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On Poetry

            I keep trying to push at my boundaries lately, to see if they are still solid brick or becoming something more flexible over time, and one of the boundaries I’m trying to move is the one that keeps me at a distance from poetry. I used to write poetry, and I even got some of my poems published way back when. I don’t remember what the toggle was, between poetry and songs and plays and novels and essays and short stories, but I wrote all of them at different times and often at the same time. I had (and still have) a form of Hypergraphia, an obsessive need to write. I used to write on my bare legs during summer classes in college, when I ran out of room on the page where I was supposed to be taking notes.

            I went through a phase of trying all of the forms of poetry I could find – Tanka, Haiku, Sonnet, etc. – and the rules were reassuring, for a while, and then not at all. So I tried to create my own forms, experimenting with meter and rhyme schemes and lower case letters and spacing on the page. I spent years at it, waiting for something to click into place and sound right and true, and it never really happened. I don’t know if I failed to reach the heart of poetry, or if poetry was just the wrong shape for my heart, but it left me feeling like only slivers of my story were visible, as if the best I could do was to present a broken mirror to the world.

            But recently there have been subjects that seem to beg for poetry. I tried to write about my Paw Paw trees and the Carolina Wren in poems, but they turned into essays, insistently, over and over again. I couldn’t seem to translate myself into the vocabulary and shape and size needed. I feel like there’s a mystery to poetry that I can’t crack, a rhythm I can’t find, or create.

I love what poetry can do: how it can say so much in a few words and inject wisdom so quickly, in so few images and words, into our collective blood streams. Not every poem succeeds, but the good stuff feels like a lightning strike.

We read a lot of poetry at my synagogue, and the prayers themselves are often poems, or poetic prose, trying to capture that lightning of an Aha moment, so that in a relatively short service we can be reminded of why we live our lives the way we do. Prayer feels relatively meaningless, to me, without a community to sing and say it with me (either in person, on zoom, or in my imagination), because it’s that communal feeling that brings God, the idea, to life. And I think the same is true with poetry, for me. I need to imagine other people reading and hearing and thinking the poem at the same time in order to hear the echoes in the words.

“We’re listening too!”

            But I want to write poetry, not just read it. I want to be able to contain my thoughts and feelings in those manageable boxes, and have those small jewels to share: beautiful and perfect and under control. I thought, maybe, that I could freewrite, in order to get the ideas out of my head, and then find the poem by cutting the excess away. But all I could do was to take my clumsy, oversized self and chop away limbs until I fit inside of the box, and then I didn’t recognize the poem at all. Worse, I hated it for the monster it had become.

“Monsters? Where?!

            Prose gives me more room to stretch out, and to put the puzzle together in my own way, but still, poetry sits there on the shelf, waiting for me, glaring at me, wondering why I am still so far 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?

Sketchnoting and Visual Learning

            We had a professional development session for synagogue school – on Zoom – to teach us a technique called Sketchnoting. The broad purpose of the session, I think, was to open our minds to different methods of teaching, and different ways to encourage our students to express their own thoughts. And for people who process information best through visuals, and especially through pictures, the Sketchnoting method is probably a huge step forward in learning and comprehension.

            But for me, it was torture.

“Me too.”

            It took me years to learn how to read menus and recipes, because of the way the words are presented on the page, and I have never been able to read a comic book or a graphic novel from beginning to end without wanting to throw it out the window. I’m sure this qualifies as a learning disability of some kind, but it was never diagnosed or addressed in school, and I worked around it well enough that no one seemed to notice.

            But sitting there during the professional development session, staring at the computer screen and trying to make sense of a series of little pictures meant to represent words, drove me nuts. I wasn’t the only one who struggled, thank God, or else I would have (naturally) assumed it was all my fault, for being so hard-headed and stiff-necked and whatever else is wrong with me. The teacher of the class even acknowledged that learning how to translate words into pictures is much harder than recognizing the meaning of pictures drawn by someone else (though I found that difficult too).

“Oy.”

            After a general introduction to what Sketchnoting looks like on the page (simple drawings, separated by boxes, often modified with one or two descriptive words), we did an exercise where the teacher gave us a word (in this case the word was “idea”) and asked us all to draw a picture of the word on a post-it note. My first thought was a lightbulb, but I can’t draw a lightbulb, and I don’t understand why a lightbulb is supposed to represent an idea, so I rejected that one. Then I tried to draw a cloud, because I was thinking about the Platonic ideals and how there’s supposedly a perfect version of each idea, somewhere, like maybe in heaven, but I couldn’t draw a cloud either; my best attempt looked more like an ameba.

