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Traveling around the world with BeamZ

            I don’t remember when the BeamZ ad first showed up on my Facebook feed. I’d been looking for Hebrew language courses some time before then, so my feed was filling up with Jewish-related ads, and this one advertised a free virtual tour of the Jewish Quarter in Paris. Free? Paris? I looked into it a bit to make sure it wasn’t just a scam to get my email address or something, and it seemed genuine, so I decided to try it out.

            Mom and I dutifully sat in front of the computer to see what would happen, and it was, a bit, underwhelming. It was raining in Paris that day, and the host was sort of hitting the end of his rope, telling us that he wasn’t making enough money to keep working as a tour guide and would need to rethink his line of work. His internet connection was also spotty, but there was something about the whole thing; something charming about being on a real time tour of a foreign city.

            The way the BeamZ platform works is that instead of asking for a flat fee up front, they ask viewers to pay a tip to the host if they like the tour. You can pay from two dollars up to twenty dollars (with five to seven recommended), and if you leave early, or feel like it was a waste of your time, you just don’t pay. The guilt for not paying is relieved by the fact that there are so many viewers of each tour at the same time. That arrangement meant that we could take the risk of signing up for more tours, knowing that if we didn’t like the host, or the connection was bad, we could just leave without owing any money or feeling any (or much) guilt.

            I continued to get e-mails from BeamZ, listing more possible tours, and I realized that this wasn’t only a Jewish-centric enterprise; there were tours from Quebec and Tokyo and Vietnam and Amsterdam and Scotland, too. We decided to sign up for another tour, this time to a Flea Market outside of Paris (because Mom is a big fan of flea markets) and that’s when we discovered Patrick. Patrick was relaxed and friendly and knowledgeable, and even though I’m not a flea market/antiques person, I still had a good time. Watching his tour, I started to understand how the platform could really work for a host who could build a following, because there were viewers on the tour who’d been with him week after week, and he kept adding more tours to his list – like a series on sacred places and another on famous Americans in Paris – and hundreds of people were showing up.

“A market for fleas?!”

            On our next Paris tour, Patrick took us to a popular foodie area and showed us the inside of his raspberry pate au choux and chocolate-covered macaron, and walked us through a kitchen supply store and a chocolatier. The immediacy of watching random Parisians walking down the street, some wearing masks and some not, with no one really aware of being filmed, or caring, made it feel like we were really there in Paris, except that I didn’t have to do the walking. And it only cost a few dollars for each of us, instead of having to pay for airline tickets and hotels and transportation. And each tour was only forty-five minutes long, so I didn’t have time to get (too) bored. It was like a little vacation in the middle of the day, and a chance to visit a place I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.

“Did you say food?”

            I tried a tour of Jewish Berlin by myself, but it felt too much like a history class, and a painful one, because we visited a Jewish cemetery in East Berlin that had been destroyed by the Nazis and remade as a memorial to Holocaust victims. There was a haunting sculpture depicting the people who’d been brought to the Jewish retirement home, in front of the cemetery, when it was made into a detention center for the Jews on their way to the death camps. I made it through the whole tour, and found it interesting, but I wasn’t up to the next three tours in the series.

            We tried a few other tours, to Venice and Quebec and Edinburgh and Loch Ness and Budapest, with mixed results, and then I signed us up for a Tokyo tour. Usually the television coverage of the Olympics is full of stories from the host country, and how the people live their lives, but because of Covid there were only a few overhead shots of Tokyo’s Olympic village, and I wanted more. Our guide, Eriko, walked us through a lotus filled pond – with a walkway running through it – and the lotus plants were as tall as she was! And then we visited a Shinto shrine, and a Buddhist temple, and then we went to a market under the train tracks where they sold pretty much everything, but especially seafood. And there was a candy stall at the end of the market that sold boxes of candy sushi, where you could put together your own little piece of sushi however you wanted! We even saw a pine tree bent by a bonsai master into the shape of a circle! It was placed in front of a Buddhist temple, so that if you looked through the circle you could see another Buddhist temple across the park. Eriko was lovely and seemed to enjoy the trip as much as we did, and we immediately signed up for another tour with her, this time to an area outside of Tokyo called Kamakura, where we could virtually sample Japanese street food.

“Sushi in a cup!”

            And then we went back to Patrick, for a second attempt at Paris’ Jewish Quarter, Le Marais. He told us from the beginning that this tour would be about the sweet and the sour; the memorials to the Holocaust, yes, but also the life of the Jewish quarter today.

            Le Marais means the swamp, because in the Middle Ages the streets in the area were flooded regularly, which is probably why the Jews were allowed to live there. The streets are still what they were in the middle ages, made of cobblestones with a channel down the middle for water to pass through. And there are plaques everywhere to commemorate the French Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. An especially painful one commemorates the 11,400 Jewish children collected in the Marais and sent to their deaths; one as young as 27 days old.

