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I want to be back in the classroom in September, not on Zoom

            The staff of the synagogue school where I work is spending the summer, just like every other school, planning for the unknown. We’re doing curriculum development and lesson planning, for every scenario, and we’re building our technical abilities, and looking for ways to re-interpret our current ways of teaching for a two dimensional world.

            But it sucks.

“Harrumph.”

            I mean, I’m grateful that we’re doing all of this preparation, so that it won’t feel like we’re being dropped into a sea of ice cold water, again. And I’m grateful that the technology exists, both to allow us to work together from afar all summer, and to build up our online classrooms into more interesting places. But I want to see my kids. I want to hear them; without one person’s microphone blocking out everyone else’s, or all of their voices coming at me through a delay, or some of the kids not coming through at all because their internet connections are spotty or because every member of their family is online at once. I want to be able to talk with one of my kids privately, if they seem upset, without everyone else noticing or listening in. I want to be able to make eye contact with the quiet kid in the corner who thinks he’s invisible.

“Can you see me, Mommy?”

            Zoom, even with all of the bells and whistles, and integration with other apps and games and videos, is not the real world. I miss being able to talk to my students and forget what I look like, or what I’m wearing, or how silly I look when I’m trying to dance. I miss seeing all of the other kids in the hallways, and catching the eye of another teacher as we silently ask each other “are you okay?” And I miss being able to shut the door of my car at the end of the day and feel the transition from work to home starting to sink in.

“Be quiet. I’m sleeping.”

            But I really miss being able to close the door of my classroom and knowing that it’s just me and the kids for a while, with no one looking over our shoulders, or recording our conversations, or judging each move we make or each word we say.

            It’s not that my classroom is so awful that it can’t withstand the scrutiny (I hope), but there’s something intimidating about having so many virtual doors and windows open at all times, and not knowing who’s listening in or watching from two feet out of camera range.

“Is somebody watching me?”

            Zoom is so public.

            We had a Zoom class just before Mother’s Day, and I was helping the kids create blessings for their mothers (and fathers, since school was going to end before Father’s Day), and one of the kids started miming at the screen, and then messaged me privately that she couldn’t answer with her mom in the room. Up until that second I had no idea that her mother had been there, just out of range, for the previous forty-five minutes.

            I can be silly with kids in a way I can’t with adults, at least adults I don’t know. I can play the role of the-one-who-knows-things with the kids, whereas with other adults around I’d be more self-conscious, recalibrating each time a new person came in. Just like I would feel different, and probably act differently, with my boss in the room.

I’m the boss.”

            And the kids are different too.

            A lot of the things the kids would have said in the classroom could barely even be thought when they were at home; not because they were unsafe at home (though I don’t know), but because they are different people at home than at synagogue school, and they are much more aware of being overheard, and of being their home-selves; being the big sister, or the good kid, or the chatterbox they are presumed to be when they are at home.

            In the classroom they can try on new behaviors, and say things they wouldn’t say with an audience. At home, even with Mom and Dad in a separate room, their internal censors are on and they are much more careful.

            I don’t really care if I ever step into a shopping mall again, and while I miss movie theaters, I actually like the variety and control and cost of streaming better. I do miss going to synagogue in person, but the alternate-universe-Zoom-synagogue has been a pretty good substitute. But, I miss my classroom, and my kids.

            And it sucks.

“Harrumph.”

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?

Cricket’s Bat Mitzvah

            Cricket will turn thirteen later this summer, and I have been wondering how best to mark this monumental birthday. For humans of the Jewish persuasion, thirteen means it’s time for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, to mark the onset of adolescence (Orthodox Jewish girls may have a Bat Mitzvah at age twelve instead). But, what about for a Jewish dog?

Cricket at (almost) thirteen

To be honest, thirteen seems too young for a transition into adulthood, at least for humans. A hundred years ago, kids might have left school at thirteen and gone out to work, but now that’s not even legal, and certainly not practical. But we’ve kept the Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations at the onset of puberty, or thereabouts, because…tradition. And because it would be impossible to convince kids to stay in Hebrew school for even more years before they can have their big party.

But dogs, even Jewish dogs, are a different story. If anything, the age of thirteen would mark old age, rather than the first steps into adulthood. And a lot of dogs don’t make it to thirteen, especially the larger breeds. I don’t understand how a religion that has rituals for almost everything, has missed the opportunity to designate lifecycle events for our pets, so I’m stuck with this somewhat inappropriate and misleading event that has come to be called, at least on social media, the Bark Mitzvah.

“Is that a celebration of barking?!”

            When we first brought Cricket home, twelve and three-quarter years ago, I looked up Cockapoos on an aging chart and it said she could live eighteen to twenty years. Dina, my Labrador mix, had lived a miraculous sixteen years, twice as long as the Doberman who had preceded her. But twenty? That’s more like a cat!

“Hey! I’m not a cat!”

At almost thirteen, Cricket is showing signs of aging, with a little cloudiness in her eyes and a habit of hearing things that aren’t there, and a tiny bit of slowing down (though not much). But she has amassed an enormous amount of knowledge in her thirteen years, and many useful skills: she can beg, and guilt, and manipulate; she can bully and wheedle and whine; she can love and cuddle and sniff like a scientist; she could have been a gardener or an archeologist or a detective very easily, if we lived in a world that allowed dogs to go to school, and she has always been the de-facto Sherriff at our home. She has also been a surprisingly effective big sister, to Butterfly, and now to Ellie, who both needed mentoring in how to be dogs after growing up under less than ideal conditions as breeding mamas. Cricket has even learned how to offer comfort, rather than just to receive it, and can, on very rare occasions, even share food with her loved ones (though she would rather not).

“Cricket never shares food. Never.”

            There’s no escaping that thirteen is old age for a dog, but maybe that’s what we could celebrate with Cricket’s Bat Mitzvah. She has accomplished an enormous amount and now she is graduating into the last third of her life; finally becoming the wise old crone she has always wanted to be.

“I am very wise, it’s true.”

