used to some French (un, deux, trois, Jump!) and Butterfly doesn’t mind a few questions in broken Hebrew (Aypho ha kibble? Where is the kibble?) But there’s a limit to their tolerance for my insistence on learning every language but theirs. How have I not learned to woof, bark, arf, yip correctly after all this time? It’s obscene!

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Un, deux, trois…

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“Yum!”

Certain words seem to impress them more than others, though, like empanada, tres leches, and el queso. I think I must say the food words with a particular tone to my voice that marks them out as special. We are a family that is very food motivated.

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“Mmm, stairs taste good!”

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“Is it worth it?”

As I try to build my Spanish vocabulary, some phrases seem especially important, like: No Hablo Espanol (I do not speak Spanish), and No Comprendo (I don’t understand); and Lo siento (I am sorry) will also come in handy.

I was interested to see that To Write, in Spanish, is escribir. I guess it’s the same root as Scribe, but it makes me think of scribble. I love the idea of being a scribbler. It makes being a writer seem less stuffy and more playful. Then there’s una pregunta (a question), which makes me think of a pregnant woman, as if every question is filled with a sense of possibility and new birth, which it is, isn’t it?

Eventually, I will have to learn more grammar and sentence structure, but for now I’m satisfied with certain phrases that I can make use of right away: Como esta usted? (How are you?), Me llamo Rachel (My name is Rachel), tengo dos perros (I have two dogs), and Gracias (Thank you).

         

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“A bientot! Oops, wait that’s French.”