            One of the main streets of the Jewish Quarter is Rue Des Rosiers – the street of rosebushes – and it is filled with kosher restaurants and pastry shops and Jewish bookstores. Many Jewish people still live in the Marais today and it’s a lively place. I went to the Rue Des Rosiers as a teenager, but I didn’t really know what to look for back then, and I didn’t even get to try the food because I was struggling with a serious eating disorder at the time, so it was so nice to be back there, with Patrick and my virtual friends, in a very different state of mind.

I almost bought that hat when I was in Paris.
This was the best part of my Paris trip as a teenager. By far!

            Some of the streets in the area are set aside for pedestrians, but others have metal poles at regular intervals to prevent cars from ramming into people. Patrick acknowledged that there is still anti-Semitism in France, but he said that there is much more anti-Moslem sentiment among the French. When one woman asked about the number of Jews of color living in France, Patrick told us that French law forbids the counting of people by color, religion, or ethnicity, because of how the Nazis used those lists in the Holocaust, so any count would have to be approximate.

            The last stop on the tour was the Memorial de la Shoah – the Memorial of the Holocaust – which included a wall of names of the French Jews killed in the Shoah (in France they use the Hebrew word Shoah rather than Holocaust). In this memorial, there was a chimney-like installation, with the names of the death camps inscribed on it, and underneath they mixed together ashes from Auschwitz and earth from Israel, to both mark the horror and to provide some form of good burial for those who were murdered.

            The final moment of the tour was the wall of the righteous among nations, listing 3,800 non-Jewish French people determined by Yad Vashem to have helped save Jewish lives during the Shoah. Somehow the balance of the sour and the sweet on this tour was just right.

            There are more BeamZ tours of Prague, St. Petersburg, Glasgow, Lisbon, Barcelona, India, Vietnam, etc…and they’re adding more tours, and more countries, all the time. Covid be damned. My only real problem is deciding where to go next. I’m trying to remind myself that I don’t have to go everywhere right away, because there’s plenty of time to explore at my own pace, if only because Covid doesn’t seem to be going away.

            Cricket and Ellie tend to sleep through these tours, though every once in a while there’s a dog on the screen, barking in a completely different dialect, and they’ll perk up for a second and then go back to their naps. Maybe, one day, BeamZ will do a canine tour of Paris and the girls will be able to take part.

“We’re ready!”

            Until then, in case you’re interested in going on a virtual tour to visit the humans of the world with BeamZ, here’s the link: https://www.beamz.live/

“We’ll wait here.”

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?

Virtual Field Trips

            At the beginning of the Covid-19 shutdown, my Facebook page flooded with resources for students, including long lists of virtual field trips to zoos and aquariums and exotic locations. And then the adults, feeling left out. started posting pictures and videos of all of the places they wanted to go. And I couldn’t look away.

“What IS this show?”

            I never travel in real life, but, now that I can’t go anywhere, I spend a lot of my time wondering where I’d go if I could. I even saw a car commercial that encouraged people to take to the open road this summer, though my first thought was, I am not going into a gas station, in a town where no one knows me, wearing a bandana over my face. Even as a white woman, that just seemed like a stupid idea. And I haven’t seen that commercial again.

I think, for the most part, people who live in the United States aren’t going anywhere for a while. Instead, I’ve been taking virtual field trips. I’m on the second season of a murder mystery series set in France, where each episode highlights another picturesque French town I’ve never heard of. They pronounce “oui” as “way,” which is disconcerting, but the landscapes are breathtaking. There was a murder on an isolated island, steeped in fog, and a murder on the border with Spain, and a murder set between cliffs and caves, and a murder at the end of a long drive by the sea. I’ve also visited the beach in Sandhamn, for another mystery series, set in Sweden, and then there were murders in Masada, and Tel Aviv, and Tennessee. In order to solve fictional murders, I have vicariously climbed mountains and gone scuba diving and even tried line dancing and Flamenco.

“We could dance too.”

            There’s something extraordinary about the technology that allows us to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. There’s also something strangely comforting about a murder that can be solved, by someone else, in an hour and a half, with proof, and clear motives, and justice prevailing in the end.

            I’ve also been listening to a lot of Duolingo Spanish Podcasts lately (because I forgot I had subscribed two years ago and now there’s a pile of them on my phone). The varied accents and unfamiliar vocabulary of the stories are a challenge to my advanced beginner Spanish, but the host always steps in, just in time, with an explanation in English. Each podcast is set in a different part of the Spanish speaking world, like Cuba, or Mexico, or Columbia, or Madrid, or Los Angeles, and the narrators tell stories about becoming the first female skydiving teacher in South America, and learning to love your Afro-Latina hair, and building up a mescal factory in rural Mexico, and becoming a successful wheelchair tri-athlete, and on and on.

