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.

 

Simchat Bat — Shalvi Aderet

INK:

I came home from the hospital last Thursday afternoon, the week of parshat Yitro, and on Friday night we sat down to eat Shabbat dinner as a family of six, for the first time. As we do every week, Daniel and I began teaching the parsha to the kids. Matan excitedly announced that it was his parsha, since it features the story of Matan Torah — and the girls wanted to know more about the thunder and lightning and the fiery mountain, which were all the more intriguing after a particularly stormy week. But the verse that most spoke to me had nothing to do with מעמד הר סיני but appears in the opening lines of the parsha, in which Yitro receives word of the dramatic story of God’s deliverance of Bnei Yisrael from Egyptian bondage. Moshe recounts to his father-in-law all the hardships that had befallen Israel, and how God had delivered them. The Torah then relates that upon hearing this news, ויחד יתרו – Yitro rejoiced, though Rashi reads it as a play on the word חד, sharp, and comments נעשה בשרו חדודין חדודין – his flesh became pins and needles. Yitro was so moved by the story of the exodus that the hairs on his skin stood on end; he got goosebumps– which was much like how I felt when I thought about the miraculous delivery of our beautiful baby girl earlier that week. In the midrashic imagination, the exodus is often analogized to a birth, with Mitzrayim as the narrow birth canal from which the nation of Israel is born. I, too, had felt the pangs of redemption, and in what seemed to be a miracle – this baby, like the Israelite babies in Egypt, came out so quickly that the midwife had to catch her with her bare hands – I felt like I, too, had been delivered from the hardship of labor on eagle’s wings.

But the high lasted only so long as the night wore on. Our kids grew tired and needed to be put to bed, and soon the baby would need to be fed, and dinner needed to be cleaned up. We felt so grateful that Savta Alisa was with us, as she’s been with us for three weeks now – cooking all our meals, taking the older kids to and from Gan, holding and changing the baby, and doing pretty much everything that needs to get done in our home. “How are we going to manage when Savta goes home?” Daniel asked me. “And what happens when I go back to work? You’re going to lose your mind.” I thought of Yitro’s conversation with Moshe, in which Yitro insists that Moshe cannot do it all on his own: נבל תבול Yitro tells Moshe, you are going to wear yourself out! And I began to worry that Daniel was right, and that I would indeed lose my mind – maybe not all the time, but certainly any time more than three kids were crying at once. Granted, we are blessed by frequent family visits, particularly by Baba Rella, who comes to Israel more often than we go to Tel Aviv. But how would we get the kids out of the house in the morning on days when it was just us? I wondered if I ought to be more fearful for my sanity, and if I, like Moshe, needed more help. But just then I looked over at our beautiful baby daughter, wrapped like a mummy in layers of blankets and perched calmly in a car seat on our windowsill, breathing deeply, the picture of perfect equanimity. She had barely cried since she was born – whenever she’d wake up, she’d merely open her eyes and look around wide-eyed until someone noticed her; when she was hungry, she’d suck on her fingers noisily until I had time to feed her, and I’d think:
אנכי יהוה אלהיך המעלך מארץ מצרים הרחב פיך ואמלאהו  (Tehillim 81:11)
Each time I picked her up to feed her, I felt as if she were in touch with a deep inner source of tranquility that prevented her from ever getting ruffled or unsettled. I already have much to learn from her, I thought. And just then, I knew what we would name her.

I cannot pretend that I know what sort of character our daughter will ultimately have. But in naming her ShalVA Aderet, I hope that she will always be robed in the tranquility that has typified her during these early newborn weeks. May Shalvi know, even in life’s most tumultuous moments, how to draw upon a deep inner reservoir of calmness and serenity. And may her tranquility radiate out to all of us. I know it will not be easy with four kids under the age of five, and I don’t expect a quiet household – at least not for the next decade. But I hope that no matter how hectic life seems, we will always speak to one another calmly and treat one another respectfully, and that our family will continue to be graced by ShalVA.

