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.

Read more: https://forward.com/life/407763/learning-to-forgive-our-children-as-rosh-hashanah-approaches/

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.

The View from the Halakhic Castle

I am not particularly interested in halakhah. I enjoy studying Talmud because the emphasis is on the questions rather than the answers; I am less interested in how Jews are supposed to practice than in the values and considerations that animate the discussions about Jewish religious observance. I think of Talmud and halakhah in terms of Schroedinger’s Cat Paradox. According to this thought experiment, by now a quantum mechanics cliché, a cat is placed in a box where there is an equal probability that a deadly poison is or is not released. Only when the box is opened is the state of the cat established with certainty. Talmud fascinates me because the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead, with all the interpretive possibilities still open, whereas halakhah collapses the dancing wave function into a static mode of practice.

But perhaps the time has come to reconsider. In his new book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, Chaim Saiman argues that halakhah is so much more than just prescriptive law because it plays both a regulatory role—governing Jewish religious practice, and also an educational role—serving as the object of devotional study. Jews study halakhah not just to learn how to behave, but also because halakhah serves to communicate social and religious meaning. And so while much of the content of Talmud study is similar to what is taught in American law schools, for Jews it is regarded as one of the purest forms of divine worship. Rabbinic case studies—when Reuven’s ox falls into Shimon’s pit, for instance—are not just precedent-setting, but value-laden. This is true of the Talmud, but it is also true of subsequent halakhic works such as the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh, which are not merely laws to be applied, but discourse to be studied. Thus legal ideas are pursued to further broader social and cultural aims. As Saiman puts it, “Halakhah is not only a body of regulations, but a way, a path of thinking, being, and knowing.”

In his opening chapter, Saiman responds to Jesus’ critique of halakhah as an obsessive preoccupation with legal minutiae by arguing that halakhah consists of a discussion of the central questions of religious life through the lens of legal norms. Saiman demonstrates how broader ethical and philosophical concerns inform even the most seemingly obscure or technical halakhic matters. Questions such as “what is justice” and “what is beauty” are anchored in discussions about particular commandments. As Saiman contends, Jesus failed to understand that the Talmud’s seemingly obsessive legal commands are the prism through which weightier issues are refracted and revealed. Historically this may have been an attempt to infuse deep significance into laws that often seemed, even to the rabbis, arcane and irrelevant, but however it happened, halakha became the language for probing and articulating foundational Jewish questions. Halakhah, then, is not merely a legal code; it is the language of Jewish thought.

Saiman, a law professor at Villanova, frames his book by showing how halakhah is different from American law, or German law, or any other state-based legal system. This approach enables him to discuss halakhah in the terms of Western jurisprudence—concepts such as legal formalism, Aristotle’s idea of corrective justice, and Antonin Scalia’s understanding of the “rule of law.” And yet perhaps the more apt comparison to halakhah is not state law, but other systems of religious law, such as Muslim Sharia and Buddhist Dharma. True, Americans are unlikely to gather together to study the Constitution for their personal enrichment; but do Muslims and Buddhists regard their religious legal codes as objects of study? How unique is halakhah as a system of religious law? These questions obviously fall beyond the purview of Saiman’s book, but they raise questions about the author’s point of comparison.

As Saiman sees it, the ideal of Talmud Torah, in which Jewish law is an object of religious study, is one of two ways in which halakhah differs from state-based legal regimes. The other is that halakhah, which emerged after the destruction of the Second Temple and the collapse of Jewish sovereignty, is the law of a people rather than the law of a state. For nearly all of its history—until the foundation of the State of Israel, whose implications for halakhah Saiman explores in his book’s final chapter—halakhah could not realize its full regulatory scope because Jews were living in the diaspora, governed by the laws of the countries in which they resided. As a result, halakhah often speaks the language of “as if,” detailing regulations about crime and punishment as if the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, still functioned in Jerusalem, and detailing sacrificial law as if the Temple were still standing and operational. In this sense halakhah is timeless, hearkening back to a sovereign past and to a messianic future. Many of the laws that are part of the halakhic system have been irrelevant in terms of practice throughout the history of halakhah, and yet, as Saiman notes, “neither the remoteness nor even impossibility of applying halakhah does anything to dampen the rabbis’ ardor for legislating and debating its rules and procedures.”

