Sitting in Shul with Kids

There is a custom that one should not speak between the Shofar blasts sounded on Rosh Hashanah at the conclusion of the Torah service and those sounded at the end of Musaf. It is a tradition that dates back at least to the tenth century and is quoted throughout medieval halakhic responsa. The rabbis explain that since a major purpose of sounding the shofar is to focus our minds on our prayers, we are supposed to remain in a state of heightened concentration throughout the full duration of the shofar blasts. I have known about this custom for a long time, but this year, for the first time since becoming a mother, I was able to observe it.

Ever since my children were born, I have been trying to train them to sit quietly in shul. I was blessed with easy births, and so I was able to bring each of my babies with me to shul the first Shabbat after they were born. In infancy each baby nestled in a carrier, feeling the rise and fall of my chest as my voice burst forth in song and prayer. When they got older I began bringing one child up to the Bimah with me each time I read from the Torah; they stood on a chair at my side and peered over my shoulder as I tracked the words with a silver Yad. Sometimes I worried that the child at my side would distract or interrupt my concentration, but then I would think of the verse from Parshat Nitzavim, ki karov elecha hadavar meod (“for this thing is very close to you”), and I would hope that I was teaching them what it means for Torah to feel close and accessible.

My oldest is now eight and my youngest is three, and I am constantly on the lookout for ways to keep them occupied in shul. I bring them books with interesting pictures so that they want to flip through the pages again and again, such as Peter Spier’s People and Karla Kuskin’s The Philharmonic Gets Dressed. I pack games that are compact, easy to clean up, and can be played silently on the floor, such as Double, Plus Plus and—created exclusively for this purpose — Magnetic Shul. And then I have my stash of snacks that can be chewed silently and consumed slowly without making too many crumbs; some of them are, admittedly, less nutritious than others. My children know that candy is off limits except in shul – last week my daughter pleaded with me to buy her sour sticks, and I gave in on the condition that we save them to be eaten only in synagogue. Each Shabbat morning they get one lollipop (two if they stay for Shacharit and Musaf!), and as they know well, the rule is that the lollipop must be entirely consumed in the sanctuary. It reminds me of the laws surrounding Maaser Sheni, the tithed produce that had to be eaten only in Jerusalem; the walls of Jerusalem had to “absorb” the tithe, and once they did, the produce could not exit the city. My children know that if they leave to go to the bathroom or play with friends, they have to deposit their lollipop with me. I make sure to keep the wrappers handy just in case.

I am aware that it all sounds a bit crazy and over-zealous. Why am I so intent on keeping my kids in shul with me, especially if they are not even paying attention to the prayer service? Why not just take them to the children’s service for a half hour and then let them run around outside, as most of my friends opt to do? What is to be gained by having my children sit at my feet for a couple of hours every Shabbat morning, sucking on lollipops and flipping through picture books?

I harbor no illusions. My kids are not learning to pray by sitting in shul. Even if I bring an illustrated kids’ prayer book, they rarely open it, preferring the other distractions in my bag of tricks. But I hope that with time, after weeks and weeks of sitting at my feet for the several hours of Shabbat morning davening, they will begin to absorb the rhythms of the service. “Malachim!” I whisper to them when they try to talk to me during the Kedusha, the prayer where we stand with our feet pressed together in imitation of the angels and mimic the call-and-response among the celestial beings as they seek out God’s presence. My children know that it is forbidden to talk during this “Angels” prayer, and sometimes they even press their feet together and rise up on their tiptoes and bow to the left and right alongside me, as if they too might transcend their sticky-candy-eating embodiment and rise to the level of angels. “Torah!” I tell them quietly at the end of the Torah reading, when the open, sacred parchment scroll is lifted high for congregation to see. Sometimes my children look up from their game, or come with me to kiss the Torah as it is paraded down the aisles. “Kohanim!” I murmur when the priests walk to the front of the sanctuary and stand beneath their tallitot to bless the congregation. Although it is forbidden to look at the priests as they recite their blessing, I am grateful for anything that catches my children’s eyes, and I don’t have the heart to tell them to avert their glance.

Since my Israeli-born children converse in the same language that we pray, the liturgy is more accessible to them than it ever was to me as a child. My three-year-old recently told me that Ein Keloheinu is her favorite prayer. It soon became apparent that she mistook the line “Mi K’Eloheinu”—who is like our God—for a reference to her friend in preschool and told me excitedly, “I have a Mika in my Gan!” (The irony is not lost on me.) Two of my girls, Tagel and Shalva, know to listen for their names at certain points in the service – whenever Tagel’s name appears in a haftarah reading, I make sure she listens up and takes pride in her cameo appearance. We were recently sitting next to my friend Efrat and her daughter Tehilla, a name that appears throughout the liturgy. When both our daughters’ names were mentioned in the span of a few verses of the haftarah for Nitzavim, I looked over at Efrat and whispered, “I guess this is a lot more exciting for us than it is for you.”

I don’t know if my kids will eventually consider the synagogue a home. When they are old enough to make their own decisions, will they choose to spend their Shabbat mornings praying as part of a congregation? I recognize that these matters are largely beyond my control. Even so, I hope that my husband and I will succeed in raising children who make their Jewish decisions from a place of deep familiarity with our traditions. I hope they will come to know the rhythm of the prayer service even if they ultimately march to the beat of a different drummer. Like the Talmudic story about the heretic Elisha ben Abuya, whose feet still counted out the distance that one may walk on Shabbat even after he had thrown off the yoke of the commandments, I hope that my children will always be able to name the weekly Torah portion even if they don’t go to synagogue to hear it.

Most of all, I hope my children will have learned from sitting beside their parents in shul how important prayer is to both of us. I suppose that’s why I care so deeply about my kids sitting in shul, even if my son is tearing through a mystery novel and my daughters are busy devouring sweets. One of my most powerful childhood memories is of watching my father wrap tefillin at a hotel in Disney World. He was a congregational rabbi for forty years and attended a daily minyan, where his presence was expected. When we were on vacation, no one demanded that he pray. And yet he prayed even in Disney World, which taught me that prayer was not merely part of his job description, but a duty of the heart. When my kids ask for a drink of water in the middle of the silent Amidah prayer and I hold up a finger sternly for them to wait, I am trying to impart the same message.

On Rosh Hashanah I had to hold up that finger many times. I managed to sit quietly in shul throughout all the Shofar blasts not because I banished my children from the sanctuary but because they sat there alongside me for much of the service, nibbling on rice cakes and brushing their dolls’ hair. My son, who attended an earlier (5:30am!) service with my husband Daniel, sat beside him reading a novel; when their service ended, he came to retrieve his sisters, so that they could go home with their father. For the last hour and a half, I sat in shul alone. I relished the quiet, but each time the Shofar was sounded, I thought of how its blasts resembled the inarticulate prayers of those who cannot access language – whether because their depths of emotion are too great for words, or because they, like my children, have simply not yet learned how to pray. Maybe by next Rosh Hashanah my son will open the prayer book and follow along, and maybe my daughters will not need quite so many lollipops. The shofar is supposed to sound like a wail or a sob, but this past Rosh Hashanah, it sounded to me like the voice of hope.

Counting Sheep on Rosh Hashanah

When I had trouble falling asleep as a child, my parents would tell me to count sheep. It didn’t work very well; I generally gave up on counting well before sleep overtook me. Now, as a parent of young children, I don’t have trouble falling asleep– I conk out the moment my head hits the pillow, before the first sheep can rear its wooly head. But sometimes when I sit at my desk in the daytime struggling to write, the cursor flashing on the blank screen as I fight off despair, I try counting sheep, hoping that if I stay there a little longer, something will come.

With the high holidays approaching, we think of God as a counter of sheep. The U’netaneh Tokef (“Let us speak of the awesomeness”), the medieval liturgical poem recited at the climax of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, describes the entire people of Israel passing before God like sheep:

As a shepherd herds his flock,
Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,
So do You cause to pass, count, and record,
Visiting the souls of all living,
Decreeing the length of their days,
Inscribing their judgment.

The image is resonant of the Biblical commandment of Maaser, whereby every Jew is obligated to give one tenth of his produce to God. The ninth chapter of the Mishnah in Bekhorot describes the procedure for tithing animals. Each year after the first of Elul, just before the high holiday season, the shepherd must bring his animals into a shed with a small opening so that only one can go out at a time. He passes his staff over each sheep as it exits the shed, counting them one by one. When he gets to the tenth, he marks it with red chalk and says, “Behold, this is the tenth.” The counting is an essential part of the tithing process; the Mishnah stipulates that if the shepherd merely takes out ten lambs from a flock of one hundred, the tithe is invalid. Each and every sheep must pass under the shepherd’s rod, just as each and every person passes before God during the Days of Awe.

By comparing human beings to sheep, the U’netaneh Tokef emphasizes both our commonality and our individuality. Each of us is part of a flock, and in that sense we are as indistinguishable from one another as sheep. But if we really were all identical, why would God examine us one by one? The fact that each of us must pass before God means that each of us receives our own divine judgment. In the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah (1:2), where this image first appears, the rabbis teach, “On Rosh Hashanah, all the inhabitants of the world pass before God like B’nei Maron, as it is written, ‘He Who creates all their hearts as one, Who understands all their deeds’ (Psalms 33:15). God creates all of humanity, but each person is evaluated individually.

