When the Language of Love is an Ancient Text

It seems like everyone is forever extolling the value of a weekly “date night” for married couples, but my husband and I never quite manage to make it work. Our three preschoolers can’t fall asleep without us, and the baby still wakes up in the middle of the night crying for her mother’s milk. Neither of us has jobs that we can set aside in the evenings: Daniel teaches literature at a university and I am a translator and editor, so there are always more pages to read and papers to grade. Most nights we sit at the long desk we share, occasionally reading excerpts aloud to one another or chuckling over a particularly awkward turn of phrase. We usually send emails rather than interrupting each other’s thoughts, which may seem strange since we are just a few feet apart. But it’s not all that surprising given how bound up in the written word our relationship has always been.

At the outset ours was an epistolary romance, though we lived in the same Jerusalem neighborhood. We were both expatriates, born and raised on opposite sides of the Hudson, but we’d met each other only after each of us had traveled halfway around the world. In spite of our proximity, we communicated almost exclusively by e-mail because I was painfully protective of my privacy and didn’t want anyone we knew to see us together until our relationship was on more solid ground. Daniel would e-mail me selections from the poems he was analyzing in his PhD dissertation, and I’d write back analyzing his analyses until we had taken each poem thoroughly apart. Only when he grew so bold as to send me Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty,” did I refrain from comment, afraid of being too explicit about what was in fact unfolding between us – “the smiles that win, the tents that glow.”

Throughout our relationship I was generally the reserved one – the one who read over her emails again and again before pressing Send. This was the case even though few of the words I’d write him were my own. We communicated mainly by quoting poetry to one another. “What are you doing this evening?” Daniel would ask me. I did not write back that I was getting a haircut. Instead I sent him back a line from Yeats: “To be born a woman is to know, although they do not talk of it at school, that we must labor to be beautiful.” My allusion to “Adam’s Curse” didn’t elude him, and minutes later I got an email back from him paraphrasing that same poem: “I’ll be reworking my conference paper while you’re primping. Ugh. All this stitching and unstitching is probably for naught.” And I smiled to myself, and wrote back, “You’re probably right. Better to just go down upon your marrow-bones and scrub your kitchen floor instead.” I knew his floor was impeccably clean—he took much better care of his apartment than I did of mine—but I couldn’t resist another reference to the poem. And so we would go on and on, quoting from beautiful old books, until we grew quiet in the name of love.

Soon the range of our references expanded from poetry to Talmud. By the time I met Daniel, I’d already been studying Talmud for several years, and I was in the third year of my daf yomi cycle. Daf yomi is an international program to study the entire Babylonian Talmud—the main text of rabbinic Judaism—in seven and a half years, at the rate of a page a day. Essentially daf yomi is the world’s largest book club, with tens of thousands of Jews—still mostly men—learning the same new page each day. Only recently have women begun to engage with these texts, which for fifteen hundred years were the province of the male half of the population. Through my study of daf yomi, I became intimately familiar with the world of the ancient rabbis living in the Galilee and Babylonia (now Iraq) during the first few centuries of the Common Era. The Talmud is an inherently dialogical text, unfolding as a series of conversations among the rabbis about everything from Sabbath observance to sacrifices to courtship, astrology, and demonology. As I made my way through it, I found myself caught up in the rabbinic conversation, and as Daniel and I grew closer, he became part of that conversation too.

One night Daniel asked me if I wanted to go out with him to the light show, a summer festival in which the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem are lit up as if by magic lantern. I shook my head.

“Why can’t we ever go out? I mean, really go out?” Daniel asked. “You can’t always be such a recluse.”

“I’m not a recluse,” I responded. “I just believe in hezek re’iya.” This term, which comes up in Bava Batra—the volume of Talmud we were learning at the time—literally means “the damage of seeing.” According to this notion, gazing into another person’s private space is tantamount to physical damage. I believed it. I thought of our relationship as a fragile butterfly that I wished to keep cupped in my hands. I worried that the harsh light of other people’s gazes might damage or still its dazzling wings, and I was terrified of suddenly being deprived of all the beauty that had blessedly flown into my life.