Through a series of close readings of Talmudic passages, Saiman shows how the two defining characteristics of halakhah – halakhah as regulatory and educational, and halakhah as the law of a people rather than a state – account for many of its unique and distinguishing features. Discussing the first Mishnah in the Talmud, about the time for the recitation of the evening Shema prayer, he questions the conventional dichotomy between halakhah and aggadah, i.e. the legal and literary parts of the Talmudic text. He show that by framing the laws of the evening Shema in terms of a discussion about cosmology, the Talmud subordinates regulatory clarity to religious phenomenology. Halakhah regulates by educating, thereby functioning as aggadah rather than merely standing in opposition to it. Elsewhere Saiman cites this same Talmudic passage to explore another feature of halakhah—what the Kabbalist Gershom Scholem referred to as halakhah’s “eternal present.” The Talmud teaches that the time for the evening Shema is specified in terms of Temple ritual, thereby conflating past and present and applied and non-applied law.

In offering close readings of Talmudic passages to explore the rabbinic idea of law, Saiman’s Halakhah joins other books that seek to explain the workings of Jewish law to a broader Western audience, including several published in the past few months: Barry Wimpfheimer’s The Talmud: A Biography, Ayelet Hoffmann Libson’s Law and Self-Knowledge in the Talmud, and Leon Wiener-Dow’s The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law. All of these books share, to an extent, Saiman’s avowed goal of “explain[ing] halakhah as experienced from within (or at least the view from within one room of the halakhic castle) to an audience standing outside it.” But although Saiman writes that his book is for outsiders, his perspective on halakhah—as someone who knows it intimately, but reads it as a legal scholar through the lens of legal theory— may well stimulate many students of the halakhic corpus to view it in a new light. He calls our attention to the oddity of much of what traditional students of Jewish law take for granted – that imagined legal realities are interspersed with daily practices, that discussions that appear merely technical are pregnant with philosophical and existential meaning, that the Talmud “reverse engineers” broad halakhic ideas from specific regulations. Saiman masterfully succeeds at once in clarifying the unique discourse of halakhah for those who have never encountered it, while clarifying to those most familiar with halakhah just how unique it is.

Following his exploration of the nature of halakhah and his close Talmudic readings, Saiman shifts in the third and final part of his book to post-Talmudic discourse, examining the literature of halakhic responsa and the medieval codes of law that distilled the Talmud’s freewheeling discourse into standardized legal rulings. In the medieval period, areas of Torah formerly explored through the aggadic sections of the Talmud—liturgy, philosophy, mysticism, ethics—evolved into separate disciplines, and the Talmud became associated with the more regulatory aspects of halakhah. This section of the book serves as an accessible introduction to medieval halakhic literature for the uninitiated, though it is less intellectually engaging for knowledgeable Jewish readers than the section on Talmudic readings (or perhaps I’m just revealing my dead cat biases here).

Saiman then concludes, as does Wimpfheimer in his “biography” of the Talmud, by considering the resurgence of interest in Talmud among contemporary Jews of diverse backgrounds, for whom Talmud study is becoming an increasingly popular path toward building a positive Jewish identity. He observes that “these developments have not only reinforced the imprint of halakhah in its traditional strongholds, but have pressed the Talmud into conversation with Western philosophy and literature, academic scholarship, and the arts—sources previously excluded from the beit midrash.” In this sense, as Saiman might have noted, halakhah has come full circle—from the embedded nature of halakhah and aggadah in the Talmud, to the emphasis on rule-based formalisms in the medieval codes, to the explosion of creative and artistic responses to the Talmud in the twenty-first century.