And then I drew a tree – a very simple, curly-headed tree – because trees have been on my mind lately, and because I never have just one idea; I tend to have a core idea that branches out in dozens of directions. So a tree fit the word idea, for me.

            All of this took place in twenty seconds. And when I held up my post-it note to the camera, the teacher picked it out of everything on the screen and said, disbelieving, is that a tree? He didn’t ask why I would draw a tree, or what made a tree my best representation of the word idea. He just told us that whenever he does this exercise the majority of people draw a lightbulb, and a significant minority draw a word bubble over the head of a person, and this is proof that we actually do share a common visual language that most people will understand. Except for Rachel, of course.

“Oh, Mommy.”

            If I’d gone with my first idea and drawn even a terrible lightbulb, I would have fit in fine, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied with my work. I would have been disappointed in myself, because even though I know enough about popular culture to know that, at least in the United States, a lightbulb is often used to represent an idea, that’s not what it represents for me.

            But I felt guilty for rocking the boat. I didn’t realize, until after the exercise was over, that the teacher had been trying to prove a point about the universality of certain images. I thought I was supposed to be creative and imaginative, and I’d clearly misunderstood the purpose of the exercise.

            The teacher went on to tell us that you can use Sketchnoting to capture the deeper meaning of an essay or a lecture or a YouTube video. He said that you’ll be able to remember more of the lecture if you can sum up key ideas in pictures instead of words. But I couldn’t do most of the exercises he gave us, because I couldn’t think of pictures to draw to represent specific concepts, and even when I could think of something, I couldn’t draw it fast enough.

            Before the teacher himself had come onto the Zoom, my boss did a warm up exercise with us, asking us to describe how we each take in information. She called on me first, and I should have been able to guess that she was asking if we are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners, or some variation on that idea, but instead I was flummoxed, because I didn’t know what she was looking for. I don’t know, I said, I take in information in a million different ways.

“I take in information through my nose and my belly.”

            I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I only understood that she was (probably) asking the visual/auditory/kinesthetic question in the aftermath, though no one else really answered in those terms either. But it felt like a microcosm of how I respond to the world overall: with confusion. I know some part of it is because I want to be different, but a lot of it is that I can’t figure out what kind of answer people are looking for and I don’t make the assumptions they expect me to make. I generally have the “right” answer in my back pocket, but I have ten other answers in there too, and I don’t know which one to choose.

            I remember a psychology class where the teacher had us go through a stack of Rorschach cards and describe what we saw. She had a list of scores for each possible interpretation and most of the students in the class fit nicely into the pre-set answer groups, and then there was me. She called my answers “creative,” because I saw things like a group of monkeys in space suits riding bicycles, instead of a butterfly, or a lion. She couldn’t score my answers and just shrugged when I asked what that might mean.

“Harrumph.”

            But, I’m learning that it’s not that I’m bad at all kinds of visual learning, it’s that my mind sees more possibilities than other people see, and I have to ask a lot of extra questions to narrow down what someone else expects me to see. It makes me difficult. And it makes my life difficult. And people assume I’m doing it on purpose, just to be different. And I don’t know; maybe I am.

            But is that so bad?

            When I look at my students, I don’t see anyone who fits neatly into the predetermined learning categories. I see a lot of unicorns. And maybe I’m seeing things in them that no one else sees; but it’s there. And, yes, they can be trained to see the world in a rigid, conventional way; or most of them can. But I’m unlikely to be the teacher who asks that of them. I’d rather have a room full of unicorns, even if that makes them more challenging to teach, because that’s what makes the work so much fun.

“I’m a unicorn too, right?”

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?

Who do I want to write for?

            A friend in the blogging community (Elizabeth at Saved by WordsElizabethslaughter.com) suggested that I could think about who I’m writing for when I’m writing something other than a blog post, since I’ve been struggling to want to work on anything other than blog posts.

            In a lot of ways, my writing feels automatic to me, because I’ve been doing it my whole life. I spent a huge part of my childhood telling myself stories, about trips to other planets and alternate families and happier endings to my own life stories too. As I got older, I wrote poems and songs and stories and novels. I would write to organize my thoughts, and to remember what I was thinking, because I forget things so quickly. I wrote down dreams in order to remember them, and then to process what they might mean. When I started the blog I quickly found that it was a satisfying way to connect with actual people. I didn’t have to tell my stories only to myself anymore, or send my words out into the ether to be judged, or ignored.

“Don’t worry. I still judge you.”

            Over the past eight years that I’ve been blogging I’ve come to realize that my favorite thing about writing is hearing back from readers, knowing that my writing has been read and heard and processed and responded to. The feeling of satisfaction I get when I see that people really feel something in response to my words is so much better than getting an “A” in school (which is still pretty nice). And I’m loathe to waste my writing on literary magazines who will just reject my work after a year-long waiting period, when instead I could post something today and get responses from thoughtful readers within hours.