I don’t think Cricket is prepared for the rigors of a traditional Bat Mitzvah, though. She understands quite a few words in Hebrew, but she has trouble with articulation, and her sense of melody is iffy (though she is, at this very moment, singing the song of her people. I think I can make out the words “chicken” and “I want”). And, really, no one with any sense would ever let Cricket into the sanctuary or anywhere near a Sefer Torah (the holy scroll, kept in the sanctuary, that Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids dread having to read from at their services). But that actually works out well this year, since all of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah services at my synagogue are being streamed, while we can’t attend in person. Maybe Cricket’s Bat Mitzvah could be in our backyard, with the support of the big Paw Paw tree (also turning thirteen this year, coincidentally). They could have a service of their own, to mark their individual, and complex, journeys to their current stages of life. A very short service.

“Grandma, how did Mister Paw Paw get so much taller than me? Rude.”

            The fact is, Cricket could care less about having a Bat Mitzvah to celebrate her accomplishments, and her quirks, or to set a hopeful tone as she marches into her senior years. She just wants the food. So I will have to stock up on chicken treats and liver and all of the other good stuff she loves to eat. In moderation, of course, because I want her senior years to last a very long time.

“Did you say food?”

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?

What’s Next?

            There are so many trainings advertised on Facebook, for online teaching and social work, and I keep thinking I should sign up for all of them, but I don’t want to, and I feel guilty about it. I want to work on my own writing, but my brain can’t shift out of work mode, or job search mode, or Rachel-isn’t-trying-hard-enough mode. It doesn’t help that I’ve been hit by another wave of inflammation and exhaustion and can’t stay awake long enough to finish a thought.

I’m expecting stay-at-home rules to last longer in New York than elsewhere, especially in the areas closest to Manhattan, like Long Island, where I live. Even when we start to open up a little bit, schools will still be closed, and crowds will still be forbidden. I keep hearing that we’re supposed to get tested, but I don’t know if that includes me, or if I’d need a prescription from my doctor, or an appointment, or specific symptoms. I’ve been trying to figure out Governor Cuomo’s system of regions and parameters and how that relates to what’s happening in other states, but it’s not computing.

            I’m really not looking forward to wearing masks and gloves in the heat of the summer, or the inevitable power outages when everyone is at home on Zoom and using their air conditioners all day. And I’m afraid that my doctors will decide to reopen their offices soon. I don’t want to go to the dentist. I don’t want to go to the dermatologist. I don’t want to go to the cardiologist or the oral pathologist or the general practitioner for tests. Skipping non-essential doctor visits for the past two months has been one of the perks of the shutdown for me. Maybe I can hide under the couch with Cricket when they start to call.

“No room.”

            We finally ordered take out for the first time in two months (for Mother’s Day), and I had to put on my mask and gloves and walk around the corner to the Italian place, which has remained open all along. They were all set up for social distancing, with a table at the door to keep customers outside, and everyone on staff wearing gloves and masks. But there was a lot of staff, and I was preoccupied with details, like the hole in one man’s glove, and the workers brushing shoulders behind the counter. I forgot to get the receipt as I took the bag of food and ran away. It was such a relief to get back home and into my pajamas again.

            Usually, for Mother’s Day, we would have gone to a gardening store to pick out Mom’s new plants for the season, but with the cold spell, and the expected crowds of Mother’s Day shoppers, we delayed the trip. Mom threatened to race out to the gardening store as soon as the weather improved, but, Thank God, she didn’t do it. I keep picturing huge globs of coronavirus rolling down the street, like a bowling ball looking for pins to knock down, and I don’t want Mom knocked down.

            One bright spot is that my big Paw Paw tree (the lone survivor, at thirteen years of age) has started to blossom. We probably won’t have fruit this year, because you need two trees for cross pollination, and the gardener has been lackadaisical about replacing the tree he cut down. He ignored Mom’s suggestions for where to buy a sapling, maybe because he assumes all of his suppliers are awash in young Paw Paw trees. If he ever follows through on his promise to replace the tree he killed, chances are high that he will mistake a Papaya for a Paw Paw, or just fill the space with whatever fruit tree he can buy off the back of a truck. But in the meantime, my tree is leafing and flowering, and that makes me happy.

Paw Paw flowers

We’ve been having a lot of zoomed Ritual Committee meetings at my synagogue recently, to discuss what we’re going to do for the High Holidays, in mid-September. Even if we are allowed to go back to the synagogue building by then, will we really be ready to stuff hundreds of people into the sanctuary at one time? Will we go to services in protective equipment and sit six feet apart? Could we have services outdoors? In a tent? A really, really big tent?

            In the meantime, the choir is preparing to sing a few the songs from home, in case singing in person remains impossible. I did my first video this week, listening to the piano and the Cantor on earphones while singing to the computer screen. It took a lot of willpower not to look down at the music, but Mom insisted that I had to look up, and smile.

“Smile like this, Mommy!”

            I’m taking each next step, but I still don’t feel like I’m back on track, or managing my life very well. It’s not that I want to get a haircut, or go to the beach or the mall; I just want to go to a supermarket with full shelves. And I really want to stop feeling like I’m forgetting something important. Did I lock the car? Did I leave a sock in the dryer? Did I touch my face?!!!!!

            Actually, I think what needs to come next for me is rest, so that I can begin to approach the next set of challenges with some energy and motivation, instead of dragging myself along like an English bulldog forced to walk around the block. I really need a nap; or twelve.

“Bed’s taken. Too bad.”

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?

Emotional Contagion

There are no bombs falling, no explosions or fireworks. The world looks pretty nice, actually, and everyone I can see looks healthy, even with the face masks. There are no workers in Tyvek suits walking the streets spraying for errant Coronavirus droplets. At least, not yet. So, while doing the right thing, and staying home, I feel a bit silly. It’s hard to trust the experts on television instead of what I see with my own eyes. The President clearly struggles with this, too, but those images from Italy and Spain are hard to ignore (the horror stories on Facebook, about monkeys in Thailand starving for the bananas they used to get from tourists, and pets in China dying while their people went into quarantine, and dogs being euthanized because people believe – incorrectly! – that pets can spread the disease, are too much for me to take in).

