Arriving with Presence (Hullin 44b)

This week we were invited out for Shabbat lunch by a family with a daughter in the twins’ Gan. I knew it would mean so much to the girls to have an extended playdate with a friend, and so we said yes, even though we are ordinarily very reluctant to go out for meals. I prefer to have guests at our home – it means I have to be less concerned about my children misbehaving. I would prefer for other children to make a wreck of our house than for our children to make a wreck of someone else’s home. I also don’t like being beholden to others – once we accept an invitation, we feel obligated to return it. The Talmud in Moed Katan (22b) distinguishes between two types of meals – the Arisuta and the Puranuta. The former refers to a meal that one hosts out of one’s own initiative; the latter refers to a reciprocated invitation. I generally prefer to extend the Arisuta than to be obligated in the Puranuta.

At least some of the Talmudic sages shared my reluctance to accept invitations and my preference to be on the giving end rather than the receiving end when it comes to gifts. In Hullin (44b, and Megilla 28a) they consider the verse from Proverbs, “One who spurns gifts will live long” (Proverbs 15:37). We are told that whenever Rabbi Elazar received gifts from the home of the Nasi—the leader of the Jewish community in the land of Israel, who was quite wealthy—he would refuse to accept them, and when he was invited to the home of the Nasi, he would decline. He would say to them, “Don’t you want me to live?” and then quote the verse from Proverbs about how the person who spurns gifts will live long. His colleague Rabbi Zeyra, in contrast, would decline gifts but always accept invitations on the grounds that his hosts were honored by his presence. I identify much more with Rabbi Elazar – I would prefer to decline invitations altogether – but perhaps there is something to be learned from Rabbi Zeyra as well.

On those rare occasions, like yesterday, when we accept invitations and eat at the home of others, I am generally caught up in Rabbi Elazar mode. I am worried that I will say the wrong thing, or that my kids will act rudely and refuse to clean up, or that someone will drop and break something and we’ll leave our host’s home in a far worse state than when we arrived. I cannot overcome my inhibitions about accepting gifts, and so I tend to show up with way too much food. I pack the bottom of the stroller with cookies, cake, and a bottle of wine, and then all the kids groan that it’s too heavy to push. But when we unload the stroller and shower our hosts with gifts, I feel like at least I am doing my own small part to reciprocate the generosity of our hosts. Like Rabbi Elazar, I feel like I would rather give gifts than receive them, and so I try to turn the tables even before I sit down at the table of someone else.

Sometimes I wish I could be more like Rabbi Zeyra. I doubt Rabbi Zeyra ever showed up with a house gift. He probably never even brought a bottle of wine. Instead, he felt that his presence was enough of a gift – he was gracing his hosts just by showing up. I imagine that Rabbi Zeyra was a scintillating conversationalist, and everyone enjoyed having him around. Or perhaps he was an especially good listener, and people felt that whenever they were in his presence, they were truly being heard and understood. Or perhaps he was just comfortable enough in his own skin that he could simply enjoy the company of others, without being preoccupied with anxious thoughts of what he would reciprocate and when.

If I could be more like Rabbi Zeyra, I would stop worrying so much about what I can be giving and how I can be apologizing for myself and my children. Yesterday at one point I got up from the table to check on the kids, who were playing in the back room. Matan, who was seven, was arguing with two boys in the family who were hosting us, both of whom were younger than him. The younger boy knocked off Matan’s glasses. Matan immediately smacked the boy in the face. I grabbed Matan and carried him forcefully out of the room and through the nearest door, which happened to be the door of the apartment. The door locked behind us, and Matan and I were left alone in the hallway, where I proceeded to chastise him for his behavior. At some point we were ready to come back inside, but the door was still locked, and I dared not knock. I was sure the little boy had gone crying to his father, and now the parents were reproachful that our child could be so unkind to theirs. I was mortified to show my face again. And so Matan and I missed a half hour of the meal. Rabbi Elazar might have thought we were adding on years to our life, but Rabbi Zeyra would definitely have thought us rude for disappearing for so long. And I suspect Rabbi Zeyra was on to something.

When I finally summoned the courage to knock on the door and Matan and I came back in, I immediately went with Matan to apologize. But the little boy seemed to have forgotten about the episode altogether, and when I mentioned it to his parents, they claimed to have no idea what had happened. Matan should not have hit the little boy – that much is certain. But I probably should not have been so focused on the damage we’d done when I could instead have concentrated on the good I yet could do if only I allowed myself to be more present.

As Rabbi Zeyra understood, sometimes our very presence can be a gift. Sometimes just sitting at the table and listening and participating in the conversation is much more appreciated than all the home-baked dessert in the world. If we are so preoccupied about how we will reciprocate in the future, we are not fully there in the present. Those who spurn gifts may live long, but what is long life if not an accumulation of present moments? May we allow ourselves to be more present in those moments, so that the gift of our presence may truly become the greatest present of all.

The Matron Saint of Israeli Feminism

Reading Alice Shalvi’s memoir was like discovering a kindred spirit. From the moment I first picked it up, I carted the heavy hardbound volume around with me everywhere, stealing glances at the cover photograph of kindly, white-haired Alice smiling pensively back at me – in synagogue, where I read her book behind the mehitza; in the classroom, where I tore through a few more pages while my Talmud students learned in havruta; and in the theater where I’d taken my children to see a play, my cell phone flashlight illuminating the page. “Ah yes, I know where you are, I have been there too,” Shalvi seemed to be saying to me wherever I toted her around.