            But I still want to be a professional writer; the kind that gets paid. And I still want to write longer form essays and fiction. I LOVE fiction. I love the freedom it gives me to change the stories of my life into something more hopeful, or to live out a completely different life from my own.

            The problem is, when I think about writing professionally I start to feel distant from myself, remembering all of the rejection letters and the critiques and the endless questioning of how I write and what I write about and who I write for and the underlying, persistent, mantra telling me that my voice doesn’t matter and won’t sell; my writing is too literary, or too commercial, or too serious, or too lighthearted, or too plot driven, or too character driven, or too emotional, or too intellectual. But when I sit down to write for the blog I remember the comments I received on the previous blog posts, and the encouragement and kindness and investment of my readers.

“Bloggy people are awesome!”

            There’s that, but there’s also something else. When I’m working on longer projects, my writing voice varies. I don’t have any conscious awareness of trying to fit a style while I’m writing, or any conscious control over how the words come to me, but when I read over the draft, days or weeks later, I can see how my writing was influenced by my intended audience, or by my preconceptions of who they would want me to be.

            I wish I could write everything the way I write for the blog, trusting that my readers will care about me and respect me and engage with the subjects I care about. I want to be able to write from where I am at this moment in time, instead of trying to guess what other people will want to read at some moment in the future. And I want to challenge myself to write the different things that interest me, the long essays, and the children’s stories, and the mysteries, and the Young Adult novels, and the memoirs.

            And I would love to see my books on library shelves, in hardcover, with beautiful reviews on the back cover; and I’d love to win awards and make a living from my writing, and be interviewed about my work.

“I can interview you, Mommy. First question: Where are my treats?”

            But I don’t trust that the larger audience will embrace me and accept me the way my blog readers have, and I think I’ve learned to stop myself from writing the things that could force me to face those rejections again, even though I want to write these things.

            If only I could quiet the voices that recite all of the rejection letters to me when I sit down to write, and replace them with the voices that are kind and thoughtful week after week. Maybe then I could be prolific again, or at least feel free to write everything that matters to me.

“Just keep writing about us, Mommy. That’s the most important thing.”

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?         

How do I grow from here?

            I was growing before. I could feel it. My trunk was growing more stable and my branches were starting to leaf, even to flower. But I hit a wall this year, with the extra weight of Covid, and hybrid teaching, and maybe trying to move forward too quickly.

“I’m a blur!”

            I keep watching Hallmark movies, hoping that the gumption and confidence of the heroines will rub off on me. I want to be the kind of person who sees a problem and relishes the chance to solve it; I want to be the kind of person who can embrace change, and persist despite rejection, and believe in my vision of the future and fight for it; but I’m not.

            It’s been a relief, during Covid, to have an excuse not to move faster towards my goals, because my inner clock runs very slowly compared to the normal world. Covid time is much more my speed.

            I know I need to branch out in new directions, but I don’t feel safe out on those shaky limbs. I’ve struggled to decide which risks to take, because I don’t know ahead of time what I’m ready to handle or what will be too much. I’ve had experience with “too much” in the past and how deep the hopelessness and depression can be when what I thought would be a small leap over a shallow puddle turned out to be a swan dive off a cliff.

            I keep hearing the introjected voices in my head telling me what I should do and who I should be, and lately the shoulds have been taking precedence over what I want, and they’ve prevented me from investing the energy and patience I’d need to succeed at the things I really love. Like writing. I feel like the shoulds are yelling at me and the wants are whispering, and I don’t know who to listen to.

            I’m still writing, but the voices keep telling me that I have no right to think of myself as a writer in the face of all of the rejection, and no right to spend time working through plot lines when I should be doing something worthwhile, like teaching, or social work. And when I sit down to write, the voices get louder and louder. I only feel safe working on short pieces for the blog, because the longer pieces are the ones that have collected all of the rejections. It feels like masochism to keep writing things that no one but an intern at a literary magazine will ever see.

“I like to reject people. Deal with it.”

            Is it okay to continue to write when so much of my work has been deemed unacceptable? Is it selfish? Is it self-destructive?

            I’m angry that the rejections have stopped me from writing more, and I’m angry that I can’t shut off my inner critics and get the work done, and then I’m angry at myself for being such a loser and a moron and an idiot, and on and on. My therapist asked me to write down all of the nasty things I hear in my head when I try to write and I filled six pages without ever feeling like I’d scratched the surface.

“It’s exhausting.”