Yet we are not just docile sheep in God’s eyes. The Babylonian rabbis understood the Mishnah’s phrase “Bnei Maron” as referring to a flock of sheep, but for rabbis in the Land of Israel, the phrase was understood as a geographical reference to Beit Maron, a steep mountain where someone standing at the summit could observe all those ascending (Rosh Hashanah 18b). These images suggest that although we are ultimately at God’s mercy, we are also individuals with the agency to engage in the difficult uphill work of preparing ourselves spiritually to appear before God at the climax of the Jewish calendar.

This uphill climb is the work of striving to nurture the unique divine spark inside ourselves so that we may contribute to the world in a way that only we are able. For most of us this does not comes easily, and it often feels like a battle against competing impulses. No surprise, perhaps, that the Talmud also offers a militaristic interpretation of B’nei Maron as a reference to soldiers in King David’s army. Indeed, the term B’nei Maron comes from numeron, which is Greek for a legion or cohort. From this perspective, we are not vulnerable sheep but brave troops marching rank and file, trying to stay in line with the divine command.

Whether the image is sheep or soldiers, we file before God so that the Almighty can take note of each of us. This taking note is quite literal in the sense that the U’netaneh Tokef imagines God “recording” and “inscribing” our judgement. The next line connects God’s role as the counter of sheep with God’s role as a writer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die…

God spends Rosh Hashanah recording the fate of each of us, dictating who will live and who will die, and how those fated to die meet their end: Who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, and so on.

It seems that God counts sheep for the sake of writing. Only by counting each of us can God decide upon and record our fates. With the high holiday liturgy dominated by images of God as father and God as king, we may fail to note that being the Creator is also about being a writer, inscribing the fates of all human beings after considering them one by one.

But can we really think of God’s writing in the same terms as we think about human authorship? Rabbinic literature is no stranger to such analogies. “Were it not written, it would be impossible to say it,” the Talmud states on several occasions. This phrase is generally a prelude to a difficult theological concept which the rabbis try to root in a biblical verse. Since the concept has a basis in the written text, the rabbis argue, it has legitimacy no matter how brazen or outlandish it may seem. For instance, the rabbis in tractate Rosh Hashanah (17b) cite a biblical verse to prove that God wrapped God’s self in a prayer shawl and showed Moses the order of the prayer service. And so invoking this rabbinic phrase, I venture to make my own difficult theological claim, rooted in the imagery of the Unetaneh Tokef: The Creator is a writer, yes, but the writer is also a creator. The writer uses words to create worlds, just as God spoke the world into being during the six days when the world came into being. Creation through language is not a one-time event but the enterprise of all writers and poets throughout time.

The notion of the poet creating a world through language lies at the heart of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kublah Khan,” a poem about words and worlds and the struggle to write. In his preface, Coleridge explains that he wrote the poem one night after he fell asleep reading about Xanadu, the palace of the Mongol ruler Kublah Khan. He woke with a poetic vision of the palace, which he set about writing down, but he was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock and forgot the lines. The poem seeks to depict the glory of Xanadu while also capturing the poet’s despair at his inability to recreate that “stately pleasure dome” in words, including the damsel who appeared in his vision of the palace:

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry “Beware, beware!”

The poet wishes that he could revive the symphony he heard and recreate the vision of the palace he saw in his dream, so that he might make domes and caves out of the airy immateriality of language. He knows that words can have a dangerous world-creating power – the type of power that makes people cry out “Beware, beware!” But the vision fled and the words eluded him, so the poem remained merely, as Coleridge put it, “a fragment.”

Coleridge was devastated that he could not put his vision of the palace into language. He longed to recover the dream of the dome and the cave, but it proved as evanescent as a passing shadow, a vanishing cloud, a fleeting dream. Yet he captured that failure in language, and his own shortcoming became an inspiration for generations of writers. A century and a half later, the American poet Stevie Smith confessed in “Thoughts on the Person from Porlock” that she herself longs to be interrupted when writing:

I long for the Person from Porlock
To bring my thoughts to an end,
I am becoming impatient to see him
I think of him as a friend,

Often I look out of the window
Often I run to the gate
I think, He will come this evening,
I think it is rather late.

I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.

Often I’m also hungry to be interrupted so that I might do anything but write. I distract myself for hours—and sometimes even years—by translating and editing other people’s articles and books instead of writing my own. It is so much more satisfying and gratifying to help other people build their pleasure domes, and besides, my own poetic visions often seem hazy and fleeting amidst the sleep-deprived fog of parenting young children. I am convinced, like Coleridge, that I will be unable to revive them within me. But then each year, when Rosh Hashanah rolls around, I beat my breast for failing to nourish the divine spark within me.

Before Rosh Hashanah, God translates our actions into our destinies for the coming year. The way we act this year determines our fate in the coming year, and so when God writes us in the Book of Life, it is in some sense an act of translation. And it is an act of editing as well. On Yom Kippur God seals us in God’s book. The fate God decrees on Rosh Hashanah is re-considered during the Ten Days of Repentance. For ten days, God revisits and edits what God wrote on Rosh Hashanah before giving it the final seal on Yom Kippur. “Were it not written, it would be impossible to say it” – but it is written that we must be holy because God is holy, and the rabbis explain that God’s actions should be a model for our own. Even as a translator and editor – let alone as a counter of sheep – I am imitating the Creator.

According to the rabbis of the Talmud, the world was created on Rosh Hashanah. As we proclaim in the liturgy of the day, “today is the birthday of the world.” And so it seems appropriate that on Rosh Hashanah we think about what it means for us to be creators, and what prevents us from engaging in creative work. God knows what is in our hearts, but sometimes what is in our own heart eludes us, and it becomes all too easy to run away from the difficult work of identifying what we were uniquely meant to contribute to the world. May the one who creates and understands all hearts teach me to understand my own, so that I might begin again.

July Fourth: A Festival of Light

Daniel and I are often oblivious to American holidays. Inevitably we forget about Mother’s and Father’s Day until our siblings start sending messages to our parents and we realize that we ought to chime in; here in Israel we instead have Family Day, a Friday in the winter when parents are invited to the preschools to sit with their children on low chairs, painting and modelling clay or creating some other sort of visual representation of one’s family to hang on the refrigerator until it’s replaced by a Tu Bishvat tree with a toilet paper roll trunk. We generally forget about Halloween entirely, since our families don’t celebrate it, but some time in the middle of November we try to remember to ask our parents and siblings about their Thanksgiving plans. Some of our American-Israeli friends make turkey dinners for Thanksgiving, but we never have; there are enough Jewish holidays to cook for already, and I’m not voluntarily taking on more time in the kitchen.

The one exception is July 4th, which coincides nearly every year with the annual Jersualem light festival, a series of art installations illuminating the walls, towers, gates, and other architectural features in the Old City in vivid color. Although we rarely go out together once the kids are asleep, each year we have tried to set aside one evening to get a babysitter and walk the cobblestone streets holding hands, enjoying the cool evening breeze and taking in the spectacle – video installations, three-dimensional projections on the building facades, and, for the first time this year, a giant illuminated disco ball flashing atop a giant crane.

We’d asked our Roman Catholic Indian babysitter to stay with the kids that evening. She lives in the Christian quarter and had been lamenting to us all week that her neighborhood had become even more of a tourist attraction than usual. She told us which sites—or which sites transformed into sights—we must be sure not to miss. But the other equally important guide was Daniel, who walks to the Jewish Quarter every shabbat morning at dawn to daven at the Kotel and knows all the shortcuts and all the loose rocks. As he led me by the hand up the twisty path to ascend Mt. Zion, he commented that the lighting at dusk is similar to the lighting at dawn; he was accustomed to the shades of gray. I thought of “The City in Gray,” Naomi Shemer’s song about Paris, which I grew up listening to on my parents record player. I always assumed the song was about Jerusalem, since it was in Hebrew; I’m not sure why the mention of the wharf didn’t give me pause:

If you want, I will show you
Show the city in gray
Come and let us go strolling
On the paving stones…
You’ll cover your head with a kerchief
When I give you my hand
And we descend to the wharf.

We didn’t see a wharf and we didn’t see or any fireworks, though I’m told there were some, but the illuminated walls all around us felt like a fitting July 4th festival of light nonetheless. We took one of our first “selfies”—I’m not a fan of the genre—while posing in front of Damascus gate illuminated with a dark-and-light geometrical pattern that recalled the Alhambra, before winding our way through Muslim and ultra-Orthodox families to head to the next attraction. We were surprised to bump into the Torah scholar whose daf yomi classes I listen to every morning; she was visiting Jerusalem with her family for the festival. The book of Proverbs compares Torah to light (23:6), and we exchanged a few words of Torah against a backdrop of columns of neon light. We were learning tractate Erchin, which I joked is the one tractate in the Talmud that deals explicitly with human values – the tractate is about individuals who vow to dedicate their own monetary worth, or the monetary worth of another person, to the Temple. The third chapter, which we were in the midst of, has a long excursus on the dangers associated with lashon hara—evil speech, or slander—with a discussion of the sin of the spies who spoke negatively about the land of Israel they had been sent to scout out. “Tonight the land of Israel—at least this corner of it—is beautiful,” I commented, feeling grateful that unlike the spies and their generation, we had been granted the privilege of making our home here.