Shalvi, who published her memoir just before her 92nd birthday, knew the synagogues and study houses and theaters of Jerusalem very intimately, though she too, as she avows, was never a native. She was born as Alice Margulies in 1926 in Essen, Germany, and fled to London with her parents and older brother eight years later. Shalvi had already taught herself to read in her native German by age four, and she quickly taught herself English as well so she could devour the novels of Lewis Carroll, Louisa May Alcott, E. Nesbit, and Arthur Ransome. In her primary school she was frequently asked by her teachers to entertain the class by reading aloud while the other pupils learned to sew, a skill she consequently never acquired. (And here I flipped to the front cover and smiled back at Alice, because I shared her predicament – I never learned to sew or drive or acquire any practical life skills because I was always the designated reader in the family.)

During the war, Shalvi’s family moved to a country house in Waddesdon, a village in Buckinghamshire. When she was not performing in school plays, singing in the choir, or reading books from the Boots’ lending library, she rode around the corn fields on a bicycle, learned to play tennis and cricket, and discovered British Romantic poetry: “One spring day, turning a bend, I found myself, unprepared, confronting a vast bank of daffodils. I had never before seen such an abundance of what appeared like wild flowers thronging an open space.” Years later, she taught Wordsworth’s poem about stumbling upon a field of daffodils to her English literature students in Jerusalem and was astonished to discover that her students had never heard of a daffodil. Five years ago, when substituting for my husband in the English department at Bar Ilan University, I taught this same poem and had the same experience; while waxing poetic about my own encounter with a field of daffodils and how it had stayed with me all those years, I too was met with vacant stares. Like Shalvi, “only then was I made aware of the absence of this quintessentially English flower from the abundant flora of the holy land.”

At Waddesdon, Shalvi and a friend bribed a teacher with cigarettes to teach them Latin so that they could take the entry exams for Oxford and Cambridge. She was accepted to Newnham, then one of two women’s colleges at Cambridge, where she and her fellow students were expected to live cloistered lives: sex was considered “obscene, indecent, smutty,” and women had to sign out if they left the college after 8pm. Reading about Alice’s adventures in Cambridge, I am grateful that I attended this university over a half a century later, though I identified with many of her experiences: I too hung a photograph of the Kotel on my dorm room wall; I too suffered from an inadequate number of toilets (mine was across two courtyards, though fortunately my baths were not limited to a shallow five inches of water, the depth designated by a black line on the tub); I too attended Friday night dinners at the Jewish Society on Thompson’s Lane, where Alice fought to allow women to lead the traditional hymns at the Sabbath meal (by my time, alas, this license had been revoked). As the only religious Jew in my English program, I had many experiences similar to Alice, who relates that she tried to explain the concept of ‘simile’ to her classmates by citing the prayer in which the children of Israel’s relationship to God is compared to “clay in the hands of a potter”; she was dismayed to discover that few of her classmates had ever heard of this prayer. At Cambridge I also found that many of my frames of reference were foreign to my classmates, which rendered my experience there all the more lonely.

It was at Cambridge that Shalvi first became aware of the horrors of the Holocaust and the fate of her father’s brother’s family, all of whom were shot to death in their native Poland. “Worst of all and hardest to come to grips with, even today, was my growing awareness of a startling paradox: while the extermination of European Jewry was in progress, I was enjoying what were undoubtedly the happiest years of my adolescence, safe and secure amidst the natural beauties of rural England.” A Zionist from her early childhood, when she’d danced the horah around her family’s kitchen table, Shalvi resolved to move to Palestine: “I made the fateful decision to go there as a social worker, rehabilitate people like these youngsters, and assist them in becoming useful, committed citizens, fellow builders of a new Jewish state that, together, we would help bring into existence.” She went on her first visit to Palestine during Christmas vacation of 1947, less than a month after the UN vote on the partition plan but before the British withdrawal. The euphoria was evident, particularly in Tel Aviv, where “houses were shooting up, sparkling white in the bright Mediterranean sunshine that heightened the blue of the ocean with an intensity never seen in England. I’d not expected the sun to be so blinding, the sky so cerulean, the sea so calm. For the first time I fully comprehended the veracity of the Provencal works of the Impressionists.”

After studying social work at the London School of Economics (LSE), Shalvi made Aliyah, settling in Jerusalem in November 1949. She recalls a period when everyone walked around confused, unsure whether the street they were on was called Queen Melisanda or Heleni Ha-Malka. In neighborhoods like Talbiye, Katamon, and Baka—where I live now, with all modern conveniences–the streets had no names, the houses had had only plot numbers, and no one had telephones at home. In her first year in the country, she was seduced by her landlord who forced her to sleep with him when his pregnant wife was out of the house; “today,” she writes, “we’d call it rape.” Shalvi describes several men she dated as a young single woman in Jerusalem, though she never explains how she overcame the sense of unattractiveness that haunted her as a child: “My bust was too small, my hips too broad. Even had my mirror not reflected the reality… many wounding comments on my appearance… combined to instil in me both an overwhelming sense of my own inadequacy and a comparable need to compensate. Such compensation might be accomplished by academic achievement.” Surely her academic achievement was responsible for some of her confidence, but is still hard to understand where she mustered the courage to pursue and then propose marriage to the handsome young banker named Moshe whom she fell in love with when she first sighted him at a 25th anniversary party for the Hebrew University. The couple set off to Paris on their honeymoon, where they bought baguettes and cheap plates and cutlery so that they could eat in their hotel room, since Moshe kept strictly kosher. “It was our first experience of keeping house together. We made abundant and blissful use of the big brass bed. We were inordinately happy. The week in Paris proved an auspicious beginning to over 60 years of compatibility and compassionate companionship.” Moshe took pride in Shalvi’s professional accomplishments and always encouraged her to excel, never feeling threatened by her achievements. He was, in every sense, just as feminist as she.