The Jerusalem we inhabit is less a city than a small village of overlapping social circles. I was not ready for all our friends to find out that we were dating. I’d been married and divorced a few years earlier, and after the devastation of that failed relationship, I could not bear to fail publicly again. I suspect the Talmudic rabbis would have understood. In a discussion about the importance of storing one’s money in a safe and secure place, Rabbi Yitzhak comments in Bava Batra, “Blessing is only to be found in that which is hidden from the eye.”

Our courtship lasted eight months, a period I remember most by the Talmud we were studying. Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufock, who measured out his life in coffee spoons, I have measured out the last decade of my life in tractates, as volumes of Talmud are known. I remember episodes in my life by what I was studying at the time. Daniel proposed to me—not incidentally—on the day we read the rabbis’ discussion in the eighth chapter of Bava Batra about the fifteenth of Av, a day on the Jewish calendar when women would dress in white and go out into the fields to seek their prospective husbands. Our wedding did not take place in a field, but I carried that image with me.

It would have been impossible, given the norms of our Jewish community, not to have had a wedding ceremony for all our friends and family. But such a public avowal of our love seemed antithetical to my Dickensonian sensibilities, and I would have been much happier to elope and spend a few years making sure it was really going to work out.

Daniel was exceedingly tolerant of my pre-wedding jitters, even when I pulled him aside just moments before the ceremony began. By that point the band was already playing, and I could hear the violins humming the strains of a lyrical song about two lovers who head out at dusk to an orchard redolent of myrrh and incense. It was a song I had chosen myself, but now I was too panicked to enjoy it.  “How can you know our marriage will last?” I asked Daniel. “How can you know what the future holds?”

“Granted I’m no prophet,” Daniel conceded, and already I could see the gleam in his eye – he had thought of an allusive rejoinder. “But you’re a scholar of Talmud, and a scholar is preferable to a prophet,” he quoted from Bava Batra. He knew that if anything would reassure me, it was a passage from the Talmud.

“Perhaps you’ll tire of me,” I pressed on, invoking a William Matthews poem we both loved. Daniel smiled at the reference and played along, assuring me that I was like a great city to him, or like a park that finds new ways to wear each flounce of light. “Soil doesn’t tire of rain,” he quoted back at me just moments before he walked down the aisle. He had the last word, and I could only follow him with my eyes until it came time for me, too, to make my way to the wedding canopy.

That was exactly seven and a half years ago. Daniel and I just celebrated our daf yomi anniversary: Now, on our second read through the Talmud, we just came to the daily page from the date of our wedding. We’ve been through a lot together – four children, 2700 pages of Talmud, and perhaps just as many poems. With a house full of preschoolers, we’re both exceedingly tired, though we haven’t tired of each other.  We don’t quote poetry and Talmud to each other nearly as often these days, but it remains the language in which we express our love. Ironically, I have no problem being seen with Daniel in public nowadays, but who has time to go out? Fortunately neither of us seems to mind. Our desk is covered in books, and there are many more pages to turn together.

(published in Tablet Magazine, 29 November 2017)

Messianic Ice Cream (Sanhedrin 98a)

Every day on our way home from Gan my kids and I pass a kiosk that sells ice cream. Outside there is a wrought-iron gate where an old man whose arm is always covered in bandages sits in front on a low stool, smiling at passersby and waiting for customers. “Can we get ice cream today?” my kids ask me every day. “On Friday,” I always promise. “If you behave nicely all week, we can have ice cream on Friday.” I want them to learn to delay gratification, and I want them to emulate Shammai, who, we are told, would save anything special he found during the week to enjoy on Shabbat. It’s not easy for the kids because they want ice cream now, but we do stop every Friday — or at least we did until very recently.

Last Friday, for the first time, I refused to get them the treat they’d been anticipating all week. I was at my wits’ end. My son and daughter were fighting over a scooter the entire way home, and my toddler refused to sit in her stroller or hold my hand when we crossed the busy street, and my other daughter screamed, “I want ice cream now” from the moment I picked her up at Gan, even though I asked her repeatedly to lower her voice and say “please.” I was annoyed at their behavior and in no mood to indulge them. And so when we passed by the kiosk, I held my ground and insisted that we walk on.

