Reading While Mothering

This past weekend all three of my daughters were sick with bad colds, and I spent much of Shabbat afternoon curled up at the foot of one of my twins’ beds in the room all three of them share, staying with them as they coughed away and tried to rest their aching heads. I could not leave the room because then the baby—who uncannily seems to sense my presence at all times—would start crying, waking the toddler sleeping next to her, who would kick angrily and surely wake her twin sister by the window. I knew that the only chance that everyone would get well was if they took a long nap, and so I spent three hours in their room, getting up only to reinsert the pacifier in the baby’s mouth when necessary, or to help my daughter find her water bottle when she sat up thirstily, or to accompany her sister to the bathroom.

Keeping vigil in a sickroom does not sound like fun, but I had left the window shade open a crack, letting in just enough light to illuminate my page so that I could read from my perch at the end of the bed lining the window. I was reading a new collection of short stories by a young Israeli writer named Hila Amit, and I was utterly in thrall to the gripping story of a single mother who takes her children camping by a lake on vacation, only to wake up and discover that one of the children who had been sleeping by her side was missing. My heart raced as I turned page after page, and I found myself unconsciously casting my eyes over the three sleeping girls, counting their heads and listening for their breathing in spite of myself. I tend to get very absorbed in the books I am reading, but usually I do not have time to read when my children are home. Though I would never wish sickness upon my children, of course, I could not help but relish the opportunity to read for a long afternoon stretch with all my girls present and accounted for and calm.

People sometimes ask me if I enjoy being a mother, perhaps because all my children were born in quick succession after I lived alone for much of my adult life. I tell them the truth, which is that I enjoy—or I most enjoy—those aspects of motherhood that can be accomplished while reading. I do not mind holding my children’s hands and staying with them at night, or waiting on the side during their gymnastics lessons, or breastfeeding, which I always have done with a book in one hand. (My babies each learned to wave their free hand to check for the book, only then settling comfortably on the breast.) And I hardly need mention that my favorite aspect of being a parent is reading to my children, which I do all day long, at every possible moment. I always keep picture books under the stroller in case we are stuck with time to kill, and we read snuggling in my bed in the early morning, and over breakfast and dinner, and of course before bed.

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed anything in life that can be done while reading, and I’ve tended to avoid activities incompatible with holding a book in one hand. Perhaps that’s why I always prefer to walk than to drive or ride a bicycle—I am a master of reading while walking—and perhaps that’s why I never became very good at shopping or cooking or playing music. But many of aspects of motherhood require being fully present in mind and body, attentive to my children with both hands free. It has been a challenge, in recent years, to let go of that part of me that always wants to be elsewhere, immersed in a fictional world, caught up in the thicket of someone else’s plot. Sometimes I find myself writing my own plots, narrating our daily experiences in my head at the very moment they are unfolding, documenting life in real time and occasionally changing the ending to make for a better tale. Once I stood outside my daughter’s preschool trying the finish the last few paragraphs of a chapter before heading in to pick her up. But all of a sudden I heard  my daughter calling to me through the open window, and I realized that even though I still had a few sentences left, I was already in the middle of a very different chapter of my day.

I have never managed to learn to meditate or do yoga—I lack the calmness and the focus—but motherhood, like these disciplines, is teaching me every day anew the value of drawing my attention back to the present moment and being in just one place at one time. “It goes by so fast,” people always tell me when they see me trying to fit three kids into a double stroller or struggling to quiet down one twin so I can hear why the other is crying. I imagine the pages of a book flipping by, turning faster than I can read them. And then I stop for a moment, put my finger between the pages to mark my place, and look up into my daughter’s eager eyes, setting the book aside.

Limericks: Bava Metzia perek 4 הזהב

Bava Metzia chapter 4

Is it silver you use to buy gold?
Is it rather the silver that’s sold?
The Nasi first said one
Back when teaching his son
Then he changed his mind when he got old.

“I’ll pay you with new coins my friend”
Can he pay him old coins in the end?
He must do as he said
Lest his friend be misled
Though most people want old coins to spend.

When you take hold of the object, it’s bought
And not when you pay, as we thought.
Lest the seller, a liar
Say “My attic’s on fire
Your wheat burned. The sale was for naught.”

