My Lucky Break

The day I heard that I’d won a big literary prize, I was struggling to break in to the Yeshiva where I teach. I shouldn’t have had to break in. I have a key. I teach there every week. But somehow my key got misplaced, and no one was in the office,  and so there I was, trying to pick the lock while frantically texting my colleagues to see if anyone was in the area, with the envelope I’d been carrying now clenched between my teeth so that I could have both my hands free. At least in theory.

I needed to break into the Yeshiva for reasons that were highly unliterary and undignified, and part of me was relieved that none of my colleagues were around to witness the sorry state I was in. A week earlier I had broken my toe while running down the hallway of our apartment to pick up my crying toddler in the middle of Shabbat dinner; my feet were unshod, and my toe broke when I inadvertently crashed into one of the chairs my kids had been using to make a “choo-choo train.” I knew right away that it was broken, since I’d fractured that very same bone tripping over a Fisher Price garage two summers ago on Tisha b’Av while rushing out to hear Eicha – that Tisha b’av was filled with more lamentation than I’d expected. I knew what the pain felt like, and I knew there was nothing to be done except to stay off it – a tall order for a runner, not to mention for a mother who walks her kids everywhere.

I couldn’t really stay off the toe, and so it continued to swell. At night I complained to my husband, who told me (rightly so!) to either take care of myself or get over it. But Daniel felt sorry for me, and three days later, on my fortieth birthday, he took me shopping for a bicycle. We figured that since lying in bed was completely unrealistic, the best way to stay off my toe was to start cycling instead of walking. And indeed, for a few days, it was glorious. I was like the guy who has a midlife crisis and buys himself a sports car to feel young again — I cycled all over town, cruising down the hills like Deborah Levy on her e-bike (I recently finished and loved her memoir, The Cost of Living), and hoisting myself up the hills with my own petard. (I don’t really understand that phrase. But when I saw how my body made the wheels turn, I began referring to the bike as my petard. Later I learned that a petard is actually a dangerous explosive device. If only I’d been more cautious.)

Just a few days later, I was on my way to the library when I flew off my bike and landed in the street. “How did it happen?” Daniel later asked me, and I really had no idea. One moment I was cycling around a bend in the road, and the next moment I was supporting my entire body weight with the bend of my elbow. Fortunately the bike wasn’t damaged, and so I brushed off my knees, straightened my arm as best I could, and hopped back on the bike.

I sat in the library for the rest of the morning proofreading the book I’d just finished translating. It hurt to type, but I tried to ignore the pain. A few hours later, I reached into my backpack to pull out the Tupperware container with my lunch. (Yes, I eat in libraries. Yes, it’s against the rules. It’s been part of my Al Chet tefillah for two decades.) I felt a sharp pain in my arm. I realized I couldn’t bend it all the way to my shoulder, nor could I properly extend it. This wasn’t looking good. I took out my phone and texted Daniel: “Can you pick up the kids today? I think I need an x-ray.”

I sat in the health clinic for three hours waiting to see an orthopedist who could refer me for an x-ray. While I was waiting, I couldn’t stop thinking about a midrash on this week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha, which tells of the spies sent to scout out the land of Israel. When ten of the spies came back with a negative report, “the whole community broke out into loud cries, and the people wept that night” (Bemidbar 14:1). The Talmud in Taanit (29a) relates that Rabbah said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that this happened on the night of Tisha b’Av – it was one of the five calamities for which we fast. Rabbi Yohanan goes on to relate that God heard the Israelites’ weeping and responded to them sternly, “You are crying for nothing! I’m going to give you a real reason to cry, for generations to come!” And so Tisha b’Av became the day that both temples were destroyed, and the Bar Kochva revolt was suppressed, and Turnus Rufus plowed Jerusalem. (Often when the rabbis of the Talmud refer to Turnus Rufus, they follow his name with a curse that literally means, “may his bones be crushed.” I wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone.)

The x-ray confirmed that my elbow was fractured and I needed a cast, but first I wanted a second opinion from an orthopedist friend I trust. I had a disk with my x-rays, but I don’t own a computer with a disk drive – and so I went back to the Yeshiva in the hope that the secretary might let me upload the CD on her computer. On my way there I received the news of the book prize. “The prize committee wants to invest in you as a writer – we look forward to your next book!” I looked down at my swollen purple elbow. Would I ever write again?