Our walk back took us through Gei ben Hinnom, the valley of Hinnom, also known as Gehenna – the valley of hell, which was notorious in biblical times as site of child sacrifice. “Oh look, the food trucks are back this year,” Daniel commented. We’d noted already a few years ago that throughout the summer months some of the more famous restaurants in Jerusalem had set up food trucks in the valley to sell their food at discounted prices. Daniel had asked me earlier that week if I had heard anything about the food truck festival this summer. I’d joked that while our American counterparts were wondering about whether Trump would indeed go ahead with his plan to station tanks on the National Mall as a sign of America’s military prowess on July 4th, we in Jerusalem were wondering whether the city would bring the food trucks in the valley of hell. “I guess they’re both intended to achieve the same effect,” I joked with Daniel. “Americans are supposed to stroll across the National Mall and feel safe and protected by the military, and we’re supposed to walk through the valley of shadows and fear no harm.” I was quoted Psalm 23 in Hebrew, but Daniel responded in English, “I will fear no harm because thy sushi and burgers are with me,” he said, and the melding of old and new in his diction reminded me of the incongruity of children buying hot dogs in what was formerly a site where children were sacrificed to pagan gods.

We came home and checked our phones to find pictures of our siblings’ kids dressed in red, white and blue watching the fireworks and participating in a sand castle competition, and the latest news reports telling of rockets fired at Beer Sheva. Our kids, still blissfully asleep beneath their whirling ceiling fans, know nothing of July 4th and nothing of the political tension. We’ve never been in the States on July 4th, and Jerusalem, in recent years, has been a relatively safe place. Daniel and I agree that when the kids are a little older and can stay up later, we’ll take them to the light show and perhaps even make our way to the fireworks display. I doubt the flares of light will be red, white, and blue, but as long as there are no tanks in sight, it’ll be reason enough to celebrate.

How (Not) to Sin

In Sarah Perry’s masterful novel The Essex Serpent, set in 1890s England, a young boy asks the local parson to explain the nature of sin as the two are standing on the banks of a river by the ruins of an old ship known as the Leviathan. By way of response, the parson instructs the boy to throw a stone at the Leviathan skeleton. The boy casts his stone, and he misses. He tries again, and again he misses. The parson looks at him. “That’s all it is,” he tells him. “To sin is to try, but fall short… We think we know where we’re aiming, and perhaps we do – but morning comes, and a change in the light, and we find out we should’ve been trying in a different direction after all.”

The notion of sin as missing the mark is one of the many meanings of the term explored by David Bashevkin in his book Sin-A-Gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought (Academic Studies Press, 2019). In the book’s opening chapter, he surveys the various biblical and rabbinic terms used for sin and considers their implications: What does it mean to think of sin as a debt we must pay? How is sin as deviation different from sin as transgression? How do we envision our relationship with God if we think of sin as a missed opportunity, like a stone that misses its mark? And why do we Jews seem to have as many words for sin as the Eskimos have for snow? He brilliantly concludes this chapter by invoking Isaiah’s prophecy, quoted each year in the Yom Kippur liturgy, that if our sins be like crimson, they will whiten like snow. Bashevkin writes, “However many words Eskimos have for snow, we pray that our sins will eventually be described with one of them.”

This homiletic tone is not uncommon in this book, which not only explores the various aspects of sin in Jewish thought but also shows us how we can live better in spite of our cognizance that inevitably we will fall short. In the introduction, he notes that we all enjoy summarizing our lives in brief biographical blurbs that highlight our accomplishments and conveniently omit our setbacks. Bashevkin quotes, in consecutive paragraphs, both Orwell and the Kotzker rebbi, who were suspicious of those who keep their good deeds public and their bad deeds private. He encourages his readers to include a “one-sentence tribute to one of the thin envelopes you have received in your life.” Here, as at various points throughout the book, it seems as if Bashevkin is speaking from the pulpit, perhaps to an audience of youth group members; he works as the Director of Education for NCSY, the Orthodox movement’s youth group, and it is clear from his writing that he has a talent for finding just the right colorful anecdote or quotation that will keep his audience engaged.

Sin-a-gogue is organized thematically, with each chapter exploring another aspect of the Jewish view of sin – from Adam and Eve’s banishment from the garden, to religious apostasy, to character studies of some of the most famous flawed heroes and anti-heroes, including the biblical figure of Akhan who took from the forbidden spoils of war in the book of Joshua and the rabbinic figure of Acher, who was excised from the boundaries of the Jewish community in Mishnaic times. Another chapter, on sinning for the sake of heaven, is largely a character study of the biblical figure of Esther, who slept with a non-Jewish king (albiet entirely passively, as per the midrash) so as to save the Jewish people. Can sinning ever be holy, Bashevkin asks?

In one of the most compelling chapters, Bashevkin considers the question of whether God repents, starting with a midrash about how God demands that the moon diminish itself so that it does not rival the sun, and then atones for doing so. If repentance is not necessarily divine, forgiveness certainly is, and here Bashevkin considers Moses’ plea with God to forgive the Jewish people in the wake of the golden calf episode. Surprisingly he alludes only briefly to the story of Noah, which one would expect to occupy a much larger place in the story of God’s repentance – after all, no sooner than God creates the world, God nearly destroys it, and then pledges never to do so again. What are we to make of the fact that the Creator regrets creating the world, only then to regret destroying it? And why does this episode play such a prominent role in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, when we are focused on our own repentance? Instead, Bashevkin concludes the chapter by invoking the Hasidic thinker Rabbi Zadok, who writes of God’s attempts to return back to man. Throughout the book, Bashevkin draws heavily on Hasidic teachings, from the Baal Shem Tov to Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav to Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef, the founder of the Izbica-Radzyn school.

Bashevkin quotes impressively from a wide range of literary and philosophical sources, moving freely between Jewish and non-Jewish writers to juxtapose Milton and Nahmanides, or Hume and Maimonides. Only rarely do his references feel gratuitous, as when he reassures his readers that just as Stephen Hawking tried to omit equations from A Brief History of Time so as not to alienate his readers, he will try to omit Talmudic terminology. Occasionally his tone will shift to become unnecessarily moralizing; a chapter on “religious frustration as a factor in religious motivation” begins with a lament about those who turn to religion during difficult life moments, when, according to Bashevkin, they might better be served by turning to “simple, healthy social interactions” or the “guidance of a mental health professional.” Perhaps Bashevkin, in his role as educator, has an appropriate forum in which to raise such concerns, but this book does not seem to be it. Besides, I would argue that in our modern, secular era, people are far more likely to turn to therapy or to yoga when instead they might draw on the resources their religious tradition has to offer – prayer, community, the routine of ritual observance. Although Bashevkin ultimately concludes this chapter, after a reading of Jonah’s religious motivations, by conceding that “religious integrity is not determined by the door through which you enter or even the length of your stay,” it is unclear whether he retracts his lament from the chapter’s beginning.

Of course, one can hardly expect a book on sin and failure to be flawless, and Bashevkin is the first to acknowledge his own shortcomings in his biography. But he has succeeding in writing an entertaining, edifying, and eclectic (if at times a bit too much so) survey of an important aspect of Jewish thought. “A person cannot stand on words of Torah until they have caused him to stumble,” Bashevkin quotes from the Talmud, and those who stumble across Sin-a-gogue will no doubt discover, within its pages, much to stand on.

Sending My X-Rays to God

For as long as I can remember, I have brought books to read in synagogue. Concentrating on prayer has never come easily. I struggle to find meaning in the recitation of the same words day after day, and so inevitably at some point in the prayer service I reach down sheepishly into my bag, pull out my novel, and nestle it inside my siddur as discreetly as possible. Sometimes I turn around to check who is sitting in the row behind—I would not want to set a bad example for young children sitting attentively in shul with their parents—but what troubles me most is not the people who might be observing me, but the words embroidered in gold on the ark covering that hangs before me: “Know before Whom You Stand.”

We come to synagogue to stand before God. Prayer is an opportunity to engage with the divine — to speak, or whisper, our hopes and fears, acknowledge our mistakes, express our regrets, reflect on what makes us feel grateful, and thank God for our blessings. It is also an opportunity to reach within ourselves and ask the deep and difficult questions that often get lost in the rush of the urgent, the immediate, the mundane. To focus on our prayers is to try and formulate answers to some of life’s fundamental questions: What do I regret about my behavior this morning, yesterday, this past year, this past decade? What are my dreams for this next stage of life? What are my unique talents, and how can I use them to contribute to others around me? How would I like to see the world transformed?