            But I don’t want to give in to these voices and follow the shoulds instead of doing the things I love. I’m so tired of hearing what’s wrong with me, and what’s not enough, or what’s too much, as if the noise is blaring out of speakers everywhere I go.

            So this year, my resolution is to do the work that matters to me, even when it’s hard, even when I have to fill page after page with nonsense before I can get to one good, heartfelt sentence. I hate that it’s so hard to get to the good stuff, but it is, for me, for now.

            And I have to persist.

“I can teach you how to persist, Mommy. It’s my super power!”

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?

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?

Alumni Day

            I graduated with my MFA in fiction thirteen years ago, and I’ve never been to any of the Alumni events held by the school. First of all, it’s too expensive to fly to North Carolina and stay in a hotel and pay tuition. Second, I’ve been busy with other things for the past few years: taking psychology classes, then working on my MSW, and now teaching. But, to be honest, even if I could have made the time, or afforded the trip, I was too scared to go. I didn’t want to face people who had made more of their writing careers, or their teaching careers, or their editing and publishing careers than I had. I can barely keep my ego ticking as it is, and I was afraid that going back into that environment with so little to show for myself might crush me.

“You’re so melodramatic.”

            This year, because of Covid, the alumni programming was planned for Zoom, or something like Zoom. It would just be for one day, and free, and easy to get to, but I was still reluctant to go. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know that many people, and I was afraid that I would see people I did know, and didn’t really want to see again, but most of all, I was afraid that I would fall into a shame spiral, comparing myself to other people and how brave they are, and how persistent they’ve been, and how confident they are about their right to be heard. I was also afraid that the intellectual snobbery thing – we write literary fiction – would leak all over me and make me feel shitty, and my ego strength would return to where it was when I was in that school, and I would fall off an emotional cliff.

Given all of that, it was hard to understand why I was even considering going to this thing. It felt like some perverse way of testing myself, to see if I’ve changed in the past fifteen years. But I also felt guilty for not pushing myself to go to any of the previous years’ events, and missing out on the possibility that someone or something at one of those reunions could have helped me build my writing career. I don’t think I’ve ever really healed from the writing workshops in graduate school: the jealousy, the demeaning quality of the criticism, the conformity of the standards, the daily reality that everything is a competition for scarce resources… That’s why when I run writing workshops now, I try hard to make them therapeutic and welcoming and non-competitive, because my own experiences in writing workshops were so much the opposite.

            But then there was the boy. I think of him as a boy because we were both so immature when we met in graduate school. He’s off on his own track now, married with kids and a good job, and I’m still me. I wanted to see him, but only if he was going to smile at me and be happy to see me; I didn’t want to see him if he was going to pity me, or look down on me. And I didn’t even know if he would be there.

            Maybe most of all, I wanted to see if this one day return to graduate school could help me restart my confidence around trying to get published. I’ve been steely-eyed about making sure I get a blog post written each week, no matter what other responsibilities come up, but I haven’t been as strong-willed in the past few years about working on and sending out my other writing projects.

            It’s just so freaking hard to ignore the rejections.

“I accept you, Mommy!”

            I finally filled out the registration form for the Alumni event, thinking I could still decide not to go at the last minute. I chose a few sessions to go to, and gave myself permission to leave sessions early, or go to more of them, depending on how things went.

            I woke up early on Alumni day, well, earlier than I wanted to, and went to my first event in the living room. The timing of the first session was lucky, because I had my regular phone call with my therapist scheduled for right afterwards. That safety net was reassuring. I flipped through multiple screens looking for faces I might recognize, and then I checked the participants list. I saw a few familiar names from the school Facebook group, but not many from my time in the program, so I took a break for a few minutes, paced the floor, watched some terrible news, and then went back to the computer for a reading by one of the graduates from my time who’d been more successful than me. And I survived. The therapy break right afterwards was a relief, though, and then there was a writing workshop that felt more like a literature class, which is not my thing, and then I slept through a panel I’d wanted to go to, on book promotion, because I was exhausted from all of the zooming by then.

“Can I go back to sleep?”

            To make up for missing the Book Promotion panel, I forced myself to go to the first few minutes of the final event, an Open Mic, despite not having it on my to-do list ahead of time. I actually tried to stay for a while and support my fellow alumni but I couldn’t seem to sit still anymore, and I wanted to start writing this blog post, because I couldn’t really be sure what the day had meant to me until I could look at it in squiggles on the page.

