Forty Years of Quarantine

(Someone asked me today for a quick dvar Torah for Shavuot. So in case anyone else needs one, feel free to use this!)

This past Shabbat, we began reading Sefer Bemidbar, which we will continue to read for the next several weeks, long past Shavuot. The book of Bemidbar chronicles Bnei Yisrael’s wandering in the desert — when the book begins, they are in the second year after the exodus, still in Midbar Sinai. What should have been a quick journey from the Sinai desert to the holy land becomes, in the words of Avivah Zornberg, a “forty-year death march” — God punishes the people for the sin of the spies by making them wander until an entire generation dies out.

At the end of the book, in parshat Masei, we are given an account of all the places the Israelites wandered. Rashi asks why the Torah takes pains to record all the journeys of the Israelites, and offers a midrashic answer:

Rabbi Tanchuma interpreted: This is like a king whose son was sick so he took him to a distant place to heal him. On their way back, his father began to enumerate all the separate stages of the journey. He told him: Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had a headache, etc. (Rashi on Bemidbar 33:1)

According to this account, the Midbar history is a history of sickness. This midrash makes me think that the Midbar experience is in some ways like our experience of Corona — a prolonged period of sickness, with the days seeming endless. There’s something nonsensical about it all — why should it take forty years to get from the Sinai Desert to Israel? And why should a tiny little virus that afflicted a man in Wuhan, China have overturned our world? If only the Israelites had listened Moshe instead of to the ten spies, this whole long journey of wandering could have been avoided. And if only we had acted sooner and listened to the scientists/epidemiologists who told us to wear masks and stay home, we could have avoided so many months of lockdown, economic uncertainty, etc.

The wilderness experience was a harsh one. There was not always enough water. The people were worried about whether they would have food. They doubted their leaders, and even spoke Lashon Hara about them. And through it all, people were dying. Corona, too, has been a terrible plague for all of humanity. The term quarantine comes from the Italian for “forty days,” which is reminiscent of the forty years of wandering in the desert. But quarantine is the least of it. One hundred thousand people have died of Corona in the US. We have suffered from economic instability, and too many people do not know where their next meal will come from. We have doubted our leadership, etc.

But we must remember, as we do every year on Shavuot, that it was in the Midbar that the Torah was given. The Midbar, where very little grows and all is sparse, is a humble place. And yet as the Torah tells us, Mimidbar Matana — from the Midbar, the people went on to Matana. These are place names, but the Talmud (Nedarim 55a) interprets them midrashically to teach that if a person makes himself like a wilderness, Torah is given to him as a gift, as a Matana.

May we merit on this Shavuot to be receptive to the gift of the Torah, and may we merit throughout this entire period of Corona wilderness wandering — in spite of all the sickness and the loss and the fear– to nonetheless be receptive to the possibility of transcendent gifts.

The Bed Cake

It is hard to believe, but in the span of two months of Corona quarantine, my restless, flighty butterflies have metamorphosized into very hungry bookworms. Matan has finally begun to enjoy reading to himself in Hebrew, even though he will only agree to open a book if the alternative is to go to sleep – then once he starts reading, he won’t stop. Lately he’s been tearing through the complete works of Astrid Lindgren, and long after bedtime I will have to remind him to take his nose out of the story about Emil with his head in the soup pot, determined to lick every last drop.

My twins are also reading the Swedes. Though they could not even sound out words in Hebrew before starting first grade in September, they are now reading their first chapter books to themselves – a Swedish series called “My Happy Life” by Rose Lagercrantz which was recommended to me at my local independent bookstore. The series is delightful – the twins are passing them off one to another, and they each read chapters aloud to me from time to time, so I have gotten to know the two best friends Duni and Ella-Frieda nearly as well as they have, and my heart has broken and healed several times over alongside them. The twins, along with Matan, have also been reading aloud to their grandparents in English nearly every afternoon, which has been, by far, our best use of Zoom. 

Then there is four-year-old Shalvi, who has stopped napping, but who still needs her daily rest, which she takes every afternoon at 2pm on the toilet. “Imma, I have cocky,” she cries, and I know that’s my cue – not to take her to the bathroom, which she does herself, but to bring her a stack of five picture books she has not “read” in a while, and to place them on the stool (the bathroom stool, that is) so that she can flip through them as she hums aloud to herself like a broken kazoo for the next 45 minutes, until she calls me to check that her tushie is clean. (It rarely is. But she is calm and rested and ready to face the rest of the afternoon.)

Finally, Yitzvi at seven months is at last able to sit in a booster seat while we feed him; until just a week ago, we had to prop him up on the kitchen counter. This means that I now have a free hand to hold open a book of poetry and chant aloud to him while he eats. Thus far we have had mashed banana with Edward Lear (because surely bananas are the most nonsensical fruit), peaches with Wallace Stevens (albeit in Jerusalem, not Russia), and oatmeal with John Keats, in homage to Galway Kinnell, who is the first person I know to eat oatmeal with Keats:

I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that is better for your mental health
if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have
breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary
companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal porridge,
as he called it with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:
due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime,
and unusual willingness to disintegrate, oatmeal should
not be eaten alone.
He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat
it with an imaginary companion, and that he himself had
enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John
Milton.
Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as
wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something
from it….