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“People suck.”

I’m also feeling guilty because my life has not been disrupted as much as the lives of other people. And I feel guilty for being so comfortable with this social distancing thing, and I worry that I will revert to my old levels of isolation and not be able to get back out of it once the threat of infection is over.

Mom was getting cabin fever every day for the first week of the shut down, and looking for any excuse to go out and do “essential” errands, but by the second week she started to settle in and feel the pressure to stay home (from me, mostly). Now, she’s focusing her excess energy on gardening, and sewing, and sitting in on Zoom sessions at Noon each day with the clergy from our synagogue. Her biggest source of anxiety is my brother, who is an emergency room doctor. He’s been downplaying the risks he’s under, but at least he’s been in touch and letting Mom know that he’s still okay.

The more pressing contagion, for me, is being created on social media. There’s this idea that we should be making the most of our time at home, by writing novels, and learning ten languages, and reading hundreds of books, and virtually visiting all of the museums in the world. I don’t know how parents are managing the pressure to homeschool their kids, with every kind of free and not-free educational resource being advertised everywhere, with the implication that if their kids don’t do three years’ worth of school over the next three weeks they will fail life forever. Earn a Ph.D.! Build a robot! Learn how to make a Coronavirus vaccine in your own basement!

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“I won’t be doing that, Mommy.”

I think people might be overestimating how productive this time at home can be.

The instinct for community seems to be strengthening though, even at my synagogue, where we are all about community building, all the time. This crisis has brought out even more awareness that we need each other; that we need to see each other. And it’s so important to us that we’re all learning how to manage Zoom – though a lot of the seniors forget to mute themselves, so while we’re trying to listen to the rabbi’s lesson on census taking leading to plagues in the ancient world, we’re listening to couples arguing about toast, or answering their phones. Sometimes I’m not sure they know they’re on screen, let alone audible.

Ellie and Cricket have been able to go to all kinds of synagogue services and committee meetings and Judaic classes now that synagogue is online, but they’re not sure what to make of it. Zoom, especially, seems to unnerve them.

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“I am never unnerved. I am completely nerved.”

We’re posting our synagogue school lessons on the website instead of doing Zoom conferences with the kids, though the idea of being able to mute my students at will is certainly tempting. I didn’t realize how much I missed my students until a parent sent me a picture of her daughter holding up her class assignment. The sudden thought that I may not get a chance to see them again this year almost broke me.

Another issue during the shutdown has been the disorientation. Reality keeps changing every five minutes, after a phone call or a press conference, and I can’t process it fast enough. All I can do is eat my popcorn (I’m on a new version of Weight Watchers that allows unlimited air-popped popcorn) and watch the news. I’ve been listening to a lot of music too (Yo-Yo Ma is an incredible comfort).

The supermarket has been the most obvious sign of the apocalypse, with empty shelves where eggs and yogurt and chicken and pasta and frozen vegetables used to be. When did Almond milk become such a popular commodity? And frozen spinach? And oatmeal? The toilet paper thing has been disconcerting to everyone. I thought it was just a Facebook joke until I went to my local supermarket for my first Coronavirus-shutdown-shopping trip and saw the empty shelves between the tissues and the paper towels for myself. People are weird.

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There’s some relief to being in a shutdown, as opposed to the state of confusion we were in for the weeks leading up to it, when we were getting mixed messages from the President and the doctors and the news and social media; the constantly changing research about who would be impacted, and which measures could work to slow it down, didn’t help either. It’s a relief to at least know what’s expected of me now, though I still worry that people are looking at me funny when I go to the supermarket without a face mask (where are people getting all of these face masks?!).

Most of the time I feel okay, and prepared, but then someone will say something that makes me worry that I’m not thinking far enough ahead, and the worst is yet to come, and people I know will die, and food will run out, and the financial hardships will last for years in the aftermath of all of this. People are really good at creating disaster scenarios that I’d never have thought of on my own.

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I’m worried for my brother and his kids. I’m worried for the elderly people in my life who are so vulnerable and so important to me. I’m worried about the impact the stockmarket will have on Mom’s retirement fund (an important source of income for our household). And I’m worried for myself, which seems selfish and petty when other people are in so much more danger. And I feel guilty, all the time, for all of my good fortune, and so terrified that it will go away.

I’m still angry that we didn’t get out ahead of this in January, when news from Wuhan, China was so devastating. And I’m angry that we didn’t have testing in place when other countries did, which meant that the virus was able to spread undetected for weeks, or months. I want to feel peaceful and Zen and accepting of my fate, and sometimes I do, but sometimes I really don’t. And it sucks.

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Acceptance is a myth, Mommy.”

My rabbi, who is hyper-rational and proud of it, was brought to tears seeing all of us on Zoom for his class about the concept of the Death of God after the Holocaust, because he does believe, as I do, in the I and Thou of God, the extraordinary Godness of community and togetherness, and how sitting in our separate homes we are still able to come together and learn.

Here’s hoping that as time passes, and the virus passes, we can catch joy and meaning from each other as easily as we catch fear. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?!

Fingers crossed (from at least six feet away).

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Or closer.

 

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 Passover Blessings Workshop

 

Before the shutdown of all life as we know, I ran another blessings writing workshop at my synagogue, and the rabbi asked me to focus on blessings for the Passover season this time. In the first blessings workshop, I had focused on the basic purpose of blessings, and the possibility that we can create our own blessings to fit our unique perspectives, or tweak existing blessings to adapt them to what we really feel, and what we aspire to. And the workshop went really well. At least, I enjoyed it.

Even though most Passover Seders will be tiny, or run on Zoom, this year, I hope some of these ideas will be helpful, for anyone, Jew or Non-Jew, who needs a little help finding blessings at this point in our lives.