Later that afternoon, long after the inevitable tantrums had subsided and I was setting up the candles for Shabbat, my daughter Liav came over to me, prepared to have a rational conversation. “But Ima, you promised us ice cream. That’s not fair. You can’t promise and then change your mind.”

She was right, but not exactly. I told her the story I’d learned in daf yomi this week about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who once stumbled upon Elijah at the entrance to a cave. “When is the Messiah coming,” Ben Levi asked, seizing the opportunity to ask the question that was always on everyone’s mind. Elijah shrugged. “Why don’t you go ask him that yourself?” he suggested. “Where can I find him?” Ben Levi asked. “At the gates of Rome.”

Ben Levi was surprised; Rome was just a few days’ journey away. “How will I recognize him when I get there?” he asked, already packing up for the trip. Elijah explained that the Messiah would be sitting among the afflicted, all of whom would be wrapping and unwrapping their bandages; only the Messiah would take off one bandage at a time, conscious that at any moment it might be time for him to come.

Ben Levi set off for the gates of Rome, where sure enough he found the Messiah dressing his wounds one at a time. “Greetings Ben Levi,” the Messiah said to him. “When are you coming?” asked Ben Levi, getting right to the point. ‘Now,” said the Messiah. Ben Levi could hardly contain his excitement. He rushed back to share the good news with Elijah, heralding the herald. By the time he arrived back at the cave, several days had elapsed, and alas, the Messiah had not come. “He lied to me,” Ben Levi complained to Elijah. “He promised he would come today, but he didn’t come.” Elijah smiled down at Ben Levi like patient father prepared to explain it all again, more slowly this time. “Ah,” Elijah sighed. “You didn’t listen. He said ‘Today if you heed Him.’”

This statement, “today if you heed Him” is a quote from Psalms (95:7):

“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if you heed Him.”

I explained to Liav that just as the Messiah would come today only if the people listened to God, so too would the kids have gotten ice cream today only if they’d listened to me.  Instead, though, my kids had tried my patience, not unlike the Israelites in the wilderness, as we read in the very next verse of that psalm:

“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested Me. They tried Me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known My ways.’ So I declared an oath in My anger, ‘They shall never enter My rest.’”

Yes, I would buy the kids ice cream today. But only if they listened and behaved. If they spent our long walk home from Gan fighting with each other and trying my patience, then I would make an oath in my anger to deny them the treat they so fervently desired. “They shall never eat my ice cream.”

We would be reciting those verses later that evening – they are part of the liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat. Each week we remind ourselves, as Ben Levi reminded Elijah, that the Messianic era of chocolate and vanilla bliss will dawn “today,” but only if we heed God’s voice. Until then, the man at the kiosk will continue to smile and beckon, but we will merely walk on.

The Divine Helicopter

I am a much better parent in public. When I am home alone with my children, I am quick to anger and slow to forgive. When my son spills his water for the second time during dinner, I grow exasperated and yell at him instead of helping him find a better place for his cup; when my daughters refuses to get in the bath, I holler that they’re not going to get dessert tomorrow, instead of encouraging the imaginative game in which they’re absorbed. But when we’re in the playground, playing around other children and their parents, I rarely seem to need my outside voice. When the kids spray water from the fountain on each other or refuse to take turns on the slide, I merely exchange eye-rolling glances with other parents and let the kids work it out. Somehow the knowledge that I am being watched enables me to hold myself in check, to restrain my frustration and anger, and to judge my kids favorably.

Of course, Jewish tradition teaches that we are always being watched. The Talmud (Brachot 28a) relates a story about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who fell ill and was visited by his disciples. When he saw them, he began to weep. His disciples asked him why he was weeping, and he responded that he did not know whether he was being led to heaven or hell. His students, realizing that he was close to death, asked him for a blessing. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai responded, “May it be God’s will that your fear of Heaven be like your fear of mortals.” His disciples were taken aback. “Is that all?” they asked him. He responded, “If only it were so! Know that when a person transgresses, he says, ‘May no man see me.’”