And indeed, like the original fruit of the tree of knowledge, I have learned much from eating with my baby and the distinguished members of the Western canon. (It has always been my favorite question in the New York Times Book Review: If you could invite five people to a literary dinner party, who would they be? Well, now Yitzvi and I do it every morning.)

You’d think that now that all my kids are reading more, I’d at long last be able to start reading to myself when they’re awake, but alas, it rarely works that way. Yesterday afternoon I brought everyone’s books under the stroller when we went to the park, including my own – but I rarely managed more than two words of the new Shulamit Lapid novel between successive cries of “Imma, look! Look! Look Imma.” I had no choice but to comply, nodding in approbation at Liav’s yo-yoing, Tagel’s backflips, and Shalvi’s scooting, my finger marking my place so that I could continue to read on in two-word increments. An ant crawling across the page would have outpaced me, and I lamented the futility of the endeavor; but like the rabbinic decrees explained by the increasingly unlikely notion שמא יבנה בית המקדש, I kept my finger hopefully steadfast. I read an article this week in the New York Times about Zoom reading groups, in which hundreds of people log on at 6pm and read together in silence. It still seems like a distant fantasy; my children, for better or for worse, will not be muted.

I have tried various tricks to read with the kids underfoot. Sometimes I catch Daniel “still davening” behind a closed door, reading an article or dashing off an email to students long after he’s set aside his Siddur. I have similar dissimulations – I will stay with the baby for longer than necessary, as if he didn’t quite fall asleep until I finished the chapter. Recently I read to my older kids about how Ramona Quimby tried to trick Willa Jean, the annoying preschooler she is supposed to play with after school while Willa Jean’s grandmother minds them both. Ramona announced to Willa Jean that she couldn’t play with her—a task she loathed—because she had to complete her “Sustained Silent Reading,” hoping that the formality of the euphemism and the air of self-importance with which she made the declaration would serve to convince Willa Jean that she wasn’t simply reading the next chapter in her book. That trick wouldn’t work with my kids, but they do sometimes catch me waiting outside the front door of the apartment, tearing through the last few pages before I unlock the door and let myself in.

My kids’ great literary leap forward has also been accompanied by advances in writing. I just celebrated my first birthday with semi-literate children, and was delighted to receive a card that began, “To Ymo yor a grate mothor from the cids.” They added a line saying “fancyue Ymo for macen a kcece” – for a moment I thought I was being called fancy, but then I realized this was just their “thank you” for making a cake. Under the word “a” I could see there was a crossed-out “the,” and I asked my daughter about it. “First I wrote thank you for making THE cake, but then I realized you would know that the cake you made was for you, so I changed it to A cake.” I was impressed by her Talmudic הוה אמינא. Indeed, a few days earlier, they had asked me to bake them a plain, undecorated cake. “Do you mean a sheet cake?” I asked. My daughter looked puzzled. The cake they eventually presented me with had two marshmallows on one end. “These are the two pillows, yours and Abba’s.” I asked them why the cake needed pillows, and they told me, “because it’s a bed cake.”

Only this afternoon did I realize that the whole idea for this bed-sheet cake came from “Amelia Bedelia Bakes a Cake,” where the hapless but well-intentioned housekeeper wins a baking contest after a similar misunderstanding. As an Ymo I had underestimated my children, assuming they were merely being literal when in fact they were being literary. It was a literary allusion, but it had eluded me. With a lifetime of reading ahead of them, I hope it will be the first of many.

Nevada by Maytal Zohar (translated excerpt)

Below is my translation of an excerpt from the debut novel Nevada by Maytal Zohar, recently published by Hakibbutz — about a daughter’s complicated relationship with her father in the wake of her mother’s death. The novel is written as a series of short numbered passages which unfold (mostly) in order.

1.
In August 1978 he crashed into a ditch on the western border of Nevada. When he went down he took two friends with him – one lost an arm, the second lost both legs. He injured his back and his head, a horizontal gash across his forehead. The nose of the plane was crushed like a can. He crawled out the window, crossed Highway 50 on his belly, ran to call for help. Two days later they found him sprawled out beside the telephone booth with a token in his hand. The plane had no black box.
I was not yet born when it happened, and no one ever told me about it.

Between 1 and 2.
There was a black box: The crash was caused by human error. The pilot miscalculated the altitude. He survived, but he broke several vertebrae and lost a few centimeters of his height. You might say that life shrunk him.