             I was disappointed not to see the boy; maybe he’d gone to one of the sessions I’d skipped, or maybe he was too busy, or maybe he was just as afraid of returning to graduate school as I was, or maybe he was afraid of seeing me. And I was disappointed that I didn’t recognize many of the other alumni on the screen, and that my impulse to send out my work was still in snooze mode. I was disappointed that Alumni day hadn’t turned out to be a great step forward in my life, or a chance to confront deep dark old wounds, or get a great idea for a new book, but, the good news was that I didn’t fall into a shame spiral either. I’d given it a try, and then I’d listened to my discomfort and my own point of view, and I let myself shrug it off. That wouldn’t have been possible fifteen years ago, or ten, or even five. I was able to hear the old thoughts pass through my mind – you’re not trying hard enough to fit in, you’re not the right kind of writer, you don’t deserve success because you don’t know how to give people what they want – and I picked up each old thought like a Daddy Long Legs in the bathtub and I set it aside. And that was it.

            It was an anticlimactic experience, but, in its way, it was a significant step forward for me. I said yes to something that scared me, I gave it a try, and then when it didn’t work out, I was able to just let it go. And then I took the dogs out for a walk, wrote the first draft of this blog post, and watched a Hallmark movie, or two. Not such a bad day after all.

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 Writing Workshop for Tashlich

Last year, I ran two writing workshops at my synagogue, to help empower people to write their own blessings, and to validate more of their real emotions and experiences on a daily basis. I only had a small group of writers with me each time, but the work they did was revelatory and worth the effort. So, with the very unusual world we are living in today, and with High Holiday services scheduled to take place entirely on line, my rabbi asked me to come up with another workshop, on Zoom this time, to prepare for the ceremony of Tashlich, which usually takes place on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, outdoors. This will be our only chance to connect in person at a safe distance as a community during the holidays, and the rabbi wanted to give people a chance to prepare for it more fully, and also a way to include the people who, for reasons of health or age, would still not be able to participate in person.

The word Tashlich means “casting off,” and it is a ceremony where we gather together at a body of water to cast off our sins from the past year. This is when my congregation usually goes to a nearby pond, to hop over goose poop, meet everyone’s dogs, sing with the cantor, and toss our sins out to the ducks, in the form of birdseed or anything else that won’t kill them.

“Are we going to shul with you?”

It is one more avenue for doing Teshuvah (Repentance, or Return), which is the goal for the whole month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on through Yom Kippur. It’s sort of like a six-week version of the twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, including making amends for past bad actions. There is a heavy emphasis on sin and guilt, and the implication is that we’ve all got big garbage bags full of sins from the past year that we need to empty out.

I’m not a huge fan of the emphasis on Sin and Repentance, but I do see the value in looking back on the year to see how we’ve inevitably veered off track, or gotten preoccupied by too much external noise. And I like the idea of making the process of casting things off more concrete, creating a safe container for our more difficult realizations about ourselves, and the emotions connected to them, and then physically throwing them away.

Despite all of my experiences of Tashlich occurring at duck ponds, it turns out that the preference of the rabbis was that the body of water would have fish in it, because fish can’t close their eyes and therefore they remind us of God’s constant protective watch over the Jewish people. But, if you can’t get to a body of water, you can also toss your sins into a bucket of standing water, or into running water from the kitchen sink, or you can even flush them down the toilet. You can write your sins on paper towels, or tissues, or rice paper, or you can even write them in sidewalk chalk and wash them away with a hose, or water balloons!

“Don’t be silly.”

But the words Repentance and Sin were still holding me back, until Jon Batiste, the bandleader of The Late Show with Steven Colbert, said something I found really helpful. Colbert had asked him his thoughts about the late Congressman John Lewis’ influence on the world, and Jon Batiste said that he saw John Lewis’ legacy as an invitation to growth and change, as opposed to Steven Colbert’s feelings of guilt and shame as motivation for change.For me, an invitation implies that there’s a party to go to, and a pool of energy to tap into that doesn’t have to rely solely on what I can bring with me. That’s what I love about community (and about this blog community especially), that whatever I bring with me takes me to a place where there is so much more of what I need. I’m invited, with all of my questions and doubts and confusion, to join a party that will energize me for the next step in the journey.

At its best, that’s what a writing workshop can do (though if your experiences of writing workshops took place in graduate school, with strict deadlines and competitive classmates, you are probably scoffing right now). My goal with each writing workshop is to respond with a “yes, and” to everyone; to let their ideas lead all of us to more of our own thoughts and feelings, so that we walk away with more gifts than we could have created on our own.

This period of Teshuvah, which starts in mid-August this year, is also coming along at a good time, given the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence, and the time for reflection offered by the Covid 19 shut down, with its inevitable emphasis on mortality. In preparing for the writing workshop, I had to think about what I might want to cast out of my life this year, and the first thing on my list would be the time spent beating myself up for the passage of time, and for my turtle slow pace. If I can stop looking at the clock, and the calendar, and the competition, and just focus on my own next step, next year will be a lot more productive, and a lot more fun than this one.

