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Why Can’t I Write a Midrash?

When the official Jewish Bible was closed, the rabbis still had questions they wanted to answer, so they started writing the Talmud (The Mishnah and then the Gemara), a compendium of (endless) arguments, commentaries, word play, stories and Gematria (a method for finding deeper meaning in the text, using the number values of the letters). And then, after the Talmud was considered closed, the next generation of Rabbis still had more questions, and answers, about what God really meant in the Bible, so they kept writing and collected the work in new books of Midrashim (a Midrash is a general term for the way the rabbis interpreted and elaborated on the biblical text, and Midrashim is the plural of Midrash).

Midrashim exist in many different forms: stories, homilies, parables, and legal exegesis. In a way, Midrash is the earliest form of fan fiction, where we take existing characters and situations from popular TV shows or books and imagine new scenarios for them. Just like we want to enter the world of Harry Potter, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or Little Women, our ancestors wanted to enter the world of the Bible and imagine themselves in the role of Abraham or Sarah or Miriam or Moses. They liked to think about how they would have behaved in front of the Burning Bush, or facing the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptian soldiers coming up behind them. And they wanted to imagine what it would be like to face God, and speak to God, and criticize God directly the way the characters in the Bible were able to do.

“I tell God my opinion all the time.”

The best known Midrash may be the legend of Abraham as a young child smashing his father’s idols. He tells his father that the idols destroyed each other, and his father didn’t buy it, because idols aren’t living beings. To which little Abraham says, exactly. According to MyJewishLearning.com, this Midrash, collected in Genesis Rabbah, was created to explain why God would choose Abraham in particular to be the father of the Jewish people, because he was willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of his time.

            Midrash fascinates me because it allows us to reinterpret the Bible through our own eyes. It’s about more than just figuring out what the original writers meant, it’s about finding something in the story that rings true for us in particular. A Midrash doesn’t have to be factual in order to express a deeper truth from the Bible, and therefore, possibly, meaningful to the reader as well.

            Unfortunately, since we have such a long tradition of rabbis (aka men) telling us what to think, many people still feel too intimidated to read the Bible through their own eyes. They imagine that the rabbis, who were often already a thousand or two thousand years distant from the source material themselves, must have heard the voice of God. But just because they had the confidence to believe they knew what was right, doesn’t mean they were right. Or that their answers are right for us.

“My answers are always right.”

            Midrash writing wasn’t just popular in the distant past, modern writers have taken it on as well. Consider Anita Diamant’s book The Red Tent, a reimagining of the story of Dinah in the Bible. Judith Plaskow is another modern feminist Midrash writer, who embarked on Midrash writing as a way to include the female voice in the story of the Jews, while still respecting the Bible itself and the traditions of Judaism. She wrote an essay called “The Coming of Lilith,” re-imagining Lilith as a woman who was wrongly punished for wanting to be considered equal to Adam. The original Lilith Midrash was written by men, as an attempt to make sense of the two different versions of the Adam and Eve creation myth in Genesis. In the first version, both Adam and his wife are created from the earth, and in the second version Eve is created from Adam’s rib (or his side), and the rabbis decided that these were two separate creation stories. In the first, the wife God created for Adam, Lilith, was too uppity and thought that she was equal to Adam, so, of course, she turned out to be a demon who defied God and threatened to eat children (no, really). When God created a second wife for Adam, Eve, God decided that she needed to know her place, so she was created out of Adam himself, as a subsidiary to him. Of course she still went and ate that apple, so, women, feh. It’s all their fault.

“That’s not nice!”

Judith Plaskow’s version of Lilith isn’t a demon at all, she’s a woman who refuses to be submissive to her husband and leaves him. Eve, the second wife, is told that Lilith is a demon who has to be kept out of the Garden of Eden because she’s a threat to children and women, etc, etc. But Eve gradually recognizes that Lilith is just a woman, like herself, and someone she could be friends with.

Both Midrashim represent the mindset, and the time period, of the writers themselves, and both give us new ways to read the original stories in the Bible and try to understand the inconsistencies and mysteries therein. Can I believe that there are women whose power to seduce or manipulate men can seem demonic? Yes. Are there women who are called demons who are really just people being held back from living their own lives? Yes. Are either of those readings what God, or the authors of the Bible, meant us to learn from the original stories in the Bible? We can’t know. The truth of the stories, and the lessons of the stories, are up to us to decide. And we can each decide differently.