2.
We were told to invite parents who had interesting jobs. The week before we had an architect, and the week before that it was an architect as well—the teacher didn’t feel comfortable saying no. A pilot was a whole other story. Two kids came to school to hear him after being home sick all week.
He began with a few general remarks about mechanics, and then he went on to explain aerodynamics: weight, lift, thrust, drag. He spent longer than he meant to on lift and went into too much detail about pressure differentials, and even mentioned Bernoulli’s principle (we were in second grade). He ended by asking everyone to take out a piece of paper. He showed us how to build wings and told us to blow.
Nothing happened. At least not anything we could detect. Sasha Spivack crumpled her paper into a ball and tried to shoot it into the garbage bin. Ophir Friedman asked how much time was left until recess. The teacher, Tammy, got up from her chair and said that the session was shorter than planned. But my father didn’t move. He stood there hunched over beside the blackboard, grinning like an idiot.

0.
I kept sitting there holding my wings, even during recess, blowing and blowing, nearly hyperventilating, in the hope that something would happen. I was, after all, his daughter.

-1.
No, that’s not what happened. I also got up. I went out for recess with everyone else. He continued standing there until the ground swallowed him up. A pilot without a plane crashed in Class 2C, the assistant principal announced over the loudspeaker. He made noises like a trapped animal, muffled noises from deep inside, I didn’t turn around to look (my father is falling, a great cloud covering the sky).

3.
Once the ground swallowed him up. I was a little girl, standing in line at the supermarket. I hugged him. Suddenly he pushed me away with both hands, hard. When I lifted my head I realized that it was not him, that it was someone else who resembled him. I began to run down the aisles. I didn’t find him, I still don’t find him.

4.
A few years ago he came to visit me in the apartment I’d just rented in Tel Aviv. (I bought sugar-free cookies – his insulin levels were through the roof.) We sat in the hallways connecting the bedroom to the bathroom, among all the cartons, on two new stools from Ikea. He looked enormous, like an elephant perched on a tree stump, uncomfortable. I didn’t offer to move to my room – I had just finished cleaning it.
I asked him, for the first time, about “that accident” (we never referred to it as a crash, just like we never referred to her illness as cancer – only at the last minute did she die of cancer and not of a terrible illness). He looked at me with small, murky eyes, and said: What could I do, what could I do, there was nothing I could do, was there anything I could have done?

5.
For as long as I can remember the official version—his, the home’s—was that there was a problem with the motor. From a young age I understood what makes a good lie: blame, a focus on detail. For instance, two legs and an arm.

6.
In the end her terrible illness reached her neck. After she died I kept dreaming the same dream: She was walking along the main road of the city (to the grocery store, to the bakery, to the bank, away from me), when suddenly a plane came out of nowhere and rammed into her like a kamikaze. The sharp nose hit at a 45 degree angle straight into her C2 vertebra.

7.
That morning we got into the car and drove to the hospital as fast as possible. My brother and sister were already there – they’d stayed with her overnight. When we entered the room, they were standing next to the bed and she was already dead. Without thinking twice he took a sheet and covered her face. My sister yelled at him (he thinks he’s in a Hollywood film, he told my brother when we walked out of there). I lowered the sheet and folded it at her waist, but the truth is that I think she would have preferred the sheet covering her face (she was not at her best).

[…]

13.
When I used to wake up with earaches, I would get out of bed and walk to their room. She always slept on the side closer to the door, with her back to the door, and he slept at the farther side of the room, near the window. It was forbidden to wake her: If she accidentally woke up, she would lift up her head and say, in a sharp, clear voice, “Go back to bed immediately” (she had knives underneath her pillow). Then she would roll over, once again turning her back to the door, and fall asleep instantly.
In order not to wake her I had to bypass their bed and arrive at the other side, where he was. It was not easy: Because of his bad back, they slept in a huge waterbed that filled most of the room, a special import from the US (until a relatively late age I thought there were fish inside). I would hold my breath, walk on my tiptoes, clutching the windowsill at the end.
I didn’t even need to rest my arm on him. He sensed my presence immediately and woke up, as if he were on-call for me all night, my maternal father. We would creep out of the room quietly and return to my bed. He would rest a cold compress on my forehead (even when it was my shoulder that hurt) and sit beside me until I fell back to sleep, falling asleep next to me.

[…]

40.
After she died, no one slept in her bed, not even him. It was just the two of us left, bumping into each other in the hallway, not knowing what to say. We were like two strangers without any connective tissue, missing that vertebra, waiting for her to come back to introduce us to one another (in my dreams she was always still around, sitting on a comfortable chair beside a pool that led into an ocean, in a straw hat and big sunglasses, full of life and laughter, unable to recognize my voice on the telephone – Natalie? Which Natalie? I don’t know any Natalie’s – before hanging up.

[…]

45.
Shortly after I was discharged from the army I left home. I moved to Jerusalem, which was as far away as Australia. Everything seemed open, possible, I felt almost like a god, as if I were the first orphan in history, still not understanding that I was all alone. Even when the dog was dying, before he put him to sleep, I didn’t return to say goodbye. He called me on the way back from the veterinarian, crying.