The building was locked. I stood there forlorn, locked out of the Yeshiva, and immediately thought of Hillel. Hillel, too, was locked out of the Yeshiva – not because he had misplaced his key, but because he didn’t have enough money to pay the entrance fee and so the guard refused to let him in. That day was a terrible snowstorm—the Talmud tells us that it was during the winter month of Tevet—and Hillel climbed up on the roof and listened to words of Torah through the skylight, where he nearly froze to death. He was saved the next morning by the rabbis teaching in the yeshiva, Shamaya and Avtalyon, who noticed that the light was not coming in through the skylight and went up to the roof to see what was amiss. “It is worth desecrating Shabbat for a man like this,” they said as they removed the snow, bathed him, and sat him down by the fire.

That story appears on Yoma 35 – I first encountered it in on December 13, 2013, at the start of my second daf yomi cycle. It was the tenth of Tevet—another fast day on the Jewish calendar—and we were all holed up at home due to a record-breaking snowstorm that made international headlines. At one point I left the house to throw away a bag of smelly diapers, and I slipped on the icy driveway and broke my arm. Fortunately I was too excited by the coincidence of the snowstorm and the story of Hillel on the roof to be distressed about my injury, at least initially. Over time, I have come to associate that story with broken bones — I dreamed about Hillel falling off the roof and Shmaya and Avtalyon rushing outside when they heard the thud. As I stood outside of the Yeshiva clutching the envelope with my x-ray disk, it felt all too apt.

It didn’t seem like I’d be able to get into the building. On the one hand, I wanted to feel sorry for myself; like the midrash, I felt like I’d cried for naught and now I was being saddled with a real reason for tears. But on the other hand—the good hand that I had not broken—I had just learned that I’d won a major literary prize. How sorry could I really feel for myself?

On the other hand—because a mother of twins always needs a third hand—I was also somewhat panicked. Yes, the prize was a great honor and could theoretically allow me so much more time to write. But even if my arm healed and I were able to write again, what was I going to write about? The judges had made it clear that this was a prize to further my continued contributions to Jewish literature. Um, what contributions? I spent most of my days translating, teaching, and taking care of my kids. I never feel like a writer unless I’m writing, and I wasn’t writing anything of late. Now I was being given a very generous monetary prize to write – I felt like I had no excuse.

The story of Hillel comes up in tractate Yoma in the context of a Talmudic conversation about unsatisfactory excuses for neglecting to study Torah. If a person comes before the heavenly court at the end of his life and claims that he was too poor to allow for time to study, he will be told, “Could you possibly have been poorer than Hillel?” This is followed by the story of Hillel, who could not even find two coins to pay the guard at the entrance to the beit midrash. Being rich is also no excuse – such an individual will be asked, “Could you possibly have been richer than Rabbi Elazar ben Harsom,” who inherited a thousand villages and a thousand ships from his father, yet spent his life wandering from yeshiva to yeshiva with only a sac of flour on his back. For a long time I had said that I couldn’t write another book because “I’m not a writer, and anyway, I much prefer translating to writing.” Now it seems I had no excuse. Was that why I’d broken my bones? And was that why I was frustrated that I wasn’t managing to break in to the Yeshiva?

Ultimately I succeeded in uploading my x-rays in the office of the literary agency where I work. These days I spend most of my life walking—alas, no longer biking—from the literary agency to the yeshiva to my kids’ schools, and as I often lament, there’s never enough time to sit in front of the computer and write. But I’ve learned that crying in vain is never a good idea, and besides, thanks to Hillel and Rabbi Elazar ben Harsom, I really have no excuse. So tonight I’m taking my laptop up to the roof to write. It’s the middle of summer, so I don’t expect any snow. But maybe something will descend from the heavens nonetheless.

International Women’s Talmud Day

When I first started studying Talmud regularly, I attended an otherwise all-male class taught by a rabbi in a local synagogue in Jerusalem. I sat in the back corner of the room, but the walls of the classroom were transparent and I was conscious that everyone walking in or out of the main building of the synagogue could see me sitting there, as if I were one of the guys. Though the other men in the class often engaged the rabbi in conversation, asking questions about the Talmudic page he was teaching or raising objections, I never opened my mouth. The only women’s voices heard in that class emerged from the Talmudic page itself, and they were hardly sympathetic: A woman who screams hysterically that a prominent religious leader has stolen her Sukkah; a Roman matron who tries to seduce a righteous but tempted rabbi; a rabbi’s wife who kicks one of her husband’s students to rebuke him for whispering in the study hall instead of reading the text aloud. But these voices were few and far between, because the Talmudic conversation was primarily dominated by male rabbis debating the finer points of Jewish law: Can a Jew store wine in a vessel previously used by non-Jews? How far is it permissible to walk on Shabbat? Who could bring the Paschal sacrifice to the Temple, and who could not?