As someone who engages creatively with the Talmud, I have moved beyond the analogy of Schroedinger’s cat to another scientific metaphor: Halakhah as DNA. DNA is the language of life. Parts of the sequence of nucleotides in DNA code for proteins, and other parts—known in molecular biology as “junk DNA”—serve no coding function. Likewise, part of halakhah codes for aspects of Jewish religious observance, and other parts consist of ethical and theological discourse, non-applied halakhah, minority opinions which are not followed, and laws which are interpreted out of existence. Just as “junk DNA” is not really junk, but serves to increase the possibilities for recombination, so too the non-coding aspects of halakhah serve to allow for increasingly creative readings and re-interpretations of halakhic discourse. I am still drawn to the non-coding aspects, certainly when it comes to the Talmud. But I’ve come to appreciate that halacha is the two-thousand year old language of Jewish life, and, like Hebrew, one’s Jewish education will always be limited until one becomes conversant in it.

Read more: https://forward.com/life/faith/409331/why-are-jews-so-obsessed-with-the-study-of-halacha-religious-law/

The Morning After

I wonder how much my children understood about last night’s book prize. When Daniel first told them that my book had won in a contest, Matan immediately asked, “Will she get a medal? Can I keep her medal?” Earlier in the year I’d run in the Jerusalem marathon and received a medal, and this was his association with winning. At the time I had tried to explain to him that I had in fact run only the half marathon, not the full, and that everyone who participated in the race got a medal – I was no more a winner than any of the tens of thousands of other runners, as I tried to explain to Matan. But he was just excited about the shiny medallion with the blue and white ribbon, which he wore around his neck for several days and which now hangs above his bed. Naturally he now assumed that if my book had won a prize, then perhaps he’d receive another medal to add to his collection.

The morning of the prize, the kids climbed into my bed and begged me to read them the next chapter of the “Kind Family” books. We were up to the chapter in which the family travels to Coney Island in a streetcar on a hot summer day, and Henny gets lost in the crowds. At some point in the middle of the story, my excitement and nervousness got the better of me, and I reminded the kids that I would be receiving my prize that night. “Read, read,” they urged me – they knew that when the clock turned seven, they’d have to get dressed for camp, and they wanted me to finish the story first.

In the afternoon, Daniel picked them up at camp and brought them to the cocktail hour preceding the ceremony, on a patio overlooking the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. My son was dressed in a button-down shirt that he’d clearly buttoned himself – I fixed it for him as soon as he walked in—and my girls were all in their fancy Shabbat dresses with hot pink and bright purple socks beneath their sandals; it is always clear which parts of their outfits they insist on selecting themselves. When they came running to me, I felt my cup running over – as if all of this good fortune could not possibly be my lot. Once again I found myself trembling and overwhelmed. I knew that grace far outstripped merit; God had shone his countenance upon me, and I could only pray that the radiance would extend to so many others in the room as well – my girlfriends who were still painfully single, my divorced friend whose children were struggling and who was so eager to remarry, my former teacher who was now out of a job. I knew there was so much pain and sadness and longing in that gathering of those who had come to celebrate my achievement, and in spite of myself I winced.

But as I watched my four beautiful children run toward me, my prayers were for myself as well: “May these moments of joy and awe gird me so that I am strong enough to retain my dignity and stand tall on the overcast days, when the dark thunderstorms block out the sun. May I have the faith to remember always that the sun is still there behind the clouds, even if there comes a time when I may never see it emerge again. May I always remember the thrill of this moment, even in greatest pain.” This was a prize ceremony, not a wedding; but I understood more profoundly than I ever had why a groom breaks a glass under the wedding canopy.

