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A Passover Blessings Workshop

 

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

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

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

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“We were wondering the same thing.”

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

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“Do I look tense to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

The Exodus-from-Egypt Song

 

For the Women’s Passover Seder at my synagogue, for the second year in a row, the female rabbi asked congregants to share their own escape-to-freedom stories ahead of time, and have songwriters put those stories to music. I said no last year, because I was adamant that I didn’t want someone else telling my story. I had just published my novel and I wanted people to read it; and to read it in my voice. But this year, when the Rabbi asked me again, I said yes.

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“You did what?!”

I decided that, imperfect as the method might be, I needed to take the opportunity; my community needed to hear from me. And maybe, in the form of a song, in a room filled with friends and good food and music, my message could be heard, and received; and maybe someone in the audience of women would feel like they could come forward and tell their story as a result of hearing some version of mine.

My synagogue has not made much of the #MeToo movement. If anything, a lot of the older congregants have found it disturbing to have to look at Woody Allen, or any of the other famous cases of sexual assault, more closely. What they were really mad about was the way Al Franken was “forced” out of the senate, by “women with an agenda.” This wasn’t coming from the men in the congregation; it was the women who rejected #MeToo.

So I hoped a song could help make a difference. But I was still uneasy about having someone else interpret my story. The rabbi asked me to write up a short summary of my exodus story, so that the songwriter wouldn’t have to “read the whole book,” and I took the opportunity to not just write another summary of what happened to me, but to explore some of the metaphors I’d want to use if I were up to writing the song myself, and to reference some of the Jewish prayers that have resonance for me. I wanted to make the process easier for the songwriter, yes, but more than that I wanted to make sure that my voice, and not just my story, were heard.

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“Woof!”

This is some of what I wrote:

I was sexually abused by my father when I was a child, and emotionally and psychologically abused by him throughout my childhood and adolescence. He relied on his considerable intelligence, and his midlife discovery of Orthodox Judaism, to protect himself from consequences, but he was still accused, multiple times, of inappropriate sexual contact with young girls. I was also sexually abused by my best friend’s older brother when I stayed over at her house. Incest families, I’ve discovered, are like alcoholic families: they tend to find each other.

            My mother and I were able to leave my father behind when I was twenty-three, after we’d both been in therapy long enough to feel ready to escape. The process of recovery, for both of us, has been long and difficult. We are each other’s support systems. I’m a writer, with three masters’ degrees, but I still struggle every day. My time line is very different from other people, with a lot of “normal” life events out of reach.

            My hope for this song is that it will focus on the liberation part of the story, and the work of recovery, because I think that’s the part most people don’t see or understand. They’re used to seeing the dramatic moments of the abuse itself, or the heroic escape. They’ve read Lolita, and gotten a distorted (and sexualized) view of abuse, or they’ve watched Oprah and believe that abuse victims can all pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and fast, if they just try hard enough. Neither version is the truth.

            I like the comparison to the Exodus from Egypt, because that story isn’t just about one person, it’s about needing a group to go with you on the journey; and it’s about the difficulties that come with liberation: the years of wandering, the struggle to survive, the overwhelming nature of freedom, etc. Liberation is painful and full of effort. The Exodus requires faith that God will part the Sea of Reeds to let you pass through, and that manna will fall from the sky when you are hungry, and that you will not have to walk through it all alone.

            It’s important to remember that leaving the place where the horrors happened doesn’t mean you leave the memories of the horror behind. You bring yourself with you when you leave.

            People have unreasonable expectations of the victims of abuse. They think that the victim must save herself in order to feel empowered, but that’s just not how it works. The victim needs to feel safe and loved and honored and supported and believed in order to begin to empower herself. Our idea of the hero as the lone wolf fighting the bad guys is unrealistic. The reality is that groups of people defeat monsters together. If you see only a lone hero then you are not looking closely enough; look for the friend, the parent, the teacher, the neighbor, the doctor, the therapist, the librarian who smiles at a little girl who has been taught to believe she is nothing.

            As a child I was always hiding: under the porch, curled like a snail in the wet dirt; in the closet, behind my big stuffed panda; under the bed, with the blanket hanging down; under the piano, where no one thought to look. I hid, and I ran, and I held my breath. That’s the part I can talk about. The rest is unspeakable. The smells. The slick on my skin. The weight on me. The suffocating smell of polyester as I tried to breathe through the blanket smothering my face, and counted and counted until it was over. And the words. So many awful words aimed at me like a pistol at my head. A real pistol, dull matte black that smelled of fireworks. My father liked to say that I was the cause of all evil; that all of the problems in our family, and in the world, were my fault in some way. I have never been able to completely let go of that belief.