Though I remained silent in class, I found my own way to add my voice to these conversations. Hunched over my volume of Talmud in the back corner of the classroom, I scribbled fast and furiously in the margins. When I didn’t understand something the rabbi said, I merely copied it down verbatim so that I would be able to think about it later, on my own time. When something amused or surprised me in the text—a rabbi who was nicknamed “Toothy,” or rabbi’s sons and daughters who race each other to the Temple altar (the girls win!)—I jotted down exclamation points in the margins and underlined phrases I wanted to remember. Later, at home in the evenings, I would review my marginal notes and write limericks and sonnets about those Talmudic passages I’d particularly enjoyed, in the hope of committing them to memory. I did not share my poems with the men in the class, but they saw me scribbling, and they used to tease me that I should not take notes in pencil. “Looked what came of Rashi’s marginal notes,” they said to me. “Maybe someday someone will want to publish yours. You should write in pen so it doesn’t fade!”

In the end I published my notes, or some version of those notes, in my memoir If All the Seas Were Ink. My memoir recounts my life journey over the seven-and-a-half year period of daf yomi, an international program to study one page of Talmud a day. Since the book was published in September, I have lectured widely about my experience of Talmud study and I have been flooded by emails from daf yomi learners worldwide. Many of them are women, and I am beginning to appreciate just how many women have begun studying Talmud, adding their voices to the Talmudic conversation and finding their own creative ways to engage with the text. Now, on my second cycle of daf yomi, I no longer feel like I’m part of an all-boys’ club, and my own study has been enriched by the insights and contributions of all those women, worldwide, who are on the same page.

On my previous cycle of daf yomi, if I could not attend the daf yomi class, I would listen to a podcast taught by a rabbi from Yeshiva University who spoke in heavily Yiddish-accented English. He referred to people as “men” and frequently relied on euphemisms to gloss over the Talmud’s more colorful passages: “If a man goes off and has marital relations with a prostitute…” I knew that marital relations was his term for sex, but in this context I could only laugh. At the time, I did not know of any women who taught daf yomi, though I subsequently learned there was a morning class at Matan, a local women’s yeshiva; I wish I’d known of it then. As I studied each page, I followed along in the commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, which I enjoyed because it brought the historical world of the Talmudic sages to life – Rav Steinsaltz’s marginal notes included biographical information about the various rabbis and glosses on the material culture of the rabbinic world. All of these teachers illuminated the Talmudic text for me, and I’m not even sure that I was conscious of the fact that all my teachers were men.

Now, halfway into my second cycle of daf yomi, I am learning from an array of women scholars. Every morning I listen to a podcast by Michelle Farber (dafyomi4women.com), who teaches a daf yomi class to women in Raanana, Israel. Farber’s knowledge of Talmud is vast and encyclopedic, and she approaches the text with a deep literary sensitivity. When she illustrates scenarios from the Talmud, she invokes the names of the women in the class: “If Shoshana’s ox falls into Dana’s pit…” In the margins of the Talmud, Rashi illustrates Talmudic scenarios similarly, except that he invokes the names of Jacob’s sons: “If Reuven’s ox falls into Shiimon’s pit…” It is refreshing to imagine women as actors in the Talmudic drama, as well as to hear the women in the class occasionally chiming in with questions and comments. To supplement by daf yomi learning, I have often referenced the Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, which is planned as the first systematic and comprehensive feminist analysis of the entire Babylonian Talmud. The series—still a work in progress—is the brainchild of Israeli-born historian and Talmudist Tal Ilan, and the various volumes are authored by distinguished professors of Talmud worldwide, all of them women. When in search of lighter reading, I’ve enjoyed various historical novels featuring Talmudic heroines by Maggie Anton (in English) and Ruhama Weiss (in Hebrew), as well as the creative fictional reimagining of rabbinic stories by Ruth Calderon. And when I have just a few moments, I glance at the remarkable website of Jacqueline Nicholls (www.drawyomi.blogspot.co.il), who creates a drawing to illustrate some aspect of each page of Talmud she studies.

I feel fortunate that my Talmud study has been deepened by so many of these voices, and that I am part of a global community of learners that includes men and women alike. The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot that there are three crowns: The crown of kingship, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah. Maimonides, drawing on a source from the Talmud in Kidushin, comments that the crown of kingship belongs to the kings and the crown of priesthood belongs to the priests, but the crown of Torah is available to everyone: “The crown of Torah lies there, and anyone who wishes may come and take it.” The texts of our tradition are the crown jewels of the Jewish people, and they are accessible to men and women alike. May we merit to adorn ourselves with Torah, and may the Torah we study enrich our lives.