46.
I returned home only once after I left. It was shortly after I moved, on a Friday, my brother invited me for dinner. I remember that I was reading Dylan Thomas and I had drunk too much. I also remember that the three of us had argued with him over the phone, I don’t really remember what about. I decided to drive there, to settle things, to take a few things I had left behind, like the photo albums. My brother wanted the crockpot he used to use, and my sister wanted her jewelry. We arranged that my brother would wait for me in the car while I went up.
I don’t think I knocked before I entered, and even so, I remember that he was standing in the entryway. She was watching television in the living room. I remember that I cursed when I passed her on the way to my room.
My things were not there. My room had been converted into her son’s bedroom. The room next door, my brother’s room, which had become a computer lab, looked like a storage closet, and on the rug, between a million boxes and papers, stood the crockpot with a brush and shoe polish inside. I don’t remember what I said, only that I left the room and walked to their bedroom—her bedroom, it was always her bedroom—and went straight to the closets, to the top shelf where she kept the jewelry. He followed me, yelling at me to leave, trying to pull me with his nails. I punched him.
In the meantime my brother had come up. He entered his room, his former room, and saw the crockpot on the rug. I remember the cry bursting forth from him as if from a pit, a crying rising and falling, sharp and strangled, a cry that could never be consoled. I grabbed him by the hand and we got out of there, I don’t think we took anything. That same week he changed the locks.

47.
We didn’t speak for a few years after I punched him (I heard that he remarried). He said that I broke four of his teeth, and I knew that he was exaggerating, but I retold that story, proud, like an idiot. I thought that I was totally justified, that he got his just desserts, but as the years went by, that punch, like Dylan Thomas and becoming an orphan, lost its glory. Sometimes, at bedtime, I used to strike the wall and wake up in fright with bloody knuckles, even though in my dream, his face would always fade away at the last minute and the beating went on forever.

48.
I am standing in the center of town, I have no idea what town. The names of the streets have been erased from the signs, and the buildings are not numbered. I want to go home, but I can’t figure out where I am, right or left, everything looks the same. I start running back and forth, bouncing back and forth from door to door like a ping pong ball.
At age twenty five I’m like a kid who lost her mother and father in a huge mall on a Friday afternoon. Australia slides off the table, falls away.

49.
He paid for the psychologist, the psychiatrists, the rent. He would call every week or two, remark that it was cold in Jerusalem, and ask, even at the height of summer, if I had warm socks.
Throughout those years, when I went crazy, he never once told me to come home, that it was OK to come home until I felt better. The truth is that I don’t blame him, because I also can’t imagine that it’s what I would have wanted.

50.
Do you remember Rosenberg, the neighbor from Aviva’s building? Pancreatic cancer. He died in two weeks.
Are you wearing socks? So you don’t get cold.
Take care, Natalie, take care.
(Dad, can you bring me a cold compress?)

51.
If her name came up in conversation—and it would, she was the only thing we had in common—he would refer to her as “your mother.” Suddenly she went from being “mom” to “your mother,” a specific mother, one of many, no longer just “mom,” no longer belonging to us all, just like that, language and love dismantling it all.

52.
It wasn’t like he had other kids beside the three of us. He didn’t need this additional “your” because he spoke to other kids about their mothers. He needed it in order to distinguish her from his own mother, as if her death—the death of my mother—finally exposed the truth that had damaged us from the beginning: that he was still a child, that she was the only thing that made him a father, and now that she was dead we were all on the same level plane.
Once, during one of the times he visited me, my brother happened to call. We sat at the table when my brother’s full name appeared on the screen. He had only one son, a son who bore his name, but he bore “his son” like someone walking around with his shirt on backwards.

53 (Half dream, half reality).
She and I are at the gym, going up the stairs that lead to the weight room. Suddenly she stops, turns around to face me, and tells me she has no energy. I tell her that if she has no energy for it, she doesn’t have to. She rests her bag on the stairs and sits down. I sit down next to her. People pass us on both sides, going up to the weight room. She says that she’s tired, and I tell her that’s fine, she can rest. She lays her head on my knees. I smooth her hair, her face. She closes her eyes and dies.
In the meantime he comes down the stairs with his gym bag. I wait for him to stop when he reaches us, but he doesn’t stop. I call out to him, but he keeps walking. I get up and start running after him, but I don’t make it, he’s already disappeared into the men’s locker room.

53.
I am still standing there in the hallway, outside the locker room, waiting for him to emerge.

54.
A month after she died, I got a two-week furlough from the army and we traveled—just the two of us—to America. We spent a few days in New York, a few days in California, and then went to Vegas. Or maybe we went to Vegas first and then to California, I don’t remember anymore. The truth is that I remember almost nothing from those two weeks – just the cheap motel that he found in New Jersey, with its neon sign flickering and the parking lot out front, just like in the movies.