            We are often mute about sexual abuse because the crime itself is unspeakable, not because it shouldn’t be spoken of. How do we talk about the unspeakable – or do we sing about it instead?

            There’s a song in Hebrew that has always troubled me: The whole world is a narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid. But I am afraid every day. I cross the narrow bridge every day and sometimes it feels so narrow that I can barely put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes I barely make it across. But, to me, the important thing isn’t to not be afraid, the important thing is to be afraid and to cross the bridge anyway, because if you don’t you’ll die.

            The danger of telling is that you won’t be believed. The danger of telling is that no one will care. The danger of telling is that even when they know, they won’t do anything to stop it. The danger of telling the secret is finding out that you are not the only one, that there are millions of you crossing that narrow bridge, each alone.

            This is not a song of forgiveness.

            Update: I received a draft of the lyrics from the songwriters and it looks good. They focused on that image of crossing the narrow bridge, and the need for support. Unfortunately, the Women’s Seder has been cancelled this year due to the Coronavirus. I hope that the song will survive the impact of the virus and make its way into the world at some point, because I really want to hear the song, and share it with my community, and see what happens.

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“We’ll see.”

 

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 Am Struggling with the Sequel to Yeshiva Girl

For years I thought I had a solid draft of the second Yeshiva Girl book tucked away, just waiting for the first book to be published so I could neaten it up and publish it soon after. But last year, when I opened the file on my computer and looked at the draft, I was underwhelmed. It was a mess. There were at least three competing versions of the story running around, all incomplete. I had added to, and revised, the file over the years without remembering most of what I’d done.

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“Like I forget that I already ate breakfast?”

 

Reading through what I had, finally, I realized that I was still undecided about where the book should even be set, in time or space. Parts were set in high school, parts were set in college, parts were set in Izzy’s grandparents’ house, and parts were set in a skating rink.

One of the dangers of writing autobiographical fiction is that it’s hard to know which details from real life to keep, and which ones to change. The second Yeshiva Girl book will have to be even less memoir than book one, because I made such a point of giving Izzy a soft place to land in book one, something I didn’t have in real life.

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Happy girl!

I want Izzy to have a better life than I’ve had, with love and children and professional success, but I don’t want to downplay the impacts of trauma, because I know better. I want to find a way to let Izzy struggle, so that other survivors can be validated and recognize their own struggle in hers. I want people to know that child abuse, of every kind, leaves deep scars, and that expecting victims to recover on their own, without support, is unrealistic. That’s just not how humans work. But, I still want Izzy to have a happier life than I’ve had. That’s why I gave her a living grandfather, even though my own grandfather died when I was eight years old. And I want to play that out for her, how having that safe place at age sixteen makes a difference in her life, but also, I want to show that it won’t be a magical cure either.

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“I prefer magic, Mommy.”

It feels like there are at least ten ways to write the second book, and I almost need to write out all ten in order to feel like I’ve done the work and gotten as much as I need to get out of the process of writing it. In the end, that’s what I did with the first book. I was satisfied with what was on the page because I’d had the chance to write, and delete, every other possible version of the story.

One of the decisions I have to make is about using flashbacks. I have been told, too many times, about the danger of telling stories in flashback. I had a fiction teacher in graduate school who was fierce about the things we shouldn’t use in our writing. Like, no dreams, no flashbacks, and no stories about girls getting their periods.

I really think the second Yeshiva Girl book would benefit from flashbacks, so that I can set the book further in the future without losing good details from the in-between years. And I want to use dreams. I have found dreams to be incredibly vivid in their ability to show how things feel.

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“Like when I catch the squirrel?!”

Also, for my own wish fulfillment, I want Izzy’s father to go to jail, or die, or get some fair comeuppance, because my real father did not. I joke that God sent at least ten plagues his way, but none of them worked. The fact is that he has never acknowledged his guilt, or responsibility, for anything.

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“Grrr.”

It’s these endless inner conflicts that keep getting in my way, but they are also the reason why I need to write this book in the first place. I’m just not sure how to speed up the work, so that I’ll still have time to write everything else I need to write before I run out of energy. Or time.

 

YG with Cricket

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

I Seem To Be a Teacher

 

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

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

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

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

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The girls were vicariously exhausted.

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

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

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“I’m worried for you.”

