Thursday, December 29, 2011


Oh how I wanted genius,
that gorgeousness surging:
no sense mattered so much as that sound.

Prone behind my bed, book in hand.
Shelley formed a bright
bubble around me on the brown shag.
My mother came in, went out
believing I was elsewhere.

I thought it would be some kind of escape,
but the words don't really carry you away.
You can't live in that realm of language.

I fall upon the thorns of life.
That's all I have to write about:
that pricking over and over
without even a skylark's flight
to fall from.

Monday, December 5, 2011

...and Letting Go (part II)

The Saturday following the three-year-old’s close encounter with the nightstand, the eight-year-old leyned Torah for the first time. We go to a monthly family minyan, at which kids lead most of the service, and read from the Torah as well. After a kid reads six times, he or she is presented with a yad, and after twelve times, a shofar. The promise of the latter pushed the eight-year-old to put aside her shyness about chanting in front of everybody. One of her best friends would also be chanting for the first time that same day, which sweetened the pot even more.

She read beautifully – such naches! I had the honor and pleasure of teaching her and her friend to leyn – more naches! What a sweet way to end a week that started with a terrible ordeal, you might say, and you would be right, but both incidents presented me with the same challenge: how do you balance the demands of letting your kids be who they are and encouraging who they could be?

I’m not just responding to the current belief that anything your kid does his or her whole life long, good or bad, is a reflection on you and your parenting, so you’d better make sure you never screw up, ever, meaning your kid can’t screw up, ever, although I’m sure I’m not unaffected by that malaise.  My study of the practice of Mussar tells me that everyone has their own spiritual curriculum, dictated by their own mix of characteristics that they must bring into balance in their own way, and learn to use to help bring holiness into the world through their everyday actions. As a parent, I would hope that I would be able to recognize my children’s traits and help them harness them for good while working against or around their ill effects. The three-year-old, for example, clearly has the trait of zerizut (often translated as “zeal” or “alacrity”) in spades; the trick will be to keep her zerizut from flinging her against hard, pointy surfaces without discouraging her from throwing herself against obstacles that can and should be brought down. I’ve got my own curriculum to follow, of course – I keep failing Patience 101, for example – which complicates matters.

When the eight-year-old told me that she wanted to leyn at family minyan, we sat down on the futon and looked through Lech Lecha, the portion of the Torah that would be read the following month. After reading a few different spots, we settled on the three verses where Abram receives the new name of Abraham – they were meaningful and interesting, and not that complicated phonetically and melodically. Since she does half her school day in Hebrew, getting comfortable reading the words was enviably easy for her, and we were soon getting to the trope, the little marks that let you know how to chant each word.

 “I’m so glad that I get to share this with you,” I said.


“Because it’s something that I love to do, and now we’ll be able to do it together.” I was feeling that surge which meant I was captivated by my own thoughts, always a dangerous proposition. My mind roiled with things I could tell her, if only I could express them in a way she could understand: how putting the words and the trope together gave the Torah verses meaning through music, how leyning made the verses sing through me, how it made me feel like a vessel filled with light and energy that poured out with the words. “It makes me feel close to the Torah, to the words as I sing them,” was all I could say.

“Oh.” I could see that mixture of skepticism, sympathy, and confusion in her eyes, the look that makes me feel as if my rationalist eight-year-old is thinking, “Poor Mama. Sometimes you don’t make any sense.”

While I was given a grounding in Jewish history and culture, especially of the Eastern European via Brooklyn-Lower East Side variety, I didn’t grow up with much in the way of Jewish religious observance. As I used to say, my father is a Jewish Atheist: he doesn’t believe in God out of spite. I never stepped inside a synagogue until I was in my twenties. I don’t have many personal experiences that I can draw on in terms of how to live a Jewishly engaged life with kids, or more importantly, as a kid, beyond reading the All-of-a-Kind Family books (the eight-year-old has done that) listening to my grandparents’ Yiddish-inflected kibitzing (sadly, no longer possible), and eating certain foods (we're in the Midwest here, but I do what I can). Basically, I make things up as I go along, and hope I’m doing it right. That’s parenting in a nutshell, I suppose, but sometimes I feel my lack in this area very keenly.

