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.


Reading While Mothering

This past weekend all three of my daughters were sick with bad colds, and I spent much of Shabbat afternoon curled up at the foot of one of my twins’ beds in the room all three of them share, staying with them as they coughed away and tried to rest their aching heads. I could not leave the room because then the baby—who uncannily seems to sense my presence at all times—would start crying, waking the toddler sleeping next to her, who would kick angrily and surely wake her twin sister by the window. I knew that the only chance that everyone would get well was if they took a long nap, and so I spent three hours in their room, getting up only to reinsert the pacifier in the baby’s mouth when necessary, or to help my daughter find her water bottle when she sat up thirstily, or to accompany her sister to the bathroom.

Keeping vigil in a sickroom does not sound like fun, but I had left the window shade open a crack, letting in just enough light to illuminate my page so that I could read from my perch at the end of the bed lining the window. I was reading a new collection of short stories by a young Israeli writer named Hila Amit, and I was utterly in thrall to the gripping story of a single mother who takes her children camping by a lake on vacation, only to wake up and discover that one of the children who had been sleeping by her side was missing. My heart raced as I turned page after page, and I found myself unconsciously casting my eyes over the three sleeping girls, counting their heads and listening for their breathing in spite of myself. I tend to get very absorbed in the books I am reading, but usually I do not have time to read when my children are home. Though I would never wish sickness upon my children, of course, I could not help but relish the opportunity to read for a long afternoon stretch with all my girls present and accounted for and calm.

People sometimes ask me if I enjoy being a mother, perhaps because all my children were born in quick succession after I lived alone for much of my adult life. I tell them the truth, which is that I enjoy—or I most enjoy—those aspects of motherhood that can be accomplished while reading. I do not mind holding my children’s hands and staying with them at night, or waiting on the side during their gymnastics lessons, or breastfeeding, which I always have done with a book in one hand. (My babies each learned to wave their free hand to check for the book, only then settling comfortably on the breast.) And I hardly need mention that my favorite aspect of being a parent is reading to my children, which I do all day long, at every possible moment. I always keep picture books under the stroller in case we are stuck with time to kill, and we read snuggling in my bed in the early morning, and over breakfast and dinner, and of course before bed.

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed anything in life that can be done while reading, and I’ve tended to avoid activities incompatible with holding a book in one hand. Perhaps that’s why I always prefer to walk than to drive or ride a bicycle—I am a master of reading while walking—and perhaps that’s why I never became very good at shopping or cooking or playing music. But many of aspects of motherhood require being fully present in mind and body, attentive to my children with both hands free. It has been a challenge, in recent years, to let go of that part of me that always wants to be elsewhere, immersed in a fictional world, caught up in the thicket of someone else’s plot. Sometimes I find myself writing my own plots, narrating our daily experiences in my head at the very moment they are unfolding, documenting life in real time and occasionally changing the ending to make for a better tale. Once I stood outside my daughter’s preschool trying the finish the last few paragraphs of a chapter before heading in to pick her up. But all of a sudden I heard  my daughter calling to me through the open window, and I realized that even though I still had a few sentences left, I was already in the middle of a very different chapter of my day.

I have never managed to learn to meditate or do yoga—I lack the calmness and the focus—but motherhood, like these disciplines, is teaching me every day anew the value of drawing my attention back to the present moment and being in just one place at one time. “It goes by so fast,” people always tell me when they see me trying to fit three kids into a double stroller or struggling to quiet down one twin so I can hear why the other is crying. I imagine the pages of a book flipping by, turning faster than I can read them. And then I stop for a moment, put my finger between the pages to mark my place, and look up into my daughter’s eager eyes, setting the book aside.

I Never Promised You Dessert: Reflections on Kol Nidre

I make all sorts of promises to my children that I do not keep. Many are made in the exigency of the moment: When  my toddler twins are refusing to get in the stroller because they want to stay at the zoo, I promise them we’ll come back the following week– even if I know that won’t happen, and I’m just relying on the fact that they’ll forget by the time they’ve calmed down. When they are fighting over a toy in synagogue and disturbing everyone around us, I tell them that if they don’t stop arguing, they won’t get lollipops at the end of the service – even though I would be powerless to keep them from the Candy Man. Sometimes my promises take the forms of bribes, as when I tell my son that if he eats all the food in his plate, he can have as much dessert as he wants – even though I then limit him after the third cookie, telling him that it’s for his own good, so he doesn’t get a stomachache.