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

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

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

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

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“I love you, Mommy!”

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Cricket is thinking about it.

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

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“Really?”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

Writing Our Own Blessings

 

There’s a long list of blessings in the Jewish tradition, most of which are over food. The official purpose of saying blessings in Judaism, according to Wikipedia, is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessings, and to transform everyday actions and occurrences into religious experiences. There are blessings on giving charity, and hearing thunder and seeing lightning, on smelling a fragrance, or seeing a rainbow (though that last one is focused on blessing the memory of the covenant between God and the Jewish People, which isn’t really what’s exciting about rainbows). There are blessings for seeing the ocean, or the blossoming of trees, or undergoing a medical procedure, or crossing an ocean, or being released from prison. There are blessings you’re supposed to say each morning, to thank God for straightening the bent, and releasing the bound, and opening the eyes of the blind, and “making me a man.” There is an alternate blessing for women to say, but, spoiler alert, it’s not equivalent to the blessing for men. There are blessings on seeing a miracle, and on receiving good or bad news, and then there’s the blessing thanking God for not making me a Goy (non-Jew), which I just refuse to say.

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“Hey, what’s that about?”

My question is: are these existing blessings sufficient to fill our needs? Every blessing in the canon was written by a human being, at a certain time and for a certain purpose. If the blessings we say throughout the day impact how we feel about our lives, it only seems fair that we should have some control over what they will be. I want to feel empowered to say the blessings that mean something to me, today, and not be stuck repeating what generations of men have seen as worthy of gratitude.

First of all, I want to be able to alter existing blessings when they don’t work for me. For example, I would change the blessing over rainbows so that it focuses on the beauty of a rainbow, or on the hope that leprechauns and gold coins will appear at the end of it. And since I can’t say the thank-god-I’m-a-man blessing and I refuse to say the thank-god-I’m-not-a-Goy blessing, I need to find alternatives. Maybe, thank God people are all different so we don’t get bored with all of the sameness, or, thank God I am the specific person I am, whoever that may be.

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“That sounds much better.”

I like the idea of spontaneously expressing gratitude when good things happen, even if those good things don’t fit into some universal pattern. Ellie might say Thank you God for giving me a mommy who knows that I want chicken right now. And Mom might say, Thank you, universe, for this little bird who landed on my window sill to eat the leftover matzah from Passover that the other birds ignored. And for me, Thank God I have enough pens and yellow narrow-ruled legal pads to write down all of my random thoughts.

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“Did you say chicken?”

            I feel strongly, though, that we should be allowed to acknowledge that life is complicated, and that I can feel more than one thing at a time, without cancelling out the gratitude. I’d call these the “Thank you, but…” blessings, as in, Thank you, God, that I can still walk, even though my hips ache on rainy days, and I have to take pain killers and wear orthotics in all of my shoes; thank you for helping me tolerate people who disagree with me, even though they are still, clearly, wrong; thank you for giving me a nervous system that is extra sensitive to smells and sounds and feelings of all kinds, even though it makes me feel awful half the time; thank you for the joy I feel when I hear a bird singing outside my window, but, you know, it’s five o’clock in the morning and I’d rather be sleeping. And of course, thank you, God, for this piece of chocolate, but next time could you make it Godiva?

            I also want blessings that can acknowledge pain as part of my life: Thank you God for seeing me in my pain, accepting me as I am, and knowing that I am doing my best; thank you God for making it rain on a day when I feel like crying; thank you God for sitting next to me in the muck and not being in such a hurry to leave; Thank you for hearing me when I’m angry and sad and confused, as much as when I’m happy and inspired; Thank you God for teaching me the power of kvetching; blessed art thou, oh lord, our god, ruler of the universe, for not giving a f**k that my hair is a mess today.

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“Stop talking about my hair!”

            And I need some aspirational blessings, to help me imagine that things can improve: may we, one day, remember what it’s like to wake up to actual birds chirping instead of to twitter alerts; may God, or the force, be with me during my exam so that I don’t forget everything I learned in a fog of anxiety; may we all learn to hear one another with empathy and compassion, even when we do not understand.

            And last but not least, because it’s the category we usually think of when we think of blessings, I need some more blessings that celebrate wonder and gratitude, like: a blessing for every time I see a new tree or bird or flower; a blessing on making a new friend, or having an “aha” moment. A blessing for pushing myself one centimeter further into a stretch, or being able to stand up again after sitting on a low chair, or having enough tissues during allergy season. A blessing for practicing a musical instrument, or taking medication that actually works, or reading a good book, or having a nice phone call, or receiving a kind email. A blessing for the ability to think for myself, and a blessing for the miracle that is chocolate mousse.

