Sami Rohr Prize — acceptance speech

Every Shabbat afternoon my husband Daniel and I try to learn another mishnah from Pirkei Avot with our kids. We think of it as part of their moral education, as a way of introducing and reinforcing our core values. Chief among them is the study of Torah as an intergenerational experience – one that binds parents and children and links us to all those who have studied the text in generations before. Pirkei Avot famously begins by recounting a line of transmission: Moses received Torah on Sinai and passed it on to Joshua, who passed it on to the elders, who passed it on to the prophets. Moses describes Torah as a “morasha,” an inheritance passed down through the generations. My children don’t know how to read yet, but whenever we learn together, I pass out copies of the text to each of them. I want them to feel like they are receiving Torah, that it is becoming theirs.

But for Torah to become theirs, they have to feel not just that they are inheriting the text, but that they are discovering themselves in it. One of the most oft-quoted lines in Pirkei Avot, is “Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is in it.” I recently learned that the earliest reliable manuscript version of the Mishnah actually renders this line differently: “Turn it over and turn it over, for all of it is in you, and all of you is in it.” When we study Torah thoroughly, turning it over and turning it over and leaving no stone unturned, we find ourselves in it. We realize that the text is speaking the language of our experiences, that even before the text becomes a part of us, we are a part of the text.

I came to this realization only gradually. My book emerged out of the notes I took in the margins of my volumes of Talmud. As I was writing, I thought of the book as my own commentary on the text, trying to make sense of what I was learning by reading it against the backdrop of my life experiences. I was startled when my editor referred to it as a memoir. Memoir? Since when had I written a memoir? “The book is about you,” she told me. “It’s about Talmud,” I countered. But when I turned it over I realized that in writing about the Talmud, I was writing about myself, because all of me was in the text. I understood that when we read ourselves in the texts of our tradition, then commentary and memoir become, in a way, one and the same. The text begins to tell our story, and we begin to see ourselves as if we, too, have gone forth from Egypt.

This is true of writing about Talmud, but it is true about Jewish literature more generally. All Jewish literature is a commentary on what came before. There could not have been Rashi if there were no Talmud; there could not have been Tosafot if there were no Rashi. But there also could not have been Philip Roth if there were no Saul Bellow, and there could not have been Rebecca Goldstein if there were no Cynthia Ozick. As Ozick might have put it, we all dip our ladles into our ancestors’ wells, and what we draw up is ours but it is also theirs.

And so it is not just text study, but also Jewish literature, that is an inherently intergenerational experience. Daniel and I study Pirkei Avot with our children for much the same reason that we read aloud to them – because the core of Jewish tradition is about the transmission of ideas and teachings from one generation to the next, and for hundreds of years, books have been the vehicle for doing that.

This is something that Sami Rohr z”l, whose memory we celebrate this evening, understood very well. Sami Rohr was a voracious reader who read widely and across disciplinary boundaries, and he transmitted his love of reading to his three children, who grew up in Bogota in a house lined with books. The Sami Rohr Prize is a testament to the power of books to forge generational bonds, linking parents and children, our ancestors and our descendants. The Prize reflects an awareness on the part of George, Evelyn and Lillian and their spouses and children, as well as the Jewish Book Council, that Jewish books and Jewish writing matter. I am so deeply honored to be among those who have benefited from their commitment to Jewish literature as a vehicle for Jewish continuity.

The Talmud has been the foundation for all major codes of Jewish law. But the Talmud is not just a legal tract; it is also a work of literature, filled with puns, intertextual allusions, and a rich cast of characters – primarily rabbis, but also learned heretics and Roman matrons, angels and demons, unicorns and sea monsters. Like all great works of literature, the Talmud reads differently each time we encounter it – no two people read the text the same way, and no one person reads it the same way at different points in his or her life. When we engage with the texts of our tradition – when we teach them to our children, speak of them when we are at home and when we are on the way, when we lie down and when we rise up—we begin to tell our story through them, and those stories become the next generation of commentary, and of Jewish literature. The line of transmission continues, the inheritance is passed on, and we are all so fortunate to be its heirs.