יְהִי-שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ;    שַׁלְוָה, בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָיִךְ

This verse captures my fervent wish for shalom bayit—for peace within our walls, and tranquility in our citadels. In the context of the chapter of Tehillim in which it appears, this pasuk speaks, too, to one of my most fervent prayers throughout the nine months of my pregnancy – that peace should come to Yerushalayim –

שַׁאֲלוּ, שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָם;    יִשְׁלָיוּ, אֹהֲבָיִךְ.
יְהִי-שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ;    שַׁלְוָה, בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָיִךְ.
לְמַעַן, אַחַי וְרֵעָי–    אֲדַבְּרָה-נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּך
לְמַעַן, בֵּית-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ–    אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָךְ.
(תהילים קכ”ב)

I thank God for miraculously delivering our daughter to us, and I pray that we will all be blessed with Shalom and Shalva – in our city and in our citadels, in our homes and in our hearts.

DBF Simchat Bat Shalva Aderet Feldman:

Our hearts overflow with gratitude today. When Ilana and I met a few short years ago, we never could have imagined being so blessed in so brief a period. As we welcome into our family a fourth child, our precious little Shalvi, we praise Hashem for showing us extraordinary Chessed and pray for wisdom in raising our children.

It may have already occurred to you that there is some irony in naming our own daughter for tranquility. As Shalvi joins a family in which the “big” siblings are only three and four, her name represents more an aspiration for our future than an accurate description of our current state of domestic affairs. Still, Shalvi’s name also recalls the earliest foundations of our life as a couple and family.

The word Shalva appears in one of our favorite Midrashim, cited by Rashi at the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev and speaking to our identity as students of Torah:
וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו
Says Rashi:
ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף.
After all his travails, Yaakov at last sought to settle in tranquillity when suddenly, there leapt upon him the agitation of Yosef.

Our teacher Avivah Zornberg eloquently expands upon this Rashi, for it vividly illustrates a turning point in Yaakov Avinu’s struggle for stability and his quest for wholeness in the Land. It was at a turning point in our lives when, during one of Avivah’s shiurim in the years when Ilana and I were first settling in Israel, questing for our own wholeness, Avivah sought to illustrate this Midrash about Shalva interrupted by way of Blake’s famous poem “The Tyger.” Avivah asked one lovely student, a woman burning bright in the back rows of the class, to recite the poem, which of course she did flawlessly, twisting the sinews of my heart— ואידך פירושה הוא the rest is commentary. Ilana, of course, has made sure that each of our kids learns the poem by heart. Shalvi can start studying soon…

Ilana, as we all know, is sui generis, one-of-a-kind. In our home, she is the master teacher of Torah, the inveterate lover of literature, the effervescent mother radiating life. INKy, it is a privilege, a delight, and an adventure to spend my life with you. Your vitality burns most bright during pregnancy and childbirth, and I could not be more proud to be your partner in raising our four beautiful children.

I also want to recognize our parents, both those who are with us in person and those who are with us in spirit. Ilana already mentioned our parents’ generosity in providing for our every need during Shalvi’s first days. But Ilana did not mention that in her mother’s case, this entailed retiring from an executive position in the world of Jewish federation in order to find the time. Two days after her retirement from senior management at UJA, Savta Alisa took over management in our home. I don’t think there’s any debate about what’s the harder job. Alisa and Saba Neil, we are so grateful to you both. May Shalvi learn from your selfless commitment to family and community. We are also very fortunate to have my mother Rella Feldman with us. Baba, you have not missed the birth celebration of a single one of your 16 grandchildren, k’nine o hara, including six born in Israel. What an incredible legacy for the only child of Holocaust survivors. Thank you for being here and for all you do on our behalf. Your generosity and warmth, enhanced these past years by Curtiss, whose own family is with us here, have no bounds, and we could not imagine a more beloved and loving, elegant and energetic matriarch to our family. Smiling down at us from Shamayim today is my father, Dr. Charles Feldman, Saba alav hashalom, who always encouraged his children to find more room at the family table. As time passes, I feel the loss of my father’s presence all the more acutely even as I sense his example as a father and leader ever more clearly. With each new milestone and simcha, we miss Dad still more fiercely, but in recollecting his legacy in the company of Shalva, I appreciate anew how fortunate I am to have had him as my father.