My son was the first to reach me, and then the girls clung to my legs too. I’d been in the middle of a photo shoot, and I was standing next to a large poster featuring my book jacket. My son does not yet know how to read in English, but he recognized the image. “This is Ima’s book. And I am in it.” He pointed to the small print of the subtitle. “Is this my name?” I remembered a day when he was home sick and the proofs for the book were due. He had sat at my side as I read through several chapters aloud – I’d charged him with the very important job of pressing the “page down” button every few minutes. I reminded him of that day. I told him that he’d helped me write the book, and I could not have done it without him. He beamed.

The kids did not stay for long. We let them drink Sprite, a rare treat, even though it meant they would have to brush their teeth again when they got home. I promised that since the dessert would be very late, we would bring them home chocolate which they could eat when they woke up. The kids, of course, did not forget. When they woke up in the morning, they ran straight to the kitchen to search for their chocolate. They were dazzled by the waffles dipped in rainbow-colored sprinkles. “Get dressed, and then we can have our treat for breakfast,” I told them. I knew it would be fun to watch the chocolate drip down their chins, to witness their smiles of glee at the rare opportunity to eat sweets in the morning. But the real delight, for me, was when they asked me to read them the next chapter in the Kind Family books before they left for camp, and we curled up on the couch together. These are the moments of smaller joy that I can bear. This is the happiness that does not make me wince and tremble. I doubt that my kids will remember that they came to my prize ceremony, but if they remember our reading together, that will be prize enough.

Sami Rohr Prize — acceptance speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lamentations for the Jerusalem Pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My Lucky Break

The day I heard that I’d won a big literary prize, I was struggling to break in to the Yeshiva where I teach. I shouldn’t have had to break in. I have a key. I teach there every week. But somehow my key got misplaced, and no one was in the office,  and so there I was, trying to pick the lock while frantically texting my colleagues to see if anyone was in the area, with the envelope I’d been carrying now clenched between my teeth so that I could have both my hands free. At least in theory.

I needed to break into the Yeshiva for reasons that were highly unliterary and undignified, and part of me was relieved that none of my colleagues were around to witness the sorry state I was in. A week earlier I had broken my toe while running down the hallway of our apartment to pick up my crying toddler in the middle of Shabbat dinner; my feet were unshod, and my toe broke when I inadvertently crashed into one of the chairs my kids had been using to make a “choo-choo train.” I knew right away that it was broken, since I’d fractured that very same bone tripping over a Fisher Price garage two summers ago on Tisha b’Av while rushing out to hear Eicha – that Tisha b’av was filled with more lamentation than I’d expected. I knew what the pain felt like, and I knew there was nothing to be done except to stay off it – a tall order for a runner, not to mention for a mother who walks her kids everywhere.

I couldn’t really stay off the toe, and so it continued to swell. At night I complained to my husband, who told me (rightly so!) to either take care of myself or get over it. But Daniel felt sorry for me, and three days later, on my fortieth birthday, he took me shopping for a bicycle. We figured that since lying in bed was completely unrealistic, the best way to stay off my toe was to start cycling instead of walking. And indeed, for a few days, it was glorious. I was like the guy who has a midlife crisis and buys himself a sports car to feel young again — I cycled all over town, cruising down the hills like Deborah Levy on her e-bike (I recently finished and loved her memoir, The Cost of Living), and hoisting myself up the hills with my own petard. (I don’t really understand that phrase. But when I saw how my body made the wheels turn, I began referring to the bike as my petard. Later I learned that a petard is actually a dangerous explosive device. If only I’d been more cautious.)

Just a few days later, I was on my way to the library when I flew off my bike and landed in the street. “How did it happen?” Daniel later asked me, and I really had no idea. One moment I was cycling around a bend in the road, and the next moment I was supporting my entire body weight with the bend of my elbow. Fortunately the bike wasn’t damaged, and so I brushed off my knees, straightened my arm as best I could, and hopped back on the bike.