My partner and I both know what a struggle it is to try to pick up knowledge about the liturgy, practices, and most of all, Hebrew, as an adult, and we send our kids to Jewish day school so that they will grow up with everything we continue to acquire piecemeal. Their school is a lovely community as well as a sound center of learning; I am happy to bring them there every day, and they are happy to go. What I worry about, however, is whether I am getting across to them the fact that Jewishness isn’t just about knowing and doing, but about feeling. I especially worry about this with the child whose idea of fun is to see if she can break her own record for how many multiplication flash cards she can do in a minute (right now, she’s at 30; her goal is 50).

I would hope that I can get across my own commitment to living a Jewish life, and why it matters to me. I picked up something precious that could have been left on the side of the road, and I hope that my children will continue to carry it forward.

On the other hand, I know that you can’t force someone to love something. I know what it is like to frustrate an award-winning math teacher with my inability to balance quadratic equations (sorry, Mom). I know what it is like to be made to run laps on a Sunday afternoon for a stopwatch-wielding track coach, struggling to run a twelve-minute mile while wishing more than anything that I could be left alone to read a book under the bleachers instead (sorry, Dad).

She liked fitting the trope to the words, like a puzzle. She could appreciate how the trope could help you remember the words, and helped make the dramatic bits sound even better. Did she feel what I feel when I leyn? Not so far as I could tell. Maybe she will someday. Or maybe not. She is her own person, and will come to craft her own Jewishness, her own way to relating to the history, culture, and practices that are our heritage. Why should she get to do any less than I have done – continue to do – myself?

“Do you want to leyn again next month?” I asked her recently, chumash in hand. I had already looked up what the portion would be for the first Shabbat in January.

“No,” she said.

“Why not?”

She shrugged. “I don’t feel like it.”

I watched her go into the living room to practice flips and backbends on the futon. I stopped myself from asking her why she didn’t want to, if she would ever want to again. I didn’t mention the yad or the shofar. I let go, or at least let the pressure I would have sent in her direction wash against the shores of my own self, and instead watched her flex and spring in ways in which I never could.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Falling (Part I)

            Just four entries in, and already I’ve broken my commitment to myself to write a post a week. Week four was bookended by two events of great parental magnitude, however, so I feel justified, at least a little, in taking the time to think things through. What I lost in time, I gained in material.
            That Monday night – Halloween, in fact – I came home from teaching to find the kids were still up. They were in their pajamas, at least, but still up past their bedtime, although I flattered myself that they had been waiting for me to come home before they would go to bed.
That might have been part of the reason, but so was the attraction of flopping face down onto our bed in a game our 8-year-old called “I’m a stick, I’m a stick.” It’s a trick she learned in gymnastics class and taught to the three-year-old. In class, they do it off the vault onto a high, thick mat, arms stiff at their sides, standing straight, letting the full weight of their bodies fall fearlessly forward. At home, the girls were using our queen-sized bed, standing in the center at the foot of the bed and falling face down into the pillows.
My internal alarm bells always go off when the kids start climbing, jumping, tumbling, or otherwise fooling around. I could say it’s maternal, but my partner is considerably less anxious than I am about such things. I am always the one to say, “No!” “Be careful!” “Watch!” so that even the three-year-old gives me baleful “Would you relax already?” glares. Maybe it’s a legacy inherited from my loving, superstitious Sicilian grandmother, who went through life wringing her hands over the disasters that were sure to come down upon us all at every moment. Or maybe I’m just a worrywart of my own accord, too distrustful, too much of a control freak. I must admit it looked like fun, the girls so confident in their bodies and in the bed that would catch them, just letting go and dropping down, then popping up giggling, with shining faces. And the older one was being so careful, making sure that they were in the middle of the bed, at the very end, where nothing could obstruct their soft landing.
“You each get one more turn and that’s it,” I said. “It’s time for bed.” The little one did her flop and stepped aside. Then the older one flopped and got up. “Alright, that’s it,” I said from my spectator’s spot at the foot of the bed, reaching out toward the two girls up at the head.
That’s when the three-year-old let go for another fall. It would flash unbidden across my mind many times in the coming days, that moment when the corner of the nightstand drove into the flesh above her eyebrow, leaving a deep, triangular gash that would need seven sutures to close. Again and again, I would hear the sickening thump and see the point drive home in a closeup that zoomed in much further than my actual vision would have allowed. When it actually happened, though, what struck me most was the moment when she was still falling, those two seconds when I knew something terrible was about to happen and I was absolutely powerless to stop it.
Fortunately, the Forefront of Medicine is just a few blocks away. She jumped up and down on the bed in the examining room of the  the children’s hospital ER, despite the nurse’s advice that she should lie still to keep the bleeding down, insisted on playing with the remote for the TV, and endured being bound motionless and stitched up as well as can be expected of any spirited three-year-old (meaning she cried and kept saying, “No, I don’t want to do this!”).
Her stitches are out now, and the wound is healing well. She probably won’t even have much of a scar, inside or out: she had a couple nights where she woke up with nightmares, which is unusual for her, but other than these instances of her subconscious working through the trauma, she seems to be her usual, irrepressible self. She’s even tried to play “I’m a stick” a couple of times, but I’ve put an end to that right away. She might be ready to take that risk again, but I’m not.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I love you, Edith Pearlman