I’ve been feeling very ill-at-ease about all these unkept promises, particularly now that the high holiday season is upon us. My children are all very young, and they are unlikely to remember tomorrow what I promised them today. But as we recite in the section on remembrance in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, “There is no forgetting before the throne of God’s glory.” God remembers His promise after the Flood never again to destroy the earth again, as well as His covenant with Abraham, as we affirm in our prayers. And so even if my children forget what I’ve promised before my credibility erodes, I know that God does not forget, and that these unkept promises will not go unrecorded.

I don’t think the rabbis of the Talmud would have been pleased with my unkept promises either. In tractate Nedarim, which deals with vows that a person takes upon himself or herself, they quote from the book of Ecclesiastes: “It is better not to vow than to vow and not to fulfill.” They warn that every time a person takes a vow, a notebook recording all his deeds is opened in heaven, and God reevaluates his fate more critically. Before Rosh Hashanah, when we ask God to inscribe us in the Book of Life, we are supposed to annul any vows we made the previous year. On the eve of Yom Kippur, this is solemnized in the Kol Nidre service, where we declare all our vows from the previous year to be null and void. But I have already voided so many of my own promises to my children by failing to fulfill them, and I find the beautiful melody of Kol Nidre even more haunting as I think about how thin is the line between unkept vows and outright lies.

But then I am reminded of the history of Kol Nidre, which was originally formulated as a way of annulling vows made the previous year, but then became in the Middle Ages a way of pre-emptively declaring that all vows in the future—from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur—will have no legal force. If so, then Kol Nidre is not just about looking back with regret, but also about looking forwards with resolve. And so perhaps that is what I’ll try to do as well. I’m not going to promise that I won’t make any more vain promises to my children, because to do so would just be to make one vow on top of another. But looking forwards, I hope I’ll think twice before making promises I can’t keep. If my children eat all the food on their plates, I’ll promise them that they will feel better and have more energy to play. If that’s all I promise, I imagine I’ll feel better too.

Nine Months Out

My daughter Shalvi is nine months old today, which means that she has been outside my body for as long as she was inside. It feels momentous, though I don’t know of any way to mark the occasion. Still three months shy of her first birthday, she is just starting to crawl and to pull herself up to a standing position, which means she can go farther and farther away from me, and I can’t always assume that I’ll find  her where I left her. She’s also less interested in breastfeeding, and while I still nurse her several times a day, she will increasingly push away the breast in favor of a cup of dry cheerios that she can feed herself. A year and a half ago, she was just becoming a part of me, the first cells of her body forming inside mine. And now she is increasingly apart from me, making her way into the world, extending the radius of my care, my concern, and my love.

Shalvi is not my first child, but it is harder to let her go than any of the others — perhaps because as I get older, I am more attuned to life’s evanescence. I look wistfully at pregnant women I pass on the street, cognizant of the arc that rises in anticipation, peaks in those sacred moments of birth, and then descends as the days and weeks pass and mother and child sink into comfortable familiarity. As I watch friends who have given birth to babies younger than my own, I am reminded of how time slows down after giving birth to baby, whose lifespan is measured in days before it is measured in weeks, and in weeks before months. All too soon I shall stop counting in months when Shalvi—Godwilling—turns one year old. I’m not sure I’m ready. I find myself holding on to her as she scurries away, not quite ready to let these moments pass.

“This month shall be for you the first month of the year,” the Bible says about the exodus from Egypt, an event so momentous that it upended the calendar and reset time. In the Bible the first month is Nisan, the month of the exodus. The day we think of as the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, falls out in Tishrei, the seventh month. There are thus two cycles of Jewish time: There is universal time, which begins on Rosh Hashanah, the day the world was created. But there is also Jewish time, which begins on Passover, with the birth of the Jewish people as a nation. These two ways of marking time unfold against the backdrop of one another in the same way that personal time—the clock that is upended and reset after birth—unfolds against the backdrop of ordinary time. Yes, it is just an ordinary Tuesday in January; but it is also the day that my baby was born, marking this date as special for years to come. As I hope it will be.