Granted, there are many people who make time on a weekly or even a daily basis to think about these questions. They write in a journal every morning, or meditate alone in their bedrooms, or attend a yoga class, or go off on silent retreats. But as a lover of language and as someone who has always felt deeply at home in Jewish tradition, I have set myself the challenge of trying, at least for a few hours each week, to set aside my novel, open my siddur, and draw out the connections between my own inner world—my hopes, fears, dreams, regrets—and the words of the liturgy. The siddur is the language of the human heart. The Kotzker Rebbe famously teaches that we are commanded in the Shema prayer that “these words shall be on your heart” because if we place them on our heart, then in those moments when our hearts open, the words will fall in. My heart is not always open to prayer, but when it is, these are some of the words that have fallen in.

I thank you, living and eternal King, for giving me back my soul in mercy. Great is your faithfulness….

The moment I emerge from sleep is generally one of anxiety. I feel the stresses of the day that lies ahead – the decisions that must be made, the tasks that must be completed, the people who are awaiting a response. I reach for my phone to see who wants my attention or needs something of me, but in that moment before the artificial light of the backlit screen casts its glow in our still-dark bedroom, I restrain myself. There is enough to take in already—the early-morning light, the warm blanket pulled up to my neck, the beep of the neighbor’s van backing out just a few feet from my bedroom window. Before inviting more, I want to turn back to those pre-sensory moments, when my eyes have not yet opened and the weight of the day has not yet descended on me. My soul shrinks from all that it has just remembered, from what poet Richard Wilbur describes as “the punctual rape of every blessed day.” I want to return to those untarnished moments when I can see the light only because I feel it dancing on my still-shut eyelids.

Wilbur imagines that the soul wakes up before the body and descends reluctantly to accept its physical form, like the air filling the blouses and bedsheets fluttering on a laundry line on a windy day. As Wilbur would have it, every day begins with the soul’s bitter disappointment at having to assume physical form once again. But the earliest Jewish prayers recited in the morning regard the restoration of the soul to the body as an occasion for gratitude and hope. And so I try to remember to utter these words before opening my eyes and before the anxiety sets in. Reciting these words serves to ward off the dread – there may be much that concerns and distresses me about the day that is dawning, but thank God I am alive to face that day. And thank God for having faith in me and deeming me deserving of yet another day.

Mornings in our home are never easy. There seems no point in setting an alarm, because one of the children will inevitably jump into our beds at the crack of dawn. My daughter Liav is generally the first to wake up –she comes into our room as soon as she sees the first rays of sunlight peeking under the bottom of her shade and snuggles under the covers with us. She knows that in our family, individual attention is hard to come by – especially since she is a twin and she shares her bedroom (and her bedtime routine) with her sister. So she has learned to steal the pre-dawn hours for herself.

Soon it is time to wake the other kids. I tread softly into their rooms and open the shades, flooding their room with light. I try not to speak a single “secular” word before singing to them the Modeh Ani prayer: “I thank you, living and eternal King…” I want my children to wake up in gratitude. Afterwards I can tell them to get dressed and make their beds and not to forget to brush their teeth. All that can wait. Better that their first image should be one of the soul descending into the body to allow another day of potential and possibility. Better that they, unlike me, should wake each day in hope and not in anxiety.

Modeh Ani is a relatively late addition to the Jewish liturgy – it is first found in prayer books from the sixteenth century. But it echoes many of the themes of Elohai Neshama, a prayer mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and included at the very beginning of the siddur:

My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure.
You formed it within me,
You breathed it in me,
and You guard it while it is within me.
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come.
As long as the soul is within me, I thank You
O Lord my God and God of my ancestors,
Master of all worlds
Lord of all souls.
Blessed are You O Lord,
Who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

David Abudraham, a fourteenth-century Sephardi commentator on the siddur, points out that each line in this prayer echoes a biblical verse. The opening lines, about God fashioning our souls, hearkens back to the sixth day of creation, when God created Adam and breathed the spirit of life in him. Every morning hearkens back to the creation of the world. We wake up and our souls are placed back inside us in much the same way that God first breathed life into Adam’s nostrils. “My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure” – as if every night God launders each soul and returns it clean and fresh. Abudraham connects the notion that “You formed it in me” to a verse from Zecharia (12:1): “The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a person.” The Hebrew term used for “spirit” is ruach, which also means wind. The spirit fills the body much like the wind filling the clothing on Wilbur’s laundry line, and once animate again, the body can move and dance like the laundry in the breeze.

“One day You will take it from me,” we acknowledge in Elohei Neshama. Abudraham links this line to a verse from Ecclesiastes: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to God Who gave it.” We remind ourselves of our mortality immediately upon awakening because if our lives were not bounded—if we had all the time in the world—then we might be tempted to crawl back under the covers and do nothing at all. Like many parents, I am constrained by my children’s school hours, yet without that time pressure, I might never get anything done. It is the knowledge of how short the day is that propels us forward. We speak the words of Elohai Neshama to remind ourselves that we cannot know how many mornings we have left—we don’t know how many more times God will faithfully restore our souls to our bodies. But we have been granted this morning on this day in this life, and so let us arise and embrace it.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe
Who has not made me a heathen.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe
Who has not made me a slave.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe
Who has not made me a woman. (Women say: Who has made me according to His plan.) (Alternative version: Who has made me in His image.)

In the traditional liturgy the morning benedictions begin with three blessings of personal status in which we thank God for not making us who we are not – a heathen, a slave, and a woman. More progressive prayer books word these blessings in the positive form – thanking God for making us a Jew, a free person, and someone created in God’s image. But the shadow of their precursors enables us to appreciate the fates we have been spared.

One morning when I was in a synagogue that follows the traditional liturgy, I heard the male prayer leader recite the words, “Who has not made me a woman.” At the time I was five months pregnant – I had just begun feeling the baby kick, and though I did not yet know that she would be a girl, I could swear that the fetus thrashed violently in response to hearing the words of that blessing. And I recoiled as well, not in disgust but in surprise. I realized for the first time that the prayer I ought to be saying every morning was not thanking God for making me according to His plan—which suggests a sort of second best—or even thanking God for making me in His image, a prayer that both men and women can recite together. Rather, I wanted to thank God for making me a woman.

So many of my most profound spiritual experiences would not have been possible if I had been born male. In carrying human life inside me and bringing children into the world, I have felt closest to God as creator. I’ve prayed with the most intention and fervor throughout my pregnancies, conscious of how much was beyond my control even as it is was taking place just millimeters beneath the surface of my skin. Especially in those early months, I could not know with any certainty from hour to hour if the baby inside me was healthy, or even still alive. In moments of doubt or concern, there was nothing to do but place my hand on my belly and plead with God. And then, on those most joyous days of my life, amidst the terror and elation of birthing my children, I felt so blessed to have this role as God’s partner in creation. The Talmud describes the terror and elation with which the high priest entered and exited the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, with the whole nation waiting outside in fear and trepidation. It is not an experience any woman will ever have, let alone a woman living in the modern era—but in giving birth, I feel I have been granted a glimpse of that sacred enclosure.

Had I been born in the era of Temple worship, presumably I would have a different attitude. After all, for much of human history, the vast majority of women experienced a clear social and political disadvantage. Think of Virginia Woolf at Oxbridge, who was sternly reminded that “ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.” When reciting the morning benedictions, I think about not just how grateful I am to have been spared the fate of being someone I am not, but also about how fortunate I am to have been spared the fate of being born a woman in virtually any other era. I am blessed to be a Jewish woman in the twenty-first century, when the texts I love studying and the religious roles that infuse my life with meaning are freely accessible to both men and women. Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made me a Jew, and a free person, and a woman of our time.

A psalm of David… I will exalt You, Lord, for You have lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me. Lord, my God, I cried to You for help and You healed me. Lord, You lifted my soul from the grave, You spared me from going down to the pit…. At night there is weeping, but in the morning there is joy… You have turned my sorrow into dancing. You have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may sing to You and not be silent. (Psalm 30)

This psalm transports me to one of the darkest and bleakest moments in my life, when I was deep in the pit. Recently divorced at age 26, my life had been completely derailed. I wasn’t sure where I should be living—on one side of the Atlantic, where I’d grown up, or on the other side, where I’d recently made my home—and I was in between jobs, trying to distract myself with freelance gigs while fretting about the future. Then one day I had coffee with a friend who looked me squarely in the eye and told me something that has stayed with me. It was a platitude, and I’m almost ashamed to admit what an impact it had on me, despite my scorn for self-help literature and my snobbish insistence that the best advice for how to live one’s life can be found in the novels of George Eliot. And yet there I was, profoundly shaken when my friend told me, quite simply, that the only constant in life is change.

My friend went on. Everything in life is in flux; our reality is never static and unchanging. And given how horrible I was feeling then, she said, chances were that with time I would feel better. She made me feel so much more hopeful. To be in the pit does not mean that we will forever be in the pit. If we are wearing sackcloth now—it was so hard, in those days, to even get dressed in the morning—there is always the hope, and possibility, that at some time in the future we will be clothed in joy. (I was glad, six years later, that I had saved my wedding dress.) And though every night I wept, perhaps at some point for me, as for the psalmist, the morning would bring joy.