What’s this thing that they call Asimon?
Not those things they once used for the phone.
It’s a ticket you get in
The bathhouse, once let in–
Or a coin still unstamped and unknown.

Rabbi Hiya bar Yosef sold salt.
He was paid, but then wished to default
For the price never fell
It just rose. Must he sell?
“You’ll be cursed if you try now to halt.”

Don’t charge more than a sixth of the price
That is called O’na’ah. It’s a vice.
You can’t charge in your store
Any price so much more
Than the object is worth. Be precise.

If you’re overcharged, can you return
The item whenever? We learn—
Only ‘til you could show
To your friends, who’d say “No!
That is not worth that much, we discern.”

Sadly price gouging happens a lot
If you’re a merchant, or if you are not.
If you know you’ve been tricked
It is your right to pick:
Take your cash, or what you should have got.

That coin you were handed is bad
It is worn away. Well, just a tad.
You can go take it back
You have time, but don’t slack—
Make him own up, that seller, that cad.

Maaser Sheni – eat within the walls
Of Jerusalem. What if they fall?
Can you then redeem
Your tithe? It would seem
That you can. Not according to all!

Teruma is meant for a priest
So don’t eat it all up in a feast
If you eat by mistake
You must pay, and we take
The full sum, plus a fifth (that’s at least!).

A Pruta is not very much.
Do we take you to court over such
A small sum? Yes we do
If the money was due
To the Temple. That you cannot touch!

There is no On’a’ah if it’s land
You are buying. There’s no hand-to-hand
Transaction. So too,
With slaves, we construe
Them as land, as you must understand.

If you promised to donate some flour
To the Temple. But within the hour
The price shot up high
Must you give as much? Why?
It’s the Temple! Now don’t look so sour!

If a convert comes by, you can’t say
“It was ten years ago to the day
That your Dad ate some pork
With a spoon and a fork”
Do not torture or turn him away.

Better to fall in a furnace and burn
Than embarrass your friend, so we learn
From Tamar, who did not
Speak aloud Judah’s rot
Blaming Judah was not her concern.

In your store, don’t hand out nuts and sweets
To the kids who come in seeking treats.
For you’ll give them a knack
To come flocking right back
It’s not fair to the stores on your street.

I Never Promised You Dessert: Reflections on Kol Nidre

I make all sorts of promises to my children that I do not keep. Many are made in the exigency of the moment: When  my toddler twins are refusing to get in the stroller because they want to stay at the zoo, I promise them we’ll come back the following week– even if I know that won’t happen, and I’m just relying on the fact that they’ll forget by the time they’ve calmed down. When they are fighting over a toy in synagogue and disturbing everyone around us, I tell them that if they don’t stop arguing, they won’t get lollipops at the end of the service – even though I would be powerless to keep them from the Candy Man. Sometimes my promises take the forms of bribes, as when I tell my son that if he eats all the food in his plate, he can have as much dessert as he wants – even though I then limit him after the third cookie, telling him that it’s for his own good, so he doesn’t get a stomachache.

I’ve been feeling very ill-at-ease about all these unkept promises, particularly now that the high holiday season is upon us. My children are all very young, and they are unlikely to remember tomorrow what I promised them today. But as we recite in the section on remembrance in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, “There is no forgetting before the throne of God’s glory.” God remembers His promise after the Flood never again to destroy the earth again, as well as His covenant with Abraham, as we affirm in our prayers. And so even if my children forget what I’ve promised before my credibility erodes, I know that God does not forget, and that these unkept promises will not go unrecorded.

I don’t think the rabbis of the Talmud would have been pleased with my unkept promises either. In tractate Nedarim, which deals with vows that a person takes upon himself or herself, they quote from the book of Ecclesiastes: “It is better not to vow than to vow and not to fulfill.” They warn that every time a person takes a vow, a notebook recording all his deeds is opened in heaven, and God reevaluates his fate more critically. Before Rosh Hashanah, when we ask God to inscribe us in the Book of Life, we are supposed to annul any vows we made the previous year. On the eve of Yom Kippur, this is solemnized in the Kol Nidre service, where we declare all our vows from the previous year to be null and void. But I have already voided so many of my own promises to my children by failing to fulfill them, and I find the beautiful melody of Kol Nidre even more haunting as I think about how thin is the line between unkept vows and outright lies.