So, after inaugurating this blog with posts on apocalypse and pain, I thought that this time I would write something warm and gushy instead: an unabashed love letter to the newest addition to my writerly pantheon, Edith Pearlman. I’ll try not to get too purple, but it’s going to be difficult.

I must admit I came late to the party. Thanks to Lookout Books, a new imprint out of UNC Wilmington (so new, this is their first book), some of Pearlman’s gems have been gathered together to form the collection Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories (2011). In the introduction, Ann Patchett claims that “this should be the book with which Pearlman shakes off her secret-handshake status” (p. xi). A review in the New York Times brought the book to wide attention; then came Pearlman’s PEN/Malamud Award and the book’s nomination for a National Book Award. I think Patchett can consider her prediction fulfilled.

I saw the NYT review and added the book to my reading list, but didn’t get around to it. Then, I got a group email from Rosellen Brown to everybody writerly she could think of, encouraging us to attend Pearlman’s reading at Women and Children First. I meant to go – who am I to ignore a recommendation by Rosellen Brown? – but didn’t. Finally, I read the book. And re-read it, and re-read it. It has been on my nightstand for months, a book I dip back into again and again for delight and solace and a reminder of what is possible in this art and of how far I have yet to go in it.

In her introduction, Patchett talks about having to fill in for an actor who was supposed to read one of Pearlman’s stories at a book launch party for BASS 2006. She says, “My only challenge was to keep from interrupting myself as I read. So often I wanted to stop and say to the audience, ‘Did you hear that? Do you understand how good this is?’” (p. xii). I say that to myself so often as I read these stories, not because they preen with cleverness or showy prose, but because they are works of art so deftly crafted, so surely made. No seams or thumbprints show. And I say it to myself because these stories are so richly, deeply human, addressing all the glories and foibles of this sorry species, in death and love and war and clumsy tenderness.  They lay bare with piercing honesty and sympathy, and without any smarty-pants superiority (despite their wit and intelligence). I also say it to remind myself to “read like a writer,” and pay attention to what I can learn about my art and craft here. These stories are so good it can be hard to resist the power that makes them sing through you, and respond to them any other way than as a grateful, entranced, fully engaged reader.

I wrote a couple posts ago about David Foster Wallace’s call for fiction that keeps alive the glow of what is possible despite the time’s darkness. I wonder if he was in on the Pearlman handshake. For his sake, I hope so, despite the great difference in their styles and approaches. I know that I am glad to be. I can’t claim some sort of insider status, now that handshake is not so secret anymore, but I have the gift of having read these stories and been changed by them, and that is what really counts.

I’ll leave you with a sample of the Pearlman prose that now lives in my head, thankfully. This is from “The Coat,” a story about a relief worker who comes home to the U.S. after years serving in European DP camps. She cuts her gray hair in the Mary Martin crop fashionable in New York at the time, and takes to the streets of the city in the fur-collared wool overcoat left behind by a previous occupant of the Manhattan apartment she is subletting:

She did not think of the coat as lawfully hers, oh no. But in its illicit protection she became a personage. Immigrant men hoping to adapt to the New World were buying fedoras and secondhand broad-shouldered suits. Unwittingly they looked like gangsters. In print dresses their wives resembled charladies. Sonya, American by birth, graduate of a teacher’s college and an accounting course, never out of the country until she was past fifty…Sonya was preserving the Old World of Ringstraßen, universities, coffeehouses, salons, museums, bunds and diets and parliaments and banks. She walked and walked. Truck drivers shouted coarse phrases to one another. Shopgirls out for lunch wore glistening lipstick. Sometimes she paused at a department store window and bowed at her reflection. (pp. 154-155)

Do you hear that? Do you understand how good that is? Of course you do.