Ilana and I also recall the memories of our grandparents, Betty and Joseph Feldman, Sally and Isak Levenstein, Gila and Mordecai Rubin, and, most recently departed, Phyllis and Jerry Kurshan, Ilana’s dignified and adored paternal grandparents, who played a major role in her life until their passing two summers ago.

להבדיל בין חיים לחיים. We are thrilled to celebrate here with three of our sisters. Naamit and Ariella, accomplished professionals, exceptional mothers, and devoted sisters, we could not be more honored that you made a special trip to meet your new niece. Estie, you traveled not quite as far, but our proximity to you has fostered a special relationship that we and our kids share with you and yours. You are more than a sister.

Together with Elizur you are a role model of how to combine the life of a loving family with chessed, communal commitment, and infinite generosity. We are forever indebted to you for all the kindness you show us and our kids. We hope that our siblings with us here, along with our many siblings back in the States, serve as examples to our children, Matan, Liav, Tagel, and Shalvi, of how to create life-long bonds of friendship and love. Our bracha today is that our children come to know the gift of Achva by always striving to dwell together in harmony, leyshev B’shavla, no matter the circumstance. May our family merit the supreme tranquility brought by Shevet Achim Gam Yachad. And may Shalva Aderet always adorn our home with peace. Thank you for joining us. Enjoy the seudat hodaya, and mazel tov.

Stronghold of the Mothers

For the first time in my life I made it a regular practice to attend Selichot services this year. Selichot are penitentiary prayers traditionally recited between midnight and dawn in the weeks preceding Yom Kippur. As a child I never went to Selichot because either I was too young to be awake at that hour, or else I was old enough to babysit for parents who were willing to pay me so that they could attend. And as an adult, I shied away from Selichot because I had enough trouble maintaining my focus during the long Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services; the last thing I was looking for was more time in shul. But now, with three kids under the age of four, things have shifted, and Selichot have suddenly become the spiritual climax of my high holiday experience.
            To some extent this is simply a matter of timing. In my synagogue Selichot are recited at 10:30pm, once all my kids are blessedly asleep and I’ve had a chance to eat dinner, clean up from the day, and prepare for tomorrow. By 10:30pm I am rarely doing anything productive, and I welcome the twenty-minute walk in the cool evening air. Unlike all the other major services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which take place either when my kids are awake or else when I need to be putting them to bed, the timing of Selichot means that I can sit in synagogue by myself, without my toddler twins vying for space on my lap while rummaging through my bag in search of lollipops or begging me to read aloud to them from the books I’ve brought to distract them. Even praying at home has become difficult lately—this year on Rosh Hashanah my husband went to a 5:30am service while I davened Shacharit at home with the kids underfoot, where embarrassingly I found myself in the very same breath affirming God’s sovereignty—HaMelech—and assuring the two-year-old relentlessly tugging at my skirt that yes, Elmo also has a tushie. I can’t do that anymore.
            And so now I do most of my soul-searching during Selichot, where the metaphors that dominate the liturgy seem surprisingly resonant. The focal point of the Selichot service is the repeated recitation of God’s thirteen attributes of mercy; we appeal to God’s compassion in the hope that we, too, will be forgiven. God is slow to anger, gracious, and abundant in kindness –He is our king, but also our father, and I would do well to emulate Him as a parent. Lately in our household, bedtime has been extremely trying, and most nights I end up yelling at my twins when they insist, a half hour after their official bedtime, that they need to come out of their cribs to make one more peepee. “Enough! No more!” I yell in frustration, only later to regret that I am not slower to anger. During the Aneinu prayer, where we appeal to God to answer us, I think about all the times my kids wake up crying in the middle of the night–itself a theme of Selichot, where we are explicitly enjoined to “Arise, cry out in the night” (Lamentations 2:19)–and I am tempted to burrow beneath my pillow and hope they learn to soothe themselves instead of soaking their beds with tears. “Answer us, stronghold of the mothers, answer us,” we plead. I pray that God will be the stronghold of this mother too, and instill in me the strength to rally in the wee hours. “Act for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; act for the sake of those who still nurse from breasts; act for the sake of those who are weaned of milk; act for the sake of the children of Beit Rabban who have never sinned.” And so we petition God to act on behalf of those who are innocent as children – those who are dependent on their parents for their every need, as I know all too well.
            The shofar sounded on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and also during Selichot—is supposed to resemble a cry or a wail. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) compares it to the wailing of the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite military general who fought against the Israelites in the book of Judges. The sound of the shofar is the sound of the wailing mother, and it is, too, the wailing sound familiar to all mothers. As I sit in synagogue at midnight trying to focus on the words in the prayer book before me, I am grateful that at least at that moment, the sound of the shofar is the only cry I hear.