55.
A photo from that trip, the Venetian hotel in Vegas. I am standing there facing him, in the new sweater he bought me, the one with the yellow and green stripes. I am not smiling, I’m looking straight at the camera, my face frozen, and he is standing far off, too far off – it takes me a moment to realize that I am the subject of the photo. I am almost swallowed up by the people around me, and beside me, in one of the canals, two large empty gondolas float like whales broken free.

56.
After they nearly got divorced, after she died, and even a few years later, when he retired, he always went back there, making an entire country his home. He thought of himself as an American and took pride in America – he never felt Israeli. He would pine for American highways, American cars, American road signs, everything he called culture. Hebrew didn’t suffice for him – he was always adding in English words. Not high diction, but words nonetheless: dryer, cream rinse, glove compartment, Q-tips. Sometimes he even tried to apply English grammar to Hebrew. Nothing serious, just little things like “try some avocadoes” or “have a Bureka.” But it seemed like for him these were significant words, major issues, as if right there, in the tension between the singular and the plural, he refused to be broken – a little boy who kept insisting that he could fly just because he could spread his arms wide.

57.
I do remember that we drove to Lake Tahoe and he showed me the site of the accident. That day I discovered Pisces, and the whole way there, for hours and hours, the CD was on repeat. I remember that day I wandered around New York City alone – we had arranged to meet in the evening in the center of Times Square, but when the time came we could not find one another – as if we had set a time to both get lost. And that drive, from San Francisco south, over the mountains, along the ocean, the radio playing a local station and the whole world resting at the edge of a blue pool. The whole world so terrifying, and so lovely.

58.
After he retired he bought one-way tickets for the two of them. He needed only one more year of work before he could qualify for social security. My brother suggested that we stop by the apartment every so often to check that everything was OK, that the roof had not collapsed, that no pipes had burst, but he said it wasn’t necessary: He had closed all the windows, turned off the water and electricity, removed the battery from the car. From now on the apartment would exist outside the world, on its own.

59.
Before he went there that time, we asked him to transfer ownership of the apartment to us. We sat with his lawyer, surrounded by all the paperwork, when suddenly he changed his mind. He said that he felt like we were stealing what was rightfully his. I was reminded of the white pyrex, how at dinner on Friday nights when there was one piece of schnitzel left, he would rush to transfer it to his plate. It was the first time, around the age of ten, when I understood that he was fighting for his life.
The lawyer pursed her lips. We also didn’t know what to say. I mean, if we didn’t take into account that he was our father – and every so often we did take it into account – then he was in the right, we really had stolen from him. We stole the schnitzels, the apartment, those precious hours in front of the computer, the hot water. We stole ice cream—Dad, I promise, there was hardly anything left in the carton—the mileage on the Alpha, his neat way of arranging the books on the shelves. We stole an entire life from him, a life that got messed up, a life he could never get back again.

60.
In the end he added a clause stating that he could live there for as long as he remained alive. The ownership of the apartment was transferred to us. But that night I could not fall asleep. I was embarrassed for him, and embarrassed for us – who ever heard of such a thing, a father who was afraid that his own children would throw him out of the house? I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling, asking for his forgiveness. I have no idea how we got to this place – after all, he’s a good man, I know that, and we’re not bad children.

[…]

64.
When I was a little girl, I used to run away from home every few months. I would slam the door behind me, declaring that I was never coming back. I would go down to the bomb shelter and try to plan out the coming years of my life. There were two couches that they’d brought there during the war, and they had also fixed the water in the bathroom. At first the time would just pass, but inevitably after an hour or two I would think of something important I had left behind: a notebook I needed for school, my Gameboy, my new skateboard. I knew that she would never call me back up, and I was too proud to return on my own, so I would wait until he’d come down to walk the dog, and when he’d come back from the park and I heard his key turning in the door, I would cough until he was standing there at the entry, and then we’d go up the stairs together.

[…]
108.
At night I run along the big street where there are no cars, in the middle of nowhere. Off in the distance, where the road turns upward, I catch sight of him leaning against a tree. I decide to run all the way to him, to circle around him, and then to run back home. But when I get closer, I see that he and the tree are in fact on the other side of a ditch – there’s no way to make it there. Instead of encircling him, I can encircle only his shadow. I return.

Amorite Pretzels (Shabbat 67a)

I’ve been reading the kids the Beezus and Ramona series since the start of Corona – my four-year-old confuses “Ramona” and “Corona” — and so Ramona and daf yomi have been two of my primary literary preoccupations of late. Yesterday we read about how Ramona’s parents made her and Beezus cook dinner after they complained, on the previous night, that tongue was disgusting and they wanted plain meat instead. “Tongue is cheaper and it’s nutritious,” their mother told them sternly – she had recently gotten a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office to cover the bills while Ramona’s father was back in school studying to be an art teacher. On the night of the slandered tongue (לשון הרע?), he was sketching his foot several times over in their living room as part of his homework, and Ramona was feeling embarrassed that she was a better artist. But cooking dinner was not something that she and Beezus could do better, at least they didn’t think they could, and it was with a fair amount of trepidation that they approached the refrigerator to plan their meal.