Shalvi became pregnant soon after their marriage, and she went on to have six children in fifteen years, the fulfillment of a childhood dream: “My conception of a happy family was undoubtedly inspired by the numerous books I read that portrayed the adventures of siblings engaged in a series of fascinating activities… Parents seldom intervened. Indeed, they were largely absent or seldom referred to… I envied these fictional families and perhaps unconsciously longed to repplicate them in my own adulthood.” Her first pregnancy in 1951 was during a period of rationing, when pregnant women were allocated two fresh eggs a week, but she felt blissfully happy and healthy. On a visit to London she bought a book about natural childbirth and taught herself its precepts, shocking the doctors when she refused medication during labor: “It seems I was Israel’s pioneer of natural childbirth,” she muses. Her labor pangs began during an English department study session at her apartment, where members of the faculty were gathered to read Blake, and throughout her children’s early years, she and her husband remained intensely engaged in their respective professions.

Shalvi’s reflections on working motherhood are brave, candid, and –surely not just for me—deeply inspiring. She acknowledges that she was not present for her children nearly as much as they needed or wanted her to be, but she is proud of the people her children became: “I was not a source of the loving individual attention every child desires and needs. Frustrated, they sought other sources of attention and affection – friends, lovers, and eventually spouses. Today my children reproach me for my neglect but I take a certain degree of (cold) comfort in the fact that they’ve learnt from their own negative experience and that they, in contrast to me, are not only model parents but equally dedicated grandparents.” How refreshing that Shalvi can writing so openly about her inadequacies as a mother, while also appreciating that there is no one right way to parent; the decisions that leave us feeling most uneasy can prove surprisingly salutary.

In one of the more private and painful moments in this memoir, Shalvi reflects on an illegal abortion she underwent in 1950s Jerusalem. Shalvi became pregnant while her older children had mumps, and her doctor informed her she had to terminate the pregnancy because infection with mumps could result in brain damage in the embryo. Shalvi reluctantly and ambivalently consented. She continues to be plagued by what she underwent in the back room of the doctor’s house: “I never told Moshe about the abortion. I fact, I told nobody. I have never spoken of it. Yet similarly, I have never forgotten it. Though I gave birth with my customary ease to three additional blessedly healthy, carefully planned, children, the thought of that unborn child still plagues me. Was it a girl or a boy? Fair-haired like Micha or dark like Ditza? As placid as Hephziba or wild, like Benzi? And would it indeed have been in some way abnormal, or might it, despite our fears, have proved no leass healthy than its siblings? The questions can never be answered; the regret and guilt never fully assuaged.” Decades later Shalvi would go on to fight for increased awareness of women’s medical and psychological needs.

Shalvi learned her compassion and her concern for others from her own life experiences. When she birthed her first son, her roommate in the maternity ward of the Anglican school where Hadassah Hospital was then housed was a gaunt Kurdish woman who had just given birth to her seventh child, and had no visitors. The woman lay there miserable as all the members of the English department took their turns visiting and congratulating Alice on the birth of her firstborn: “I learned a great deal through this pathetic woman and her experience, of the overriding importance in some cultures of bearing sons, of the lowly status of females…of the contempt in which new immigrants from the Arab countries were held by the European veterans.” Shalvi went on to become instrumental in founding a “Women’s Kitchen” in a poor neighborhood in Katamon, a clubhouse for women immigrants from Arab lands.

Though she had made Aliyah with a degree in social work from LSE, Shalvi was unable to find work in her field. Instead she landed a job teaching in the English department at Hebrew University, then housed at Terra Sancta right near her home; among her students were the young Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, and Dahlia Ravikovitch, who became some of Israel’s most famous and celebrated poets. Nearly two decades later, when her youngest child was a toddler, she accepted an offer to found the English Department at Beersheba. Four years later, the position of university dean became vacant. “Few of the men (needless to say they were all men) whose names were mentioned [as candidates] had what I considered the necessary qualifications.” And so Shalvi submitted her candidacy. Here, as throughout this memoir, Shalvi does not come across as arrogant or brash. On the contrary, she had a realistic sense of her own abilities and a supportive husband always at her back, and she was undaunted by the possibility of failure. “But you’re a woman!” she was told by the humanities dean. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” said the incumbent she hoped to replace. She was accused of “blantant lobbying” and “shameless self-promotion,” and she did not get the job. But for Shalvi, each failure, like each success, was a learning opportunity. “My humiliating experience led to a profound change in my perception of gender equality in Israel.”

Shalvi went on to devote herself tirelessly to advancing the status of women in all sectors of Israeli society throughout the 1980s and 1990s. She served on the Namir Commission to propose legislation and administrative changes designed to improve the social, economic, and political status of women. She worked with religious feminists to campaign on behalf of agunot, women whose husbands were missing, and mesuravot get, women refused divorce. She was instrumental in founding the Israel Women’s Network, a non-partisan organization to advance women’s status. She organized an international conference of women writers in 1986 to raise the self-esteem of Israeli women authors, hosting such luminaries as Grace Paley and Marilyn French. She persuaded the Head of Television at the Israel Broadcasting Authority to begin designing programs for women, of which there were none. She spoke on panels with Palestinian women, searching for common ground. She was involved in a six-month in-depth investigation of human trafficking and forced prostitution. She helped raise awareness about women’s health issues, founding an information hotline that referred women to sensitive and sympathetic doctors. Just recently, when I called the national hotline of my health clinic and listened to the menu of dialing option, I was told for the first time that I could press “5” if I wanted to speak to a doctor or nurse about pregnancy or childbirth; I have no doubt that Alice Shalvi is responsible, albeit indirectly, for this development.