(published in The Forward:

https://forward.com/life/faith/400519/studying-talmud-as-a-woman-is-often-lonely-but-it-doesnt-need-to-be/)

 

 

Preparing for Pesach

Around this time of year, it often feels like everyone I meet can be divided into two categories: Those who are making Pesach, and those who aren’t. Wherever I go the first question I am asked—the first question everyone in my neighborhood of Jerusalem seems to be asking—is “what are you doing for Pesach?” I respond somewhat sheepishly. “We’re going to my sister-in-law’s this year, as we do every year. I confess I’ve never made Pesach before.” My interlocutor will either share in my sense of relief, or else look at my jealously and say, “You’re so lucky. I’m going crazy. I have sixteen guests coming for the Seder, and my parents are staying with us for ten days…” This is followed by a detailed account of just how much of the house has already been cleaned, and what still remains, and how it all is going to have to get done, somehow. I listen patiently. I feel it’s the least I can do. After all, I’m not the one shopping and cooking and scrubbing for days on end. And yet this year, on this holiday when so much of the preparation falls to others, I am trying to figure out how I, too, can find my own way to prepare for Passover and make it my own.

The Haggadah records a famous Talmudic debate between two third-century Babylonian sages about how to interpret the Mishnah’s rule that in telling the story of the exodus, one must “begin with shame, and end with praise.” According to Shmuel, this means recalling that “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord God brought us out,” otherwise known as Avadim Hayinu. According to Rav, it means saying that “originally our ancestors worshipped idols, but god brought us close to them.” That is, for Shmuel the shame is our physical enslavement, and the miracle of Passover is our physical redemption. For Rav, the shame is our idolatrous past, and the miracle is our spiritual redemption in becoming God’s people. This debate between Rav and Shmuel reminds me that there have always been multiple ways of relating to Passover. There is the physical narrative—the narrative of those who are scrubbing out their cupboards and buying multiple sacks of potatoes and cooking pots of chicken soup—and then there is the spiritual narrative, which involves thinking through the themes of the holiday and coming to terms with what it means to be free to serve God.

On some level we would all do best to prepare spiritually for Pesach—to read the new haggadot published that year, to study the midrashim about the exodus from Egypt, to review the laws of how to prepare the home, regardless of whether we are the ones engaged in the preparations. But the weeks before Pesach are far more hectic for those who will be hosting, and so it’s understandable that some of us are more focused on the physical plane, that is, on the level of Shmuel’s narrative. The rest of us, who are fortunate that someone else is making our lives easier, can focus instead on our spiritual preparation, on the level of Rav’s narrative, in the hope that we can enrich the Seder that others are making with our insights. And so I try, each year that I am not making Passover, to read through a new commentary on the Haggadah, to listen to a few shiurim online, to think of creative new ways to share the Passover story with my children.

The haggadah does not privilege Rav or Shmuel’s narratives, but includes elements of both: We eat bitter herbs to remember how the Egyptians embittered our lives and recline to celebrate our freedom from servitude, but we also sing psalms of praise to God and open the door for Elijah the prophet who will herald our spiritual redemption. Passover is about both, and many of us need both the physical and the spiritual dimensions: My father, the bulk of whose preparations involve reading every Haggadah published since the previous Passover, would not feel it was Passover if he didn’t slice the horseradish. For others, the physical and spiritual elements are not so easy to disentangle: There is a spiritual dimension to preparing to open our home to others, and the hard physical labor feels deeply fulfilling.

And then there is the difference that stage of life can make. I am reminded of times in my life when time-bound commandments seemed impossible to fulfill—when I was home with newborns, or chasing after three kids still in diapers. A deep immersion in physicality—breastmilk, diaper rashes, heavy eyelids after sleepless nights—prevented me from having the kind of open dialogue with God through prayer and study to which I had grown accustomed in my single years. But my kids are getting older—at least just a bit older—and I find myself able to think more abstractly again, and to shift some of my focus from the physical to the spiritual planes. I have come to appreciate that the question of which level of experience is in the foreground will shift over time, and is meant to shift over time, and that is all right. Though we may alternate between the narrative of Rav and the narrative of Shmuel, we hope that the stories we tell will move us toward a place where we can praise God and appreciate life’s blessings, whatever form they may take.

 

 

Oaths in a Season of New Year’s Resolutions

My neighbor recently asked me if I’d start running with her early in the mornings. “I see that you also like to run,” she told me, “Can I join you? I’m determined to get in shape in 2018. It’s my new year’s resolution – I’m going to starting running four mornings a week.” My neighbor is an evangelical Christian from Texas, and she takes her Gregorian new year very seriously. I can’t remember that last time I made a new year’s resolution – I tend to think about self-improvement primarily in Elul, and rarely in late December. But I’ve been learning Masechet Shevuot, which is all about oaths, and with the start of 2018 I find myself thinking about everything I am tempted to take upon myself or to swear off, and how I might go about doing so.