In the end the sisters prepared a successful dinner, though my kids were rather disgusted by their chicken thighs dipped in banana yogurt and seasoned with chili powder. Inspired by the story, my kids insisted that they wanted to make dinner for our family. I was told that I was allowed to help out, “but we’re really doing it ourselves,” they assured me.

“What do you want to make?” I asked somewhat skeptically.

“Pretzels!” my son announced, after he caught sight of the empty pretzel jar in our pantry. “We’re making pretzels for dinner.” The girls nodded in unison.

I tried to explain that pretzels weren’t exactly dinner, but the kids agreed to eat them with cottage cheese and chickpeas, which are their preferred sources of protein add-ons when I insist that their food lacks nutrition. We looked up a recipe for soft pretzels, made the dough together, and then I let the kids shape them into twisted pretzels knots before I dipped them in a pot of boiling baking soda, which is apparently how they brown. The pretzels went in the oven and everyone had a hearty—if not exactly healthy—dinner. I told myself that we often have homemade bread and cottage cheese for dinner, so this wasn’t all that different.

That night, while Daniel was cutting their nails after the bath, he showed them a video of the history of the pretzel. (Way back when, my kids never watched videos unless we were cutting their nails. Then they began begging us to cut their nails so they could watch videos. Now they don’t need excuses to request videos anymore, but the tradition of “clips” — YouTube clips and nail clipping — has continued.) In the video, Mr. Rogers went to a pretzel bakery where a young man tied an apron around his waist and taught him all about how pretzels were made. We were quite astonished to learn—at least according to Mr. Rogers’ source—that pretzels originated in Italy 1500 years ago as prizes given to Christian children for learning their prayers well; the term pretzel comes from “pretiola,” Italian for “little rewards.” The three empty spaces in the pretzel represent the three parts of the trinity, and the dough is folded over to resemble arms crossed in prayer.

I couldn’t believe it. We had been ingesting the catechism for years. The kids sensed my horror. “Does that mean we can’t eat pretzels in shul?” my daughter asked. “I’m not sure we can eat pretzels at all,” I responded, but my other daughter assured us that surely we could eat pretzel sticks and round pretzels, all of which are readily available from Osem. I found myself wondering. In this country where it is illegal to sell Hametz on Pesach and one would be hard-pressed to find non-kosher food in the supermarkets, how is it possible that pretzels–known by the equally sacred term beigele– are so popular?

This week in daf yomi, at the end of the sixth chapter of Masechet Shabbat (67a), we learned about various activities that are forbidden because they resemble the “ways of the Amorites,” one of the idolatrous nations whom the Israelites were supposed to distinguish themselves from upon arriving in the Land of Israel. The topic comes up because the Mishnah is discussing the laws of carrying on Shabbat, and specifically what items may and may not be carried outside on Shabbat. The Mishnah teaches that a nail from a crucifix may not be carried out on Shabbat because of the “ways of the Amorites” – since non-Jews use this item for healing purposes, Jews are not allowed to use it and therefore can’t carry it on Shabbat. The Talmud goes on to list various other medicinal remedies and auspicious practices prohibited because of the ways of the Amorites, including urinating in front of a pot to ensure that one’s food cooks properly and staying silent while boiling lentils so as not to disturb the legumes. In any case it seems clear to me that a pretzel twisted to resemble arms crossed in Christian prayer was not much better than a nail from a crucifix or these culinary superstitions, and I am now quite surprised that pretzels have a hechsher.

I wonder if in Amorite families, too, the children occasionally made dinner for their parents. And I secretly hope that my kids, following in the footsteps of Beezus and Ramona, will agree to cook for us again. I don’t mind if it’s an Amorite practice – just as long as they don’t pee on the kitchen floor.

Back to School

My children spent this past weekend preparing to return to school after nearly two months at home. As they tried on their masks and gloves and packed their bags with alcohol gel and sanitizing wipes, I followed along in the fifth and sixth chapters of tractate Shabbat, where the rabbis debate what various animals and people are permitted to take with them on the sabbath when they venture forth from the private domain into the public.

My kids, who have been learning at home, had all their schoolbooks and folders to bring back with them, and so their bags were far more weighed down than usual. They were, in that sense, like the camels in the Talmud saddled with a load too heavy for them, which is forbidden, since animals should not be burdened on the day of rest (51b). On their faces they are all wore scarves over their regular masks, as extra protection, like the Arabian Jewish women who go out on Shabbat with scarves over their faces (65a). My son, whose anxieties are only exacerbated by the present situation, insisted on wearing three levels of protection – a cloth mask, a napkin tied with rubber bands over his ears, and a plastic face shield with his name written in big block letters over thick masking tape because otherwise he is unidentifiable. Does he really need all this gear? I suppose for him it is sort of like the amulets discussed in the Mishnah, which are believed to protect their wearers from harm. The Mishnah teaches that a person may wear an amulet if its efficacy has been proven or if it was made by an expert. An amulet against epilepsy, the Talmud teaches, may be worn not just by one who has fallen, but also by one who worries that he will fall (61a). So far, thank God, none of us has fallen prey to this illness; we wear our masks as preventative measures and pray that we will be spared.