“We need more fun.”

            May we all live kinder, happier, and more fulfilling lives in the year to come. And let us be there for one another on the journey, if only to answer: Amen.

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?

Writing Music

            As soon as I admitted to myself that I wanted to write a song, I stopped practicing the ukulele and the recorder. It wasn’t intentional, or even conscious, but when I look back, that’s the timing.

“I’m keeping it warm for you, Mommy.”

            I had been practicing three or four days a week at that point, not every day the way I’d promised myself but not too bad. And I’d been thinking about songwriting for a while, wondering what was stopping me, and wandering around the edges of the idea. And then, I think it was part of Holocaust Remembrance day at my synagogue, the Cantor shared songs with us during his Zoom, and showed us a version of  “Blessed is the Match” in Hebrew and English, based on a poem by Hannah Senesh, and, almost immediately, I wanted to rewrite it.

            Some background, Hannah Senesh was born in Hungary and immigrated to Palestine as a teenager. She joined the Haganah, the precursor to the Israeli army, and in March 1944, at age 23, she and others parachuted into Yugoslavia to assist with the rescue of Hungarian Jews who were being deported to concentration camps. She was caught by the Nazis, tortured and then killed by a firing squad. “Blessed is the Match” was written in Yugoslavia as she prepared for the rescue mission.

            This is the English translation the Cantor taught us:

            Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

Blessed is the heart that knows, for honors sake, to stop its beating.

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

I went looking for other versions of the song, hoping to find something wonderful, so I wouldn’t have to do the work. I found a few versions, one that sounded like a march, and another that sounded like a dirge, and I was still annoyed by the vague and sentimental way the English sounded, as opposed to the original Hebrew, and I hated the saccharine and schmaltzy orchestrations. Don’t get me wrong, I like sentiment and sweetness, but not for this.

“I always like sweet stuff!”

I started working on a new translation that afternoon, looking up possible variations in Google Translate until I came up with a formulation that sounded close to the original Hebrew, at least to me. Except, then I had to match the rhythm and meter of the English to the Hebrew, because I wanted the song to be sung in both languages, and that process helped me understand where the vague and sentimental versions had come from in the first place; matching Hebrew and English rhythms is very hard, because Hebrew is so much more terse than English.

Anyway, this is what I came up with:

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame.

Blessed is the match that burns in the depths of their hearts

Blessed are the hearts that know death is near and go on

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame

“Blessed” isn’t really the right translation for the Hebrew word “Ashrei,” but the more accurate translation, of “grateful” or “happy,” feels misleading, or at least uncomfortable in this context, so I stuck with Blessed.

            I still wasn’t thrilled with my version, but I wanted to start thinking about the music. I wanted a simple, clear, melody. I wanted the melody to do a lot of the work that my translation couldn’t do; I wanted the melody to convey the conflict hiding in the lyrics.

“Ask me. I know about conflict.”

            Hannah Senesh’s poem rides a very thin line between suicidality and heroism; a line that needs to be delineated clearly when you are talking about freedom fighters or soldiers. How do you stand up and say that you are willing to put your life at risk, without also sounding like you want to die? How do you express a desire to save others, without pretending to a kind of complete altruism and selflessness that you don’t feel?

            The central image of the poem is of a match that willingly goes out, or knowingly risks going out, for the sake of others. And that image is both beautiful and horrifying; it’s a sacrifice that no one should have to make, and that no one should be asked to make, but it’s a sacrifice that some people will choose to make anyway, in order to save those they love. This is why I didn’t like the saccharine iterations, where the assumption is that you would feel complete happiness in dying for those you love, or the military march versions, which suggest that your patriotism will make you so single minded that you will lack any regrets. I wanted the darkness, and the fear, and the love, and generosity, to be in the music all at the same time. No pressure, though.

            I’m not sure yet why this poem resonated so deeply for me. I am not selfless, and I don’t dream of being a hero and sacrificing myself for others, but something compelled me to sit down and write music for the first time in forever, just to capture some resonance I couldn’t articulate in words.

“Have you ever tried barks instead of words?”

            But working on the music, and trying different combinations of notes, and trying to count syllables and quarter notes, and trying to remember which keys have which flats and sharps, all opened a wound that seems to have been sitting there, full of puss, for years. I’d managed to tap into a dark morass of feelings of worthlessness and stupidity and guilt and shame that I didn’t know were there.

            As a writer, a long time ago, I was able to find mentors to help me get past the endless rules and criticisms I found in school; I read Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott and others, and I used freewriting to get to what I wanted to say, instead of what other people found acceptable and impressive. It took a lot of work, and I still get stuck, but I found a path to go down. With music, though, I never found that path. I tried listening to classical music, and I studied voice and piano and guitar, and I really tried to understand what people were saying about how to do it all correctly, but the theories and the math and the rules never made sense to me.