First and foremost, I think about sleep. Far too many nights a week I stay up long past midnight reading or working (or pretending to work, since it’s hard to concentrate at that hour) – even though I know that I’ll have to be up early with my children. I have tried to set alarms to encourage myself to go to bed, but somehow it never seems to work. I relish the late hours, when time stretches ahead of me endlessly; I feel much more creative when I know I have no deadline, and can write or think for as long as the spirit moves me. But everyone needs sleep, as Matthew Walker has just reminded us in his compelling new book about the effects of poor sleep habits on our health, happiness, and longevity. Even the rabbis knew how important sleep was; they note in masechet Shevuot (25a) that if a person takes an oath that he won’t sleep for three days, we give him lashes and make him go to sleep immediately, since this is clearly a vain oath that can never be fulfilled. Nearly every morning when my kids climb into my bed before 6am, I essentially take an oath to go to bed earlier that night. And then inevitably when I am still at my computer at midnight, I violate that oath. So perhaps the time has come to take my oaths more seriously.

Then there are the oaths that affect others as well. The rabbis note in masechet Shevuot (25a) that oaths that affect other people are taken just as seriously as oaths that affect only oneself. And so if a person says, “I swear I will give a pledge to my neighbor,” this oath is as binding as if he says, “I swear I will throw a rock into the ocean” – even though the former is dependent on his neighbor as well as on himself. Perhaps the rabbis are trying to remind us that even though some oaths may seem to be more dependent on others, in fact all our actions affect other people directly or indirectly. I may think that in staying up late, I am merely making myself more tired, and so I can just suffer the consequences of my decisions. But in it is not just I who suffer when I stay up late: I have less energy to spend time with my kids in the morning, and I am more irritable with them in the evenings when it is time for them to go to bed, and my work suffers, and I am less present and receptive to my husband and friends. When I have slept well and eaten well and I am at ease, my household is calm and my kids are happier. Perhaps this is why the rabbis teach in Nedarim—the tractate of the Talmud that deals with vows—that a husband is authorized to annul any vows that his wife makes that cause her self-affliction. When a wife is suffering, inevitably her whole family suffers as well. It’s not fair to snap at my kids because I’m too tired to be patient with them; I need to get more rest so that my husband and children can have the quality time with me that they deserve.

The rabbis speak often in Nedarim about vows and that deny another person benefit. “Any benefit that my wife might derive from me is forbidden to me like a sacrifice,” a man might swear, thereby denying his wife food and sex and financial support. But as I have come to realize, deriving benefit from others is not something we can necessarily swear off. All of my actions affect those around me, and the way I treat myself affects the way I treat those I love. All too often I am tempted to dismiss self-care as an unnecessary indulgence; I can stay up too late, or skip breakfast, or get by without that cup of coffee I am craving. But when I take care of myself, I am taking care of others. When I benefit myself, I am benefiting others. And so yes, I may start running with my neighbor, because running makes me feel healthy and fit and it’s more fun to run with someone else. But it’s complicated. I’m not taking any oaths about how regularly I’ll run, and I’m making any commitments to myself or to her. When my kids climb into our bed before dawn to snuggle, I don’t want to jump out of bed because I promised my neighbor I’d meet her at dawn. I want to fall back to sleep with my daughter in my arms, and my other daughter hanging on to my back, deriving benefit from the warmth of their little bodies and knowing that they are deriving benefit from  me too.

 

Limericks: Masechet Makkot

(2a)
This witness could not have been there
We know he instead was elsewhere
If we cannot do
What he tried, unto you –
We give lashes, with one left to spare.

(3b)
It’s your head that you want to insert
But the collar’s sewn shut on your shirt
Do not rip, do not tear
If you do, then beware
You must slaughter a goat, we alert.

(4a)
“He owes two hundred coins,” so they say.
But these witnesses aren’t OK.
When they spoke, they were lying
And also conspiring,
Hence lashes. (Must they also pay?)

(5b)
Yehuda ben Tabbai would cry
On a witness’ grave: “’Woe am I.
For I ordered him dead
Which was wrong, Shetach said
It is my moaning you’ll hear ‘til I die.”

(6b)
A witness can’t give a report
Through a translator when in a court
But Rava did so!
That’s ‘cause Rava did know
What they said, just not how to retort.

(7a)
If a court kills once per seven years
It’s destructive – so tremble in fear.
Akiva said: Hey
Once in seven? No way!
None would die in a court of my peers!