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai knew that it is often much easier to act properly in public. When others are watching us, we are less likely to commit offenses – not just violations that would get us in trouble, like jaywalking or shoplifting, but ways of acting and speaking that we’d be embarrassed for others to witness. “I hope no one else can see me now,” I sometimes think when I criticize my son for making a silly mistake in his homework, even though I know I should be patient and encouraging of his efforts. There are times when I’m herding my kids home from their after-school activities and I don’t even want my husband to see me, because I know I’m too tired and too irritable to treat my children the way they deserve to be treated. “I hope no one can see me,” I say, as I pile four kids into a stroller that is made for one because I simply have no patience to continue prodding them all to walk faster.

Rabbi Yochanan’s blessing to his sons has become part of the daily liturgy, and it is one of the first texts recited every morning—as if we all need to start our days with the reminder that we are, at all times, being watched. “Anyone who commits a sin in secret – it is as if he or she is bumping against the legs of the divine presence,” the Talmud teaches elsewhere (Hagigah 16a), quoting a line from Isaiah: “The heavens are my seat, and the earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). I imagine God sitting on a divine throne up in heaven with legs dangling down to earth. Any time we sin when we are alone, we are in fact bumping up against God’s feet. While it is all too easy to sin when alone, it is in fact when we are by ourselves with no one else around that we have the greatest potential for intimacy with God.

The Israeli poet Natan Zach writes about sitting by the side of the road people-watching. The poet asks, “Is this how God looks at us / without us sensing anything, without us understanding / without us asking?” Like a parent watching from the sidelines at the playground, God watches us all the time, aware of how we speak to our children both when we are in public and when we are home alone, exhausted after a long day and willing to do or say anything just to get the kids in bed. God is watching, yet we are oblivious.

There has been much talk of late of helicopter parenting. But I find it more instructive to think not of parents who hover, but of those who hover over us as parents. It’s hard to imagine the legs of the divine presence dangling down into my living room, and in any case I don’t think the quality of one’s parenting should be contingent upon faith in God. But I do find it helpful to imagine that my friend or neighbor has stopped by and is sitting beside me as I feed my kids dinner or read them bedtime stories. “Goodnight moon,” I read, thinking all the while of the little old lady who sits there watching. Just when I’m about to lose my temper, she rocks back and forth and whispers hush.

The Fable of the Goat (Bava Kama 79b)

My 18-month-old daughter has been home sick all week, screaming and writhing in pain. She refuses all food, her gums bleed whenever I touch them, and she has cold sores on her tongue. When I took her to the doctor on Sunday morning, he diagnosed her with a virus and told me there was nothing to be done. “You really just have to wait it out. She should be better in 7-10 days.” My jaw dropped. Seven to ten days of enduring this agony? “Is there really nothing I can do?” I asked him desperately. “Well,” he told me, “There is one proven remedy – you can put fresh goats’ milk on her tongue. That works like a charm.” I looked at him like he was crazy. “Goats milk? Can I get that at the supermarket?” “You can,” said the doctor, “But what you really want is the unpasteurized kind, and that you can get only from a farm. It’s best if they milk the goat for you, and then she drinks it right away.” I couldn’t believe that squeezing the udders of a goat was the only hope for my daughter, and so I tried the pharmacy, where I was told the same thing. “Take her to a goat farm, and get her some fresh milk.” On the one hand, my heart was sinking – was there no other way to help my child? On the other hand, my mind was racing – now I was finally beginning to understand a Tamudic story that has long baffled me.

The story appears in the context of a Mishnah (Bava Kama 79b) about the prohibition on raising “small animals” in the land of Israel, namely goats and sheep, since these animals are prone to pasture everywhere and thus destroy the surrounding vegetation. However, as the Talmud goes on to explain, it is permissible to raise “large animals,” even though these are also bad for the land, because they are too unwieldy to import, and “we do not impose a decree on the public that the public cannot uphold.” (The same Mishnah forbids keeping a dog unless it is on a leash – this prohibition is clearly one the public could not uphold, judging from the pets in our neighborhood.)