Lamentations for the Jerusalem Pool

It has been nearly a year since the closure of the Jerusalem pool. The lot which housed the Olympic-size pool is now a giant hole in the ground, and an upscale supermarket is expanding into the area that once housed the complex’s one-room gym. Instead of the hundreds of children who used to splash in the kiddie pool each summer, now there are just a few manned tractors clearing away the rubble behind a billboard advertising the luxury condominium that will be built on the site. Last week, on the eve of the seventeenth day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, I walked past at 9pm and saw a giant crane hauling the two-story aquamarine waterslide over the billboards into a waiting truck. As I stood there, mourning the demolition of the pool where I swam nearly every morning for over a decade, I could hear in my head the haunting chant of the book of Lamentations, whose words I modified only slightly: Alas! How lonely sits the city pool, once great with people.  (1:1)

The book of Lamentations is traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, who was mourning the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. The walls of the city were breached, the Temple was set aflame, and Jerusalem was left desolate. This tragedy is commemorated every year on the ninth of Av, a day marked by fasting, mourning, and the chanting of Lamentations and other dirges. According to Jewish tradition, the ninth of Av was a day when five tragedies befell the Jewish people – not just the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians, but also the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans, the return of the dispirited spies sent by Moses to scout out the Promised Land, the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, and the plowing of Jerusalem to dust by the Roman general Turnus Rufus.

It was around the time of Tisha b’Av last year that the owners of Jerusalem pool sealed the decree of destruction, announcing that the pool would be closed down forever. The news was crushing, but it came as no surprise. For years the sword of Damocles hung over the pool – every fall, when I came to renew my annual membership, I was told that I could renew only for a few months, because it was unclear if the pool would remain operational past then. A few years ago the members joined together to form a team of spies to scout out the lay of the land, and the report they brought back was not good: The owners of the pool wished to sell the property to developers, and they couldn’t care less about the swimmers, who were as insignificant as grasshoppers in their eyes. The swimmers tried to rebel, staging protests and demonstrations and petitioning the municipality. But ultimately the revolt failed. The stone walls enclosing the pool were breached and its grounds were plowed to dust. Her gates have sunk to the ground, her bars smashed to bits.. . Her foe has laid hands on everything dear to her. (2:9, 1:10)

The loss of the pool is felt most acutely in the summer, when the pool was a haven for the children of south Jerusalem, whose parents brought them after school to splash in the water, careen down the water slide, and—because no trip to the pool was complete without it—buy overpriced popsicles at the pool kiosk. The parents would sit on plastic chairs watching from the side and waiting with towels, enjoying a rare moment to themselves while the kids occupied themselves in the water or played on the grass. Like many parents, I brought my kids to the pool every summer Friday afternoon – I would stay up late finishing all my Shabbat cooking on Thursday nights, so that we could enjoy a long afternoon in the water. In the morning I’d pack our stroller with bathing suits, goggles, and towels, and we’d go straight from school to the pool, so the big kids could jump around in the water while the baby napped. Then we’d walk home, the wet bathing suits draped over the handle of the stroller, exhausted from the sun and the splashing and eager for a good night sleep after welcoming Shabbat.

But alas, no longer. My children are forlorn, Jeremiah laments. (1:16) My kids know about the destruction of the pool – we pass the site every day on their walk home from school. Over the course of the past few months they’ve insisted that I wait for a few minutes each day so they can observe various stages of the demolition. “Where is our pooly-pool?” my toddler asks each time we stop and watch. Swimming is a luxury, and we are lucky we had the pool for so long. But even so, I cannot help but hear in her question an echo of those forlorn children of Jerusalem, who turned to their parents imploringly after the city was ravaged: Babes and sucklings languish in the squares of the city. They keep asking their mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’ (2:12).