(8a)
If you throw a stone straight at a tree,
And some dates fall and kill somebody
Is it like when you hack
Some wood off of your axe?
That’s the force of your force? Could it be?

(9a)
Avimelech thought Sarah was there
For the taking (Abe made it seem fair).
Then he said: “By your life!
I have slept with your wife!”
Do we punish him, though unaware?

(10a)
Rav Hisda learned Torah – his goal
Was: Let death angel not seize my soul
Then the angel made fall
Cedar branch. Hisda stalled
Midst his learning, and death took its toll.

(11a)
The mothers of high priests would sew
Clothes for those who in exile must go
Lest the exiled ones pray
That the priest die away
They did not want their sons on skid row.

(12a)
Yoav, fleeing King Solomon, would take
To the altar, with so much at stake.
He held on to the horns
Although sin is not borne
By the horns. This was his first mistake.

(13a)
If a murderer is exiled and then
He comes back to his hometown again.
Can he go back to work
(Though some hold he’s a jerk)
Can he work the same job as back when?

(14a)
I was once at the butcher. I shopped
There while Josh’ua and Gamliel dropped
By. I asked: If your aunt:
Is your sister, you can’t
Sleep with her; Lashes – when do they stop?

(15a)
Do not muzzle an ox. It may eat
While it’s plowing your field full of treats.
Here the Torah says no
And from this law we know
When with lashes the sinner we beat.

(16a-b)
You get lashes for eating crushed ants.
And for holding it in, lest your pants
Fill with pee. And for taking
The chicks, while forsaking
To send mom away – this you can’t!

(17b)
Shimon, even when wrong, can expound
Torah like no one else who’s around
So said Rava, impressed.
Giving all moms this test:
Is it Shimon? Check your ultrasound!

(18b)
Too much flour will not mix with oil
And your sacrifice plans will be foiled
But if you can mix
It, then that does the trick
Even if you forgot, it’s not spoiled.

(19a)
Firstborn beasts are all holy to God
(Like the tenth passing under the rod.)
But with no Temple left
And us all quite bereft
Bring them still to the site? Is that odd?

(20a)
Do not make a bald spot on your head
If you must shave, shave elsewhere instead
And although it sounds weird
Keep the edge on your beard
Sins like these is where razors have led.

(21a)
Do not print a tattoo on your skin—
Cut your flesh, and then squirt some ink in—
All tattoos? Or just those
About idols (God’s foes)
All tattoos, it seems, bring God’s chagrin.

(22a)
Priests, don’t plow over plots of mixed seeds
With an ox and a donkey (not steeds)
On a festival day
With a corpse in the way
You’ll get lashes for each of these deeds.

(23a)
A woman whose husband is dead
Must she marry his brother instead
If he’s covered in boils
That make her recoil
Don’t muzzle! An ox should be fed.

(24b)
The sages, when quite far from home
Wept when hearing the masses in Rome
But aware of God’s craft
Wise Akiva just laughed
And his laughter resounds in this tome.

When the Language of Love is an Ancient Text

It seems like everyone is forever extolling the value of a weekly “date night” for married couples, but my husband and I never quite manage to make it work. Our three preschoolers can’t fall asleep without us, and the baby still wakes up in the middle of the night crying for her mother’s milk. Neither of us has jobs that we can set aside in the evenings: Daniel teaches literature at a university and I am a translator and editor, so there are always more pages to read and papers to grade. Most nights we sit at the long desk we share, occasionally reading excerpts aloud to one another or chuckling over a particularly awkward turn of phrase. We usually send emails rather than interrupting each other’s thoughts, which may seem strange since we are just a few feet apart. But it’s not all that surprising given how bound up in the written word our relationship has always been.

At the outset ours was an epistolary romance, though we lived in the same Jerusalem neighborhood. We were both expatriates, born and raised on opposite sides of the Hudson, but we’d met each other only after each of us had traveled halfway around the world. In spite of our proximity, we communicated almost exclusively by e-mail because I was painfully protective of my privacy and didn’t want anyone we knew to see us together until our relationship was on more solid ground. Daniel would e-mail me selections from the poems he was analyzing in his PhD dissertation, and I’d write back analyzing his analyses until we had taken each poem thoroughly apart. Only when he grew so bold as to send me Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty,” did I refrain from comment, afraid of being too explicit about what was in fact unfolding between us – “the smiles that win, the tents that glow.”