The sentiments expressed by the psalmist are echoed in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate…

The speaker is in distress and cries out to God, cursing his sorrowful fate. By the end of the poem, though, the thought of his beloved and her “sweet love” brings him such joy that he avows that he would “scorn to change my state with kings.” Since that moment in the café with my friend, I have recited Psalm 30 thousands of times in my morning prayers. In moments of joy it has served as a humbling reminder that surely there are others whose distress I can help alleviate; and in moments of sadness, it has reminded me that this too shall pass.

Happy are those who dwell in Your House…
The Lord is close to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth. (Psalm 140-145)

I have a hard time making time for prayer. In the mornings I am always in a rush to start my day, and so generally I pray while walking to work. In the afternoons, when I am counting down the minutes until I have to pick up the kids, I am loath to interrupt my work to take a few minutes for minchah. And at night, by the time the kids are in bed, I collapse in exhaustion and cannot imagine standing up before God in prayer.

Every so often, though, I am reminded of why it is so important to pray regularly, even when it’s the last thing I want to do. When we pray regularly, we ensure that we have an open channel of communication with God. To invoke a modern metaphor, we might say that by engaging in daily prayer, we ensure that God is always at the top of our Contacts list, so that in moments of acute distress, when we need to cry out, we don’t have to start searching for God’s contact information. Nor do we have to start with a long and awkward preamble, the way we might if, say, we broke a bone and called a distant orthopedist friend: “Hi John, I know we haven’t been in touch in decades, but we went to college together, you know, I was friends with Steve and Linda…. Anyway, I’m calling because I think I have broken my arm, and I’m wondering if I could send you the x-ray.” When we speak to God on a regular basis, God knows who we are and we know how to talk to God, and so God will be close when we cry out in our brokenness.

Over time I have developed a deep appreciation for the transformative power of prayer, and yet even so, I continue to bring novels with me to synagogue. Sometimes I simply don’t want to confront my own inner demons and desires, and I’d rather lose myself in someone else’s fictional world. Other times I am tired of reciting the same words day after day—I don’t know what will happen on the next page of my novel, but in the siddur I don’t expect to find surprises. And then I’ll be sitting there absorbed in my book and hear the prayer leader recite a phrase that jumps out at me, catches hold of me, and perhaps even takes my breath away, and I return to the siddur with renewed determination to lose myself—and ultimately find myself—in its pages. I surrender to the inevitable moments of monotony with the faith that in the boredom comes the unbidden. I know that the siddur will never have the same appeal as a novel, but I hold out hope that by integrating the person I am into the liturgy each day, I can find my own way to make the ancient prayers and blessings feel just a bit more novel.

Hullin Hatches an Egg

(with apologies to Dr. Seuss)

Sighed Mayzie, a lazy bird hatching an egg:
“I’m tired and I’m bored, And I’ve kinks in my leg
From sitting, just sitting here day after day.
I’d rather be cleaning for Pesach, I say.
I’d eat all my chametz, and sell all the rest
If I could find someone to stay on my nest!!
If I could find someone, I’d be chametz-free – “
Then Hullin, the Elephant, passed by her tree.
“Hello!” called the anxious bird, smiling her best.
“You’ve nothing to do, I have Pesach ahead
Would you like to sit here on my eggy instead?”
“ME on your egg? Why, I couldn’t, no way!
For you’re a tahor bird and I am tameh.
You’re a tzipor, and here is the thing,
I’m more a kanaf (or karnaf) with a wing.
And worse, I must tell you, although it’s a pity
I come from a burned-down idolatrous city.”
“That’s great,” answered Mayzie. “You’re just the right breed
They can’t send you away, then. You’re just what I need!
I’ll hurry right back. Why, I’ll never be missed ….”
“Very well,” said the elephant, “Since you insist,
Get rid of your chametz, at least try your best—
And while you are cleaning, I’ll sit on your nest.
I’ll stay and be faithful, I mean what I say,”
“Toodle-oo!” sang out Mayzie and fluttered away.
“Hmm,” said Hullin, “I’m heavy. This branch soon will sag
I’ll place between me and the eggy a rag.
Is that a chatitzah? Can it still count as resting?
I wouldn’t want Mayzie to come back protesting.”
But Mayzie, by this time, was far beyond reach,
Enjoying the sunshine way off in Palm Beach,
For would you make Pesach if this fate befell
You? If free of my kids, I’d go to a hotel.
So Mayzie did too. Kosher-style, deluxe
Free Seder included, she paid the big bucks.
She was having such fun, such a wonderful rest
She decided she’d never go back to her nest.
So Hullin kept sitting there—when he got on
There was no moon in sight. ‘Twas Rosh Hodesh Nisan.
But the days went by quickly, the moon grew more whole
The next thing he knew, ‘twas Shabbat HaGadol.
Just three days ‘til Pesach! So where then was Mayzie?
Had she been taken by a leper for a sacrifice, maybe?
Was she kdushat mizbeach, unable to come back?
Or had her siman been cut, was she now someone’s snack?
With all these hirhurim, poor Hullin, distressed,
Rested, then hovered, then sat on the nest.
He sat there and sat there the whole shabbos through …
And then came havdalah with troubles anew!
His friends gathered round and they shouted with glee.
“Look! Hullin the Elephant’s up in a tree!”
They taunted. They teased him. They yelled, “How absurd!”
“Old Hullin the Elephant thinks he’s a bird!
He thinks he’s a girly, an Em who’s rovetzet
Compared to that egg, he’s a fearsome mifletzet.
Said Hullin, “Shut up. Go get rid of your pita.
Besides, don’t you know Rabbi Eliezer’s shita?
A male, too, can sit on an egg. It’s quite pleasant
Think of the Koreh – the male brooding pheasant.
A male pheasant can be a stay-at-home Dad
If brooding on eggs is what makes him feel glad.
When the Torah says Em, it means lav davka female
Don’t you read the shiurim you get in your email?
They laughed and they laughed. Then they all ran away.
And Hullin was lonely. He wanted to pray.
He did not have a minyan. Instead he would say,
“No matter WHAT happens, this egg must be tended!”
Yet poor Hullin’s troubles were far, far from ended.
For, while Hullin sat there so faithful, so kind,
Three listim came sneaking up softly behind!
“Look!” they all shouted, “Can such a thing be?
An elephant sitting on top of a tree….”
Let’s take him alive. Why, he’s terribly funny!
We’ll sell him to Rome, to a circus for money!”
Poor Hullin, distressed, wanted nothing of Rome
He’d been raised learning Torah. The beit midrash was his home.
But the men did not care. And off they all went
With Hullin unhappy, one hundred per cent.
Sold to a circus! Goodness. And sheesh.
He now had a background like poor Reish Lakish.
Poor Hullin grew weary as week after week
They showed him to people, four zuzim a peek
‘Twas or l’araba asar when the circus show reached
A town way down south, not so far from Palm Beach.
And dawdling along way up high in the sky,
Who (of all people!) should chance to fly by
Chance to, yes, chance to – that’s ki yikarey
For she wasn’t at home. She was out on her way.
“Good gracious!” gasped Mayzie, “I’ve seen YOU before!”
Poor Hullin looked up, his face white as Maror.
“Be off,” shouted Mayzie. “Get out of my nest.”
“You can’t send me off,” Hullin said in protest.
“This egg is not yours. You can’t take it or buy it
I’ve already pledged it to Bedek Habayit.
It’s hekdesh! Ha ha, Mayzie, joke is on you—”
Said Mayzie in fury, “What? Could that be true?
I thought you were Hullin!” And then off she flew.
And Hullin, alone now, the sun sinking low
Knew just what to do with the egg. Don’t you know?
An egg raised for Pesach has only one fate—
He set it down squarely on his Seder plate.

הדרן עלך שילוח הקן וסליקא לה מסכת חולין

Turmeric & Nicotine

The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari (Random House, $26) is a memoir seasoned by turmeric and nicotine, chronicling Tsabari’s coming-of-age in a large Yemeni family in Israel and her travels around the world until ultimately she creates, for herself, her own definition of home.

The first third of Tsabari’s memoir focuses on the death of her beloved father just before her tenth birthday, leaving her young mother alone with six children to raise. Tsabari vividly depicts the devastating impact of this loss: “That moment, crystallized in my memory through the fog of grief, will be the fork in the road where my future splits in two: what could have happened had he lived and what happened because he didn’t. And as I grow up, I will try to live as wildly and loudly as I can to outdo the enormity of this moment, to diminish it.” Not long before her father’s heart attack, Tsabari had shared with him some of her writing, and her father had promised her that he would publish it in a book. Three decades later, Tsabari finally became a published writer on her own, and this memoir is on one level the story of how she found a way to make good on her father’s promise – and on her own.

As a girl growing up in Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli culture of the 1970s and 1980s, Tsabari struggles with her identity as the granddaughter of Yemeni immigrants. She refuses to eat her mother’s Yemeni soup with its wilted cilantro and fenugreek paste and buys herself burgers instead. And though she is proud when her childhood idol, the Yemeni singer Ofra Haza, becomes one of the first Mizrahi artists to make it into the Israeli canon, Tsabari does not want to be mistaken for a freha, the subject of one of Haza’s most famous songs and a popular stereotype of Mizrahi women — intellectually shallow, heavy made-up and accessorized, marked by poverty and promiscuity. In search of her own identity, she becomes a hippie, gets hired to write for a popular teen magazine, and tries to pass as an Ashkenazi. Only when she gets a job, decades later, at a Lebanese restaurant in Vancouver does she finally feel free to embrace her ethnic identity halfway around the world.