 

The Fallen Street Lamp: Mourning the Temple with my Kids

A few weeks ago a street lamp collapsed in the empty Jerusalem parking lot my children and I cross through every morning on our way to their preschool. The giant light pole—at least thirty feet tall—lay strewn across the parking lot, its wooden pole intact but its glass light shattered. I tried to navigate the stroller around the shards and the exposed electrical wires. Although we were not there when the lamp toppled, my kids were very shaken to see how the mighty had fallen, and even now, weeks after the lamp has been dragged away and presumably taken to a landfill somewhere, my toddlers continue to shout, “Lamp fall down! Lamp fall down!” every time we cross the parking lot. They seem traumatized by the event and unable to let go, and now, with Tisha b’Av approaching, I think I understand why.
            Tisha b’Av is a holiday commemorating the destruction of the Temple, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 CE. For Jews living during these eras, the Temple was the focal point of religious worship, which was characterized primarily by sacrifice. All Jews were obligated to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem three times a year, such that it was impossible to pass through the year without a visit to the Temple – and once the Temple was destroyed, that loss became indelibly etched in the Jewish national consciousness.
Like the destroyed Temple, the fallen lamp continues to haunt. No matter what else we are in the middle of talking about, my children can’t seem to pass through the parking lot without interrupting to invoke the lamp and bemoan its absence. “How did it fall? Why did it fall?” my four-year-old son keeps asking me, echoing the repeated “how” of Lamentations, the book of the Bible in which the prophet Jeremiah elegizes the Temple. But we rarely have time to linger, and so instead I hurry him along.
            The opening pages of the Talmud famously tell of a rabbi who enters a Jerusalem ruin to pray and is rebuked by Elijah for spending too much time in the ruin and not praying “along the way.” But the art of losing is hard to master. It’s only the rare Rabbi Akiva who can look out at the foxes scampering in and out of the desolate Temple mount and laugh, confident in a more hopeful future. It’s hard not to get swept up in mourning and lamentation, which is why I suppose the rabbis designated a single day of the year to commemorate so many of the tragedies of Jewish history – they teach that not only were the Temples destroyed on Tisha b’Av, but also on that date the decree was sealed that the generation of the desert would not enter the promised land, and the Bar Kokhba revolt was crushed, and the Roman general Turnus Rufus plowed Jerusalem. Tisha b’Av becomes a catch-all for tragedy and loss, a one-day-fits-all that teaches us how to honor but also contain our grief.
            In the poem “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet tells of a girl who weeps at the falling of the leaves in autumn. “Marguerite are you grieving / over Goldengrove unleaving,” the poet asks, unable to understand why such a commonplace and cyclically predictable event could be the occasion for so much grief. Ultimately the poet comes to realize that Marguerite is mourning not just for the foliage, but for all the sadness of humanity, because “sorrow’s springs are all the same,” just as all Jewish historical tragedy is the tragedy of Tisha b’Av. My children, too, are swept up not in the collapse of the lamp specifically, but in the notion of loss more generally – the sobering notion that something that was once a part of their lives could be suddenly no longer there. And so now when we pass through the parking lot and they ask about the lamp, I respond with a blessing I’ve been trying to teach them, part of the daily liturgy: “May You rebuild Jerusalem rapidly in our days as an everlasting structure…. Blessed are You O Lord Our God, who rebuilds Jerusalem.” They don’t know the whole blessing yet, but they always respond Amen.