Following this legal discussion, the Talmud quotes a Brayta from the Tosefta (T. Bava Kama 8:13) about the pious sage Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, who was “groaning from his heart,” that is, moaning in severe pain. His friends asked the doctors what to do, and they responded, “The only remedy is for him to drink warm milk straight from a goat every morning at dawn.” So they brought him a goat and tied it around his bedpost, and he would nurse from it every morning. One day Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava’s rabbinic colleagues came to visit him. When they saw that he had a goat tied around his bedpost, they recoiled in horror; how could such a pious man so brazenly override a rabbinic prohibition? “He is keeping armed robbers in his home!” they exclaimed. (I find myself wondering, once again, whether the Hebrew word for goat, עז, is etymologically related to the word להעיז, to be brazen and bold; this story seems to be playing on that pun.) When he eventually died, the sages reviewed all his actions and discovered that this was the only sin he had committed. He is reputed to have said, on his deathbed, “I know that I did not commit any sins except the sin of that goat, since I transgressed against the words of my colleagues.”

I used to read this story and wonder what illness this man could possibly have had, such that goats’ milk was the only remedy. I wondered what we’d call that illness today, and how it would be treated in the twenty-first century. Clearly it was the same illness as the father in Agnon’s famous “Fable of the Goat” (first published in 1925), which begins with the same words as the Talmudic story: “There is a tale of an old man who was groaning from his heart. They went and asked the doctors what to do…” This man, too, ties a goat to his bedpost and suckles its milk, which is sweeter than honey from the Garden of Eden. Ultimately his curiosity about the goat leads to his tragic separation from his son, who ties a rope to the goat’s tail and follows the animal through a cave that leads—like C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe or J.K. Rowling’s platform Nine and Three-Quarters—to a place near Tzfat. What illness did Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava and the father have, I wondered? Now I know. They had the same cold sores as my daughter, and the remedy in the twenty-first century is the same as it was back then.

After several days of attempting to forcibly squirt pasteurized goats milk from my local market onto my daughter’s tongue, I decided I needed to be bolder and take more drastic measures. I went around to a few natural health stores in my area, but none sold unpasteurized goats’ milk. Then a friend mentioned that there was going to be a festival at our local leprosy hospital, where they would be selling fresh goats’ milk. I ran over there with my still-hysterical baby the next morning, but alas, they told me that the festival was postponed until the following week. “Why don’t you try the school down the block, where they have a little petting zoo?” I put the wailing baby back in her stroller, and off we went on our wild goat chase. By this point I felt very much like I, like the son in Agnon’s fable, was just holding on to the rope attached to the goat’s tail and letting it carry me along for the ride. We arrived at the school.  I spotted the goats in the yard. “Can you help?” I asked the guard at the gate. “You have to ask Shlomo, and he just stepped out for a few hours.” My face fell. The baby howled, and the man looked down at us in pity. “Hold on, let me call Ihmed.” Ihmed appeared with a twinkle in his eye. “Who told you we have goats here?” Perhaps he didn’t want me to out his secret – that he was raising “small animals” in the land of Israel. “They told me at the leprosy hospital,” I confessed. “Follow me,” he said, and I parked the stroller, picked up the baby, and continued to follow the proverbial rope attached to the proverbial goat’s tail. He called his friend Hassan, who held onto the head of his goat. “Do you have a bottle?” he asked me. I emptied out the water from the baby’s sippy cup, and he held it under the goat’s udder. My daughter, who loves animals, had forgotten her groaning heart and began squealing in delight and shrieking, “Cat! Cat!” – her term for anything with four legs that moves. I thanked Ihmed and Hassan profusely, retrieved my stroller, and gave the baby her cup. She drank. She calmed down. She fell asleep.

Was it a miraculous cure? I am not sure. She is still sleeping, which is why I have time to write this up. Throughout the entire week that she’s been home sick with me, she’s never slept this long or this comfortably, and I’m starting to hope—to be so bold as to hope—that perhaps the milk she imbibed, like the milk in Agnon’s fable, came straight from the Garden of Eden. I’ve come so far already that if this doesn’t do the trick, tomorrow I’ll stop at nothing short of tying a goat to the post of her crib and giving her warm milk at dawn.