Tsabari finds herself only by traveling far from her family to India, Thailand, Vancouver, Toronto, and New York. Once, while calling her family back home from Manhattan, she reflects, “It’s strange how much I miss them and how badly I need to be away from them right now… Maybe I need to do my growing up away from them. Or maybe I love them so much, it feels safer to walk away. Because you never know what might happen to the people you love.” It is not just the loss of her father that haunts her; in an era of suicide bombings, she writes that a bus in Israel is an “instrument of death”; in a later chapter about Vancouver, she describes the bus as a “traveling circus” where you never know whom you will meet. And so following her unhappy and inglorious army service, she spends most of her twenties and thirties rolling joints, bargaining in bazaars, waitressing for enough money to pay for her next plane ticket out. As a boyfriend once tells her, “You play backgammon like you live your life. You play aggressively, you constantly take risks, you don’t want to build houses. You leave yourself open all over the place, and when things get dicey, you run away.”

The most compelling parts of Tsabari’s memoir are not about her longing to leave, but about her struggle to stay. (But then again, perhaps that’s just my own bias. I have always been far more captivated, for instance, by the memoirs of those who struggle to come to terms with their religious identity than by the many accounts of those who leave Judaism, or Hasidism, or the Modern Orthodox community. I prefer memoirs about decades-long marriages to sordid sagas about devastating divorces. Is it not always harder to stay?)

For Tsabari, the struggle to stay takes many different forms. It is about learning how to fry her mother’s chicken livers and bake her chocolate yeast cake –which is first and foremost about seeing her mother’s strengths after years of being blinded by grief. It is about bringing her Canadian Christian husband home to Petah Tikva to clean out her childhood home. It is about discovering her father’s poetry and realizing that he, too, fought long and hard to master a literary language not his own. It is about researching the story of her Yemenite great grandmother, who abandoned her toddler twin daughters and followed her husband to a strange land: “I see her walking away, shoulder trembling, tears streaming. I imagine the mountains and the spirits who lived in them looking on as the family began their journey toward a new life. The mountains had witnessed the lives of the people for centuries. They watched patterns evolving through generations, old roles taken over by new faces, new husbands replacing the dead, girls becoming mothers and mothers becoming grandmothers. Nothing ever changed, but rather shifted ever so slightly, like an ancient folk song played in a new key.”

Most poignantly, for Tsabari, learning to stay is about becoming a mother herself and recognizing that in order to stay, we cannot help but leave: “Perhaps motherhood is a series of small abandonments, in the same way that life is a series of goodbyes. We are raising our children to survive without us in the world. We are raising them to leave us, raising them to endure our own departure.” Perhaps the art of leaving is not all that different from the art or losing. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, a poet born in Massachusetts who circumnavigated South America and traveled extensively in Brazil. The real art is not about losing or leaving, and perhaps not surprisingly, it is captured by Donald Justice, Bishop’s contemporary, a poet who stayed far closer to home: “It always comes, and when it comes they know / The knack is this: to fasten and not let go.”

A Chicken Soup for Every Parsha

As a child I rarely helped my mother in the kitchen because I was always too busy reading. My bedroom was at the top the staircase and my mother used to holler up, “Ilana, time to set the table,” or “Ilana, I need you to peel the potatoes.” My response was invariably the same. “I’m in the middle of the chapter, one minute.” But one chapter led to another, one book to another – and generally it was one of my siblings who ended up completing my chores in my stead. Somehow I managed to leave home with hardly any basic kitchen or household skills, and much to my chagrin, I can’t say all that much has changed with marriage and motherhood.

For as long as I can remember, I have tried to avoid any tasks that can’t be completed while reading. I never properly learned how to thread a needle or drive a car, because I was always holed up in my room with a book. Alice Shalvi writes in her memoir that as a child she was such a good reader that her teachers would make her read aloud during sewing class, and as a result she never learned how to sew. I can relate. One of the only jobs I could be counted on as a child was to bring up the right chicken soup from the basement freezer. My mother made chicken soup only twice a year, and then froze it in weekly batches which she labeled by parsha. Each week I enjoyed the blast of cold air as I stood before the open freezer sorting through plastic containers labeled “Beshalach,” “Yitro,” “Mishpatim,” until I emerged upstairs triumphant bearing the batch for Bo.

I tend to think that I grew up with very little mimetic tradition, and that all my learning as a child was text-based. But now, as an adult, I can appreciate how much I subconsciously imbibed from my parents even with my head in a book. My parents’ way of practicing Judaism defined for me what was comfortable, familiar, and natural, and set the standards for what I would regard as normative religious observance for the rest of my life. Our family kept Shabbat and kashrut. We walked to shul every Shabbat, drove twenty minutes to the nearest kosher butcher to buy our meat, and checked all food items for a hechscher before adding them to our supermarket cart. As a child I would have said we observed halakha strictly and fully; it is only as an adult that I came to recognize the inconsistencies in our practice.

In my hometown there was no Eruv for many years, but we nonetheless carried books and snacks to shul, and those who traveled from farther away brought umbrellas when it rained. I did not know there was any problem with opening an umbrella on Shabbat, let alone carrying one to a shul with no Eruv, until a friend with a sense of humor in the egalitarian minyan at Harvard ordered a custom-made umbrella with the words “This is not an Ohel” printed on the fabric. My parents also turned on lights on Shabbat, in keeping with a Conservative movement teshuva. I never questioned why it was all right to flick on a light switch whereas the television and dishwasher were clearly muktzah. In my family it was all right to turn on lights on Shabbat, and nothing I was told in school would convince me otherwise. Physicists use the term “stable equilibrium” to refer to the state that a system always returns to, even after small disturbances. A ball may roll around the sides of a bowl, but it will always return to its stable equilibrium point at the bottom of the bowl. My parents’ religious practice defined my stable equilibrium. Now, in my own home as an adult, we set timers before Shabbat, but if a light needs to be turned on and none of the kids are around to see me, I will turn it on, much to my husband’s consternation – not because I consider it a minor infraction, but because no matter how hard I might train myself to think otherwise, it simply doesn’t feel assur.

My parents’ religious practice also defined my stable equilibrium with regard to feminism and egalitarianism. I grew up in a Conservative shul in which men and women participated equally in all parts of the service. As a child I did not sit with my father in shul, but that was only because he was the rabbi so he sat on the Bima. We children sat in the shade of our mother’s various wide-brimmed hats, playing with race cars underneath the pews while nibbling away at cheerios packed in plastic bags to keep us quiet. There was no question that we would sit through all of shul even years before we learned to read or daven, and though we weren’t following the service, we quickly absorbed its rhythms – we knew when the ark would be opened, when it would be time to kiss the Sefer Torah, and when we could run up to sing Adon Olam next to Abba.

In our shul women leyned and wore tallitot, and so for me these practices have always felt completely natural. They are traditional, to my mind, in the sense that they are the traditions I grew up experiencing first-hand. I continue to feel most comfortable in shuls without a mechitzah because this is the prayer environment that seems most normative to me. The presence of a mechitzah distracts me because it concentrates all the men in one place and tells me exactly where to direct my gaze. I have davened in partnership minyanim in which men lead dvarim she’bikdusha and women leyn and lead the other parts of the service, and I find it distracting as well – to my mind, prayer is about people vis-à-vis God, and not about men and women. In some ways I would find it easier to concentrate on my davening in a fully-Orthodox shul in which women are essentially invisible behind a mehitza, because at least there the focus is on men vis-à-vis God, rather than gender dynamics.

My husband Daniel, who grew up in an Orthodox shul, has a different stable equilibrium. Daniel often tells me that he completely agrees with me intellectually that women and men should have equal roles in shul – but he just can’t bring himself to feel comfortable enough truly to daven in synagogue without a mechitzah. I tell him, in response, that I don’t think people should turn on lights on Shabbat – but I just can’t bring myself to stop doing it. We are too comfortable, each of us, in our stable equilibrium.

In the shul where grew up, it wasn’t just my father who was the communal leader. My mother taught classes and ran a learner’s minyan in parallel to the main service, until her own professional commitments left her too busy to take on so much volunteer work in shul. I grew up thinking that women could do everything men could do, both in the wider secular world and in the synagogue sanctuary. My mother raised four children and then, at age 35, earned her PhD and launched a meteoric career at UJA-Federation. We used to joke that my father saved the Jews in our town on Long Island, while mother saved the Jewish world.
Given this egalitarian milieu, perhaps it comes as no surprise that I did not grow up hearing the blessing shelo asani isha. In my father’s shul, and in Camp Ramah where I spent my summers, and at the Harvard Hillel egalitarian minyan where I davened as a college student, both men and women said she-asani b’tzalmo, thanking God for making us in His image. These days I rarely get to shul in time to hear birkot ha-shachar, but not long ago, I was at minyan early on a Thursday morning for my nephew’s bar mitzvah. It was an Orthodox shul and I stood behind the mechitzah with my three daughters, who were happily amusing themselves with a keychain while I davened. I head the shliach tzibbur say “shelo asani isha” and I nearly burst out laughing at the absurdity of it. I wanted to holler out, “She-asani isha!” Thank God for making me a woman! My religious life has been so deeply enriched by roles that I would not have been able to take on had I been a man. My most spiritual experiences of all time were pregnancy and childbirth. In carrying human life inside me and bringing a child into the world, I felt closest to God as creator. I davened with the most kavanah when I was pregnant, conscious of how much was beyond my control even as it is was taking place just millimeters beneath the surface of my skin. The experience of bringing life into the world has been my Holy of Holies – it has been my most profound experience of intimacy with God, and I am so grateful to God for having had this privilege.