Monday, October 17, 2011


In an effort to describe something as indescribable, someone once said to me, "It would be like asking someone to describe what pain feels like." I was thinking about that comment recently, and about how in fact pain does differ, and not just in degree, which led to this piece. Please note: this is not for the squeamish.

“You looked like you were being led from one torture chamber to another,” someone said to me later. My partner on one arm, the doula on the other, briskly walked me up and down the hospital corridors because, after twenty hours of labor, the midwifery team decided the birth would come sooner if I kept moving, stopping only to grip the railing and squat when the contractions hit.

I didn’t want to keep moving. I didn’t want to walk by the lounge where my family members were waiting, to hear my mother call out encouraging words in a choked-up voice that pulled me out of myself and into concern about how she was feeling. I wanted to crouch in a dark corner, where no one would talk or poke or bear me along. I walked only because it was less distracting to keep moving than to negotiate.

How strange, that the passage to a state in which my life would be given over to the needs of another would first require shutting out others. I needed to climb inside this pain, be enveloped in it. This wasn’t torture, whatever it looked like from the outside. Torture subjects from without, like the renal colic that my body tried to arc away from, writhing around a pain that promised release if I could just find the right position, although it never could be found. This pain my body accepted. I floated in it, a boundless ocean that surrounded me as I rode each wave.

When at last I felt the opening up that meant labor was becoming delivery, I became even more enclosed. Not even the snapping of my tailbone or the splitting of my vaginal tissue brought me into the world where nurses scurried and midwives shouted directions. I finally emerged when I felt the sting of the surgeon stitching 20 sutures in the lateral tears as I held my child, trying to make her first moments of life something other than hearing me say, “Ow. Ow. Ow.”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