I sat in the library for the rest of the morning proofreading the book I’d just finished translating. It hurt to type, but I tried to ignore the pain. A few hours later, I reached into my backpack to pull out the Tupperware container with my lunch. (Yes, I eat in libraries. Yes, it’s against the rules. It’s been part of my Al Chet tefillah for two decades.) I felt a sharp pain in my arm. I realized I couldn’t bend it all the way to my shoulder, nor could I properly extend it. This wasn’t looking good. I took out my phone and texted Daniel: “Can you pick up the kids today? I think I need an x-ray.”

I sat in the health clinic for three hours waiting to see an orthopedist who could refer me for an x-ray. While I was waiting, I couldn’t stop thinking about a midrash on this week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha, which tells of the spies sent to scout out the land of Israel. When ten of the spies came back with a negative report, “the whole community broke out into loud cries, and the people wept that night” (Bemidbar 14:1). The Talmud in Taanit (29a) relates that Rabbah said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that this happened on the night of Tisha b’Av – it was one of the five calamities for which we fast. Rabbi Yohanan goes on to relate that God heard the Israelites’ weeping and responded to them sternly, “You are crying for nothing! I’m going to give you a real reason to cry, for generations to come!” And so Tisha b’Av became the day that both temples were destroyed, and the Bar Kochva revolt was suppressed, and Turnus Rufus plowed Jerusalem. (Often when the rabbis of the Talmud refer to Turnus Rufus, they follow his name with a curse that literally means, “may his bones be crushed.” I wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone.)

The x-ray confirmed that my elbow was fractured and I needed a cast, but first I wanted a second opinion from an orthopedist friend I trust. I had a disk with my x-rays, but I don’t own a computer with a disk drive – and so I went back to the Yeshiva in the hope that the secretary might let me upload the CD on her computer. On my way there I received the news of the book prize. “The prize committee wants to invest in you as a writer – we look forward to your next book!” I looked down at my swollen purple elbow. Would I ever write again?

The building was locked. I stood there forlorn, locked out of the Yeshiva, and immediately thought of Hillel. Hillel, too, was locked out of the Yeshiva – not because he had misplaced his key, but because he didn’t have enough money to pay the entrance fee and so the guard refused to let him in. That day was a terrible snowstorm—the Talmud tells us that it was during the winter month of Tevet—and Hillel climbed up on the roof and listened to words of Torah through the skylight, where he nearly froze to death. He was saved the next morning by the rabbis teaching in the yeshiva, Shamaya and Avtalyon, who noticed that the light was not coming in through the skylight and went up to the roof to see what was amiss. “It is worth desecrating Shabbat for a man like this,” they said as they removed the snow, bathed him, and sat him down by the fire.

That story appears on Yoma 35 – I first encountered it in on December 13, 2013, at the start of my second daf yomi cycle. It was the tenth of Tevet—another fast day on the Jewish calendar—and we were all holed up at home due to a record-breaking snowstorm that made international headlines. At one point I left the house to throw away a bag of smelly diapers, and I slipped on the icy driveway and broke my arm. Fortunately I was too excited by the coincidence of the snowstorm and the story of Hillel on the roof to be distressed about my injury, at least initially. Over time, I have come to associate that story with broken bones — I dreamed about Hillel falling off the roof and Shmaya and Avtalyon rushing outside when they heard the thud. As I stood outside of the Yeshiva clutching the envelope with my x-ray disk, it felt all too apt.

It didn’t seem like I’d be able to get into the building. On the one hand, I wanted to feel sorry for myself; like the midrash, I felt like I’d cried for naught and now I was being saddled with a real reason for tears. But on the other hand—the good hand that I had not broken—I had just learned that I’d won a major literary prize. How sorry could I really feel for myself?