“Any stories about dogs and their nose-less birds?”

            I don’t think I would have found this much joy in my virtual field trips ten years ago; it would have overwhelmed me. I wouldn’t have known what to do with all of these lives that were nothing like mine, teaching lessons I didn’t feel ready to learn. But therapy has done a lot of work on my internal world. I feel like a construction worker, using my invisible tools to build invisible rooms in my head to store and organize all of my complicated feelings. I’ve learned a lot about pacing, and self-protection, so I’m not as easily flooded; and when a story or idea is more challenging than I can handle, I have plenty of internal shelves to store them on, for later.

            I’m still not at the point where I could manage actually traveling to any of these places in real life, but clearly I don’t have to. Another benefit of virtual field trips is that I don’t have to stockpile a month’s worth of medication from my local drugstore, or try to find someone willing to tolerate Cricket for an extended period of time. I don’t even have to worry about the weather, or a new wardrobe, because I can just wear my pajamas, and rest my head against my air-conditioner, and visit Bombay or Tokyo or Quebec or wherever I choose to go next. Coronavirus be damned.

“Can we go to the dog park?”

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?

Mindfulness Practice

 

A few weeks ago, when I ran out of monthly views on my Kanopy and Hoopla accounts (free streaming programs through my local library), I noticed that the Kanopy account allowed unlimited views of the Great Courses programs, beyond my five-views-a-month limit. I needed something to watch while I pushed through my daily thirty to forty-five minutes on the semi-recumbent bike, so I tried to watch a program about Diet and Nutrition, and then something else about Mystery Writing, and a third thing about Art Appreciation. I almost gave up at that point, because I was bored out of my mind, but then I saw that there was a course on Mindfulness. Mindfulness had been described to me as a Western form of meditation (A.K.A less difficult), and a way to help me feel more present in my body, and since one of my forever issues has been a feeling of separateness from my body, I thought I’d give it a try.

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“How could you be separate from your body, Mommy. That’s weird.”

Sometimes I feel like I’m on the ceiling watching my life from above, or I’m hiding in a tiny corner of my body, hunkered down. It’s one in a long line of dissociative trauma responses that I tend to take for granted. It’s a way of saying, so what, my body was attacked, but the real me is fine. But dissociation from the body can become habitual, because the body continues to hold the feelings and memories I’m trying so hard to avoid, and that feeling of separateness can become overwhelming.

I had just started a (very) small yoga practice again, one that carefully avoids over flexibility (because I have Ehlers Danlos – a connective tissue disorder – and can injure myself easily). I could only hold each pose for thirty seconds (at most), but I noticed that this short practice was helping me tolerate being present in my body for short periods of time, especially if I didn’t try to do all of the poses in a row. I thought the mindfulness exercises might be able to help me tolerate the Yoga poses a little bit longer, because I knew I wasn’t up to sitting still for traditional meditation for long periods of time. So I decided to start watching the Mindfulness program. I still felt tense and grumpy, though, and expected to bail out of the course at any moment and just surf YouTube for cartoons in Hebrew, or songs to teach my students.

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“You couldn’t find a video about dogs?”

I do my physical therapy exercises while I’m on the exercise bike, to stretch and strengthen my neck and shoulders, so I was able to focus half of my attention on my physical therapy exercises and only half on what the lady on the screen was saying. Blah blah blah mindfulness, blah blah blah, breathing. I don’t know what finally caught my attention and allowed me to keep watching, even after my physical therapy and breathing exercises were done and there was nothing else to distract me. Maybe it was the way she acknowledged that mindfulness doesn’t solve everything. Or that it’s hard to do and we are all imperfect. Maybe something she said made me remember how I’d felt standing in Mountain Pose for thirty seconds that morning, both antsy that I wasn’t accomplishing anything, and also sort of relieved to be able to stand and balance on my own two feet and not feel like I was about to fall over.

IMG_1384

“Eight feet make it much easier to balance.”

Not every episode of the Mindfulness course was great. I got annoyed when some of the instructors repeated old mantras like, “Always return to the present moment,” or “focus on the now,” as if there’s no legitimacy to focusing on the past, or planning for the future. And that’s nonsense. There’s so much to learn from the past – in fact, the past is where all of the information is. And there’s great value in planning for the future and having a clear idea of what you want and how you hope to behave, because then you can practice and prepare and not just react to what comes at you. And, really, sometimes the present moment just sucks, and there’s no shame in escaping from it in order to focus on something happier, or more productive.