Although schools officially re-opened nationwide, not all of my kids’ friends went back. Several parents wrote in the class Whatsapp groups that they were too nervous about sending their kids, and wanted to first wait and see the repercussions of this change in policy. Daniel and I felt confident that our kids’ school was handling the situation responsibly and sensitively, and so we did not hesitate about returning them to school. Besides, the Talmud seems to frown upon those who hold themselves to special standards rather than adopting the policies to which the general public is expected to adhere. The Babylonian sage Shmuel was particularly strict with his daughters in terms of what sort of ribbons they were allowed to wear in their ears on Shabbat (65a). And the Mishnah relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s cow used to go out on Shabbat with a strap between its horns, even though the sages forbade such a practice, which leads to an extended Talmudic discussion about the importance of speaking up when those around you fail to adhere to the behavior expected of them (54b). In our present reality, when everyone is wearing different types of masks in different ways—some covering only their mouths, some covering their nose and mouths, some with the mask merely symbolically secured under their chins—it is hard not to judge everyone you see on the street, but the Talmud provides guidelines for how to speak up constructively to the people we see when we go out.

For the past few weeks, we have been trained to stay away from one another and to keep within the confines of our homes. It is difficult, when venturing out for the first time, not to regard everyone we see as a potential threat. At the beginning of masechet Shabbat we read about Bar Yohai and his son, who emerged from their cave after twelve years in isolation and burned up everything they saw with their eyes, until a divine voice rebuked them with the words, “Have you come out to destroy my world?” Ultimately when we do go out, it should be to seek fellowship and act kindly toward those around us. My kids came home from school and could not tell me a thing they learned, but they were all so happy to be back with their beloved teachers and friends. Even at two meters away and with three masks over their faces, they were able to feel the embrace of their school community, and hopefully the loving embrace of their family as well. I kissed them each when they left the house and again when they returned, hoping that this amulet, at least, would work its magic.

Pesach 5780: The Bare Bones

On this Pesach, when I feel I have done the absolute minimum to get my home ready for the chag, I am reminded that at its barest bones, the Seder must consist of the mention of three things. And so in the less-than-eighteen minutes I have to sit at my computer, these are the three things I am thinking about this year:

Pesach: The Seder was designed by the sages in Yavneh who were no longer able to mark the fourteenth of Nisan as it had traditionally been observed: By eating the Korban Pesach, the Paschal lamb. The Torah teaches that the Paschal lamb had to be eaten in small groups, often just the family unit. The Talmud adds that the individual who slaughtered the lamb for his family had to do so with all his family members in mind – anyone whom he did not have in mind was not allowed to join the meal at the last minute. Today, when we are all being instructed to have our Seder at home with the people we are living with—and on our own if we are on our own—I am reminded that the original activity performed on the fourteenth of Nisan, on which the Seder is based, was also a household affair. And so while it is lonely to be so far from grandparents, parents, grown children, and grandchildren on this holiday, there is something very authentic about the Corona “microseders” that transport us back to the way in which this night was observed in Temple times.

Matzah: The Maggid begins with a description of the matzah: This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. All who are hungry, come eat. I am grateful that no one in my family will go hungry this Pesach, but I know that everyone has tasted of affliction and privation. My daughters miss their friends. My son wishes we had enough eggs to make omelets for breakfast. My husband would like time to work without the kids underfoot. I wish I could go out for a long run. All of us have experienced encroachments on our liberties that would have been unfathomable just a few months ago. As the Israelite slaves knew all too well, and as we were privileged to forget for so long, liberty is tenuous. This will not be the feast of freedom we pray for each year, and I have no doubt that the little we have done to prepare is not enough – I will say Dayenu with a heavy heart. It has not been enough. Our Chad Gadya seems stuck in a loop at that moment when the angel of death appears on the scene, setting off a nightmarish chain reaction that we once could have averted and now feel powerless to stop, as China became Italy became the United States. As the Torah relates of the plague of the firstborn, it seems like there is no home without a death – everyone has been affected by this pandemic. When will the Holy One Blessed Be He step in and slaughter the Angel of Death? And yet even as I ask this question and sit down to retell the exodus story, I can hear God’s response, echoing His response to Moses on the brink of the Red Sea: “Why are you crying out to me? Speak out to the Children of Israel and go forward!” Our destiny is in our hands, and if we all do our part, we may find a way to flatten the bread and flatten the curve and make our way forward.