“I don’t think Cricket believes that.”

I want to help my students, children and adults, see that Judaism isn’t a religion of passive obedience, or at least that it doesn’t have to be. If you are willing to engage in the storytelling, and the story-hearing, and take ownership of your own beliefs and values, Judaism can be as dynamic and meaningful as you need it to be.

            And yet, I keep struggling to write my own Midrashim, or to plan a way to teach people how to write Midrash. I’m intimidated by exactly those people who I want to thumb my nose at, and I think this happens in a lot of areas of my life. I know what I think, and what I believe, but I don’t feel like my beliefs matter, or have value, compared to the people who are RIGHT. The dichotomy between my confidence in my own opinions, on the one hand, and my belief that I have no right to that confidence on the other, is a constant.

The Bible is so tempting to work with, because it is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to certain details. Don’t get me wrong, you will be bored to tears with lists of ancestors and sacrifices and tribes and kosher and unkosher animals, but the storytelling style is very lean and leaves a lot of room for the reader’s imagination. It’s instinctive to start asking questions like, what must have happened behind the scenes to make the characters act that way? What might they have been feeling or thinking that they didn’t say? And what else happened that the writers of the Bible decided to leave out, if we assume that these are true stories?

            But I keep hearing the rabbis (ancient and current day) yelling at me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I keep hearing my imaginary students telling me that this work is too hard and not worth the effort, because we could just read the existing commentaries and Midrashim, or we could write new stories of our own instead of dragging meaning from such a stubborn book. And I can’t disagree. But I’m still compelled by the possibility that I could find a way to place myself in the world of my ancestors, and see more of what was there than I’ve been able to see so far.

            I just don’t know where to start. Maybe with Lilith. Maybe, for me, Lilith isn’t a demon, or even a separate person from Eve. Maybe I can see both creation stories as part of the same story, with one woman seeing herself as equal to her husband, and subsidiary to him, at different times. Because, why wouldn’t the first woman be as conflicted over who she thinks she is, or who she thinks she should be, as I am?

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?

Be a Mensch

            This past week in the United States has been stressful, for everyone, and because my synagogue school students are part of that everyone, I wanted to focus on teaching a lesson that would reassure them, somewhat, that there are areas of their lives where they really do have some control. And, because I love teaching Yiddish words, the lesson for this week was: what does it mean to be a mensch?

Mensch is a Yiddish word, from German, meaning “human being,” or a person of integrity and honor. The opposite of a mensch is an unmensch, a person treating others cruelly and without compassion, as opposed to the word ubermensch (Nietzsche alert) which is usually translated as “the superman,” someone who is superior to other humans. The word Mensch has gathered a lot of associations in American culture (bearded, male, Jewish) but it really means a person who is striving to be good every day, and doing what is right, even when it’s hard. We already have Yiddish words for the most righteous among us (a Tzaddik), or the smartest (a Chacham or a Maven) or the most powerful (a Macher). But being a mensch isn’t about being the best or the most, it’s about being human.

“I’ll take Maven and Macher.”

            There’s something wonderful about a compliment that can be given to everyone, instead of just to an elite few. Someone with a physical or intellectual disability has just as good a chance of being a mensch as someone who is born privileged in every way, because it’s not about your talents or your circumstances or your luck, it’s about how you choose to navigate the world you happen to live in. Oh, and mensch is not a gendered word, and it’s not limited to Jewish people, so it really can apply to anyone.

“Can I be a Mensch?

            We are so often looking for ways to be better than others, or to be the best, or to earn our place, and it’s exhausting, but the opportunity to be a mensch is always there, and there’s always something you can do that will fit you and your skills and interests.

            You can still have your foibles and be a mensch. You can fail a test, or lose your job, or struggle with substance abuse, or struggle to finish a Sunday crossword puzzle and still be a mensch. What you can’t do, is intentionally cause harm to other people. You can’t be a liar, or a bully, or be arrogant, or prejudiced and still be a mensch.

“I always tell the truth, whether you like it or not.”

            I’m a big fan of menschlichkeit, or mensch-iness. It’s like a pass fail course, where as long as you do the work, you’re golden. And we need things like that in a world that is so driven by competition and achievement and striving to be in the top one percent of everything.