On the other hand—because a mother of twins always needs a third hand—I was also somewhat panicked. Yes, the prize was a great honor and could theoretically allow me so much more time to write. But even if my arm healed and I were able to write again, what was I going to write about? The judges had made it clear that this was a prize to further my continued contributions to Jewish literature. Um, what contributions? I spent most of my days translating, teaching, and taking care of my kids. I never feel like a writer unless I’m writing, and I wasn’t writing anything of late. Now I was being given a very generous monetary prize to write – I felt like I had no excuse.

The story of Hillel comes up in tractate Yoma in the context of a Talmudic conversation about unsatisfactory excuses for neglecting to study Torah. If a person comes before the heavenly court at the end of his life and claims that he was too poor to allow for time to study, he will be told, “Could you possibly have been poorer than Hillel?” This is followed by the story of Hillel, who could not even find two coins to pay the guard at the entrance to the beit midrash. Being rich is also no excuse – such an individual will be asked, “Could you possibly have been richer than Rabbi Elazar ben Harsom,” who inherited a thousand villages and a thousand ships from his father, yet spent his life wandering from yeshiva to yeshiva with only a sac of flour on his back. For a long time I had said that I couldn’t write another book because “I’m not a writer, and anyway, I much prefer translating to writing.” Now it seems I had no excuse. Was that why I’d broken my bones? And was that why I was frustrated that I wasn’t managing to break in to the Yeshiva?

Ultimately I succeeded in uploading my x-rays in the office of the literary agency where I work. These days I spend most of my life walking—alas, no longer biking—from the literary agency to the yeshiva to my kids’ schools, and as I often lament, there’s never enough time to sit in front of the computer and write. But I’ve learned that crying in vain is never a good idea, and besides, thanks to Hillel and Rabbi Elazar ben Harsom, I really have no excuse. So tonight I’m taking my laptop up to the roof to write. It’s the middle of summer, so I don’t expect any snow. But maybe something will descend from the heavens nonetheless.

International Women’s Talmud Day

When I first started studying Talmud regularly, I attended an otherwise all-male class taught by a rabbi in a local synagogue in Jerusalem. I sat in the back corner of the room, but the walls of the classroom were transparent and I was conscious that everyone walking in or out of the main building of the synagogue could see me sitting there, as if I were one of the guys. Though the other men in the class often engaged the rabbi in conversation, asking questions about the Talmudic page he was teaching or raising objections, I never opened my mouth. The only women’s voices heard in that class emerged from the Talmudic page itself, and they were hardly sympathetic: A woman who screams hysterically that a prominent religious leader has stolen her Sukkah; a Roman matron who tries to seduce a righteous but tempted rabbi; a rabbi’s wife who kicks one of her husband’s students to rebuke him for whispering in the study hall instead of reading the text aloud. But these voices were few and far between, because the Talmudic conversation was primarily dominated by male rabbis debating the finer points of Jewish law: Can a Jew store wine in a vessel previously used by non-Jews? How far is it permissible to walk on Shabbat? Who could bring the Paschal sacrifice to the Temple, and who could not?

Though I remained silent in class, I found my own way to add my voice to these conversations. Hunched over my volume of Talmud in the back corner of the classroom, I scribbled fast and furiously in the margins. When I didn’t understand something the rabbi said, I merely copied it down verbatim so that I would be able to think about it later, on my own time. When something amused or surprised me in the text—a rabbi who was nicknamed “Toothy,” or rabbi’s sons and daughters who race each other to the Temple altar (the girls win!)—I jotted down exclamation points in the margins and underlined phrases I wanted to remember. Later, at home in the evenings, I would review my marginal notes and write limericks and sonnets about those Talmudic passages I’d particularly enjoyed, in the hope of committing them to memory. I did not share my poems with the men in the class, but they saw me scribbling, and they used to tease me that I should not take notes in pencil. “Looked what came of Rashi’s marginal notes,” they said to me. “Maybe someday someone will want to publish yours. You should write in pen so it doesn’t fade!”