            I have a notebook full of songs from my early teens, but at some point I got stuck and I couldn’t write one more measure. All I heard in my head was, You Don’t Understand Music, Your math is wrong, your harmonies are stupid, and you don’t even know what a chorus is.

            I’ve made a tentative return to practicing ukulele and recorder, though. And I even wrote a poem in Hebrew a couple of weeks ago (most of which came to me in a dream), but the unfinished draft of “Blessed is the Match, with its unmoored musical notes scares me too much. I’m afraid it will be awful, and wrong, and explode in my face if I look too closely.

            I asked Cricket and Ellie to look at the draft for me and, though they are not trained bomb sniffing dogs, and they didn’t notice anything explosive on the paper. But I still can’t look at it, or, God forbid, try to sing it, or sound it out on the keyboard on my phone. Instead I’m writing about it, or trying to, and doing my best to build a bridge, one word at a time, to make my way across this dangerous sea.

“Are we going swimming?”

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?

Triggered

 

The first sexual abuse memories that came back were from my second abuser, my best friend’s older brother. He was six years older than us, and it seems like the abuse started when I started to sleep over at her house, at around age four, but he had access to us long before that. He boasted a few times that he used to help change our diapers, but that seems unlikely. He abused us in her bedroom, and in the den when we slept on the fold out couch in order to watch TV. He also abused us during the day, in the pool and in the kitchen, when he was left to watch us.

I couldn’t have told you that I was being abused if you’d asked me at the time. The memories dived under the surface as soon as they were created. All I knew was that whenever I saw my best friend’s brother I felt sick to my stomach and frightened, but I wasn’t sure why.

I stopped sleeping over at their house, abruptly, when I was seven or eight years old, after I couldn’t get to sleep one night during our weekly sleepover. I don’t remember going to bed, and I don’t remember the abuse that night, I just remember pacing in my friend’s room and then walking out into the hall and knocking on her parents’ bedroom door and asking to go home. It may have been ten o’clock at night, but to me it felt like three o’clock in the morning. I called home on the phone in the hall, and Mom came to get me, though I don’t actually remember going home. There’s a lot I don’t remember.

This was my best friend’s house. We’d met as infants, when our mothers took us to Mother’s Day Out at the local community center. We did everything together, for years, except that we eventually went to different schools. She went to a Lutheran school and I went to a Jewish school. I brought her with me to junior congregation at my synagogue, and we danced around her living room to a record of Jesus songs for kids.

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“Who’s dancing?”

Looking back, the abuse must have taken a turn that last night, something worse than usual to make me so desperate, but I don’t know what it was. It’s possible that something else woke me up to my fear, or to the idea that I could leave if I wanted to. I don’t know. But I still went over to her house during the day, even though I was starting to be aware that something was wrong. I knew that I felt nauseous each time I saw her brother, and I knew that it seemed ironic (and yes, I knew that word as a kid), that I wasn’t allowed to walk home alone from her house once it got dark, and her brother was sent along to protect me. He liked to carry Nun Chucks. Their parents thought they were keeping me safe from the bad guys by sending him along with me. They never let me walk home alone in the dark, no matter how much I begged.

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“Grr!”

My friend and I grew apart for multiple reasons. We were, as I said, at different schools during the day, and my father became more and more religious, making us keep kosher, so that I couldn’t eat at her house anymore. But the abuse had to have played a role too, though neither one of us talked about it, or seemed to remember that it had happened. There was some sort of secret miasma that sat between us in a way we couldn’t articulate. I went to her eighth birthday party, a sleepover, but I threw up multiple times and had to go home, again in the middle of the night.

It took years to piece those pictures together, though, and to guess how old I was in each one, and how one thing led to another. It’s still like a kaleidoscope, with tiny pieces taped together in incomplete patterns; but the memories I have are vivid, and eventually, when we were older, my friend and I were able to talk about what happened and validate each other’s memories.

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“Harrumph.”

We’d both experienced amnesia for the abuse. When we talked about it years later, our memories of the abuse were remarkably similar, including the ways we had forgotten about it, but while my memories of being abused always included her sleeping nearby, or being abused as well, she’d blocked out any memory that I was even there.

Flashes of different images came back to me at different times, out of context. I didn’t have words for what he had done to us, sexually, or emotionally, or psychologically. I couldn’t make sense of why he would do those things. I remember these little speeches he gave, telling me to close my eyes and that everything would be fine, telling me that my friend was fine with it so I should be fine with it too, telling me that I couldn’t tell anyone about it because they’d be disappointed in me. My friend was right next to me in her bed, sleeping through his abuse of me, and of her, and I couldn’t make sense of that. I didn’t understand how she couldn’t hear him. I hated how easily she fell asleep.