            Being a mensch is about valuing other human beings for themselves, instead of for what they can do for you. And this, more than anything, is what I want to encourage in my students. Yes, I will be thrilled for them when they learn to write Hebrew words, or lead the prayers at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I will cheer them on when they swim or dance or act in a school play, and I will celebrate with them when they get into the college of their dreams, or find a cure for a rare disease, or create calorie-free chocolate frosting that tastes like the real thing (!). But all of that is secondary to how proud I am of them, right now, when they notice that a fellow student is struggling and needs help, or when they realize that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings and they are willing to take the risk of offering an apology that may not be accepted. Each time they re-learn the lesson that it’s more important to be good than to be great, I puff up with happiness, because that’s what’s going to get them through their lives; not being the best at anything, but being a mensch through everything.

            It can be hard, when we are thinking in such enormous terms as national politics and life and death, to remember that our real lives, and our real impact, comes locally – in our towns, communities, schools, and families.

            May we all make it through this election, and the pandemic, with our appreciation for mensch-iness intact.

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?

Hebrew Through Movement

            This year at the synagogue school we are trying out a new way of teaching Hebrew, called Hebrew Through Movement (HTM). The idea behind HTM, and James J. Asher’s Total Physical Response before it, is to try to follow the process by which infants acquire their first language. The examples Asher gives are: parents will say “take the bottle” and then put the bottle in the baby’s hand, or they’ll say “wave bye bye” and then model how to wave a hand. The child then responds physically, rather than verbally, with a long silent period before words are spoken out loud.

I watched a ton of videos on how to teach Hebrew through Movement, and I read the background articles exploring the whys and wherefores, and I studied the official curriculum multiple times to create my lesson plans, but I still wasn’t sure if it would work in real life. I even tried to practice with the dogs ahead of time, but they were not especially enthusiastic. Cricket resented having to follow any command at all, and Ellie was constantly in a distracted (squirrel!) frame of mind, and I was worried that their reactions were a harbinger of things to come.

“Who me?”

            So, I was nervous on the first day of synagogue school, when I would have to try out HTM on actual children. I modeled stand up and sit down, while saying the commands in Hebrew, and then I asked for volunteers to try the actions with me, but no one raised a hand. I took a deep breath and smiled and asked one of my teenage teacher’s aides to do the actions with me instead, so the kids could see someone else following along and not falling on her face. The kids started to follow along, anxiously. Part of the problem was the mask muffling my voice, and part was that we’re in a social hall instead of a classroom this year to allow for social distancing, which also creates an echo, but most of the issue was stage fright with their new teacher. Me.

            One girl in the back of the room told me straight out that she wouldn’t be participating, and I told her that was fine, because I always accept No as an answer. I want synagogue school to be fun, but more importantly, since we don’t have tests or homework or grades, I don’t really have the leverage to convince someone to participate if they don’t want to, and I refuse to yell or shame someone into going along.

            Gradually, I added the commands for walk, and stop, and the kids decided that stop meant stop exactly where you are, even if one foot is up in the air and you are about to fall over. When the giggling started I knew we were onto something. Within a few more minutes everyone was participating, including the girl in the back who definitely didn’t want to participate, and it had become a game, and fun!

            When we went outside for a mask break a while later, we did another session of Hebrew through Movement, adding the commands for run and spin to our repertoire. We added balletic arms to our spins, and funny faces to our walks, and each time I said the Hebrew word for run the kids acted like they’d been shot out of a cannon.

“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!”

            The only downside was that, with all of the standing and sitting and walking and stopping and running and spinning, my body started to rebel and I got very close to throwing up a few times, despite filling my thermos with gingerale before I left home. When I finally left the building for the day, I felt like I’d been run over by a truck.

            But still, it was so much fun!

            By week three I was getting into trouble for the noise level, because the kids really like to shriek while they are running, and then they fall on the floor and giggle hysterically, but it’s such a joy to see them having fun that I’m reluctant to tell them to keep the noise down.

            When I realized that my remote students were having trouble participating (even for our in-person day we still have some kids who zoom into class), I planned some doll-participation exercises, and suddenly stuffed animals were launching into the air, spinning themselves dizzy. I don’t think the kids even noticed that they were learning Hebrew, because they were so busy putting face masks on their Sloths and Teddy Bears and action figures, and racing around their bedrooms.