The rabbi had mentioned the possibility of this second workshop while I was running the first one, so while everyone else was free-writing ideas for how to refer to their idea of God, and how to include the bad with the good to create a fuller picture of the blessings in their lives, I was trying to figure out what a Passover blessing might be.

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“We were wondering the same thing.”

Passover is a big holiday for Jews. It commemorates the central event that shaped us as a people, the Exodus from Egypt. The simple goal of the Passover Seder is to remind us that we were slaves once, and that we were freed from slavery (by God, if you believe in God), so, we should be grateful for what we have, and help others to freedom whenever we can. But most people only go to one Seder, instead of the two required of Jews who don’t live in Israel, and they go back to school or work for the rest of the week of Passover, so there’s really not much time to get these messages across and really absorb them. Add to that the fact that Passover, like American Thanksgiving, is a family holiday, where family members who agree on nothing choose to sit at the same table for hours at a time. It’s an opportunity to learn and grow, but a tense one.

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“Do I look tense to you?”

I wanted to create an opportunity for people to plan their Passover season ahead of time, and shape it consciously to fit the lessons they would like to learn, and to teach, this year. There are, of course, all kinds of traditional blessings that already exist for Passover. The first one I wanted to work with is the blessing over the search for Chametz (unleavened bread). You say this after you’ve already cleaned the house from top to bottom, and changed the dishes and utensils, and thrown out, or sold, all of the Chametz left in your house. In elementary school they gave us kits for the special night-before-Passover-Chametz-searching-ritual; with a feather, a candle, and a wooden spoon. After all of the bread had been removed from the house, we had to turn off the lights and place a few saved-for-this-purpose crumbs on the floor to “find” and then burn, while saying the blessing. Our dog found this terrifying every year.

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“Nobody likes the dark. It’s not just me.”

I don’t do this ritual anymore, and I’m inconsistent about removing the Chametz from the apartment, or my diet, at all, for Passover week. But I still wanted something meaningful to come from this Chametz idea, so the first category was: Blessings over the search for Chametz, both literally and figuratively. Maybe, when I am vacuuming under the couch during the big house cleaning, or trying to crawl under the bed to see if my dogs have left a Chametz-laden treat hidden in the dark, I could say a blessing of gratitude for their ingenuity. Or when I find things I’ve lost I can say, I am grateful that among the Chametz I have been able to find lost treasures.

And, if I decided not to do the whole cleaning ritual, maybe instead I could focus on cleaning out my heart and mind, and I could say, Thank you for creating such a fascinating brain, with so many crevices and crawl spaces, so that I will always be surprised by something I find there.

We had a small group for the Passover blessings workshop, but everyone participated and had their own associations to the concept of Chametz and the need to clean something in their life. It was interesting to go back to teaching adults, after the chaos and immediacy of teaching children. The adults who showed up were excited and engaged and willing to share their thoughts, and I didn’t even have to bribe them with candy!

My next category of blessings was inspired by the idea that, just like the search-for-Chametz ritual, with feather, candle and wooden spoon, was made up by someone, our own families have come up with rituals over the years that are just as meaningful, to us. I was kind of hoping that the workshop participants would use this prompt to give me ideas for things to try this year, and someone mentioned that he planned to look through his old family photos, and bring them to the family Seder, so that past celebrations and lost loved ones could be present again, and introduced to the next generation. I thought that was a great idea to steal, because we still have a box filled with old photo albums from my grandmother, via my aunt’s basement, that need to be scanned into an archive before the last relatives who could identify those faces are gone.

My third category was Blessings over asking and hearing challenging questions, even if they are unanswerable. People usually resent unanswerable questions, or fail to ask them because they don’t want to bother anyone. But what if we could take a moment to bless those questions for their un-answerability, and for the challenge they pose to our equilibrium. Maybe we could even offer a blessing of forgiveness for not having all of the answers. This was, predictably, a rich vein for me, and I filled up a page with my messy handwriting. Thank you, God, for listening to my questions and requiring no answers; thank you God for this opportunity to face the unknowable without feeling hopeless.

Category four was the hardest one for me, and therefore essential to include: Blessings over accepting the things that are good enough for now. There is so much in life that is disappointing, and even more so on family holidays like Passover when we’re expected to feel joy and love and maybe we don’t, or, I don’t. But this is an opportunity to take a breath and say, I don’t yet have what I want, and it hurts, but maybe soon things will change, and until then I will be okay. This topic actually made me think about the little things that I wanted to celebrate, like a blessing over eating the first chocolate-covered jell rings of the season, and a blessing over choosing to pass by the cans of macaroons in the Passover section of the supermarket without buying any. I really hate those coconut macaroons. But these blessings also made me think that maybe I’m not the only one who feels imperfect and not quite there yet, so I wrote, Thank you for this opportunity to face our brokenness together.

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Then there was the big category of blessings to address, the center of the whole endeavor, Blessings over telling our own versions of the exodus story. The telling of the Exodus-from-Egypt story, especially as written in the Hagaddah, can feel rigid and calcified and hard to relate to. But the reality is that we all have Exodus stories, we’ve all felt oppressed in one way or another. This category of blessings could be a way to recognize that each of us has a story, or a thousand stories, that are as important as the Exodus from Egypt, and they don’t always have to be heroic, or even successful.

May we hear all versions of the story, Rashamon style, so that we can experience the escape to freedom from every perspective. Let us hear from Pharaoh, and the slaves, and the courtiers and magicians, from those who were left behind and those who aided in the escape, from those who were afraid and those who were determined despite their fear and everyone in between. Let us hear from the ones who stepped into the Sea of Reeds before the water parted, and those who stepped in after the miracle had already occurred.

My final category of blessings for the workshop was, Blessings over our successes from the past year, and our hopes for the future. Passover marks the original new year of the Jewish people, and conveniently arrives halfway between one Rosh Hashanah and the next Rosh Hashanah. So why not take this moment to assess our progress on our resolutions, and encourage more change for the future? We don’t always remember to acknowledge our successes. We’re used to marking lifecycle events, like marriages and childbirths and deaths, but not necessarily the courage it takes to look for a new job, or to change an unhealthy habit, or to go to the doctor when you really don’t want to.