Throughout our relationship I was generally the reserved one – the one who read over her emails again and again before pressing Send. This was the case even though few of the words I’d write him were my own. We communicated mainly by quoting poetry to one another. “What are you doing this evening?” Daniel would ask me. I did not write back that I was getting a haircut. Instead I sent him back a line from Yeats: “To be born a woman is to know, although they do not talk of it at school, that we must labor to be beautiful.” My allusion to “Adam’s Curse” didn’t elude him, and minutes later I got an email back from him paraphrasing that same poem: “I’ll be reworking my conference paper while you’re primping. Ugh. All this stitching and unstitching is probably for naught.” And I smiled to myself, and wrote back, “You’re probably right. Better to just go down upon your marrow-bones and scrub your kitchen floor instead.” I knew his floor was impeccably clean—he took much better care of his apartment than I did of mine—but I couldn’t resist another reference to the poem. And so we would go on and on, quoting from beautiful old books, until we grew quiet in the name of love.

Soon the range of our references expanded from poetry to Talmud. By the time I met Daniel, I’d already been studying Talmud for several years, and I was in the third year of my daf yomi cycle. Daf yomi is an international program to study the entire Babylonian Talmud—the main text of rabbinic Judaism—in seven and a half years, at the rate of a page a day. Essentially daf yomi is the world’s largest book club, with tens of thousands of Jews—still mostly men—learning the same new page each day. Only recently have women begun to engage with these texts, which for fifteen hundred years were the province of the male half of the population. Through my study of daf yomi, I became intimately familiar with the world of the ancient rabbis living in the Galilee and Babylonia (now Iraq) during the first few centuries of the Common Era. The Talmud is an inherently dialogical text, unfolding as a series of conversations among the rabbis about everything from Sabbath observance to sacrifices to courtship, astrology, and demonology. As I made my way through it, I found myself caught up in the rabbinic conversation, and as Daniel and I grew closer, he became part of that conversation too.

One night Daniel asked me if I wanted to go out with him to the light show, a summer festival in which the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem are lit up as if by magic lantern. I shook my head.

“Why can’t we ever go out? I mean, really go out?” Daniel asked. “You can’t always be such a recluse.”

“I’m not a recluse,” I responded. “I just believe in hezek re’iya.” This term, which comes up in Bava Batra—the volume of Talmud we were learning at the time—literally means “the damage of seeing.” According to this notion, gazing into another person’s private space is tantamount to physical damage. I believed it. I thought of our relationship as a fragile butterfly that I wished to keep cupped in my hands. I worried that the harsh light of other people’s gazes might damage or still its dazzling wings, and I was terrified of suddenly being deprived of all the beauty that had blessedly flown into my life.

The Jerusalem we inhabit is less a city than a small village of overlapping social circles. I was not ready for all our friends to find out that we were dating. I’d been married and divorced a few years earlier, and after the devastation of that failed relationship, I could not bear to fail publicly again. I suspect the Talmudic rabbis would have understood. In a discussion about the importance of storing one’s money in a safe and secure place, Rabbi Yitzhak comments in Bava Batra, “Blessing is only to be found in that which is hidden from the eye.”

Our courtship lasted eight months, a period I remember most by the Talmud we were studying. Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufock, who measured out his life in coffee spoons, I have measured out the last decade of my life in tractates, as volumes of Talmud are known. I remember episodes in my life by what I was studying at the time. Daniel proposed to me—not incidentally—on the day we read the rabbis’ discussion in the eighth chapter of Bava Batra about the fifteenth of Av, a day on the Jewish calendar when women would dress in white and go out into the fields to seek their prospective husbands. Our wedding did not take place in a field, but I carried that image with me.

It would have been impossible, given the norms of our Jewish community, not to have had a wedding ceremony for all our friends and family. But such a public avowal of our love seemed antithetical to my Dickensonian sensibilities, and I would have been much happier to elope and spend a few years making sure it was really going to work out.

Daniel was exceedingly tolerant of my pre-wedding jitters, even when I pulled him aside just moments before the ceremony began. By that point the band was already playing, and I could hear the violins humming the strains of a lyrical song about two lovers who head out at dusk to an orchard redolent of myrrh and incense. It was a song I had chosen myself, but now I was too panicked to enjoy it.  “How can you know our marriage will last?” I asked Daniel. “How can you know what the future holds?”

“Granted I’m no prophet,” Daniel conceded, and already I could see the gleam in his eye – he had thought of an allusive rejoinder. “But you’re a scholar of Talmud, and a scholar is preferable to a prophet,” he quoted from Bava Batra. He knew that if anything would reassure me, it was a passage from the Talmud.

“Perhaps you’ll tire of me,” I pressed on, invoking a William Matthews poem we both loved. Daniel smiled at the reference and played along, assuring me that I was like a great city to him, or like a park that finds new ways to wear each flounce of light. “Soil doesn’t tire of rain,” he quoted back at me just moments before he walked down the aisle. He had the last word, and I could only follow him with my eyes until it came time for me, too, to make my way to the wedding canopy.