“I didn’t do anything.”

            Eventually we’ll move on to more complex sentences, like, walk slowly to the door, or run to the window and touch your head, or point at the Rabbi, laugh, bark, and run away, but for now we’re still on simple commands.

            I would love to invest in cushioned Hazmat suits, with helmets, for the in-person students, or better yet, full bubble wrap for each kid, and sound proofing for the walls so we can make as much noise as we want, but that’s a little bit beyond our budget, and some of the parents might object. Party poopers.

“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?

The Mumble Grumble Prayers

            One of my jobs as a synagogue school teacher is to teach my students how to pray, but sometimes I worry that I’m the wrong person for the job. I grew up going to a Conservative Jewish day school, where half of each school day was spent on Hebrew language, and Jewish history and customs, and prayers. But I don’t remember actively learning the why behind the prayers. I learned how to sing the prayers, and which prayers and blessings to say when, but the Kavanah, the intention, was most often left for last, or for never.

The assumption, I think, was that little kids couldn’t understand the deeper meaning yet, but by seventh grade I’d switched over to an Orthodox school where there was a sudden descent into the mumble grumble form of prayer. We didn’t focus on the music of the prayers much anymore, instead we gave value to the words of the prayers, with a requirement to read or say every single word. The problem was that the girls were given very little time to say the morning prayers, and it was mumble grumble, or nothing. Even at my most fluent, I couldn’t have even skimmed the Hebrew of the prayers in the short time allotted to us, though many of my classmates were able to do it, and even seemed to feel something. In orthodoxy, our teachers told us, the belief was that if we did the right things, and read the right things, and said the right things, we would become good Jews, even if we never understood the why of any of it. But for me, that method didn’t work.

“Harrumph.”

 I’m only responsible for teaching the kids a few prayers each year in synagogue school, which gives us time to learn the tunes, and the words (often in transliteration), but most of all the intention behind each prayer, which meant that I needed to know what those were; and in some ways I had to start from scratch. I did my research and reading, but most of my learning came from going to services myself. At my synagogue we learn a lot of different versions of the prayers, to emphasize different ways of looking at the words and meaning, but even when we use the same version over and over, we often stop to read a poem or hear a story first, to shed new light on the purpose of the particular prayer. And that has given me a lot of material to share with the kids, but, more often than not, I ask the kids if they can explain it to me.

“Huh?”

For example, the Mishaberach is a prayer for wishing someone healing from physical or emotional pain, so we spend some time talking about how a prayer might be able to comfort us, or give us strength, even if we don’t believe that God is answering our wishes directly. And when we look at the words of the Ve’shamru, a prayer we say on Friday nights to remind us of the obligation to celebrate Shabbat, I’ll ask them why we might need, or want, a reminder in the form of a prayer every week, especially one that we say after the Sabbath has already started. And then we can look at the Modeh Ani, one of the weekday morning prayers, in which we thank God for letting us wake up in the morning, returning our souls to us after a night in God’s safe keeping (go ahead, try to teach that concept to children without accidentally referencing zombies, I dare you).

“Zombies?!”

A lot of this focus on creating meaning is due to the fact that most progressive Jews (Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Conservative, etc.) don’t feel obligated to pray. In orthodoxy, you are supposed to accept the burden of obligation, in rituals, and daily behaviors, long before you ever learn the why behind the what, which is what makes mumble grumble prayer a help to them. In progressive Judaism the why always comes first, because many of the obligations have been made voluntary, which has its own risks.

Sometimes I worry that my synagogue school students are missing out by spending so little time on their Jewish education each week. I wouldn’t have been able to fill my brain with so much of the how of Judaism, and the history of Judaism, without half of each day of my childhood being set aside for learning how to be Jewish. And I feel lucky to have the background I have, and the wealth of information to tap into. My hope is that, in the time my students and I have together, they will learn to see the obligations of their religious community as more than worth the gifts they will get in return, especially because there are so many fewer obligations in Progressive Jewish life. And maybe this lighter touch will keep them from falling into the mumble grumble form of religion, where the obligations drown out the inspirations.