In the end I published my notes, or some version of those notes, in my memoir If All the Seas Were Ink. My memoir recounts my life journey over the seven-and-a-half year period of daf yomi, an international program to study one page of Talmud a day. Since the book was published in September, I have lectured widely about my experience of Talmud study and I have been flooded by emails from daf yomi learners worldwide. Many of them are women, and I am beginning to appreciate just how many women have begun studying Talmud, adding their voices to the Talmudic conversation and finding their own creative ways to engage with the text. Now, on my second cycle of daf yomi, I no longer feel like I’m part of an all-boys’ club, and my own study has been enriched by the insights and contributions of all those women, worldwide, who are on the same page.

On my previous cycle of daf yomi, if I could not attend the daf yomi class, I would listen to a podcast taught by a rabbi from Yeshiva University who spoke in heavily Yiddish-accented English. He referred to people as “men” and frequently relied on euphemisms to gloss over the Talmud’s more colorful passages: “If a man goes off and has marital relations with a prostitute…” I knew that marital relations was his term for sex, but in this context I could only laugh. At the time, I did not know of any women who taught daf yomi, though I subsequently learned there was a morning class at Matan, a local women’s yeshiva; I wish I’d known of it then. As I studied each page, I followed along in the commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, which I enjoyed because it brought the historical world of the Talmudic sages to life – Rav Steinsaltz’s marginal notes included biographical information about the various rabbis and glosses on the material culture of the rabbinic world. All of these teachers illuminated the Talmudic text for me, and I’m not even sure that I was conscious of the fact that all my teachers were men.

Now, halfway into my second cycle of daf yomi, I am learning from an array of women scholars. Every morning I listen to a podcast by Michelle Farber (dafyomi4women.com), who teaches a daf yomi class to women in Raanana, Israel. Farber’s knowledge of Talmud is vast and encyclopedic, and she approaches the text with a deep literary sensitivity. When she illustrates scenarios from the Talmud, she invokes the names of the women in the class: “If Shoshana’s ox falls into Dana’s pit…” In the margins of the Talmud, Rashi illustrates Talmudic scenarios similarly, except that he invokes the names of Jacob’s sons: “If Reuven’s ox falls into Shiimon’s pit…” It is refreshing to imagine women as actors in the Talmudic drama, as well as to hear the women in the class occasionally chiming in with questions and comments. To supplement by daf yomi learning, I have often referenced the Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, which is planned as the first systematic and comprehensive feminist analysis of the entire Babylonian Talmud. The series—still a work in progress—is the brainchild of Israeli-born historian and Talmudist Tal Ilan, and the various volumes are authored by distinguished professors of Talmud worldwide, all of them women. When in search of lighter reading, I’ve enjoyed various historical novels featuring Talmudic heroines by Maggie Anton (in English) and Ruhama Weiss (in Hebrew), as well as the creative fictional reimagining of rabbinic stories by Ruth Calderon. And when I have just a few moments, I glance at the remarkable website of Jacqueline Nicholls (www.drawyomi.blogspot.co.il), who creates a drawing to illustrate some aspect of each page of Talmud she studies.

I feel fortunate that my Talmud study has been deepened by so many of these voices, and that I am part of a global community of learners that includes men and women alike. The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot that there are three crowns: The crown of kingship, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah. Maimonides, drawing on a source from the Talmud in Kidushin, comments that the crown of kingship belongs to the kings and the crown of priesthood belongs to the priests, but the crown of Torah is available to everyone: “The crown of Torah lies there, and anyone who wishes may come and take it.” The texts of our tradition are the crown jewels of the Jewish people, and they are accessible to men and women alike. May we merit to adorn ourselves with Torah, and may the Torah we study enrich our lives.