But other instructors were better. And even if I didn’t exactly look forward to my daily half-hour or forty-five minutes with the mindfulness experts, I stuck with it (counting down the days to the end of the month when I would get to start over with five videos on Kanopy and five on Hoopla and not be stuck watching educational crap while I did my daily stint on the exercise bike). Learning how to be kind to myself is freaking hard, and even someone gently offering me the option of spending time with myself, without judging myself, can be healing in itself, but still hard to do.

When the new month started, of course, I went looking for less educational, more fun, shows to watch while I did my daily bike ride, but I found myself wandering back to the unfinished Mindfulness course, watching ten minutes here and fifteen minutes there. I still get tense and grumpy sometimes when I watch an episode, and my yoga practice is still very short, but maybe just the fact that I can stand in Mountain Pose and tolerate a few minutes of feeling present in my body, is a good step forward. And maybe, for now, that’s enough.

IMG_1334

“Probably not.”

 

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?

 

Watching Shul

 

Teddy, the miniature poodle, arrived at around three o’clock last Friday afternoon for his visit with us, with a duffle bag full of wee wee pads and special homemade food, and it was immediately clear that he and Cricket should not be left alone without supervision. So we decided to skip Friday night services at synagogue. I rely on those weekly services, though, for some comfort and sense of community, and we took advantage of the new streaming service that gives us access to Friday night services online. As we were searching for the link in a past email, I realized that, finally, this would be a way for Cricket to “go” to shul.

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Teddy, resting on the couch.

012

Cricket’s opinion about Teddy resting on the couch.

 

 

Watching services on the computer is not like going in person, but it was at least a connection, except that I kept worrying that the Rabbi and the Cantor could hear me talking through the computer, as if we were on skype. I’m very good about not talking too much during services, but at home, I’m a blabber mouth.

Teddy and Cricket sat with us on the couch, and we sang along with the Friday night prayers on the lap top. To be honest, the dogs didn’t seem especially interested. Cricket was stretched out on the floor at the foot of the couch, and Teddy was still pacing back and forth, to the front door, where he cried for his Mom, and then back to me at the couch, where he sought some comfort and attention, and then back to the door again.

010

“Where’s my Mommy?”

There were a bunch of teenagers at services that night, making faces, reaching around their parents’ backs to tap each other on the shoulder, and waving at friends across the aisle. Watching the congregation do the silent standing prayer (The Amidah) was a medley of fidgeting and whispering.

At some point, I started counting the rows and realized that everyone sitting in the first seven rows in the sanctuary was visible on screen. I usually sit at row six or seven, because I assumed that would be far enough back to be invisible. My self-consciousness immediately kicked in and I started wondering if people have been watching me at services, judging what I wear (a sweater and jeans usually), or my side to side shuckling (I have to shift from foot to foot when my back hurts), or noticing when I scratch my head or look for a tissue in my jacket pocket.

So now I know to sit at least eight rows back, no matter how many times the rabbi asks us to move forward.

The big problem with watching the streaming service, though, was that we couldn’t hear the discussion, or any of the poetry readings, because they were done without microphones. I could see the Rabbi doing his hand gestures, putting one idea or anther on a shelf for later, but I had no idea what he was talking about.

We decided to put the computer away for the night at that point, and see if we could distract Teddy from his grief with a walk outside. But even when we were watching Teddy follow Cricket from pee spot to pee spot, meticulously aiming so that his pee fell on the same exact spot Cricket had just peed on, I was still thinking about the streaming service.

 

The discussions are a big part of what I look forward to in Friday nights. The music makes me happy and comfortable, but the discussions force me to look at issues that I don’t ordinarily think about, because the rabbi reads a lot more newspapers than I do. Inevitably, even in the most unfamiliar areas of discussion, I realize that I have something to add. Something that no one else in the room is going to say. And over the years I have built up my willingness to raise my hand and say what I need to say. I’m worried, though, that now that I know I’m being watched on the computer, with no idea who the watchers are, I might be less willing to raise my hand. Even Cricket would be intimidated by that camera over her shoulder. She’s very outspoken at home, and with people she knows, but, as Teddy’s visit has shown us, she can be as uneasy with strangers as I am, and shut herself down in response.

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“What are you talking about, Mommy? I never shut up.”

Don’t worry. I’ll give a full rundown on Teddy’s visit next week, once I’ve had a chance to figure it all out. It will be a relief to be able to go back to shul in person, and sing and be with my community again, and not have to worry that my two favorite dogs are having a stare down over Cricket’s orthopedic doggy bed, or the last piece of chicken liver in Teddy’s bowl. But I will definitely miss Teddy when he leaves, and Cricket will miss his food.

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“Num num num num num….”

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“Chicken livers?”