Maror: We have tasted so much bitterness in the last few weeks that the bitter herbs seem superfluous. This pandemic has embittered our lives like slavery embittered the Israelites. We cannot be close to our communities and to many of the people we love. We cannot extend a strong arm and an outstretched hand to embrace our friends and family members who are lonely or sick and would like us at their side. This Pesach many of us will shed tears of longing and loneliness, and in places of the world where there is a total lockdown, the Seder night will be a true Leyl Shimurim, a night of vigil, with everyone scared to leave their homes because of the danger in the streets. Each day when we rise we are greeted by our screens which flash with the news of the latest death tolls. When will the bitter be made sweet again?

In every generation a person must see himself as if he has gone out of Egypt. We are still in the narrow straits, still constricted, with so many people in our world still gasping for breath. May the angel of death pass over us and those we love, and may this Passover be the harbinger of our redemption.

Inspired by the reflections of Daniel Feldman, Leon Wiener Dow, Joel Levy, Mishael Zion, and others.

Blossoms of Snow

Sunday was supposed to be my twins’ Siddur Ceremony. During the past few months of first grade it seems they have been exclusively preparing for the occasion – learning about Tefillah, practicing to navigate the Siddur, singing songs about God’s protective presence, and rehearsing the choreography for an elaborate 45-minute dance performance. Two weeks ago, when the government forbade gatherings of over one hundred, we were told that the ceremony would take place without parents. Our girls were crestfallen. Just one week later, the event was canceled entirely. To my surprise, rather than losing heart, the girls informed us that they would be performing the ceremony at home instead, just the two of them – and sure enough, the rehearsals continued apace.

On Sunday just before 5pm, when the original ceremony was scheduled, our girls ushered us into the living room. They were wearing their white school shirts and black skirts, their hair tied back in tight ponytails, their faces beaming with excitement – only their unshod feet betrayed that they were not in fact participating in an actual school event. They sat us down and instructed Daniel to call up the playlist they had prepared with him in advance. Daniel then came on stage in the role of the principal, welcoming the parents, thanking the teachers, and commending the students for all their hard work to prepare for this momentous occasion. He did such a fine job mimicking the gestures and intonations of their school principal that I had to stifle my giggles. Next I came on stage in the role of the school rabbi to offer some words of Torah about the siddur as the soul of the Jewish people. We took our seats and the music began. The girls twirled down our hallway and stood on our makeshift stage, extending their arms in flowing motions and spinning around in perfect unison. They had mastered every move perfectly, and never once did they break out in embarrassed or self-conscious titters. They were dead serious, and as we sat there watching them with tears in our eyes, so were we.

The main song they sang and danced to was Rak Yeladim by Yishai Lapidot. It was a song they had practiced so frequently at home that even our four-year-old knew the lyrics by heart, and she silently mouthed the words from her perch on my lap:

I am trying not to cry, I am trying to wait
And father then says that we have to have hope
To pray quite a lot, make our pleading requests,
But all that I am is a child without answers,
I am trying to comprehend, to act a bit older
But the grown-ups do not always understand either.
There are not always answers, so many new thoughts,
So I try and I call out to You.
God, please protect us…
God who dwells in the heavens
The angel who redeems us from all harm….

I watched the twins’ synchronized dancing and tried not to cry. I certainly did not have the answers, and none of the grown-up world leaders seemed to have them either. The I.C.U. rooms in Italy were overflowing. Very soon it may be the same in New York, where our families live. In just a week we would celebrate Pesach, and I prayed that the angel of death would pass over us and those we love if only we stayed indoors at home. But the verse that kept running through my head throughout this modern-day plague was “there was no household in which there was not a death” (Exodus 12:30). Were it not written, it would be impossible to say it.

When the girls finished singing, dancing, and delivering the recitations they knew by heart, Daniel and I stood up and handed them their Siddurim – not the actual Siddurim they are supposed to receive, which I assume are locked up in a classroom in their now-shuttered school, but rather some of the extra Siddurim we have at home which we’ve been using when we daven with the kids every morning. Then he and I, in our roles as school principal and rabbi, held up Daniel’s Tallit and the girls stood under it to receive our blessing. “May God bless and protect you…may God shine His countenance upon you.” We recited the chapter of Psalms that we have been adding to our prayers every morning: “I will lift up my eyes to the heavens….The Lord will keep you from all harm – He will watch over your life. The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” I prayed with all my heart that it would be so.

The girls then performed their final dance, to the music and lyrics of Ofra Haza’s Shmor Na Aleinu: “He Who sits somewhere up in the heavens, He who heals all the sick…. Watch over us like children.” Here, too, the words were so very relevant, and yet I found myself thinking of another song instead. I looked at my girls in their white shirts and thought of the Von Trapp family singers onstage in Salzberg for the music festival, singing Edelweiss with their pure sweet voices as the world around them collapses: “Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow. Bloom and grow forever.” I thought of the almond tree outside our window, the one my four-year-old used to say goodbye to every morning on our walk to school – back when there still was school. The Shkediya is our Edelweiss, our blossom of snow. May we all stay healthy and safe and merit to watch our blossoms bloom and grow in happier, more hopeful seasons.