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“No one wants to go to the doctor. Ever.”

I thought of this category, and put it last, because I really needed the encouragement to be proud of myself for all of my small steps, even when they don’t fit into the obvious categories that everyone knows how to celebrate. So, thank you, community, for allowing me to share my thoughts and teach some of the things I know, because the sharing of it makes me feel more fully myself; And, may we all have these big and small successes to celebrate, all through the year; and, Thank you to all of you for reading this blog post and allowing me to feel connected to so many different, and fascinating, and complex, human beings, and dogs.

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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?

 

The Movie I Walked Out On

 

For the past few years, the Israel Engagement committee at my synagogue has been showing Israeli films a few times a year, as a way to explore the modern state of Israel from the point of view of its own citizens. This year the theme is movies made by Palestinian Israelis, and told from a Palestinian perspective. You might think this would be a weak draw at a synagogue on Long Island, but more people came to the first movie of the year than come to most Friday night services.

This was my first time going. When the series first started I was busy with graduate school and too exhausted to go back to synagogue for an extra night, to sit in uncomfortable chairs and watch movies I could easily watch online. I finally went this year for a practical reason: I’m on another committee that’s planning to show a movie in a few months, and I wanted to see how the Israel Engagement committee managed the scheduling, snacks and seating, and the actual showing of the movie (and no one else on the committee volunteered to go).

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“We’ll just wait here for you, Mommy.”

Mom came with me for moral support, and we both decided to skip the schmoozing period before the movie. It turned out that even though the movie was listed as starting at seven, it actually didn’t start until after eight o’clock, so many people were still arriving long after Mom and I found seats in the back of the sanctuary (the film was being shown on one of the new screens in the remodeled sanctuary, to justify the expense of building screens into the design). This was my first lesson from the movie – don’t plan for seven and show the movie at eight, no matter how many people talk about “Jewish Time”. Fifteen minutes for schmoozing and late arrivals, and then start the movie, because I don’t want to be there forever.

The head of the Israel Engagement committee gave a brief introduction to the theme for the year, and a warning to the one sixteen year old in the audience that he had just made the age cut off, because there was some drugs and other adult themes in the movie.

I was a little apprehensive, partly because I’m always tense before seeing movies in movie theatres, worried that I’ll be trapped for an hour and a half watching a movie I don’t like, but also partly because the movie was billed as coming from a Palestinian perspective, and I had no idea what that would mean. The description of the movie had said that it was a story about three Palestinian women living together in an apartment in Tel Aviv, and it sounded like a sort of comedy/relationship movie, but there could still be anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli stuff going on, and while I’ve worked hard to challenge myself with different perspectives on Israel I tend to do it at home, where I can stop the movie or close the book and take a few deep breaths and pet a dog before continuing.

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Two dogs available for petting.

Once the lights went out I took a deep breath and told myself to accept the challenge of watching the movie, because, really, it wouldn’t kill me. I might get bored, or annoyed, but how bad could it be, especially with so many other members of my congregation filling the room. I rolled my eyes at all of the marijuana, and the smarmy men hitting on the gorgeous women at the beginning of the movie. I couldn’t really tell when the dialogue switched from Arabic to Hebrew, because they all spoke so quickly and fluently in both languages. The whole thing hurt my ego, because after so much effort to work on my Hebrew I was still stuck reading the subtitles like everyone else.

I noticed that even though some of the men in the movie were creepy, either overly smarmy or overly controlling, there were a lot of other characters worth watching, straight and gay, religious and secular, successful and not so successful. And the actresses in the main roles were very good, luminous really, and funny and smart and interesting. The friendships developing among the women, once the early partying and drug scenes were out of the way, were surprisingly gentle and sweet, and I started to really care about what happened to them, especially to the religious girl who seemed very familiar to me, despite being a religious Muslim rather than a religious Jew. I was almost patting myself on the back for my open-mindedness by then, for being able to look past the drugs and the sex and the politics and just enjoy the people.

And then the rape happened. I saw it coming when the controlling fiancé touched his girlfriend’s hair-covering and started to tug on it. No, I saw it coming before then, in the way he tried to control where she lived and what she planned to do for work once they were married. The conflict was all telegraphed from the beginning, but it was played light and sort of funny, and I figured that over the course of the film the religious girl would come to realize that some kind of independence would be great and maybe she didn’t have to do every single thing her fiancé or male relatives told her to do. I assumed that the movie would continue in the same light-hearted style, with the sex happening behind closed doors, and all of the challenging topics addressed with humor and ellipses.

And then the fiancé touched the religious girl’s hair covering (they didn’t call it a hijab in the movie, so I’m not calling it a hijab, even though that’s the only word I know for a Muslim woman’s hair covering). My whole body tensed, because I know what it means for a religious man to break what other people might see as a minor boundary. I don’t care if you are Muslim or Jewish or Christian, if you follow modesty laws and you suddenly break them, watch out.

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“I’m watching them. All of them.”

The rape started so quickly, and I was so busy telling the girl (silently) to get the hell out of there, that it took me a second to really freak out. I wanted to drag that man off of her, just reach up into the screen and toss him to the floor, and I couldn’t. The only thing I could do was run, or walk, out of there. If she couldn’t run, I would have to run for her.

I stood up awkwardly, because there wasn’t a lot of room between the rows of chairs, and quietly told my mother that I had to leave. I was willing to sit alone in the hall by myself for the next hour or two, if necessary, but I wasn’t going to stay in that room and watch a woman being raped. I felt like, by sitting there, I was allowing it to happen, even making it happen.

Mom followed me out immediately, and listened to me ranting all the way home, and even sat with me, and the dogs, while we watched a Hallmark Christmas movie to recover.

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It’s important to say that, even if they had warned me that there would be a rape in the movie, I’m not sure I would have known how it was going to affect me. Though, just the word rape would have been a trigger. No one used it. Watching people have sex on screen is embarrassing, and would have felt really weird in a room filled with fellow congregants, but not scary. Rape is scary.