And yet in spite of all her work on the national level, in Jerusalem Shalvi is perhaps best known for her tenure as principal of Pelech, a high school founded in the 1960s for ultra-Orthodox girls. From its earliest days, Talmud was part of the compulsory curriculum at Pelech. (The name of the school means spindle, and is spoken derogatorily by a misogynist sage in the Talmud who contends that “Women’s wisdom is solely in the spindle.”) Shalvi first became involved in Pelech as a parent – her eldest daughter Ditza, who was unhappy in her Orthodox high school, asked her parents to transfer to the Pelech High School for Haredi Girls, as it was then known. Uneasy with the idea of sending her daughter to such a religious school, Alice climbed up Mount Zion—where the school was then housed—to check it out. She engaged one of the students in conversation, and discovered that this ultra-Orthodox girl was working on a paper on Christian symbols in the novels of Graham Green. “Christian? Graham Green? At a haredi school? This openness was beyond belief. After that I had no objections to Ditza transferring to Pelech.”

In 1974, when Ditza was still enrolled, the founders of the school announced their intention to close it down – they were uncomfortable with the “infiltration” of modern Orthodox families. One day shortly thereafter, during a visit from the Ministry of Education, the principal was asked whom the ministry should be in future contact with on matters regarding the school. Without a moment’s pause, the principal told him to be in touch with Professor Shalvi – and thus to her total surprise, Shalvi became the school’s new principal. Though the school was already catering to a more enlightened demographic, Shalvi found that her religious progressivism was often at odds with the school’s ethos; in her new role, she had to put away her elegant pants suits and wear long skirts instead, though she was never able to bring herself to cover her hair. When she tried to advocate for replicating the American bat mitzvah program she had witnessed on a recent trip to the US; one of the male Jewish studies teachers caustically replied, “In an orchestra, when the violinist plays the notes composed for the violin and the trumpeter plays the notes composed for the trumpets, there is harmony. But when the violins play the trumpets’ notes and the trumpets play the notes of the violists there is discord.” Chastened, Shalvi writes that she “learned never again to express my heretical views on the inferior status of women within the confines of Pelech.”

Even so, Shalvi continued to push the envelope in her role as principal – she hired an American woman with an expertise in Talmud to teach a course on Women and Halacha, and she brought in a commanding officer from the IDF to speak to her students about women’s service in the military. Ultimately, her heresy became too much for the school officials to bear, and she felt she had no choice but to resign so that the school would not lose its accreditation. Still, Shalvi remains inordinately proud of “my girls,” as she refers to her Pelech graduates, one of whom is now her own rabbi. “Surveying how feminism has affected Israeli society, one is compelled to admit that the greatest revolution has occurred in modern Orthodoxy,” she contends. “Not only have the women themselves ‘come a long way’; they have carried their communities in their wake.”

Shalvi was tireless and tenacious in her professional and public roles. In 1990, when she was settling down for what she thought would be a quiet retirement, she was asked to head the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, which offered rabbinical training and advanced degrees in Jewish studies. Shalvi agreed and became rector and then president, a decision she later regretted: “The double burden was too heavy for one person to bear, and as I soon learned, I was totally ignorant as to the complexities of the Conservative movement in the US.” Even so, she acknowledges that she has “nothing but happy memories” of her days at Schechter, where she founded Nashim, an academic journal of Jewish feminist studies, and she helped create the Center for Women in Jewish Law.

Reading this memoir, I was struck by the enormous debt of gratitude that I, as a woman in Jerusalem, owe to Shalvi’s trailblazing. When Shalvi pushed for a bat mitzvah program at Pelech, such an idea was unheard of; there is no question that my daughters and their contemporaries will have bat mitzvah ceremonies. When I was pregnant, I had my pick of Lamaze classes to attend (though it was still difficult, in the early 2000s, to find a woman gynecologist). When I wanted to study Talmud on a high level, there was a host of institutions to choose from – some for women alone, and some co-educational. And when I wrote a book about my experiences studying Talmud as a woman, the opening chapter was first published in Nashim, the journal Shalvi founded.

Feminism among religious women in Jerusalem is a funny thing; just recently, I offered a copy of Lilith Magazine to a religiously observant friend my age who swims with me at the pool in the mornings after dropping off her children at school. “A feminist magazine?” she looked at me quizzically. “Sorry, that’s not for me. I’m no feminist,” she said, before heading out to teach history at the university. I wanted to call after her, “You’re not a feminist? How did you get to where you are, if not for the feminists? Why do you think you have childcare for your toddler? Why are you able to work as a mother? How did you get your maternity leave? What kind of historian are you?” But I knew my protests would fall on deaf ears. Her response is a reminder that we still have a long way to go. Alice Shalvi, having completed the memoir she has been writing for two decades, has taught herself to meditate and seems finally to have found tranquility: “No words are needed. No words suffice. Just as two lovers sit side by side in silence, each absorbing each other’s presence, so I sit absorbing and at the same time surrendering myself to the Divine Spirit.” There is more work to be done, but the mantle has been passed to my generation, and to my children. We are so fortunate to have Shalvi as our model, our mentor, our guiding light.

Tiffany’s at Twilight

My children have discovered television. For a long time we never let them watch anything on screens. We tried to keep our phones sequestered away in the bedroom and to play podcasts or musical soundtracks on long car trips. But then my toddler developed asthma and need to sit with a mask on her face breathing in vapors for ten minutes a day, and we found that the moment we turned on a video, she immediately relaxed. She was only two, and we knew she was too young for screen time, but it seemed to be the only thing that worked. Having discovered this magical tranquilizer, we began using it whenever we cut the kids’ nails. And so in spite of our “no screens” policy, at least a half hour a week our kids watch visual content ranging from a symphonic performance by the Israel Philharmonic to Dora and Boots.