Part of what I found most meaningful about pregnancy is the way in which time became my ally. With every passing day that nothing went wrong—please God, may nothing go wrong, I prayed constantly—I was one day closer to having a new child. Even when I was doing nothing at all, the baby was growing inside me. I found that when I was pregnant, I was less bothered when I had to wait in a long line at the supermarket or the doctor’s office, because I knew that even while I was waiting, so much was progressing – like a taxi driver racking up the meter while stuck at a red light. This was true, too of my experience of daf yomi. When I learn a page of Talmud a day, time becomes my ally. With every passing day, I am guaranteed that I will have learned one more page. As someone who likes to feel productive, both pregnancy and daf yomi have shaped my relationship to time in ways that I try to carry over even to those periods in my life when I am not bearing children or studying Talmud. I feel so fortunate to be a woman and to have had both experiences.

Perhaps it is because my experiences of being a Jewish woman have been so positive that I feel no anger when I encounter the Talmud’s misogyny. Most of the women in the Talmud are identified in relation to their husbands or fathers; very few have independent identities. The Talmud’s women seem to spend most of their time sorting lentils, traveling from their father’s home to their husband’s home, and gossiping with other women by the moonlight—and when they talk to the rabbis, it is generally in querulous, hectoring tones, like the woman who yells at the resh galuta for stealing her sukkah, or like Yalta rebuking Ulla. These dependent, disgruntled shrews are hardly suitable role models for girls and women studying Talmud today. And yet when I encounter the women of the Talmud, I do not take offense. I regard them as historical curiosities rather than infuriating provocations, because their experiences are so far removed from my own. The women of the Talmud seem like extinct creatures, not like victims of the same patriarchal society that has oppressed me. I have never felt oppressed, and so I don’t identify with these women in their oppression. Rather, when I encounter Talmudic women—many of them nameless and voiceless—I feel so grateful for how far human history has come. Baruch she-asani isha in the twenty-first century, and not in the first! Shehachiyahu v’kiyimanu v’higiyanu lazaman hazeh!
People often ask me, when I speak about my book, how my religious practice has changed since I started learning daf yomi. I think they expect me to say that I’m so much more frum now that I’ve learned scores of Talmudic pages about muktzah and dinei ta’arovet. But the truth is that my observance has not changed very much at all. Yes, in front of my children, I try to cover up my inconsistencies. I don’t want them to see me turning on lights on Shabbat, because I’d like them to have a different mimetic model when it comes to these lapses. But when it comes to my own practice, it is hard to believe that they are truly lapses.

I suppose one way in which I’ve become more frum since I began studying daf yomi is that I’ve stopped reading secular literature in shul. I have always brought books with me to shul to keep me busy in between aliyot and during the repetition of the Musaf Amidah (and yes, I confess, occasionally at other times too). Whereas I used to read novels in shul, now I only learn daf yomi. It makes sense to me to learn in shul because I think of learning as an act of devotion not unlike prayer, much the way Dr. Soloveitchik describes the role of learning in the traditional world: “The purpose of study was not information of knowledge but lifelong exposure to sacred texts and an ongoing dialogue with them. Learning was an intellectual endeavor and an act of devotion. Its process was its purpose.” I could not describe my attitude toward daf yomi more aptly.

That said, I do think my daf yomi study has had a practical impact on my life, even if not primarily in terms of my religious observance. Above all, my study of Talmud has taught me to be a better parent. I have known, for a while, that I am a much better parent in public. When I am home alone with my children, I am quick to anger and slow to forgive. When my son spills his water for the second time during dinner, I grow exasperated and yell at him instead of helping him find a better place for his cup. But when we’re in the playground, playing around other children and their parents, and my kids spray water from the fountain on each other, I merely exchange eye-rolling glances with other parents and let the kids work it out. Somehow the knowledge that I am being watched enables me to hold myself in check, to restrain my frustration and anger, and to judge my kids favorably.

Not long ago I came to a story in Masechet Berakhot (28a) about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s deathbed blessing to his disciples. He told them, “May it be God’s will that your fear of heaven be as great as your fear of flesh-and-blood human beings.” His disciples were taken aback. “Ad kan? Is that all?” Their master responded, “If only it were so.
Know that when a person transgresses, he says, ‘May no man see me.’”

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai knew that it is often much easier to act properly in public. When we do something wrong, we are much more likely to hope that no one else witnessed our act than to worry about what God observed. But as we learn in masechet Hagigah (16a), “Anyone who commits a sin in secret – it is as if he or she is bumping against the legs of the divine presence.” The rabbis quote a verse from Isaiah: “The heavens are my seat, and the earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). Chazal imagine God sitting on a divine throne up in heaven with legs dangling down to earth. Any time we sin when we are alone, we are in fact bumping up against God’s feet. These sources remind me that while it is all too easy to sin when alone, it is in fact when we are by ourselves with no one else around that we have the greatest potential for intimacy with God.

There is much talk these days of helicopter parenting, but after learning the story about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai on his deathbed, I have found it more instructive to think not of parents who hover, but of those who hover over us as parents. I’ll admit that it’s hard to imagine the legs of the divine presence dangling down into my living room – this is the true yirat shamayim that Dr. Soloveitchik writes about experiencing as a child in shul during Neila on Yom Kippur, and now, as an adult, encountering no longer. But I do find it helpful to imagine that a friend or neighbor has stopped by and is sitting beside me as I feed my kids dinner or read them bedtime stories. And so I’ll sit reading there Goodnight Moon, following along as my daughter points to the pictures, but all the while I am thinking of the little old lady who sits there watching. Just when I’m about to lose my temper, she rocks back and forth and whispers hush.
It is often at bedtime that I try to share my love of learning with my children. I leyn at least one Aliyah from the parsha to them every night, trying to get through all seven by Shabbat. Before they fall asleep I leyn them the three paragraphs of the Shema and sing the full Anim Zemorot, hoping that this will train them to recognize ta’amei hamikra (I learned to leyn by matching the te’amim to the Shema I already knew so well) and to lead the congregation in prayer. During the day, while we are waiting for the bus or sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, I take advantage of the down time to teach them verses from the Torah or sayings from Pirkei Avot that I’d like them to internalize. No pasuk is too mundane, and I have a preference for those that can be metrically scanned and therefore easily set to music: “Oto v’et b’no lo tishchatu b’yom echad,” I once sang repeatedly to my toddler, who then belted it out on the Jerusalem light rail to dismay of our fellow passengers. I thought they would kill us both.

When we are in shul, I struggle to find the right balance between focusing on my own davening (thereby trying to model a serious davening practice) and keeping the kids occupied and engaged (look at the Torah go up, up in the air!). I leyn regularly and always bring one child up to the Amud with me, usually one of my daughters – she stands on a chair next to me and I let her hold the Yad between Aliyot, so that she will also grow up feeling ki karov elayich ha-davar meod. We daven in a shul where women wear kippot and tallitot, but my children also often go with their father to daven in an all-male minyan at the Kotel at dawn. I wish my children watched me daven in the morning, but I never open a siddur until they are in preschool; I daven outside the schoolyard after dropping off the last of the four. I’m not sure if they know I daven in the mornings, and this gives me pause. I am conscious that what we model and expose our children to when they are young and impressionable will define their standard equilibrium, and I feel the yoke of this responsibility in much the same way I feel ol malchut shamayim.

And yet even as I’m constantly trying to model for my kids, I’m aware of how much of my own learning remains text-based rather than mimetic. My idea of preparing for Pesach is attending as many shiurim and reading as many new haggadot as possible so that I have insights to share at the Seder – my sister-in-law does all the cooking, as I couldn’t cook for Pesach to save my life. Sometimes I get creative in the kitchen, but if so, it’s generally to make a parsha-themed cake like a Sulam Yaakov made of licorice strands with marshmallow angels that don’t quite stick to the cake, since I’ve never been very good at icing. I am still the girl who was always too busy reading to pick up any practical life skills, except that I can’t call myself a girl anymore. I’m a woman, and I’m living at what is arguably the most exciting time to be a woman in Jewish history. As a twenty-first century Jewish woman, I hope I will succeed in merging the mimetic and the textual – modelling for my children a commitment to engaging seriously with Jewish texts. My daughters will probably not inherit any recipes from me, but I would like to imagine that one day, at least one of my daughters or granddaughters will be excited to inherit my volumes of Talmud, covered with all my handwritten notes. Today’s commentary is tomorrow’s text. Perhaps, if I should merit to be so lucky, she will read through my marginalia and scribble her own.