            In my ongoing search for ways help the kids to feel connected to the prayers, I went to a Zoom presentation by the founders of a musical group called the Nigunim Ensemble, based in Israel. They have created new versions of old prayers, incorporating chants and new rhythms from Arab, Persian, and popular Israeli music. Their message to our Zoom class was that the Jewish world can, and should, widen its ideas of prayer music, not only to include more people in our community, but to add more layers of emotion to the experience of prayer. And I was excited by all of the new sounds they were introducing to us, but for me, the message that came through most strongly was the sense of joy I heard in their voices. And I realized that not only singing good music, but singing in community, allows me to feel heard and accepted, as I am. And, when I feel heard by my community, I start to think that maybe God can hear me too.

“We can hear you, Mommy.”

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 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?

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?

 

 

Shabbat Morning

 

Shabbat is the weekly Jewish holiday of rest. It starts at sundown on Friday and ends after sundown on Saturday. The theoretical, biblical, reason for a day of rest is, of course, that God created the world in six days and therefore took a well-earned break on day seven. But really we all need a day of rest each week, even if we didn’t create a whole world by ourselves. (I’m pretty sure I need more than one day of rest in seven, but this isn’t the time to quibble).

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Cricket believes in resting seven days out of seven.

I grew up going to synagogue every Saturday morning, first for junior congregation with the other kids, and later to the adult services, which lasted two and a half hours and ended with Slivovitz (plum brandy) and gefilte fish. But it’s been a long time since I went to synagogue regularly on Saturday mornings. Instead, I go on Friday nights, because my synagogue is more of a Friday night kind of place. We only have Saturday morning services when there’s a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to celebrate, or a holiday that falls on Shabbat. So, for a long time now, I’ve treated Saturday like, well, any other day. A day to do chores, make appointments, get my work done, etc. I took the time out for Friday night services as my weekly celebration of Shabbat and felt like that was enough.

I didn’t realize that I was really missing those Saturday mornings until I started to teach Synagogue school on Saturday mornings at my synagogue and was able to sit in on the children’s service. We all sat together in the first few rows in the sanctuary, with the Rabbi sitting right in front of us and leading us through the short service in a very relaxed, informal sort of way. When we read the morning blessings, the Rabbi asked everyone to share a recent accomplishment, or an exciting event coming up, or a difficult problem we needed support with, and the kids raised their hands. They shared about their new braces, and trips to Disneyworld, or New Jersey, and injured wrists, and newborn siblings. I didn’t have the nerve to speak up, but their openness inspired me. It was prayer as a chance to check in with our community and ourselves, and take a deep breath (or ten) and feel the natural holiness that we bring with us into the room.

And then we drank grape juice and tore through Challahs (really, these kids can do some real damage to a very large loaf of bread), and went to class. The mood of Saturday morning class is so different from the after-school rowdiness of synagogue school earlier in the week. We can meander through a discussion and hear from everyone more fully, and share our outside interests in music and Lego and animals and bring them into the discussion of the Torah lesson for the day, knitting together the ordinary and the holy.

Shabbat was hard for me growing up, because Shabbat was one of the battlegrounds my father chose to fight over. He made us walk six miles to the orthodox synagogue, and he stopped us from watching television or doing homework. The day became a wasteland, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, because we didn’t live in a Jewish community with other people in the same situation. And it wasn’t restful at all. It didn’t feel holy or sacred to replace the toilet paper in the bathroom with tissues, just to avoid ripping paper on Shabbat, or to cover the light switches with plastic to keep from turning the lights on and off; it felt more like prison.

For years now, I’ve had therapy on Saturday mornings – either group or individual – and I accepted that I couldn’t go to Saturday morning services at a synagogue, because I knew that therapy was more important. But I realized that I liked this Shabbat School version of Saturday morning prayers. I liked that it didn’t take hours, and we didn’t have to dress up, and we did get to talk, a lot, about our actual lives. This past week the cantor ran the children’s service, and we all sat in a circle-like clump on the floor to sing along with him and his guitar, and then to breathe together, and then dance together, and I thought, yeah, I could do this every week. If only my dogs could be invited.

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“I wanna go!”