I remembered hiding in the bathroom one night and holding the door shut, even though it was already locked, and arguing with her father, because I thought he was her brother coming to get me, when he tried to open the door. I remembered standing in their kitchen, with the sun shining on my face, and my underpants down at my ankles. He’d made it into a game, kind of like hide and seek, and I was terrible at hiding. I’m very bad at games in general, but I was also a very slow runner compared to my friend. I remember her leaning out of her hiding place and asking why no one had found her yet. I remember being terrified as her brother counted down, because I couldn’t think of anywhere good to hide.

IMG_0886

“I could have helped you, Mommy.”

It wasn’t until I’d been in therapy for a few months, at age 19, after years of remembering parts of the abuse, that I felt strong enough to confront my friend’s mother with my memories. The family had moved out of the neighborhood and it was a long drive out to see her. By the time we got there I was too scared to get out of the car, so Mom had to talk to her first. That’s when we found out that my friend had already told her what had happened, a year or so earlier, but had only told her about one other little girl who’d been abused, and not about me.

My friend called me in the middle of the night, that night, for the first time in years, to talk about our memories of the abuse. She had no answer for why she hadn’t mentioned me to her parents, when she confronted them with her own memories of the abuse. She said that she just didn’t remember that I’d been there that much. She even named someone else, a boy, as her best friend from that time. It was part of the dissociative response, I guess. That’s the most sense I can make of it. She had told herself that we weren’t as close as I knew we’d been, and that I hadn’t spent as much time at her house as I knew I did. Something about remembering that I was abused too was more than her brain could handle. And even her mother, who could have guessed that I was, at least, a potential victim, had forced herself not to think about the possibility. But in the next sentence, my friend told me that it was my fault that she was so bossy to her friends, because I’d let her get away with that behavior when we were little. She saw me as the template for all of her later friendships, but she couldn’t remember that I’d been at her house constantly, for years, being abused right along with her. No matter how much my therapist tried to explain dissociation to me, I still had a hard time with that.

My friend’s parents made a special trip to see my parents, a few weeks later, and I tried to listen in on their conversation from my bedroom upstairs, but I could only hear the clinking of glasses, and laughter, while I sat in my room, shaking with fear, and anger. The one line I remember from Mom’s description of the conversation later on, was that my friend’s father had said, well, it gave her something to write about, or something to that affect, because I’d given my friend a story I’d written about the abuse, which she then shared with her parents, and her brother.

My father’s response to me, the day after seeing my friend’s parents, was that he was “surprised to find out that the memories were true and not just your fantasy.” This was said with a smile.

IMG_0238

“This is worse than Grr.”

The validation of the sexual abuse by my best friend’s brother was probably the trigger that allowed me to look at the even darker memories I had around my father. I’d been hinting at abuse by him to my therapist, telling her about all kinds of weird things he’d said, about how children under five don’t remember anything, and children under three don’t feel pain. And the way he took me on “dates,” and the way he tried to get between me and my mom, and bribe me with presents, and the way he’d used religion to control me. There were so many things that were off, overtly, about my father and the relationships within the family, but it wasn’t until after the validation of my memories of abuse at my friend’s house that I could even contemplate the other images that kept swirling around in my head.

And even then, it was a long process, with images being pieced together over time, and body memories finally being verbalized, and memories I’d always had being re-examined. I started to recognize that the same way my memories of the abuse at my friend’s house would fade to black, memories of time spent with my father, in the darkroom developing pictures, and in the dark, period, faded to black too.

Why am I writing about this now? Because I was doing one of my language learning apps and the word for “eel” came up in Hebrew, and below it there was a sketch of an eel, and suddenly, memories of the abuse by my friend’s older brother rushed back; memories that I’d supposedly worked through ad infinitum over the years, and resolved, over many years of therapy. The images of a squid and an octopus, both phallic-adjacent, had bothered me in earlier lessons, but it was the eel that pushed me over the edge.

I resent the way memory works, but I’ve gotten better at dealing with the consequences of these triggers, and honoring the need to process what comes at me, with as much patience and self-compassion as I can muster. I used to think that I could force all of the therapy work to be done at one time, and on my schedule, and fully under my own control, but my brain refuses to let me. It decides when I’m ready, and when I’m not.

Maybe someday I will know everything that happened, and I will stop feeling like there are ghosts waiting to jump out at me from behind every curtain. But maybe not.

yeshiva girl with dogs

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?