That was exactly seven and a half years ago. Daniel and I just celebrated our daf yomi anniversary: Now, on our second read through the Talmud, we just came to the daily page from the date of our wedding. We’ve been through a lot together – four children, 2700 pages of Talmud, and perhaps just as many poems. With a house full of preschoolers, we’re both exceedingly tired, though we haven’t tired of each other.  We don’t quote poetry and Talmud to each other nearly as often these days, but it remains the language in which we express our love. Ironically, I have no problem being seen with Daniel in public nowadays, but who has time to go out? Fortunately neither of us seems to mind. Our desk is covered in books, and there are many more pages to turn together.

(published in Tablet Magazine, 29 November 2017)

Messianic Ice Cream (Sanhedrin 98a)

Every day on our way home from Gan my kids and I pass a kiosk that sells ice cream. Outside there is a wrought-iron gate where an old man whose arm is always covered in bandages sits in front on a low stool, smiling at passersby and waiting for customers. “Can we get ice cream today?” my kids ask me every day. “On Friday,” I always promise. “If you behave nicely all week, we can have ice cream on Friday.” I want them to learn to delay gratification, and I want them to emulate Shammai, who, we are told, would save anything special he found during the week to enjoy on Shabbat. It’s not easy for the kids because they want ice cream now, but we do stop every Friday — or at least we did until very recently.

Last Friday, for the first time, I refused to get them the treat they’d been anticipating all week. I was at my wits’ end. My son and daughter were fighting over a scooter the entire way home, and my toddler refused to sit in her stroller or hold my hand when we crossed the busy street, and my other daughter screamed, “I want ice cream now” from the moment I picked her up at Gan, even though I asked her repeatedly to lower her voice and say “please.” I was annoyed at their behavior and in no mood to indulge them. And so when we passed by the kiosk, I held my ground and insisted that we walk on.

Later that afternoon, long after the inevitable tantrums had subsided and I was setting up the candles for Shabbat, my daughter Liav came over to me, prepared to have a rational conversation. “But Ima, you promised us ice cream. That’s not fair. You can’t promise and then change your mind.”

She was right, but not exactly. I told her the story I’d learned in daf yomi this week about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who once stumbled upon Elijah at the entrance to a cave. “When is the Messiah coming,” Ben Levi asked, seizing the opportunity to ask the question that was always on everyone’s mind. Elijah shrugged. “Why don’t you go ask him that yourself?” he suggested. “Where can I find him?” Ben Levi asked. “At the gates of Rome.”

Ben Levi was surprised; Rome was just a few days’ journey away. “How will I recognize him when I get there?” he asked, already packing up for the trip. Elijah explained that the Messiah would be sitting among the afflicted, all of whom would be wrapping and unwrapping their bandages; only the Messiah would take off one bandage at a time, conscious that at any moment it might be time for him to come.

Ben Levi set off for the gates of Rome, where sure enough he found the Messiah dressing his wounds one at a time. “Greetings Ben Levi,” the Messiah said to him. “When are you coming?” asked Ben Levi, getting right to the point. ‘Now,” said the Messiah. Ben Levi could hardly contain his excitement. He rushed back to share the good news with Elijah, heralding the herald. By the time he arrived back at the cave, several days had elapsed, and alas, the Messiah had not come. “He lied to me,” Ben Levi complained to Elijah. “He promised he would come today, but he didn’t come.” Elijah smiled down at Ben Levi like patient father prepared to explain it all again, more slowly this time. “Ah,” Elijah sighed. “You didn’t listen. He said ‘Today if you heed Him.’”

This statement, “today if you heed Him” is a quote from Psalms (95:7):

“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if you heed Him.”

I explained to Liav that just as the Messiah would come today only if the people listened to God, so too would the kids have gotten ice cream today only if they’d listened to me.  Instead, though, my kids had tried my patience, not unlike the Israelites in the wilderness, as we read in the very next verse of that psalm:

“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested Me. They tried Me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known My ways.’ So I declared an oath in My anger, ‘They shall never enter My rest.’”

Yes, I would buy the kids ice cream today. But only if they listened and behaved. If they spent our long walk home from Gan fighting with each other and trying my patience, then I would make an oath in my anger to deny them the treat they so fervently desired. “They shall never eat my ice cream.”

We would be reciting those verses later that evening – they are part of the liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat. Each week we remind ourselves, as Ben Levi reminded Elijah, that the Messianic era of chocolate and vanilla bliss will dawn “today,” but only if we heed God’s voice. Until then, the man at the kiosk will continue to smile and beckon, but we will merely walk on.