But then I am reminded of the history of Kol Nidre, which was originally formulated as a way of annulling vows made the previous year, but then became in the Middle Ages a way of pre-emptively declaring that all vows in the future—from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur—will have no legal force. If so, then Kol Nidre is not just about looking back with regret, but also about looking forwards with resolve. And so perhaps that is what I’ll try to do as well. I’m not going to promise that I won’t make any more vain promises to my children, because to do so would just be to make one vow on top of another. But looking forwards, I hope I’ll think twice before making promises I can’t keep. If my children eat all the food on their plates, I’ll promise them that they will feel better and have more energy to play. If that’s all I promise, I imagine I’ll feel better too.

Nine Months Out

My daughter Shalvi is nine months old today, which means that she has been outside my body for as long as she was inside. It feels momentous, though I don’t know of any way to mark the occasion. Still three months shy of her first birthday, she is just starting to crawl and to pull herself up to a standing position, which means she can go farther and farther away from me, and I can’t always assume that I’ll find  her where I left her. She’s also less interested in breastfeeding, and while I still nurse her several times a day, she will increasingly push away the breast in favor of a cup of dry cheerios that she can feed herself. A year and a half ago, she was just becoming a part of me, the first cells of her body forming inside mine. And now she is increasingly apart from me, making her way into the world, extending the radius of my care, my concern, and my love.

Shalvi is not my first child, but it is harder to let her go than any of the others — perhaps because as I get older, I am more attuned to life’s evanescence. I look wistfully at pregnant women I pass on the street, cognizant of the arc that rises in anticipation, peaks in those sacred moments of birth, and then descends as the days and weeks pass and mother and child sink into comfortable familiarity. As I watch friends who have given birth to babies younger than my own, I am reminded of how time slows down after giving birth to baby, whose lifespan is measured in days before it is measured in weeks, and in weeks before months. All too soon I shall stop counting in months when Shalvi—Godwilling—turns one year old. I’m not sure I’m ready. I find myself holding on to her as she scurries away, not quite ready to let these moments pass.

“This month shall be for you the first month of the year,” the Bible says about the exodus from Egypt, an event so momentous that it upended the calendar and reset time. In the Bible the first month is Nisan, the month of the exodus. The day we think of as the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, falls out in Tishrei, the seventh month. There are thus two cycles of Jewish time: There is universal time, which begins on Rosh Hashanah, the day the world was created. But there is also Jewish time, which begins on Passover, with the birth of the Jewish people as a nation. These two ways of marking time unfold against the backdrop of one another in the same way that personal time—the clock that is upended and reset after birth—unfolds against the backdrop of ordinary time. Yes, it is just an ordinary Tuesday in January; but it is also the day that my baby was born, marking this date as special for years to come. As I hope it will be.

Shalvi, of course, is too young to be aware of anything unusual about this day, the nine-month anniversary of her birth. But in the same way that God was involved in her conception—the Talmud says that there are three partners involved in the creation of a child: the mother, the father, and God—it seems appropriate to involve God today, as well. And so I decided to recite the Shehehiyahu blessing, a sort of Jewish elastic clause, stretching to accommodate moments that ought to be marked but do not have a blessing of their own. Thank you God for sustaining me, and for enabling me to reach this day. At first I thought I might pick up Shalvi and hold her while I said these words, but she was busy pulling herself up on the edge of the couch. In any case it seemed more fitting, in that otherwise ordinary moment, to let her go.

Lovely Eyes (Kidushin 7a)

My twin daughters are extraordinarily generous. Whenever I pick them up from preschool, I always have snacks lodged under our double stroller. The girls ask me for snacks because they are hungry, but they are never content to leave it at that. Outside their preschool is a playground where many of the parents and kids hang out after the school day is over. My girls make the rounds giving out snacks to each and every one of their friends in the schoolyard, as well as to any kids interested in a rice cake or pretzels. They insist not just on handing out a pretzel to each kid, but on offering the entire Tupperware container, so that each kid may choose how many he or she wants. Generally this means there are very few pretzels left for my girls, but they don’t seem to mind. The satisfaction they get out of sharing with others is presumably more valuable to them than another bite of salty crunch.

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