But I still have a lot of questions about blessings, and the role they play in our lives. Why do some people find deep meaning in saying blessings all day long, and others find it tedious? Is there still value in saying blessings even if you don’t believe in God? Is there a right way or a wrong way to say a blessing, and if I say the “wrong” blessing will it make me feel worse?

The dogs seem to say blessings throughout their day, like when Cricket sighs a deep sigh as she stretches herself out across Grandma’s lap, or when Ellie flies off the steps to chase a squirrel. They haven’t told me who they say their blessings to, or if they believe in God or some other universal force, and I have no idea if there are words attached to the blessings they mutter to themselves all day long, but it makes them happy. I can see how meaningful it is to them, to acknowledge, with a sound or a smile or a stretch, how wonderful they feel when they smell chicken in the air, or when they scratch their backs on the rug. They are fully present in the moment and acknowledge their gratitude, but also their disappointment and grief, all at the same time. Taking that extra second to acknowledge it all seems to really work for them.

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“Aahhh.”

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Some blessings don’t need words.

 

I wonder if there is a collection of blessings that dogs have access to that helps them find the exact right thing to bless, because I could use something like that. But, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure they didn’t find any of their blessings in a prayer book. They just know what they are feeling, and feel free to say it to whoever might be listening. That seems like a good place to start.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

 

How the Book Signing Went

yeshiva girl with dogs

I have discovered that three out of four writers can stand for two hours at a book signing event, and I am the fourth writer. I did stand for the short presentations, where each of us described our books, though I had to lean on random pieces of furniture while the others spoke, and then I almost tripped myself when it was my turn. For the rest of the time we were set up at four small tables, side by side, though, again, I was the only one actually sitting at my table, with everyone else sort of floating nearby. I chose the table with a Picasso-like picture of a girl with brown hair, because it looked like I felt, and sat behind a copy of Yeshiva Girl set up in a Lucite holder. It occurred to me that I should have made some kind of display – two crocheted dragons, maybe, like the YA Fantasy writer, or a blow up of the cover photo on the book, like the memoir writer – but, too late. All I had was me.

I was the newbiest of the newbies there, because the fantasy writer had been doing signings for her book since 2016, and the other two were classroom teachers, but I found that as long as I was able to sit down, and people could come over to me to ask their questions or tell me their stories, I did really well. I’ll have to practice my standing-and-speaking skills, though, for the future. People seemed to actually be interested in the premise of my book, which surprised me. I walk around assuming that no one will be interested in anything I have to say, though, of course, desperately hoping that they’ve been waiting all their lives just to meet and hear from me.

Each person I met had a story, or a thousand stories, to tell and I was awed by them and curious about them, and a little bit overwhelmed, as in, who’s going to notice my star in the midst of such a starry sky. I met a local humor columnist, who bought my book, and we talked about wanting to write mysteries, and the books we’ve read, and writing inspirations, and I had to be careful not to geek out too much and ignore the rest of the potential readers in the room. I met one woman who wanted to read my book, but was afraid it would be too painful, though she encouraged her friends to read it, and talked to me about the importance of people feeling safe to speak up and tell their stories. And there was a woman who’d gone to a tiny catholic school in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, way back when, and had plenty of stories to tell about the experience. And another woman who had worked for a Chassidic-run company and felt her otherness acutely.

I’d only started to get nervous two nights before the book signing event, and the anxiety only became acute that morning, with an internal voice telling me that it would all turn to shit, and I was completely unprepared, and I didn’t have the right clothes or makeup, and I would fall into a deep depression after the inevitable and complete failure.

But I did it! I signed books! I stood in front of strangers and presented my book! I didn’t hide under my bed – the way I wanted to – or pretend to be someone I’m not.

I sold four books and signed five (my aunt came with her own copy, and she stayed for the whole two hours for moral support! Yay Aunt Debbie!). And the woman who ran the event, Robin, one of the owners and the superstar event coordinator at Dolphin Books in Port Washington, NY, asked me to sign two extra copies for the store. Here’s hoping I get more chances to try it again, and next time bring one or both of the dogs for moral support, or to scream at people to buy Mommy’s book.

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“Let’s go, Mommy!”

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“Buy my Mommy’s book!”