 

As far as I know, no one else left. But I didn’t speak to anyone about it afterwards, so I don’t really know. I have no idea if they discussed the rape scene during the discussion after the movie, or if it had been eclipsed by other plot points by then. I don’t even know if anyone, other than the female rabbi who was sitting in front of me, even noticed that I left, or why. She emailed me after the movie, to make sure I was okay, and I sobbed with relief, because I was afraid that no one had even noticed that I’d left. Or why.

The thing is, a bunch of the people in that room have read my novel, or know about it, and know that I am an incest survivor. They do not talk to me about it, or ask me about it, though. And when I’ve offered to discuss it with the congregation, in person, in a letter, any which way, no one has taken me up on it. The fact that they can sit through a rape scene in order to show their support for Palestinian women and Palestinian filmmakers, but they don’t want to hear from me, hurts.

The rape scene, as much of it as I saw, still flashes through my mind over and over again. And I resent it. I have enough awful memories of my own. I don’t need more.

I felt selfish for walking out of the movie. I beat myself up about it for hours. I felt immature, and melodramatic, and I could hear my father’s voice in my head calling me Sarah Bernhardt and telling me that I was overreacting, again, just like I always used to do as a child when I got all riled up about my father’s behavior and the crazy conspiracy theories he liked to spin about why he kept being accused of sexual misconduct at work, with children.

But most of all I felt invisible and insignificant. I felt like, in the face of intersectionality and world issues, and the increasingly strong need for people not to think about certain things, I do not matter at all. That’s the scariest thing, to feel like I don’t matter to the people who matter to me. And I can’t shake that feeling any more than I can shake the etch-a-sketch of my mind and make the rape images go away.

 

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?

 

 

Nonbinary Hebrew

 

I’ve been told, for years, that things are never all black or all white, but shades of gray in between. And I believe that. But I didn’t consider that these shades of grey could be applied to gender as well. The subject came up recently at my synagogue, when the clergy added their preferred pronouns onto their email signatures. None of the clergy members identify as nonbinary, but there are young people in the congregation who do, and this addition was meant as a sign of respect for them.

This is all new to me, and I’m still not sure I understand why someone would identify as nonbinary, rather than seeing themselves as a woman with some traditionally masculine qualities, or a man with some traditionally feminine qualities. But I realized quickly that I would need to think about this in more depth now that I’m teaching in the synagogue school, because Hebrew is a gendered language, like Spanish and French, and there are no clear ways to refer to a person who is nonbinary. Even if none of my students identifies as nonbinary yet, they may have family members who do.

English, surprisingly, is a much more egalitarian language than most, and nonbinary individuals have taken to using the pronoun “they” to describe themselves. The flexibility of the language, and the constant additions that have made English so hard to learn have also made it more capable of meeting our needs as society evolves. Hebrew, on the other hand, is an old language based in a male-dominated culture. If there is one man in a group and the rest are women, we have to use the Hebrew word for “men,” period. If a group of children is equally mixed between boys and girls, we have to use the Hebrew word for “boys” to describe the whole group, because there is no non-gendered word for “children.” This gender preference shows up in all of the Hebrew prayers, which led me to the obvious conclusion, growing up, that God must be a Man.

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“That’s ridiculous.”

When I first read some Hebrew blessings written in female language, a few years back, I felt wildly uncomfortable. It just sounded so strange! And I’m not the only one who found the change uncomfortable, and unsustainable. Women have been trying to push the Hebrew language into more gender equality for decades, without much success.

This whole topic feels prickly and uncomfortable for me, because I default to male gender words in Hebrew without thinking twice. I automatically say boys or men, or refer to male doctors or teachers. And even when I say or write “I” sentences, as part of my refresher Hebrew lessons, I default to male verbs automatically, because it doesn’t occur to me that I might be talking about myself.

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“What about dog words? Is Hebrew all people-centric too?”

I decided to search online to see how other people have been addressing this issue and I found a few articles about a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder who worked with their Hebrew professor to come up with a possible non-gendered addition to the Hebrew language. The two of them were inspired by the introduction of gender neutral terms in Spanish (though I haven’t come across these in my Spanish lessons so far, and only recently heard the term “Latinx” to refer to people of Latin American descent without referring to gender). The system the teacher and student came up with adds a neutral gender pronoun to Hebrew, and a way to construct gender neutral conjugations, at least in the present tense.

This new system has been controversial, and people have found it hard to learn. It’s also not the only attempt to address this problem. A Jewish summer camp in the States (not the one I went to) came up with another gender neutral term, specifically for “Camper,” in Hebrew, though they don’t seem to have gone further than that into adding new conjugations. It’s hard to know if either of these ideas will generalize to society at large, or if a new system will be inspired by them, or if none will take off at all.

And the fact is, it’s been hard for me to get used to using the word “They” to refer to an individual, in English, so I can’t imagine the discomfort Hebrew speakers must feel at being told to learn a whole new system in order to speak their own language correctly. But if we leave things as they are, with no gender neutral terms, where does that leave the people who feel like neither gender describes them? How can they ever feel accepted if they can’t be referred to correctly by their communities?

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“Now you know how I feel. You keep calling me a dog. It’s rude.”

As a society, we make so many assumptions and have so many expectations about ourselves that are attached to gender. Would that change if we all used gender neutral language? Would we lose something that makes our lives meaningful by referring less often to gender? I don’t know. I’ve always considered myself female, and despite whatever discomfort I have with societal expectations of women it still seems like an accurate description of how I experience my gender. But it intrigues me to think about this question, of how much might be roiling under the surface of this dilemma of language. How much of our lives have actually been determined by the language we use to describe ourselves? And what kinds of surprises might we find if we take some small steps towards change?

YG with Cricket

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?

 

I Seem To Be a Teacher

 

The same week that I started teaching at synagogue school, I also ran a writing workshop on blessings at my synagogue. The combination allowed me to see very clearly how much easier it is to teach adults, and how much trouble I seem to have gotten myself into.