New Year, End Times

The new year seemed as good a time as any to start this blog, and the sermon I gave during Kol Nidre services at Congregation Or Chadash seemed as good a first post as any, since it addresses an issue that has been nagging at me lately. I realize this is lengthy for a blog post, but don't worry -- I won't usually go on for this long! As a sermon, this was written for a specific audience, in this case a community of fabulous, caring, intellectually-inclined, mostly LGBTQ Jews, so please bear that in mind when you run into any use of the 1st person plural.
One evening, Rabbi Israel Salanter passed a tailor still stitching despite the darkened sky, by the light of one candle. When the rabbi asked the man why, the tailor replied, “So long as the candle still burns, it is still possible to do and to mend.” Rabbi Salanter did not sleep himself that night, but paced the floor in a fever of excitement, muttering to himself, “So long as the candle still burns, it is still possible to do and to mend!”
I was reminded of this story when, after novelist David Foster Wallace lost his long battle with depression, a New Yorker article reprinted a point Wallace had made about 10 years earlier:
Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. (
This quote provided me with my own Salanteresque response, in which I walked around repeating to myself, “these may be dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?” The New Yorker article claimed that this problem drove Wallace as he worked on The Pale King, the novel left unfinished by his suicide, but it matters for anyone trying to “apply CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical, that still live and glow despite the time’s darkness.” How does one see this dark and stupid world in all honesty and clarity but still identify, even act upon, the possibilities for being alive and human in it? 
Gary Shteyngart could have had Wallace’s definition in mind when he wrote Super Sad True Love Story, a satire which imagines the collapse our dark and stupid ways will bring upon us, although its dystopic vision might be too total to illuminate what still glimmers in the darkness. In the novel’s disconcertingly not-too-distant future, conversation has been largely drowned out by the constant stream of data coming over the “äpparäts” people wear around their necks. When people do “verbal” each other, they fend off the embarrassment of “emoting” with glibness and reflexive irony, peppering sentences with acronyms like “JBF” or flat “hahas.” Written communication fares no better: at every National Guard checkpoint, you will find misspelled signs advising you that merely reading the sign means that you have consented to deny that it exists. Our unfashionably bookish hero, Larry Abramov, uses a ruler to help him keep his place as he pores over the pages of obsolete “printed objects,” his lips moving to form each word. Larry manages to find moments where he can connect with others, if imperfectly, in this crass, violent, and soul-deadening world, but there is no stopping or escaping from its bloated sickness.
I can appreciate the fact that Shteyngart wouldn’t pull any punches: he pummeled his target the way he thought it deserved. Even as I found myself deeply affected by the novel, however, I wondered if, in giving his cynicism such free reign, he wasn’t actually engaging in the same sort of hip distancing his novel decries. In the 19th century, for example, William Morris claimed that he lived his entire life in opposition to modernity; his novel Erehwon was part of that effort, imagining a utopia that corrected all of the wrongs he found in his society and culture. I doubt a utopic novel like Morris’s would get the same critical appreciation today that Shteyngart’s dystopic one did: such an effort would likely be dismissed as sentimental, unserious, or naïve.
Our current moment is beset by dystopic visions: from every point on the ideological spectrum, people seem to be convinced that we have or are coming to the end of something, and whatever comes next won’t be good. Even Christians who embrace rapture theology indulge in lurid fantasies about what will happen to those “left behind” (as the series with that title puts it) more than they seem to look forward to “ten thousand years” of “bright shining like the sun” with the composer of “Amazing Grace.” But eschatology, the belief that history leads toward some end, doesn’t have to breed morbidity and pessimism. Indeed, the Book of Isaiah contains utopic images that have resonated down the centuries:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study warfare. (Isaiah 2:4)
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
These days, we can imagine the end but not the new beginning; we are fascinated by the tropes of end times because they provide a way to talk about how lost and stuck and hopeless we feel.
So where do we go from here? What do we do, beyond rail against the dark and stupid times in which we live? How do we approach a new year if we are indeed living during some sort of end, or at least a time when it is very hard to have faith in beginnings?
One clue might be found in Dara Horn’s novel, All Other Nights. After two novels which built bridges between the violent erasures of the Holocaust and the quiet uncertainty of the present day, Horn turned to the Civil War, that nexus of American mythology so beloved by reenacters and romantics, and Judaized it, focusing on real and fictional American Jews who were pivotal in the conflict, and also weaving together Jewish and American symbols and themes in her presentation of the period. The war disintegrates the lives and selves of the novel’s main characters. Even Richmond consumes itself in a great conflagration. For the old Jewish men fleeing the city, however, the disaster is just another chapter in a longer story. As the novel puts it, “They had seen the world end so many times before.” The lesson for the younger characters and civilization is that we are rarely masters of our fate and circumstances, and in such a world sometimes the only recourse is to gather one’s remnant and live on as best as one can.
The last few centuries have shown us that secular eschatology, with its dreams of inevitable progress and human perfectibility, has its limits. When these dreams were made manifest in the world, they wrought changes which, alongside their benefits, have had a human cost, as well as an environmental one: from the Gilded Age to our own, industrialized and now globalized progress has consumed human and material resources as well as produced them. These dreams also ignored the intractability of greed, bloodlust, and other elements of human behavior we like to pretend have no place in civilized society, but which we cannot seem to eradicate with rational analysis or notions of social contracts.
In dark and stupid times such as these, perhaps we can only pick up and carry on, knowing the world will end again and again, but that it will also continue after each ending, so long as we are here to persist. In other words, we should combine an understanding that the worst can happen with a faith that things might be made better, or at least bearable, recalling Hillel’s advice that when everyone around you ceases to be human, you should struggle to remain a human being. To desist from the work does not make us or the world any better off. Because if we now know that human nature is not perfectible, that the human appetite for destruction and power will never go away, we know too, or should recognize, that the human desire to create and to nurture will also never go away. If the light will never completely banish the darkness, so too will the darkness never completely extinguish the light. These may be dark times, and stupid ones, but so long as the candle still burns, it is still possible to do and to mend. What other, better choice do we have? Surrender ensures that culture and society will sink under the weight of the ugliness of which human beings are capable.
A story in the Talmud teaches that The Messiah is already present, and we are the ones who must come to understand how to recognize and heed him. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi once encountered the prophet Elijah, and asked him, “When will the Messiah come?”
“Go and ask him,” Elijah replied. “You will find him at the entrance to the city, sitting among the poor lepers: the rest of them untie their bandages all at once, and rebandage them together, but he unties and then rebandages each of his sores separately, thinking, should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.”
So Rabbi Joshua went to the Messiah and greeted him, and asked, “When will you come, Master?”
“Today,” the Messiah answered.
Rabbi Joshua later returned to Elijah and said, “The Messiah spoke falsely to me: he said that he would come today, but he has not.” Elijah answered, “This is what he said to you: Today, if you will hear his voice.” (adapted from Talmud Sanhedrin 98a)
Though he may tarry, I cannot help but believe, albeit with an imperfect faith, in the promise implicit in the coming of the Messiah. If not now, then someday – I hope, I pray, someday – and until then, without knowing when, I can only continue the work while the candle still burns.