“What’s so bad about watching videos,” my kids ask, and I try to explain to them that it’s not that videos are inherently bad – it’s just that there is so much else to do in the space of a day, and watching videos is not at the top of my list. I want them to have time every day to play with friends, to ride their bikes, to run around in the park, to read stories together. If there is time leftover, we can bake cookies. Or learn a new card game. Or draw pictures for their grandparents. The possibilities are endless, but there are only so many hours before bedtime.

The Talmud does not discuss the question of whether parents should let their children watch television – but it comes close. The rabbis ask Rabbi Yehoshua (Y. Peah 1:1), “May a man teach his son Greek?” Greek was the lingua franca of the region, as well as the language of high and popular culture – Greek was spoken in the theaters and circuses that Jews were not supposed to set foot in, and it was the language of Homer’s works. In the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 49b), the rabbis ask if one may teach one’s son Greek wisdom, and some scholars have argued that the Jerusalem Talmud is referring to Greek wisdom as well. In any case, the Talmud’s answer is instructive: “Let him teach it at a time that is neither day nor night, for it is written: And you shall contemplate it [Torah] day and night” (Joshua 1:8). That is, Rabbi Yehoshua does not explicitly forbid the study of Greek – he just tells his students that there was so much else filling up their time. With all the Torah they had left to study, who had time for Greek?

I try to adopt Rabbi Yehoshua’s approach. When my daughters ask me if they can watch a video (or, as they sometimes put it, “Can we cut our nails now?”), I don’t say no. I tell them, “Wait, first we have to finish drawing a welcome sign for our Shabbat guests,” or “Let’s check and see if the dough has risen.” Sometimes we even read a book about the parsha, or an illustrated version of Pirkei Avot – though I wouldn’t say we do that all night and all day.

Last week when we went to the library, the girls picked out a short illustrated biography of Audrey Hepburn, which we read together at bedtime. I told them that Hepburn was a real person, and that she starred in many wonderful movies. “Can we see what she really looks like?” they asked me. And so I went to the bathroom and retrieved my phone. (I got the idea to leave my phone in the bathroom from the Babylonian sage Shmuel, who said that he would only study astrology when he was in the bathroom, since it’s forbidden to study Torah there. That said, he is also the one who boasted, “The paths of the stars are forbidden to me as the streets of [my city of] Nehardea” – which makes me wonder how much time he spent in the bathroom with his astrology books. Surely more time than I spend in the bathroom reading email?)

By the time I returned to the girls’ room, I had found a YouTube clip of the opening scene of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Not much happens in this scene – Audrey Hepburn meanders down Fifth Avenue looking in shop windows and eating a croissant from a paper bag, dressed in an elegant black dress with pearls, her hair adorned with a tiara. But for my daughters it was love at first sight. “She is so beautiful,” Liav told me. “Look, she has no spots on her face like you do, Ima,” Tagel added. “I wish I looked like her. Can I wear her dress when I get bigger? Why don’t you have a dress like that, Ima?”

I looked at elegant Audrey with her diamond tiara and was reminded of the continuation of the rabbinic conversation. Rabbi Abbahu, who lived in the cosmopolitan city of Caesaria, stated in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that “It is permissible for a person to teach his daughter Greek, because it is an adornment (literally a jewel) for her.” I watched my daughters try on their various headbands and hair ribbons, trying to figure out which one most resembled Audrey’s tiara. I saw them trying to imitate her gait, he gestures, her confidence and her cool. And I began to wonder if maybe these moments of watching “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” were an adornment for my daughters too. As a child, I remember trying to puff my sleeves like Anne of Green Gables.” I recall prancing around the house singing “I Feel Pretty,” and pinning my hair into a bun like Mary Poppins. I did not watch a lot of television, but the movies I saw shaped my sense of what it meant to feel beautiful, and what kind of woman I might become.

Even so, there is not much time in our schedule which is neither night nor day. Perhaps the only time is twilight, that liminal time known in the Talmud as bein ha-shmashot, which according to one rabbinic opinion goes by as quickly as “the blink of an eye.” My children’s childhood, too, is going by so fast. My girls who still can’t cut their own nails are already trying on my jewelry and holding heads proudly as if they, too, had impossibly high cheekbones. They are learning, already at age five, the power of feeling beautiful. This is different from being beautiful, which I care about less. As the Talmud teaches in Pirkei Avot, “Blessed are Israel who were created in the image of God. An additional blessing is it that they know that they were created in the image of God.” It is the cognizance of their own beauty that I seek to cultivate in my children – and if Audrey Hepburn can help me out with that, I’m prepared to let my girls spend twilight in her company.

No Child Left Behind

Last week there was an uproar in the Whatsapp list of my two-year-old’s Gan. One of the mothers wrote to notify the rest of the group that her son was accidentally left behind in the playground that morning, and was discovered missing only twenty minutes later, once the two teachers and the other thirteen children had already walked the two blocks back to the Gan. The child was fine – he had wandered off to a corner of the park to play with the water fountain – and he was returned to class unscathed. But the mother was outraged to learn of the incident, and she wished to inform the rest of the parents that she was pulling her son out of the class.

Her message, which was cogent, well-articulated and not merely the product of her initial fright and fury, triggered a flurry of responses. One mother wrote to say that she could not understand how such a thing could possibly happen, and she demanded that the Ganenet account for her negligence. Another mother requested that a meeting be convened immediately to discuss the incident and re-examine the playground policy. Another mother threatened to pull her daughter out if the Ganenet didn’t provide her version of the events to all the parents right away. I didn’t write back at all. I rarely write group messages– I am too concerned about how each and every person in the group might respond and whose feathers I may inadvertently ruffle.