By Any Other Name

For a long time, I would not say my last name when introducing myself. I wanted people to get to know me on my own terms, and all too often, when I said my full name, my interlocutor would immediately ask if I was related to my mother, my father, or one of my various siblings. And then I’d have to say, “Oh yes, that’s my mother/father/sister/brother” – which meant that the conversation would inevitably turn to how wonderful my mother/father/sister/brother is. And while there is something heartwarming about hearing how much my various family members are loved and appreciated, I always felt like I wanted to be known on my own terms. I was wary of receiving special treatment because someone knew one of my family members; I felt that my reputation should be built on my own merits. And so I always said “Hi, I’m Ilana,” and I left it at that.

This began to change when my children were born, and I started referring to myself as “Ima shel Matan.” I was no longer Ilana; my identity, as far as the other parents in the preschool was concerned, was that I was Matan’s mother. When I’d write messages on my phone to Matan’s friends’ parents, I’d simply sign my name “Ima shel Matan,” without bothering to mention my own name. This was especially helpful because I did not change my name when I got married, so my son and I had different last names. By referring to myself as his mother, I sidestepped any potential confusion.

But once I began introducing myself as my children’s mother, I realized that my name is not exclusively my own. Whether I would like it to be so or not, my actions reflect not just on me, but on my children. I want my children’s teachers to like me because I want them to like my children; I don’t want them to think I’m one of those annoying, pestering mothers, because then they might not have patience for my son. By the same token, I want to come across as lovely and amicable when interacting with my son’s friends, because I want them to associate these qualities with my son. And in thinking about all that I hoped to bequeath to my son by association, I realized how fortunate I am to be associated with my parents’ good name. “A good name is greater than the finest oil” (Ecclesiastes 7:1). Oil is used to anoint kings, whose position is generally hereditary. I would like to be able to anoint my children with my good name, the way my parents have anointed me with theirs.

More recently, when introducing myself, I notice that things have changed. Ever since my book was published, other people are increasingly likely to associate me with my memoir rather than with my family. “Oh, are you the one who wrote that daf yomi book?” they will ask me. And I will smile and nod, because I feel that at last I have earned my name.

And yet we are not expected to get by on our own names alone. Many of us are not blessed with the ability to make a name for ourselves, and in Judaism we are encouraged—if not mandated—to appeal to the names of those who came before us. In the opening paragraph of the Amidah, in the first of the eighteen benedictions that comprise this prayer, we approach God by invoking those who came before us in the hope that God will remember them and therefore give us the time of day: “Blessed are you, our God and God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” We appeal to a God who “remembers the merits of our forefathers, and will bring redemption to the sons of their sons for the sake of His name.” We have no expectation that God will remember us on account of anything we did. But maybe, just maybe, we will merit to receive God’s attention if we immediately remind God that we are related to our spiritual forbears.

Although we invoke all three of the patriarchs, it is Abraham whose name is probably most likely to win us divine favor. No one has more name recognition that Abraham. After all, the whole reason that God chose Abraham was so as to make Abraham’s name great so that everyone on earth might receive blessing through him: “And I will bless you, and I will make your name great. And you shall be a blessing…and all the nations of the earth shall receive blessing through you” (Genesis 12:2-3). A midrash (Genesis 39:2) compares Abraham to a vial of perfume. God tells Abraham to leave his home and set off on a long journey so that Abraham’s name will become known wherever he goes, like a vial of perfume that is opened so that it’s fragrance spreads far and wide. God wishes for Abraham to travel far so that Abraham’s faith in the one God will also spread far. By making Abraham’s name great, God is making the divine name great as well.

And so Abraham made God’s name great, and by invoking Abraham, we seek to make our own names sufficiently great so that God will heed our prayers and bring redemption. We want to ride on Abraham’s coattails in the hope that God will pay attention to us even though our own merits pale in comparison to his. Back when I was at Harvard, there was much talk of “legacy” students – those who were accepted to the university only because their parents or grandparents, who had also been students, had gone on to donate large sums of money. No one at Harvard wanted to be outted as legacy student; everyone wanted to believe they had been accepted on their own merits alone.

As Jews, we are all legacy students. We have been fortunate to inherit the legacy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and we hope that we will merit to get in to God’s good graces thanks to them. Moreover, we are proud of our legacy. We invoke our ancestors’ names not sheepishly, but as a badge of pride. And so I have been trying to learn from this invocation. When I introduce myself these days, I try to use my last name, even though it still doesn’t come easily. Maybe the person I am talking to will recognize my name on account of my book, or on account of my siblings, or on account of my parents. It doesn’t really matter. I am grateful to my parents and to my spiritual forbears for the legacy they bequeathed to me, and I can only pray that I will merit to use my name, too, to make God’s name great.

The Child in Time

It is nearly Tu Bishvat, which means that we are back to reading The Giving Tree. I read the book to Shalvi last night while the older three kids were at swimming lessons, and once again I burst into tears. This time I cried even before the boy starts to lose his hair, when he cuts down the tree’s trunk to build a boat and sail away, and the tree is happy – but not really. Shalvi looked at me earnestly, batting her eyelashes fast and furiously to take it all in: “Ima, why are you crying?” Except that it sounded like “cying,” because she omits the r in most consonant clusters. And that unleashed another wave of tears, because I was crying not just for the tree, but for the day when Shalvi would stop dropping her r’s and start speaking properly. After that, I was sure, it would not be long before she built a boat and sailed away, and I’d be the one who was happy – but not really.

There are certain books that inevitably unleash the floodgates. My kids know, for instance, that whenever I read them Sunrise, Sunset (a pictorial adaptation of the Fiddler on the Roof song), I will fall apart before we turn the last page, when Tevye becomes a grandfather. And perhaps they suspect that the one page that has no words in Before You Were Born—the story of a father explaining to his daughter what happened to her when she was in her mother’s womb—is there so as to give Ima time to dry her eyes. (It is one of the most eloquent caesuras I’ve encountered in a picture book.) All of these books are about the passage of time and about moments that are impossible to recapture fully, and as I read them I cannot help but imagine my own children growing older and setting sail.

The Talmud in Hagiga (4b) tells the story of various rabbis who would burst into tears while reading. Each rabbi had a particular biblical verse that set him off: Rav Yosef would cry when he read a verse in Proverbs about those who die without justice; Rabbi Ami would cry when he read about God’s wrath; Rabbi Elazar was moved to tears by Joseph’s reunion with his brothers. This discussion is immediately followed by a story about Rabbi Yohanan, who once saw a man picking unripe figs and leaving the ripe ones, and was reminded of how God sometimes takes people from the world before their time. The juxtaposition of the two passages suggests that when we are moved to tears by what we are reading, it is often because we are reminded of life’s transience. It is the same reason that Rabbi Elazar wept on his sickbed when he saw Rabbi Yohanan’s magnificent exposed arm: “I am crying for this beauty that will ravage to dust” (Berakhot 5b). We cry because time passes but it does not pass us by; it sweeps us along so that we can remember the past and anticipate the future, but all that surrounds us is the whirl of the current.

A mother of older children once told me that any time my children ask me to play with them, I should say yes, because before I know it the time will come when they will not want to play with me anymore. “It goes by so fast,” everyone tells me, even though Dara Horn questions this assumption in her brilliant novel Eternal Life—how can it possibly go by so fast when you are changing diapers for seven years straight. And yet I have so many moments when I feel time slipping away from me. I will be reading a book when suddenly I am reminded of when I read that book for the first time, to a baby too young even to turn the pages – and I will think about how that baby is now in the other room practicing violin and trying to get out of doing his math homework. So I come to the last page, close the book, and then immediately open it again from the beginning, wishing I could do the same with time.

Now my youngest is about to turn three and when we go to the library, we rarely take out picture books anymore. The older kids are still not able to read on their own, but they want me to read aloud to them from All of a Kind Family and Cam Jansen and other chapter books. We’ve read the first four All of a Kind Family books but I’ve been holding off on the fifth, where Ella is offered a career in vaudeville and doesn’t know if she should leave her beloved fiancé Jules, who has just returned from World War I. When we first started reading the series, Ella was only twelve and was the oldest of her siblings, whose adventures included losing library books, buying penny candy, and keeping their baby brother Charlie out of trouble. I’m not sure my girls are ready for fiances and vaudeville, and so for the time being I’ve been freezing the Kind Family (as my kids call them) in time, their ages fixed at the end of the fourth volume. Sometimes I wish I could do the same with my own children. The other series they love, Cam Jansen, is about a girl who has a photographic memory; when she closes her eyes and says “click,” she can store a perfect image of whatever she has just seen. One of my daughters likes to imitate Cam, and every so often she will close her eyes, say click, and ask me to quiz her on what she has just seen and stored in her memory. I get it. When all of us are piled up on her trundle bed to read in pajamas, the toddler in my lap, the twins on each of my sides, and Matan climbing over his sisters, I sometimes wish I could stop for a moment to close my eyes and say click.