Cricket and Ellie know all about rest and holy time, and they don’t need as many memory aides as humans do to help them get to that peaceful, connected place. They just need the birds singing to them in the morning, and the air filled with smells from near and far, and a few chicken treats and cuddles. Though I really would love to see Ellie dancing along with the kids at Shabbat school, and she would love to share their Challah. Cricket would probably steal the whole challah and hide it under the ark, where only she and the rabbi could find it. But they’d probably enjoy that too, hunkering down in the sanctuary to share bread.

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“Did you say Challah?!”

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“I could eat.”

What’s a community for, really, if not to take time out to share good food, and sing, and maybe even dance?

 

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?

 

 

Teaching Leviticus

 

For the next few months, I will be teaching a synagogue school class on Leviticus (Vayikra, in Hebrew), the third book of the Bible. It’s an odd book for children to study, with its focus on laws that applied in ancient temple times: laws for the Levites (the priests and their helpers) around purity and sacrifices and holiness. There’s also a section on dietary laws.

Cricket and bird

No, Cricket. You can’t eat the Canadian bird, even if she’s kosher.

But the fact is, the class will be based on a pre-set curriculum with very few actual quotes from the text, and much more focus on the ways these issues can be extrapolated into the modern lives of Jewish children. This makes a lot of sense. What’s the point of bogging down children’s minds with long passages, in Hebrew, about rules for priests who no longer exist? Judaism used to be a temple cult, with animal sacrifices, but long ago transformed into a synagogue and prayer-based religion.

Except, when I went to Jewish day school as a kid, we read everything, and we read it in both Hebrew and English, and it had an impact. We learned about “an eye for an eye” and that it should be translated to mean “money for an eye,” because the victim should be adequately compensated for the loss, rather than inflicting a similar loss on the perpetrator. We also learned about who’s responsible if someone’s ox falls into a pit on someone else’s property, and how punishments should vary based on whether a crime was intentional or accidental. It was, a little bit, like law school for ten year olds.

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“That doesn’t sound like fun to me, Mommy.”

We also read the stories of the prophets in Hebrew, like a novel, without even bothering with the commentaries most of the time. Our Hebrew was pretty great, now that I look back on it.

I can’t say whether all of that was better or worse than what we do at the synagogue school; it’s just very different. My students still struggle to sound out words in Hebrew, confusing similar looking letters for one another, and struggling to remember which sound goes with which vowel sign. And the bible classes are meant to be taught in English. But I’d still like to infuse more of the Hebrew text into the process; not because it’s part of the set curriculum, but because I want them to know that there’s a connection between the lessons we’re learning in class and the Torah that we read with such awe during services in the sanctuary. We dress the scroll in velvet and silver, and we read it with a special silver pointer, from a parchment written by hand by a single scribe. I want them to hear the ancient Hebrew, and the strange melody of the chant, and to feel the connection to the past that makes it all feel so sacred and phantasmagorical to me.

I’m a little bit anxious about the transition to something so much more clearly planned out. This will be the only year, at least in synagogue school, that they study the book of Leviticus, so I can’t hop around and choose to teach whatever interests me at the moment as if I’m picking from a vast Chinese food menu, the way I do in the Hebrew class. There are important lessons here that won’t be addressed elsewhere and that will be helpful to them in preparing for their Jewish lives. But I’ve gotten used to the creativity of the Hebrew class, where we can spend fifteen minutes trying to shape the Hebrew letters with our bodies without feeling like we’re wasting time (I have one student who can do a bridge pose that looks exactly like the Hebrew letter Chet – it’s possible she has no spine).

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“What letter am I, Mommy?”

It’s a balancing act, to bring the kids some of the magic that I feel, without overwhelming them with too much that is beyond their abilities for now. I need to make it fun, and relevant, and engaging, and useful to their daily lives, but I also don’t want it to feel so familiar that it loses its spark.

So, I need to study the lesson plans carefully, and study the book of Leviticus itself again, and try my best to teach my kids about holiness and where to find it in their lives, in their communities, and in themselves. And in dogs. There’s got to be room for the dogs in there somewhere.

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“There always has to be room for us.”

Wish me luck!

 

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 hate games, so of course my students love them!

 

Even back in kindergarten, I hated playing Duck Duck Goose and Musical Chairs and Mother May I, and Red Light Green Light. I hated the competition, and I hated the humiliation when I couldn’t remember the rules, and the hierarchies that decided who would be a winner and who would, forever, be a loser.