If I had written anything, though, I think I would have just said I was sad. Sad that it had happened. Sad for the mother of the child who was left behind. Sad for the pain and panic of the Ganenet, whose heart surely stopped beating when she realized that one of her charges was missing. Sad for the other children in the room—including my daughter—who may have sensed the acute distress of their caretakers in those moments before their classmate was found. Sad for the concern of the other parents, who, like me, may not always appreciate what it means to entrust our children to the care of others, and what is at stake the moment we let our kids loose upon the world.

That same night we heard from a family friend about a toddler who had fallen out a three-story window and hit his head. The friend told us that the parents of the child had been home, but they were downstairs and didn’t realize that their son had made his way upstairs to the third floor of their new house, where the window panes had still not been placed in the windows. They heard their toddler scream to his brother outside, “Wait for me, I’m coming,” and they both dashed up the stairs – but they were too late. The child remains in the hospital in critical condition.

I pray for that child every day, invoking his name and his mother’s name – the traditional formula seems especially apt in this case, since I am as concerned for her distress as I am for his health. I pray that the mother will be able to forgive herself, to look herself in the mirror, to know that she has done the best she can. I know how easily I could have been that mother – how often I fail to come when my children call me, to follow them when they wander off, to look back once we start crossing the street to make sure no one is left behind. No matter how closely I watch my kids, it never seems enough.

“There are things that have no measure,” the Mishnah teaches in tractate Peah in a passage recited every morning as part of the daily liturgy. The Mishnah then proceeds to list various commandments that have no minimum or maximum limit according to the Bible. For instance, it is a mitzvah to leave the corners of one’s field unharvested so that the poor may come and glean, but there is no minimum or maximum amount that must be left. Likewise, it is a mitzvah to perform acts of kindness and to study Torah – but we are not told how kind we must be, or how much study is too much.

I think about how the care of children is also something that has no measure. I cannot watch my children enough, because no matter how vigilant I am, kids fall and get hurt and wander off. But there is also no minimum measure. “Leave me alone, Ima,” my seven-year-old has started telling me – he wants me to stop urging him to do his homework, and stop badgering him to get ready for school. Then I feel like I can’t ever give him enough independence, and that between freedom and vigilance, I will never strike the right balance or find the perfect measure.

The reward for caring for children has no measure, too. “These are the things whose fruits a man eats in this world, but whose principal remains intact for him to enjoy in the world to come,” the Mishnah goes on to teach, enumerating commandments such as honoring parents, performing acts of kindness, and studying Torah. All of these activities yield benefit in this world, but the real reward comes in the world to come. I might add being a Ganenet to this list. Yes, there are rewards. One is remunerated for one’s labor both financially and in terms of the emotional satisfaction of watching children grow and play happily. But there is no measure of compensation that could ever possibly be adequate for the safe delivery of my daughter into my arms at the end of the day. I could never possibly pay any caretaker enough for sparing my daughter from harm. After all, how much do I actually pay for someone else to care for my daughter eight hours a day and ensure that she stays safe? And yet is there any sum I wouldn’t pay to receive her back safe and sound if something were to go wrong?

The Mishnah’s list of things that have no measure includes only commandments that human beings perform to honor one another and to honor God. But of course the true thing that has no measure is God, the infinite, the One who is beyond measure. When it comes to the care of my children—whether they are in my care, or whether I entrust them to others—I can really only pray. I pray when I wake up in the morning that they will lie down safely in their beds that night. I pray when I put them to bed that they will wake up breathing, their souls restored to their bodies. I know that at times I must entrust them to the hands of others, but I also know that I am entrusting them to human hands, and no human being can watch everyone and everything at all times. Who is to say that next time in the playground it won’t be my daughter who wanders off? “All is in God’s hands except the fear of God,” the Talmud teaches, and so as while I place my children in human hands, I place my fear in God.

When I think of the little boy who was left behind in my daughter’s preschool class, I’m reminded of Yehuda Amichai’s poem about God’s compassion for little children in the playground.

God has pity on children in Gan,
He has less pity on school children
But he pities adults not at all.
He leaves them all alone.

And sometimes they have to crawl on all fours
In the scorching sand
To reach the pickup point,
Streaming with blood.

But perhaps
He will have pity on those who truly love
And take care of them
And shelter them
Like a tree over the sleeper on the public bench.

Perhaps even we will spend
Our last pennies of kindness on them
Bequeathed by Mother

So that their own happiness will protect us
Now and on other days.

Often it seems to me that it is only by grace of God’s compassion that my children return home safe and sound at the end of the day. And so while I know that some of the other mothers in the Gan are indignant at the incident, I wish that instead of anger or outrage we could all try to bestow pennies of kindness on our caretakers and on ourselves. The care of children is frightful and awe-inspiring – none of us can keep our children safe at all times, and any one of us could be that mother whose child climbs too high and too fast. May God have pity on those who truly love their children and shelter and protect them so that all of our children can run happy and free – and may their happiness gird us, and give us strength.

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Cry

I have always had trouble staying focused in synagogue. All too often I put my prayer book aside and pick up a volume of Talmud, or even a novel, and read instead of praying. Somewhat surprisingly, my prayer life has improved since I’ve had children. When I’m already so distracted in synagogue, I don’t need to seek out additional distractions, and so ironically I concentrate better with my children underfoot. These days I generally don’t even bother bringing a novel to synagogue anymore, since what is the likelihood I’ll have a chance to open the prayer book, let alone all my ancillary reading material?