Shalvi, of course, is too young to be aware of anything unusual about this day, the nine-month anniversary of her birth. But in the same way that God was involved in her conception—the Talmud says that there are three partners involved in the creation of a child: the mother, the father, and God—it seems appropriate to involve God today, as well. And so I decided to recite the Shehehiyahu blessing, a sort of Jewish elastic clause, stretching to accommodate moments that ought to be marked but do not have a blessing of their own. Thank you God for sustaining me, and for enabling me to reach this day. At first I thought I might pick up Shalvi and hold her while I said these words, but she was busy pulling herself up on the edge of the couch. In any case it seemed more fitting, in that otherwise ordinary moment, to let her go.

Lovely Eyes (Kidushin 7a)

My twin daughters are extraordinarily generous. Whenever I pick them up from preschool, I always have snacks lodged under our double stroller. The girls ask me for snacks because they are hungry, but they are never content to leave it at that. Outside their preschool is a playground where many of the parents and kids hang out after the school day is over. My girls make the rounds giving out snacks to each and every one of their friends in the schoolyard, as well as to any kids interested in a rice cake or pretzels. They insist not just on handing out a pretzel to each kid, but on offering the entire Tupperware container, so that each kid may choose how many he or she wants. Generally this means there are very few pretzels left for my girls, but they don’t seem to mind. The satisfaction they get out of sharing with others is presumably more valuable to them than another bite of salty crunch.

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Nursing My Baby While Weaning Myself

As the mother of a newborn, I spend many hours a day sitting on the couch nursing my baby. This doesn’t come as a surprise – this baby is my fourth, so I’ve been through this before. But for the first time I am now nursing with a smartphone, a device I can hold in one hand for hours on end, so that time passes seemingly unnoticed and I find myself, to my consternation, oblivious to the miracle of new life at my breast.
            I am trying, as much as possible, to wean myself off my phone while breastfeeding. Aware of the shallowness of the smartphone’s trance-inducing temptations, I seek instead to immerse myself in the deeper pleasures of fiction. Jess Walter writes in Beautiful Ruins about a character who takes a data hit from her smartphone, and I can attest that those pings have an intoxicating lure. In Station Eleven, one of Emily St. John Mandel’s characters complains about “smartphone zombies” who walk around glued to their screens, oblivious to the world around them. And yet according to a modern Israeli rabbinic commentator, a woman who has just given birth to a daughter—as I have—is supremely alive, since not only did she create new life, but she has created a form of life that has the potential to give birth to new life someday, as all baby girls do. How tragic it would be to miss out on these moments of peak vitality.
            Ever bent on self-improvement, I have started setting daily “reading goals” so that I don’t immediately reach for the phone. Each day I strive to read one chapter of whatever nonfiction book I’m in the middle of (currently David Brooks’ The Road to Character, which works well, as each chapter can be read as a self-contained essay about, well, self-improvement). This usually lasts for about two breastfeeding sessions. I also make sure to learn a page of Talmud a day, keeping up with the daf yomi cycle, reading aloud to my baby so that she may imbibe Torah with her mother’s milk. Then I reward myself with as many pages of fiction as I can get through, often reading aloud the passages of dialogue so that my baby—who is alone with me for most of the day while her three older siblings are in preschool—can get accustomed to the cadences of human speech. She is not yet smiling, but I am pretty sure she gurgles happily at the funny parts.
            And what about the smartphone? Now I keep it in the bathroom, where I check it each time I pee or change a diaper. I like to think I’m in good company. The midrash relates that the Talmudic sage Shmuel used to study astrology in the bathroom because it was the only place he could not learn Torah. Like Shmuel, I prioritize my reading and learning – Torah, fiction, and nonfiction come first; e-mail and Facebook can be left for the bathroom, where I am less likely to linger in their thrall. Unlike Shmuel, though, I don’t bother checking my horoscope; thanks to my beautiful baby daughter, I’m already starry-eyed enough.