 

Hitting the Rock: Instant Gratification and the Long Walk Home

Yesterday on our walk home from Gan, my son gave me new insight into the weekly parsha, Hukkat. I was making my way with my four kids along the train tracks that link their various Ganim with our home. The walk is about a mile, and especially on hot summer days, it’s a challenge – even with scooters and snacks and all the helicopters and street sweepers we spot excitedly on our way home. Each of my kids has a water bottle, which I store in a compartment on top of the stroller. Only I can reach that compartment, and so I spend much of the walk home fielding requests for water and then apologizing when I inadvertently hand someone the wrong bottle, or rub “sunscream” (as the kids call it) on the twin who has already been covered in it rather than the one who has not.

We were about halfway home yesterday – the baby was screaming “cat” and pointing and squealing excitedly from her stroller, the twins were belting out the theme song of a TV show they have never watched (we don’t have a TV, but their friends teach them the songs), and my son Matan was apparently vying for my attention, though I was busy tying the strings on the baby’s hat under her chin while acknowledging with a vigorous nod that I, too, had seen the cat. I was kneeling down in front of the stroller when suddenly I felt a whack on my back. I turned around sharply to find Matan standing behind me wielding a long tree branch. “Matan!” I yelled at him. “I told you that you can only carry that branch if you don’t hit anyone with it. Now I have to take it away.” Matan looked at me, angry and affronted. “But Ima, I want my water, and you’re not listening to me.”

I stood up and reached for his blue water bottle in the top of the stroller. His is easy – it’s the twins’ pink and purple bottles that I’m forever mixing up.

“Matan,” I said sternly. “If you want your water, I’m happy to give it to you. But you have to ask for it using words. You can’t just hit me.”

And then – it hit me, too, how similar this episode was to one of the more dramatic scenes in this week’s parsha. While the Israelites were wandering through the desert – in a climate probably not all that different from Jerusalem in July, when you take into account global warming – they complained frequently to Moses about the food, their fondness for Egypt, and the futility of it all. “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates!” It reminds me of my kids’ frequent complaints. “Why can’t we stay in Gan and play until nighttime? Why do you make us leave the playground? And why did you bring pretzels? We want rice cakes!”

The Israelites’ complaints last for most of the book of Numbers, though they reach a crisis point in this week’s parsha when Miriam dies and the people run out of water. (At least on our walk home we pass several water fountains.) Moses and Aaron, exhausted by the people’s grumbling and probably also dehydrated themselves, fall on their faces before God, and God responds: “Take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation.” Famously, though, Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it, water pours forth, and Moses is punished harshly: Since he has disobeyed God, he will not be permitted to enter the promised land.

We were trekking through that same promised land when Matan, exhausted and thirsty from all our wandering, hit me—the source of water—instead of asking me for his bottle. Perhaps I ought to have rebuked him, paraphrasing Moses, “Do you think that if you hit me, water will come forth?” Instead I punished him by taking away his stick as I’d threatened to do.

I wondered whether I was being too harsh. After all, as Matan later pointed out to me, he was tired and “parched” (his new favorite word) and he just didn’t have patience to talk nicely above the din of his sisters. Even so, as I explained to him, it is important to recognize that life is not an automat. Not everything comes quickly and easily as soon as you drop in a coin or kick the  slot machine. This is also the reason I don’t let my kids watch television – I worry that the instant gratification offered by bright colors, loud sounds, and fast-moving images will gradually and insidiously erode their capacity to appreciate life’s slower pleasures: a symphony the builds over four movements, a novel that unfolds over three hundred pages, a poem that only really begins to resonate upon the fourth or fifth re-reading, if even then.

When my kids are thirsty on a hot day, yes, I should make sure they get water immediately. There are forms of gratification that ought to be instant. But talking is always preferable to hitting, and the lesson of appreciating life’s slower pleasures is one I care deeply about inculcating in my children. It is also a lesson I try to practice myself. When I sit down to nurse the baby, I try to remember that if I keep picking up my smartphone for a “hit” of data, I’ll never finish reading my novel. If I rush my kids home in a car (that is, were I to own a car and know how to drive it), I’d miss out on all of our long conversations about everything we see on the way home, and I imagine my kids would be less likely to free associate with me about all their memories from the day. I understand why God wanted the Israelites to take the long and circuitous route to the promised land. And if my children don’t yet understand, I trust that eventually they’ll get there too.

The Unreliable Narrator

I have long been drawn to novels that feature unreliable narrators – until I discovered the perils of living with the most unreliable of narrators in my very own home.