Things were a bit chaotic on the first day of synagogue school, because we only had partial class lists (most families register late, but the kids show up on the first day anyway), and the building was still a construction site, and, oh yeah, I’d never done anything like this before in my life!

It’s important to say that afterschool synagogue school is a unique set of circumstances: even the most well-behaved kids hit four o’clock and lose their minds; they can’t sit still; they have an enormous amount to say after keeping quiet most of the day; and they don’t really have room in their brains to fit in any more information. Desks are for climbing, other children are for bothering, and there’s a competition for who can say the nastiest things to the teacher – which would be me. It’s a joy!

I drove home after my first two hours of teaching in a state of shock. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. On top of the chaos, the classroom was too warm, and early on, I realized I would not be one of those teachers who stands the entire time. But I didn’t vomit or faint, so that was a plus.

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The girls were vicariously exhausted.

And, despite some rough spots, I actually did some real teaching (I know, because without realizing it the kids repeated things I’d said in week one when they came back for week two. They would be horrified to know this, so don’t tell them). The second day with the kids went much better than the first. We even came up with some ways to manage their extra energy: like standing behind their desks when they couldn’t sit still anymore, dance breaks, and even a little bit of Pachelbel Canon in D (“Ugh! Classical music!”), helped them get through it.

The blessings workshop, with the adults, two days later, was like a walk in the park on a cool day compared to synagogue school. We had ten people around the table, and everyone participated, and shared their blessings, and listened to everyone else with interest. The workshop was based on a post I did on the blog a few months ago (or the post was based on the work I was doing to build the workshop), with prompts for different categories of blessings, and an overall intention to help empower people to trust their own voices along with the voices of tradition. It went well enough that now I have to prepare for a new workshop on blessings leading up to Passover. I have six months, so I’m not too worried, yet.

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“I’m worried for you.”

The thing is, the one career I was sure I didn’t want was teaching. It’s not that I expected to be bad at it, exactly. No, the real problem was that my father was a teacher, and I was afraid to be anything like him; or accused of being like him. My father was accused, multiple times, of inappropriate sexual contact with his students, so the idea of teaching and of going to jail seemed tied together in my mind from very early on. When people told me to get a PhD, in something, and become a professor, or teach writing after I got my MFA, I said no. I was too scared. What if I was accused of hurting someone? What if I actually hurt someone? What if I said the wrong thing? Or failed to be a good enough teacher? In my mind, I could go to jail for boring my students, or raising my voice, or just being in a bad mood, because my father’s paranoid ramblings at the dinner table suggested that that’s the kind of thing he’d done wrong, if anything. Even after I understood that my father was truly guilty of a crime, and had caused real harm to his students, I couldn’t uncross the wires in my brain around teaching.

Unfortunately, I never had a chance to see my grandfather in the classroom. He taught high school Consumer Education, and was the principal of an afterschool Hebrew school, but he died at age eighty, when I was eight years old, and he wasn’t in good health for the last years of his life, so his teaching was just a story I was told, not an experience I could draw from.

And yet, people kept telling me I’d make a good teacher, or even assumed that I already was a teacher (I’m something of a know it all), and I couldn’t shake the idea that this was the path not taken. When the chance to teach synagogue school came up a lot of internal bells started ringing, telling me that I had to at least try.

The dogs have offered to help me test out some of my ideas, and they keep reminding me that chicken treats are great motivators and that leashes are very reassuring (though I’m pretty sure that wisdom won’t translate especially well to human children). On the other hand, they are great at comforting and distracting me when I get home. They’ve always been wonderful at reminding me that I am loved.

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“I love you, Mommy!”

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Cricket is thinking about it.

I’m still overwhelmed with too many ideas for what to teach, and how to teach it, and I can’t fit even a quarter of my ideas into my actual classes. And I’m still comparing myself too much with other teachers, and feeling less than. But I am, slowly, developing more realistic expectations of myself. It will take some time to learn about classroom management, and how to not take the kids’ comments personally. But for now I seem to be teaching, and sometimes even enjoying it. And, maybe someday, I might even be good at it.

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“Really?”

 

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 Summer of Singing

 

At the first official choir rehearsal for the Jewish High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, starting Sunday night, September 29th), I received a loose-leaf full of music from the choir director. Most of the other choir members have been there for years (some for over thirty years), so while they mostly had to show up at rehearsals and sing, I had to take my loose-leaf home and study. Even the songs I thought I knew had to be relearned, because I was used to singing the melody with the congregation, and now I was singing the harmony with the other altos.

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“Do you really have to sing that again?”

The music kept repeating in my head all summer long. I knew my brain was doing this to be helpful, so that I could learn what I needed to learn in a hurry, but it meant that I was drowning in melancholy music for months. I couldn’t even escape it while I was sleeping.

The dogs are probably sick of hearing about repentance and atonement, but they seemed to like finally being able to participate in synagogue services, in their own way, in their own home. When the summer rehearsals started, I spent a lot of time being mute and grumpy, because I couldn’t sing along. But after months of studying I’ve learned most of the songs, and even figured out how not to be completely distracted by the other voices around me.

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Except for Cricket’s voice. That still distracts me.

Starting in September we had choir rehearsals once a week, and by then I knew most of the music, though some things were still beyond me, especially the songs where the altos just sing the oohs and ahhs in the background (it’s so hard to learn the music without words to hang the notes on!). There are a few pieces of music that still confound me, especially one that requires us to sing ten notes on one word, over and over again. I get three notes in and then shut my mouth and wait.

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“I’ll sing for you, Mommy!”

Unfortunately, no one seems to have noticed all of the progress I’ve made, even though I make a point of singing out when I know what I’m doing. Maybe they think it was as easy for me to learn all of the music, or they forgot that I’m new to the choir altogether. I was kind of hoping for some praise; you now, gold star stickers to put on my loose-leaf, something like that. Maybe someday.