 

Karet Parties

I have never made a birthday party for any of my three children. Granted, my oldest is turning only four, but even so, we have already attended several parties with clowns, balloons, party favors, and frosted cakes, and I feel a bit awkward that I haven’t returned any of those invitations. But I know my kids, and I know myself – and birthday parties are just not our speed.
            Each time we attend a friend’s party, my kids stay as far away from the action as possible. Generally we spend most of our time huddled up in an older sibling’s empty bedroom, my kids pulling books off the shelf and asking me to read them, or else playing with puzzles and dolls as I try and fail to sneak out and socialize with the other parents so as to seem less rude. When the lights are dimmed and the birthday cake is presented with candles and fanfare, I drag my kids out and they cling to me for dear life, my son hiding between my legs and my toddler twins on each hip, their heads burrowed into my armpits. They don’t like big groups or loud noise, and I can’t blame them, because neither do I.
            As a child I never let my mother make me birthday parties. Always loathe to be the center of attention, I attended friends’ parties reluctantly but never wanted one of my own. “What’s the big deal,” I kept insisting. “So I’m one year older. Why is that a cause for celebration? It’s not like I did anything great.” One year my mother thought she could win me over by making me a surprise party. When I got home from school she told me to take my novel and read in her walk-in closet, and I, happy for any excuse to read uninterrupted, didn’t ask any questions. An hour later, when she tried to drag me out, I implored, “Let me just finish the chapter,” oblivious to the seven friends who were gathered excitedly in the kitchen. It took me a while to come out of the closet, though when I did, I tried to be a good sport.
            Now that I’m the mother, I see things a bit differently. I respect my kids’ aversion to parties, and I confess that I’m somewhat relieved that I won’t be dealing with the challenge of entertaining rambunctious, thrill-seeking toddlers and their equally demanding parents. At the same time, I now have an answer to my younger self who thought that birthdays were no big deal. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from being a parent, it’s that a turning one year older is a big deal indeed.
            I most recently learned this lesson shortly before Passover, when my daughter had a terrible fall and lost two teeth. She was bleeding for several days and had to re-learn first how to drink and then, a full week later, how to start eating again. Her speech is slurred and she can no longer eat apples, but thank God she is otherwise completely fine, if tooth-less. When we sat down to the Seder a few days later, we made the blessing recited on Jewish festivals and on the occasion of major milestones: “Blessed are You O Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this day.” Those words took on new meaning with my daughter on my lap, happily sucking on her matzah.
My daughter’s injury sensitized me to how lucky we were that things were not worse. Every day there are countless dangers in our path – I worry most about the cars that rush across the highway I cross each morning with three kids precariously perched in a stroller built for two, but there are also germs and sharp objects and daredevil toddler antics in that split second I turn my back. Each night when I tuck my kids in bed, I ought to thank God for keeping them alive and sustaining them and enabling them to complete the day. All the more so when a full year has elapsed with my children growing healthy and strong. The Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) relates that Rav Yosef made himself a sixtieth birthday party to celebrate that death had not cut him off from his people, referring to the biblical punishment of karet, or excision, which the sages believed a person was susceptible to only until this age. Neither I nor my kids are close to that point, but I can identify with his sigh of relief.
            When my son turns four this month, I am not going to throw him a party. But I’m also not going to let the day go by without marking it in a way that is significant for me, for him, and for our family. Because even if we don’t do it with clowns and balloons, there is no doubt we have much to celebrate.