This year on Rosh Hashanah, though, it was different. Daniel and I prayed in a synagogue that had two services, one at 5:30am and the other at 8am – and so each of us had our turn to pray. The kids sat with us for parts of both services and managed to hear the shofar blasts on multiple occasions, but for the most part we were each alone. In fact, I think my four hours in synagogue each morning was the only time I spent alone during the entire Rosh Hashanah holiday – and so, yes, I brought reading material.

I was reading a newly-published Hebrew novel about a young couple in their first year of marriage. Their names are Yonatan and Alisa, they are deeply in love, and they are desperate for time alone– but everyone around them seems to be competing for their attention. The book was very absorbing, and although I didn’t pick it up until I’d completed the long silent prayer, I found it hard to tear myself away by the time the prayer leader got up to the U’netaneh Tokef, a stirring liturgical poem in which we ask, “Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water?” The prayer is attributed to a medieval rabbi who, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, was told by the local Catholic authorities that he must either convert or die. He chose death, but only after hesitating – which then caused him tremendous guilt and remorse. According to the legend, he composed the U’netaneh Tokef and recited it with his last breath.

The prayer is by no means the most important part of the high holiday liturgy – it is included in the prayer book as a poetic introduction to the Kedusha, the blessing in which all the angels proclaim God’s glory. But because of its weighty imagery and its haunting melody, it has become one of the centerpieces of the high holiday prayers. And so I probably ought to have put aside my novel and opened my prayer book again – except that I couldn’t. Alisa, four months pregnant, was panicking. She thought she was having another miscarriage. Suddenly we were transported back six months earlier, to the trauma of Alisa’s first miscarriage – the blood, the rush to the hospital, the ultrasound with no heartbeat, the tears. Was it all about to happen again? Alisa was crying. Yonatan was crying. And suddenly I was crying too, bawling into my novel which was hidden inside my prayer book, the tears falling freely onto its pages. I felt like I was right there with Yonatan and Alisa, experiencing their devastation first-hand.

Except, of course, I wasn’t right there. I was standing in synagogue before the Holy Ark on Judgment Day, and everyone around me was crying too. “On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed. Who will die at his predestined time, and who before his time, who will experience tranquility and who will suffer.” Surely several of the people around me had lost those they loved in the past year, or were worried about losing loved ones in the year ahead. They were worried about their parents or their children, or their financial security, or the difficult decisions that might have to make in the year ahead. They felt their lives hanging in the balance. They were crying in hope, or in fear, or in anguish. Whereas I was crying for Yonatan and Alisa.

For a moment I felt guilty. I remembered the midrash in which God criticizes the Israelites for crying out of fear when they heard the ten spies’ negative report about the land of Israel. “You’re crying for no reason?” said God angrily. “Well, just you wait. I’ll give you a real reason to cry.” On that day, the decree of the Temple’s destruction was sealed (Taanit 29a). Maybe God was going to punish me with a real reason to cry, instead of my crocodile tears. Except that they weren’t really crocodile tears, because I wasn’t just crying for Yonatan and Alisa. I was reminded of a favorite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins about a man who espies a young girl crying:

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

The poet, a somewhat patronizing older man, asks Margaret why she is crying. “Are you crying because the leaves are falling from the trees? What a sensitive heart you have, crying for the foliage.” The poet knows that the leaves will fall every autumn and fill the trees again every spring, but perhaps Margaret—like Adam HaRishon—does not yet have the confidence that the sun always rises. Perhaps the branches will be forever bare? And even if the trees will bloom again in the spring, how sad that they are falling now!

The poet tells Margaret that she will have many more real reasons to cry when she gets older:

Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.

The mansplaining continues, but now with new levels of profundity:

Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

The poet tells Margaret that she will cry many times throughout her life, but when it comes down to it, she will always be crying about the same thing: “Sorrow’s springs are all the same.” When we human beings cry, the poet is telling Margaret, we are not just crying for any single loss. We are crying for the human condition, for the “blight that man was born for” – for how difficult it is to live in a world of transience and imperfection, where so much of what we love is fleeting, and where so many of our dreams fall short.

Crying for Yonatan and Alisa is like crying for Goldengrove unleaving. Do I really need to cry about fictional characters who suffered an imagined loss? Does Margaret really need to cry for the falling leaves? The poet’s answer is that it doesn’t really matter. The wellsprings of sorrow are all the same. We cry because we live in a world where leaves fall from trees and turn to smoke in every lane, where babies die in the womb, where parents get sick and need to be cared for, where children go to sleep hungry, where we do not always feel equipped to confront life’s challenges with dignity and grace. We cry because the blight that man was born for is to come from dust and return to dust. Each of us is a broken shard. A passing shade. A dissipating cloud. A vanished dream. Each of us, Margaret, is a falling leaf.

Forgiving Our Children

(published in The Forward, 4.9.2018)

I always assumed that my children would be early and eager readers too. I began reading to them from the moment they were born – I breastfed them for their first year, and always read to them while they were suckling. I had no patience then for children’s books, and merely read aloud to them whatever I was reading at the time. When they were old enough to sit up beside me, I began reading them picture books, and now that they can sit at the table for a proper meal, I read aloud during mealtimes in the hope that they will be too distracted to fight with one another. These days I read them stories at bedtime while they jump up and down on the bed like monkeys, until invariably one falls off and nearly breaks his or her head. Then I sigh, close the book, and turn out the lights.

My children enjoy hearing stories, but they are equally happy — if not happier — to play interminable card games, or build houses out of Magna-Tiles, or scroll through photos of their cousins on my pilfered smartphone. I was a precocious reader, but they are not. Three of my kids are now school-age; so far none of them is comfortable reading independently. My son still stumbles over nearly every word, and my twins are morally outraged by any book that does not have illustrations. At the public library recently, I found myself looking wistfully, even a little enviously, at other parents trying to tear their children away from their books, making them promise to read just “one more page.” I wonder whether my children will ever be like that.