Two days ago we were invited out to Shavuot lunch at the home of a family with many children. Not only was the  house chaotic, but our hosts had invited at least thirty guests, including over a dozen children who ran around freely between the upstairs, the downstairs and the backyard, such that it was impossible for my husband Daniel and me to keep tabs on our four little ones, the oldest of whom just turned six. At the end of the meal, when we were gathering everyone up to leave, we noticed that our oldest was nowhere to be found. “Where is Matan?” we started asking around, until our four year old daughter piped up, “He went to walk the dog.”

“What dog?” I asked, suddenly worried. And our host repeated, “What dog? We don’t have a dog.”

“The dog,” Liav repeated matter-of-factly, as if surely I understood.

“When did he leave?” I asked her – hoping that a four-year-old’s sense of time would not be too far off.

“Um, I think lots of hours ago. Yes. In ten minutes he left.”

“Did he go with anyone?”

“No. He went by himself. But the big kids left first. He went to find them.”

“Oh. Which way did he go?”

“He went to Raanana, I think. To our cousins.” We were in the heart of the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem. This was not going well.

My first thought was of Joseph, who was sent by his father to go find his brothers in the pastures of Shechem (Genesis 37:12). Joseph did not find his brothers there, but he ran into a man who was able to point him in the right direction, toward Dotan. Rashi says this man was the angel Gabriel, who appeared to show Joseph the way to his brothers. Where was the angel Gabriel when I needed him? And why was my only source of evidence someone with no sense of time or direction?

I was reminded of a phrase that appears in the Talmud in the context of women’s testimony. לא מפיה אנו חיים – we do not live off her words. The Mishnah in Ketubot (12b) speaks of a case in which a man marries a woman but does not find signs of her virginity on their wedding night. The bride claims, “Actually, I was a virgin when you betrothed me, but I was raped after our engagement, and, well, your field got flooded.” The Mishnah’s term “your field got flooded” is essentially the English equivalent of “shit happens” or “sucks for you” – that is, you had the bad luck of betrothing a woman who got raped when she was already your acquisition. Rabban Gamliel says that we believe the bride, but Rabbi Yehoshua insists that no, “we do not live off her words.” According to Rabbi Yehoshua, the bride in such a situation is always an unreliable narrator whose words cannot be trusted.

A few minutes later, Liav changed her story. “I think he went with the big kids,” she told us, “Not alone.” I looked at Daniel. If he had left with a group of big kids, then hopefully those same kids would return him. But then I was reminded of another Talmudic phrase that once again gave me pause. הפה שאסר הוא הפה שהתיר – that is, the mouth that forbade is the mouth that permitted. The Mishnah (Ketubot 22a) speaks of a woman who announces—presumably upon arriving in a new town where she is a stranger to everyone—“I used to be married, but I’m now divorced.”  The rabbis say that she is believed. Similarly, if she announces, “I was taken captive, but I was not defiled by my captors,” she is also believed, because “the mouth that forbade is the mouth that permitted.” That is, the very same woman both incriminated and exonerated herself; had she not announced that she was taken captive, there would be no reason to suspect her of sexual impurity in the first place. (The rabbis assume that any woman who was taken captive was likely raped by her captors.) In other words, one statement is canceled out by another – which seemed to be the case with Liav as well. Had Matan left the house alone, or under supervision? And had he really left the house at all? Or was he merely playing upstairs behind a door we had yet to open?

A half hour later Matan indeed returned with the aforementioned big kids, an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old who had taken him under their wing when he ran out of the house to tag along as they walked a neighbor’s dog. We reprimanded him, gently but firmly. “You can’t leave the house without telling us where you’re going!”

Matan looked at us earnestly and explained. “It’s OK. I told Liav where I was going.” Liav looked at me, blinking fast and furious. “I told you. I was right and you were wrong.” I looked at Liav, my little Nelly Dean and Humbert Humbert, my Nick and Amy rolled up into one. I didn’t know what to say. But the next day, when Matan told me that he’d forgotten his glasses at the Kotel—where my husband had taken the kids at 6am—I told Daniel to wait a minute before jumping on his bike to race back to the Old City. I walked into the bedroom and looked on the ledge by Matan’s bed, where he often rested his things absent-mindedly. Sure enough, there they were – my child’s glasses, the lenses through which I have come to see the world.