One very lucky break is that our temporary conductor is one of the altos, so she has been able to help us out with finding notes and some much needed attention. She also has her own interpretive dance style of conducting that’s really easy to follow, so that even when I’m looking down at the music and can only see out of the corner of my eye, I can understand what she’s telling us.

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“I bet I could lead a choir!”

For the High Holidays, the choir will be sitting on a raised platform, in our newly redone sanctuary, and I am not looking forward to that. I’m used to being mostly invisible in the crowd at the high holidays, able to be grumpy or tired or whatever I am in relative obscurity. But this year I will be on public view, so I may have to put on a happy – or at least normal – face. This is also when I start to wish I’d lost more weight already, and bought a whole new wardrobe, and maybe had plastic surgery, because otherwise I just look like me. We don’t even get to wear robes to hide behind.

The biggest downside of being in the choir is that I can’t sit with Mom during the services. Hopefully she’ll be able to sit near the choir area, so that I can roll my eyes at her discreetly during the services. I think it might be frowned upon if I actually took out my cellphone to text my ongoing commentary during the services, but it might come to that. I mean, these are long services, and I have a lot to say!

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“Do you? We never noticed.”

I’ve made some friends among the altos, though, so I should be able to nudge someone and whisper when something especially ridiculous happens. Which, of course, it will. With a new sound system, and echoing acoustics, and everyone stuffed together in one big room trying to express all of the repentance and atonement and misplaced guilt of a whole year, laughing fits are inevitable.

I wish you all a Shana Tovah U’Metukah (a good and sweet new year) with as much laughter as possible!

Happy New Year!

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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?

 

 

Going Back to Shul

Now that I have more free time, because I don’t have a social work internship this semester, I’m free to return to my regular activities, including the irreverent Bible seminar at my synagogue every other Thursday night. I could even go to the open choir practices, which are supposed to be less stressful than the ones I tried five or six years ago, where I tried to learn twenty new pieces of music, in four part harmony, in a month. Or I could join a committee, of some kind. But, I’ve been feeling reluctant to step back into the flow, aware, all over again, that I don’t quite fit in.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, every year, we have the one event of the year where my dogs are invited into the synagogue community. The service is called Tashlich and it’s all about casting our sins into the water, by way of bread (traditionally), or bird seed, or cheerios. It’s a kid and dog friendly service, because it is held outdoors and it is short. There’s also singing, which makes it Rachel-friendly. I am not a believer in this casting-off-of-sins business, so I never join in with that part of the service. But I go, because it’s dog day. How could I skip dog day?

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“But, isn’t every day dog day?”

It was pouring rain for Tashlich this year, but I wasn’t going to skip Cricket and Ellie’s only opportunity all year to be seen and heard. We arrived before anyone else, and Ellie tried to make friends with the geese, despite the rain, dragging me through puddles, and piles of green goose poop, while the geese studiously avoided her. Someone I often see at services arrived after us, and said he was surprised that I had dogs, which seemed off to me. I thought everyone in the world knew that I had dogs; that you could see it through my skin. My dogs are my family, but I’m not sure that’s something the people in my community are able to understand, because my dogs aren’t human children. There is no synagogue school, or dog-friendly classes, or services for them on a regular basis. I can’t bring my girls to the bible seminar, or to choir practice, which means I can’t bring a big part of who I am with me.

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“I never knew going to services could be so much fun!”

The dogs were completely soaked by the time the rest of the small crowd arrived, but they got the chance to meet a grey-haired toy poodle who looked suspiciously like a baby lamb, and a tiny Maltese, and even a few bigger dogs. I met a woman with a husband, two little boys, and a dog, and she told me that she had to come despite the rain. I thought I’d found a kindred spirit, but she said, no, it’s not because it’s the one time of the year that dogs are allowed, but because she had so many sins she needed to get rid of. I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.

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“Mommy, did you know that rain is very, very wet?”

The next day, the junior rabbi came up to me at services, congratulating me on going to services, “rain or shine.” I explained, for what felt like the hundredth time, that I went because it was my only chance to bring my dogs to shul, but she didn’t seem to understand what I was saying. Maybe, in her eyes, I was just an obsessively religious person, I don’t know.

And then I missed Yom Kippur with vertigo, and continued to wonder if it was really worth all of the effort to keep going to shul if I was left feeling, endlessly, unknown. I went to Friday night services, two days after Yom Kippur, because the world had stopped spinning, and because I just like Friday night services. When the senior rabbi came up to me, to see how I was doing post Vertigo, he asked if there was anything he could do, and I got brave for a second and asked if Ellie could come to services on Monday morning, for Sukkot, since the services were being held in the Sukkah, and the Sukkah is, technically, outdoors. And the rabbi said yes.

I’m not sure I would have been motivated to get up early for services on that Monday morning, without the promise of Ellie being able to go to shul with me. I knew not to even think of bringing Cricket; she’s terrible with crowds, and her Attention Deficit Disorder would have made the two hour service torture for her. But Ellie was perfect. She sat quietly on my lap and let people pet her. Only one person seemed to have a problem with her being there: when I first walked into the Sukkah, holding Ellie in my arms, and sat down in the back row (of three), one woman from the back row stood up and moved up front. She didn’t say anything to me, just moved, so I don’t know if she was allergic to dogs, or just didn’t like being around them, but it made me feel uneasy. I worried that other people would have the same reaction, but as soon as they began to notice Ellie, they smiled and reached out to pet her. One woman purposely sat down next to me and fell in love with my Ellie within minutes. The junior rabbi laughed at Ellie’s funny faces from across the Sukkah, and made sure that the one little (human) girl at services had noticed the puppy dog. The senior rabbi made a point of publicly welcoming Ellie, as a hypoallergenic family member who was able to join us at services for this special occasion.

ellie in therapy

Ellie learning how to be a therapy dog, in therapy.

I’m still trying to absorb how good it felt to be allowed to have Ellie with me at shul. I don’t expect to be able to bring her to synagogue with me on a regular basis, because we are rarely outside for services or other events, but just knowing that she’s been seen, and that I’ve been seen with her, means a great deal to me.