But as I try to look more deeply within myself in advance of the High Holidays, I am increasingly aware that the flaw is not with my children, but with my own expectations as a parent.

As parents, we expect and dream so much. We want our kids to have the experiences we most treasure from our own childhood, as well as the experiences we wish we’d had when we were young. We want our passions to become theirs — our love of music, or basketball, or reading.

But of course, our offspring are not our clones. They may (or may not) be genetically ours, but they are shaped by different environmental and generational forces than we were. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” as per the adage, but as Andrew Solomon showed in his monumental book that plays off this title, often quite the opposite is true. Solomon writes about children with severe physical and mental impairments, but his basic premise speaks to universal aspects of the parenting experience. “There is no such thing as reproduction,” Solomon writes, explaining that in spite of the fantasy that our children will be just like us, in reality our children are often veritable strangers: “Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger…. We must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own child is an exercise for the imagination.“

Fully loving our children requires imagination, yes, but it also requires acceptance and compassion. Just as we did not become our parents—and indeed we often defined ourselves in opposition to our parents—our children are doing the same. If we hold that against them, we are not being fair to them, or to ourselves. We owe it to our children to accept them with compassion, and the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is an annual reminder of how we can, and why we must. The high holiday liturgy speaks often of the metaphor of God having compassion on us like a father is compassionate on his children. Underlying this metaphor is the notion that a parent’s compassion for a child is elemental. The Hebrew term for compassion, Rachamim, comes from Rechem, meaning womb – suggesting that a parent is, by definition, one who is compassionate. In Aramaic, the root word also means “love,” a reminder that love and compassion are semantically entangled. To love our children, we must be able to accept them for who they are, and forgive them for who they are not.

Avivah Zornberg offers a beautiful exploration of this idea in her analysis of the Garden of Eden story in her book, The Murmuring Deep. She notes the root word etzev and its variant form itzavon (generally translated as pain, sorrow, or toil) appear in the punishments of both Adam and Eve after the two eat from the tree of knowledge. First, God tells Adam, “Cursed be the earth because of you; by toil [itzavon] shall you eat of it all the days of your life: thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you” (Genesis 3:17-18). Zornberg explains itzavon as the discrepancy of sowing grains and vegetables only to reap thorns and thistles.

This meaning of itzavon is reflected in Eve’s punishment too: “I will greatly intensify your pain [itzavon] and your pregnancy; in sorrow [etzev] shall you bear children” (Genesis 3:16), Rashi explains that God is not just referring to the pain of labor, but also to the pain of childrearing.

Itzavon, then, may also be understood as the discrepancy between what we dream of for our children, and who they become. “Parents raise children as projections of their own desires, only to discover that children develop desires of their own. Here, the planting may come to bear very little resemblance to the yield,” Zornberg explains.

The punishment of itzavon is an appropriate one, since Adam and Eve disappointed God by n failing to obey His command. God created Adam in His image, and then Adam went off to become his own person, with desires and a will that differed from those of his Creator. God’s experience of itzavon continues in the Noah story, where, as Zornberg notes, the same term appears, this time as a verb: “God saw how great was man’s evil on earth and how every thought devised in his heart was sheer evil all day long. And God regretted that He had made man on earth, and he was saddened [va-yitatzev] to his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6). God’s children have failed to become the creatures He envisioned when He created them in His image. And so this time, God doesn’t just mete out punishment — He destroys the overwhelming majority of humanity.

The story of Noah’s flood is included among the verses recited during the Rosh Hashanah service:As our lives hang in the balance, we want God to remember that He nearly destroyed all of His children once, and then regretted it. “Our father, our king, forgive us… have mercy on us like a father has compassion on his children,” we tell God, even as we know that fathers are not always compassionate, and sometimes accepting one’s children is the most difficult task of all.

Perhaps part of the reason it is so difficult to accept our children is because in order to do so, we have to forgive ourselves. Our children were once a part of us, and it is hard not to think of them as extensions of ourselves. If our children are not like us, then surely we have failed to impart of our values. If I bring books to synagogue for my children to read during services, yet all they want to do is sit there and eat candy, then surely I have done a poor job of transmitting my excitement about literature (let alone prayer). It’s hard not to see it that way. And yet, as the Torah teaches us, the discrepancy between expectation and reality — itzavon — has been a fundamental aspect of our world since the dawn of humanity. Even God could not create a likeness that was an exact replica.

Just recently, while I was reading Charlotte’s Web with my son in the park after school, I noticed he wasn’t paying attention. He was holding a stick and poking at something in the dirt. “It’s a dead spider,” he told me. “I know it’s dead because on a dead spider, the legs always turn inwards, because there’s no more blood holding them up. That’s how you can tell. Right?”

I hadn’t known that. If my son were exactly like me, he would have been entangled in the story of Charlotte and her web. Indeed, it’s thanks to the fact that my son has elected to spin his own web that he has so much to teach me. It’s taken me a while to learn this lesson, and I can only hope that he — and all my children — will forgive me for that.

Ilana Kurshan is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink, winner of the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

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Green Clementine in September

With that first bitter taste of green clementine in September
I suddenly remember the rain
How it catches me unawares, and how
The heavens will open again

The days are still long and hot
The peaches not over and gone
But summer in all of its splendor is ending
The heavens will open again

The bitter green fruits of September
Will ripen to sweet yellow suns
Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat
The heavens will open again

Summer and winter, day and night
The fruit fills my palm like a rainbow of promise:
The days will blow gently, the shadows will flee,
The heavens will open again.