Walking Books

            I am an avid reader, though these days I read fewer novels and far more children’s picture books. I’m not complaining; one of the greatest pleasures of being a parent is reading aloud to my children. And read aloud I do, all the time. Although a staggering proportion of children’s books are bedtime stories—on the final page the character either falls asleep or wishes the reader good night—in our home we read all day long, in every imaginable context. In the middle of our kitchen table sits a shtender, a wooden stand more commonly used to support volumes of Talmud and other heavy religious tomes. Ours contains a line calligraphied from the Mishnah: “Do not say: When I have time, I will study; lest you never have time.” When I bought it ten years ago, I had far more time to study Torah than I do now, but I have rehabilitated it by using it as a stand for the picture books we read at the breakfast table, including several food-related favorites: The Watermelon Seed, Pete’s a Pizza, Spoon.
            While I am pushing the kids in the stroller—we have a 25-minute walk to and from their preschool every day—I recite to them from the books I’ve committed to memory, particularly those that are in verse. When reading rhyming books to my kids, I usually sing them to a melody of my own devising; as a result, I tend to memorize rhyming books pretty quickly, and can belt them out as we wait for the traffic light to change or make our way across the noisy four-lane highway. Dr. Seuss comes in handy in this regard, especially One Fish, Two Fish, which is essentially a delightful collection of nonsense verse: “The moon was out/ we saw some sheep / we saw some sheep/ take a walk in their sleep…” I want my kids to internalize various meters and rhyme schemes in the hope of cultivating their poetic sensibilities.
            And I want them, too, to learn poetry, and towards that end we have managed to find a few children’s books that consist of illustrated poems, like Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” (which all my kids can more or less sing by heart) and William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger” (they deliver a mean first stanza). Well, I didn’t actually find an illustrated children’s version of “Tyger, Tyger” – it is a song of Experience rather than Innocence, and therefore not standard children’s fare – but we owned a book about a tiger in a forest with awful text but dazzling illustrations, so I printed out the poem from my computer and pasted one stanza over the text of each page. I do this sometimes when we have books with terrific illustrations but terrible text; the book becomes a palimpsest, with another layer of text overlaying the original. Our copy of In My Nest, a silly board book with a three-dimensional felt bird that pops out on the last page, is now called “Shiluah HaKen,” and it contains the full text of the biblical verses about the commandment to send away the mother bird from the nest. This, too, my kids can sing.
            When we have time for more complicated narratives—while waiting our turn at the doctor’s office, or sitting before daunting plates of meatballs and spaghetti—I read them longer books that are essentially short stories for children – like Otto the Story of a Mirror, a delightful tale about a mirror working in a hat shop who is bored with his job and runs away to reflect wondrous and magical sights; at the end of the book he arrives at the famous Isle of Koodle, which he had previously only read and dreamt about, where he meets another mirror, Miranda, and they set sail together. Instead of falling asleep at the end of this book, these characters fall in love: “The two mirrors reflected many wondrous things. But sometimes on a moonlit night, Otto and Miranda just like to look at each other, reflecting back and forth, back and forth, on and on and on, forever and ever and ever.”
            And then there are the stories we read before bed, like Before You Were Bornand The Baby Goes Beep, two books edited and published by the gifted Deborah Brodie z”l; both are excellent transitions to “Now get in your cribs!” – a request often met with demands for an encore. Though it’s not a bedtime story, I unfailingly give in to any request to read our all-time favorite Wild About Books, about a librarian named Molly McGrew who drives her bookmobile into the zoo and gets all the animals hooked on reading: “Raccoons read alone / and babboons read in bunches. / And llamas read dramas / while eating their llunches.” I like to think that my kids fall asleep dreaming of insects scribbling haiku.
            Most of the books we read are heavy on text; I tend to stay away from books that are illustrations only. I will not, for instance, read Goodnight Gorilla. I understand that the point is for the parent and child to come up with their own words, but I much prefer a fixed text. Nor do I stop to explain things as I read – it is more Mikra than Parshanut. Instead I assume that the kids will understand what they can understand, and internalize the rest nonetheless. Sure, there are dangers of this approach. Recently while reading my daughter an illustrated children’s book version of “Sunrise, Sunset,” we came to the line “Share the sweet wine and break the glass” and she pointed to the eyes of the bespectacled groom in the picture and yelled “break the glasses, break the glasses” before lunging for my pair as well. (I hope she marries a guy who wears contacts.)
            Sometimes I wonder if I focus too much on memorization when reading to my kids. But it has been such an important part of my own learning. When I first started reading Shakespeare in high school, I committed to memory several sonnets and soliloquies, even though I only partially understood them. Over the years, a couplet or stanza would inexplicably pop into my head and I’d find that I suddenly understood what it meant, and how it was relevant. Likewise, much of the Torah I know by heart comes from leyning, practicing again and again to chant the verses aloud in synagogue until I know them nearly by heart. To memorize something is to be able to summon it at any time, and therefore truly to own it. Like those sages in the Talmud who were valued not for what they understood but for what they had memorized, I’d like my children to become “walking books,” able to recite the text of their favorite books to themselves and thus to sit down and “read” to themselves even before they are literate. This hasn’t quite happened yet, but when it does, I’m looking forward to some quiet time to finish reading my novel.