(published in The Forward:




Preparing for Pesach

Around this time of year, it often feels like everyone I meet can be divided into two categories: Those who are making Pesach, and those who aren’t. Wherever I go the first question I am asked—the first question everyone in my neighborhood of Jerusalem seems to be asking—is “what are you doing for Pesach?” I respond somewhat sheepishly. “We’re going to my sister-in-law’s this year, as we do every year. I confess I’ve never made Pesach before.” My interlocutor will either share in my sense of relief, or else look at my jealously and say, “You’re so lucky. I’m going crazy. I have sixteen guests coming for the Seder, and my parents are staying with us for ten days…” This is followed by a detailed account of just how much of the house has already been cleaned, and what still remains, and how it all is going to have to get done, somehow. I listen patiently. I feel it’s the least I can do. After all, I’m not the one shopping and cooking and scrubbing for days on end. And yet this year, on this holiday when so much of the preparation falls to others, I am trying to figure out how I, too, can find my own way to prepare for Passover and make it my own.

The Haggadah records a famous Talmudic debate between two third-century Babylonian sages about how to interpret the Mishnah’s rule that in telling the story of the exodus, one must “begin with shame, and end with praise.” According to Shmuel, this means recalling that “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord God brought us out,” otherwise known as Avadim Hayinu. According to Rav, it means saying that “originally our ancestors worshipped idols, but god brought us close to them.” That is, for Shmuel the shame is our physical enslavement, and the miracle of Passover is our physical redemption. For Rav, the shame is our idolatrous past, and the miracle is our spiritual redemption in becoming God’s people. This debate between Rav and Shmuel reminds me that there have always been multiple ways of relating to Passover. There is the physical narrative—the narrative of those who are scrubbing out their cupboards and buying multiple sacks of potatoes and cooking pots of chicken soup—and then there is the spiritual narrative, which involves thinking through the themes of the holiday and coming to terms with what it means to be free to serve God.

On some level we would all do best to prepare spiritually for Pesach—to read the new haggadot published that year, to study the midrashim about the exodus from Egypt, to review the laws of how to prepare the home, regardless of whether we are the ones engaged in the preparations. But the weeks before Pesach are far more hectic for those who will be hosting, and so it’s understandable that some of us are more focused on the physical plane, that is, on the level of Shmuel’s narrative. The rest of us, who are fortunate that someone else is making our lives easier, can focus instead on our spiritual preparation, on the level of Rav’s narrative, in the hope that we can enrich the Seder that others are making with our insights. And so I try, each year that I am not making Passover, to read through a new commentary on the Haggadah, to listen to a few shiurim online, to think of creative new ways to share the Passover story with my children.

The haggadah does not privilege Rav or Shmuel’s narratives, but includes elements of both: We eat bitter herbs to remember how the Egyptians embittered our lives and recline to celebrate our freedom from servitude, but we also sing psalms of praise to God and open the door for Elijah the prophet who will herald our spiritual redemption. Passover is about both, and many of us need both the physical and the spiritual dimensions: My father, the bulk of whose preparations involve reading every Haggadah published since the previous Passover, would not feel it was Passover if he didn’t slice the horseradish. For others, the physical and spiritual elements are not so easy to disentangle: There is a spiritual dimension to preparing to open our home to others, and the hard physical labor feels deeply fulfilling.

And then there is the difference that stage of life can make. I am reminded of times in my life when time-bound commandments seemed impossible to fulfill—when I was home with newborns, or chasing after three kids still in diapers. A deep immersion in physicality—breastmilk, diaper rashes, heavy eyelids after sleepless nights—prevented me from having the kind of open dialogue with God through prayer and study to which I had grown accustomed in my single years. But my kids are getting older—at least just a bit older—and I find myself able to think more abstractly again, and to shift some of my focus from the physical to the spiritual planes. I have come to appreciate that the question of which level of experience is in the foreground will shift over time, and is meant to shift over time, and that is all right. Though we may alternate between the narrative of Rav and the narrative of Shmuel, we hope that the stories we tell will move us toward a place where we can praise God and appreciate life’s blessings, whatever form they may take.