You May Want to Feed My Children

Yesterday my twins bit each other when an argument between them escalated rather quickly into a violent row. We were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast, and I was just about to read aloud to them from Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Spoon, a longstanding dinnertime favorite in our family. My husband and I had selected this book together during our “date night” out last summer, when his mother watched our kids so that we could have an evening to ourselves outside of the home. We got in the car and drove straight to Barnes and  Noble, where we spent our kid-free evening—um—picking out books for our kids. Spoon caught our attention immediately because of its fetching illustrations of anthropomorphized cutlery – the spoon on the cover has wide eager eyes and a friendly arm raised in greeting.

Only when we began reading did we realize that we were in the hands of a witty, word-loving wonder of a writer – which is to say that her Spoon was in our hands. The eponymous Spoon, we learn, is jealous of the knives and forks, who get to cut and spread and who never go stir-crazy. But then Spoon’s mother reminds him that only he gets to dive head-first into a bowl of ice cream and relax in a hot cup of tea, and Spoon begins to appreciate what only he can enjoy.

The book, on one level, is a simple tale about being content with one’s lot. As indeed, it seems, Amy Krouse Rosenthal was as well. Two weeks ago she had broken my heart and the hearts of thousands of other New York Times readers with her Modern Love column entitled “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” about her love of life and the love of her life, her husband of 26 years whom she would soon be parting with because she was tragically dying of terminal cancer. Just that morning—yesterday morning—I woke up to her obituary, which I read in bed on my iphone before any of my kids had roused. I got out of bed, tiptoed to the kitchen, and set our copy of Spoon on the kitchen table, where it served as a sort of grave marker—a sad reminder of what is no more, and what still endures. When my kids woke up, I told them we’d be reading Spoon at breakfast, though I didn’t say why.

“This is Spoon,” the book begins, and then we turn the page and are greeted by a motley assortment of elderly and proper silver spoons, young teaspoons holding on to the hands of their mothers the tablespoons, and a baby measuring spoon linked by a ring to his older sibling: “This is Spoon’s family.” A few pages later, we hear about Spoon’s “adventurous great-grandmother who fell in love with a dish and ran off to a distant land.”

My kids listened attentively, as they almost always do. I have made it a regular practice of reading to them at the table so that they won’t argue – they are 5,4,4 and 1, and hence too young for proper table conversation. If left to their own devices, they will grab each other’s spoons, stab each other with plastic knives, and fork over any food they don’t want on to one another’s plates. And so I read to them as a way of maintaining order. It usually works, except when it doesn’t.

“Read it in Hebrew!” my daughter stays my hand as I try to turn the page. “No, the book is in English, she has to read it in English,” my older son insists. “But the last time we read this book in English. Now it’s time to read in Hebrew.” I work as a translator, and many of the books I translate are rhyming picture books. I enjoy the challenge of rhyme, the constraints imposed by the illustrations, and the opportunity to play around with words and sounds. Often I “test out” potential translations on my kids, reading them books first in the Hebrew original and then in my English translation to see if they have any suggestions. “All right,” I say. “I’ll read the book in English and then in Hebrew.” “I know,” says my son. “You can read one page in English and then one in Hebrew, and keep switching.” ‘No,” insists my daughter. “Hebrew!” Her twin shrieks, “English.” I put down the book and turn to my baby to spoonfeed her a few bites before I return to reading. But the moment I turn away, the twins give up on language and bite each other, ignoring their food, the book, and my own protestations.

Sometimes I wish my kids could get along better, like Fork and Knife and Chopsticks, who assure Spoon that he, too, has what to offer. My children’s cutting remarks to one another are hurtful to witness, and often I lament that I can’t spoonfeed them the values I so fervently wish to inculcate. But this doesn’t stop me from trying. When I put them to bed last night, lying between them just as Spoon “spoons” with his parents in the silverware draw on the last page of the book, I reminded them of their fight at breakfast. “You can’t bite each other just because you don’t agree on what language to read in,” I said, and I wondered if Amy Krouse Rosenthal would approve of my attempt at literary criticism.