I want to thank the other authors at the event:

A high school history teacher/coach (Billy Mitaritonna, Last of the Redmen: Memoir of a St. John’s Walk-on) who wrote about the power of perseverance, and said that the secret was in how his coaches and his father encouraged and supported him no matter how many times he failed. He said that his students were the ones who told him to write his memoir, to share his story with others because it had been so inspiring to them.

Then there was the Dragon Girl (Elana A. Mugdon, Dragon Speaker: The Shadow War Saga, Book One), who was brave beyond my capacity to imagine. She dressed as the protagonist in her young adult fantasy series, wearing a long white wig, in pig tails, a corset, and leather armor. Her protagonist is the only non-magical person in her world, and yet she is the heroine of the story.

The fourth author was a graphic designer (Beth Costello, The Art of the Process: establishing good habits for successful outcomes) with a workbook to help people through the process of design. She had the confidence of a practiced teacher, and the social media skills to have a roomful of supporters waiting to hear from her and buy her book (which meant that I had an audience too!).

I could have used a vat of chocolate frosting in the aftermath of the event, to soothe my frayed nerves, but as soon as we got home the girls needed to go out to pee and that helped with the depressurization process. They squealed their excitement at having their humans back home and raced around the yard with their famous author slash pooper scooper Mommy, and then we settled in on the couch to watch something silly and romantic on television. Overall a successful day.

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“Can we watch something else?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

 

 

My To-Do List

 

Every night, I write up a to-do list for the following day, to make sure I don’t forget important appointments or tasks that need to get done. There was a time when I had to put get dressed and brush teeth on the list, just to give me something to successfully check off, but my lists have grown since then, and most days I find that I’ve only gotten halfway through the list before the day is over. This has gotten worse since I finished graduate school, in December, and found myself with some “free” time before I’m allowed to take the social work licensing exam.

Without Schoolwork at the top of my to-do list, a lot of other projects have cropped up and they all seem equally important to me. Of course, studying for the licensing exam is on my list every day, as is read books which refers to my hefty pile of self-required reading that I mentioned in a previous post. I also put practice ukulele, freewrite and revise, and bike and shower on the list every day (the last refers to time spent on my stationary bike and the shower I have to force myself to take in the aftermath. I take showers every day, don’t worry, but some part of my brain needs to be given credit for making the effort).

I also add tasks that I need to do on a particular day, like researching for a new writing project, or making a food shopping list, or doing the laundry, or setting the DVR for the week, both because I know that I would forget otherwise, and because of the satisfaction I feel when I can cross off a task as finished.

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“Make sure our scratchy time is on the list.”

I almost never put language apps on my list, even though I end up spending at least an hour a day on Duolingo and Tinycards and Drops. I should be fluent in French, German, Spanish and Hebrew by now, given the amount of time I spend glued to that little screen, but alas, I am not. I also don’t put watch TV or check social media on my list, because it would be wrong to give myself credit for fueling my addictions. And napping. I can’t put napping on the list, because that would be cheating.

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“Napping is important work, Mommy.”

When I have to put go to work back on my to-do list, a lot of my other tasks will end up falling by the wayside, and that worries me. For the first time in three and a half years I feel like myself again, even with all of my random thoughts and interests pulling me in every different direction. It’s not the most productive way to live, but it feels more like me, and it allows more parts of me to get the attention they crave. But work will change things.

The dogs will always be priorities, and basic tasks of living (AKA showers), but music and reading lists, and multiple writing projects, I’m not sure they will get the attention they need when something as big as Work gets in the way. And I’m not sure how to prevent that from happening.

People pooh pooh it when I say I’m worried, and tell me that I’ll have plenty of time for everything I want to do, and of course work is the most important thing, and isn’t it cute that you write books as a hobby, and so on. But I know myself. Even if I’m only working part time, it will take most of my energy to make that happen. I will have “free” time, but I’ll need to spend it recovering and resting, not challenging myself with different projects that mean something to me. I want to have faith that work will add to my life, add to my satisfaction and my life experience and my confidence and give me more freedom (because: money). But I’m afraid it will take things away from me instead: autonomy, time, energy, hope.

And the dogs really don’t appreciate this idea of work as something to be done away from home. What will happen to their treats and extra walks and snuggle time? And the separation anxiety will exhaust all of us. But mostly me. In the meantime, I follow my to-do lists, and try to function the best I can, and wring as much as possible out of my day, and hope that there will always be room on my to-do list of the things I love.

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“We’re on the list, right?”

If you haven’t yet had a chance, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel like writing review of the book, on Amazon or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

yeshiva girl with dogs

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.