Following the destruction of the Temple, the Jews were sent into exile, where they hung their harps on the willow trees and wept by the rivers of Babylon. Most of the regulars at the pool, too, have gone into exile. I was once a regular — I was part of a group of women who swam every morning around 8am. Some of us came between dropping off our children and dashing to work, but most were retirees – older women with canes and sometimes even electric wheelchairs who could access the pool because it was all on ground level. I made many friends over the years thanks to those morning swims – one of my closest friends, an octogenarian who is exactly twice my age this year, used to save me the Books section of Haaretz every week, which she’d slip into my pool locker. Another older woman who taught English through show tune lyrics in her retirement home used to consult with me each week about the words and phrases she herself didn’t understand – “what does it mean, ‘bet your bottom dollar,’” she’d inquire. Occasionally I’d see my pool friends in other contexts – at the coffee shop, or at the post office – and I’d always do a double-take, making sure I still recognized them with all their clothes on. “I’m not used to seeing you dressed,” we joked with each other on such occasions.

I came to appreciate that even though I regarded swimming as a luxury, for many of the regulars it was essential for their physical and mental health. “Cheaper than therapy,” one of my swimming friends used to quip whenever we’d catch sight of each other pouring out our hearts like water, using the pool to drown out our sadness or hurt. One woman told me she began swimming the week after her husband died – she felt so lonely without him in the mornings, but coming to the pool and seeing other people got her out of bed every day. Another woman swam through her cancer treatments, regaling her friends in the locker room with the details of her surgeries and managing, somewhat miraculously, to swim through the pain. Several women swam on doctor’s orders to treat their arthritis or osteoporosis. Indeed, sometimes the locker room felt more like a doctor’s waiting room, with swimmers comparing ailments and remedies while waiting in line for the showers.

The locker room at the Jerusalem pool was rather disgusting, with white paint peeling off the walls and mold in the shower stalls. When I first learned about Tzaraat haBayit, whereby a building may be afflicted with leprosy, I thought of the women’s locker room. But I didn’t mind. For me it was merely a passageway into the heavenly world-to-come of the pool, where I found refuge and redemption. During my morning swims I would reflect on the previous day, map out everything I needed to do before picking up the kids, and think through whatever was bothering me. Somehow even my knottiest problems seemed to untangle themselves underwater, like my hair when I when I removed my shower cap, shook out my pony tail, and dunked at the end of my swim. I swam my way through break-ups, pregnancies, and post-partum depression – although the doctor said to wait a few months after giving birth before returning to the pool, I was back in the water after three weeks, because I couldn’t function otherwise. For the first few months after my daughter was born, I’d wheel her stroller right in and let her sit by the pool as I swam during her morning nap; the lifeguard would keep an eye on her, and the other women would tap me on my swim cap to let me know when she’d woken up. Tears of sadness, tears of joy; deepest regrets and deepest aspirations – the Jerusalem pool has seen it all, for me and countless others.

Now all of us regulars have been exiled to various pools throughout the city, but most of these pools are not accessible to the handicapped, or those without cars, or those who have precious little time to spare between the moment they drop off their kids and the moment they start work. Not to mention that compared to the Olympic-sized Jerusalem pool, every other pool seems disappointingly short and narrow: Judah has gone into exile because of misery and harsh oppression. When she settled among the nations, she found no rest. All her pursuers overtook her in the narrow places. (1:3) As far as I know, none of those pools have two-story aquamarine water slides or a large expanse of grass where kids can run free. Gone from fair Zion are all that were her glory. Her leaders were like stags who found no pasture. (1:6)

This year, on Tisha b’Av, I will be mourning the destruction of the pool – not because it is a tragedy that can in any way rival the destruction of the Temple, but because it serves as a powerful metaphor for what that historic tragedy might have meant to our ancestors. The Temple was the place where ancient Jews marked major life transitions – women brought sacrifices after giving birth, lepers came to place blood on their thumbs and toes after they’d been purified, sinners brought offerings by way of atonement. Following the destruction of the Temple, the Jews needed to find new ways of marking and experiencing these major rites of passage. We know from Lamentations that it wasn’t easy, and for a long time the Babylonian exiles could only ask “How? How?” as they struggled to make sense of what had befallen them. But now that the pool has been closed for a year, I’ve moved past the “how’s” and I’m daring to allow myself to hope that one day, perhaps, the pool will be rebuilt. And so I am hanging my bathing suit on the willow tree and joining in the prophet’s closing words of hope:

Take us back to you, Jerusalem pool, and let us come back –
Renew our days as of old
</em>. (5:22)

 

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.