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“I’m not a loser like you, Mommy. I’m a winner.”

A million years later, though, it turns out that games are a favorite at synagogue school, and the kids beg to play them over and over, spewing long lists of rules that I’ll have to learn in order to do it just right. They walk into the classroom, ignoring the worksheets and pencils on their desks (I love worksheets!) and they beg to play Jewish Jeopardy or Bingo or Tic Tac Toe before class even starts. They loved the day when we had an active shooter drill, because it meant competing with each other for who could hide best, and for who could make another kid laugh before laughing themselves.

When school first started in September, my idea of a perfect class session was: a handout to start things off; some practice with Hebrew letters; a sing along to learn one of the Hebrew prayers; and then a discussion about what the prayer meant to them; and then maybe a vocabulary list. I wrote one lesson plan after another along those lines, even after I discovered how hard it was to get the kids to sit in their seats for even two minutes at a time.

I figured I’d just need to come up with better ideas for how to reward them for cooperating. One of my first ideas was to give them a dance break, so they could work off their extra energy. I even bought a little speaker to attach to my iPhone, so they could hear the music over their own (very loud) voices. But they weren’t excited by the Nefesh Mountain songs I chose for them (Jewgrass music!!!), and then the new little speaker stopped working halfway through the song, and meanwhile the boys had decided to create a maze on the floor and crawl through the desks until the desks started to fall like dominoes.

Then I brought in sugar free candies and whole wheat pretzels for rewards, which seemed to get their attention, but it also distracted them and led to attempts to steal the snacks from the top of the cabinet (they are much taller than they look, somehow). And then I ran out of candy too soon (who knew sugar free peppermints were so popular?), and they started to complain about who got more pretzels than who, and how unfair the world is, and, by the way, teachers are always nicer to the girls! I’m still working with the snacks, because they are a good motivator, but I’m trying to be more consistent in who gets them and when.

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“I like treats too, Mommy!”

I’ve had a lot of other ideas along the way for how to encourage the kids to finish at least a little bit of my lesson plan before half the class makes airplanes out of the worksheets (hint: half the class are boys). I thought of bringing in stress balls early on, when I noticed that a few pencils had been shattered, and the others were scattered across the floor, but I realized quickly that with the amount of energy and aggression in the room the stress balls would literally be bouncing off the walls, and the children’s heads.

I even thought about bringing Cricket in once, to keep some discipline, but her barking would have prevented even the small amount of work I was getting done. And I knew I couldn’t bring Ellie, because she would have peed on the floor, or cowered under my desk, with so many noisy little people around her.

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“I could play with the children, Mommy. I just need to bring my friends.”

Some of my ideas actually worked out, though, like having the kids do Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, in Hebrew, and making the shapes of the Hebrew letters with their bodies. But they get bored very easily, especially when they suddenly realize they’ve been tricked into learning something.

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“You can’t trick me.”

I finally gave in to the pressure to play a game with the kids a few weeks ago, and they gave me a big list of rules I can’t remember, except that there were two teams, and when one team missed an answer the other team got the “rebound”. I used the game as a way to get through a word list I’d brought in for them, and for the first time they were actually able to get through a whole list, in both classes. To me, it felt tedious and mean and competitive, but to them it was awesome!

I don’t understand the draw, nor am I especially skilled at running games, and I have no creative ideas of my own for new games to play. So the following week I had the kids do student teaching (so they could teach me), and of course, after teaching alien languages and candy eating tricks, they focused on running games. There were clapping games and hiding games and games where we had to sit on the floor and games where we all had to leave the classroom. There were no games, unfortunately, that incorporated learning Hebrew. I’m sure you’re surprised.

But somewhere along the way I realized that if I give a little, they give a little back. I even had one kid ask for a harder worksheet. He decided that if he was going to have to get work done anyway, in order to earn the game he wanted to play, the worksheet should at least be challenging. So, they are teaching me, and they are very generous with their lessons, and eager to tell me when I get things wrong, which seems to happen often.

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“I’ve got a long list. Start typing.”

I’m still going to try out all of my own ideas on them, trying to make the learning itself more fun, and productive, at the same time. And you never know, maybe some time during the year they will become less concerned about who’s winning and who’s losing, but I’m not holding my breath. They’d win that competition easily.

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“Mmmffmmhhm.”

 

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?