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.

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.

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.

Truly How Majestic: In Memory of Bonna Devora Haberman z"l

When I think of Bonna Devora Haberman z”l, I picture her leaping into the air on Yom Kippur afternoon, her face pale but beaming as she gathers everyone within arm’s reach into a circle for a triumphant chanting of Mareh Kohen, the liturgical poem about “truly how majestic” was the look on the high priest’s face when he successfully exited the Holy of Holies. Bonna was very proud of her Kohanic lineage, and even though she sometimes came late to shul, she never missed Birkat Kohanim – when she and her husband and children would get up to bless the congregation from beneath their tallitot, breathing new harmonies into the ancient biblical text.
            When I wasn’t davening with Bonna – we participated in the same minyanim both at Harvard Hillel and in Jerusalem – I would often see her jogging in the early mornings with her husband Shmuel and their dog Sumsum. Bonna rarely stood still. A self-avowed “textual activist,” she was also always active, always on the go, never content to let anything be. At the funeral her husband Shmuel—always the quiet one in their relationship, Matthew Cuthbert to her Marilla—told the story of how he first met her in college in Ottawa at an Israeli dance class, where Bonna, too, was spinning circles around him. At one point he sat her down and asked her to tell him her dreams. “I dream of a large barn and a community of women, dancing, reading books, busy with organic farming, discussing ideas, and caring for children.” A community of women was not exactly what Shmuel had in mind, but Bonna had given him his opening. “Where will all the children come from?” he asked, feigning innocence. “Well, a few men will be allowed once in a while,” Bonna conceded. Then she asked Shmuel his fantasy, and he said he wanted to retire with her to a desert island. Bonna was quickly dismissive. “We can’t,” she said. “There’s too much in this world that needs fixing.”
            Bonna insisted that Dayenu must end with Tikun Olam, because only when the world was healed would it truly be enough. For her, that was what building the Temple—the actual last line of Dayenu—was about. It was what drove her to help found Women of the Wall, a monthly Rosh Hodesh group where women donned the garments of ritual prayer and read from the Torah at the Kotel. And it was what inspired her brilliant writing about the Beit HaMikdash, including her profoundly bold and radical essay “The Yom Kippur Avodah in the Female Enclosure,” which I reread every year on Yom Kippur and which has inspired so much of my own writing and thinking about eroticism and the Talmudic sages. For a while Bonna became, for me, the embodiment of that essay, as if that one piece comprised the entirety of her identity; each time I’d run into her I’d buttonhole her with further questions and new ideas inspired by her words.
            But Bonna was so much more. When she wasn’t writing she was fighting sex trafficking around the globe, pushing for gender equality at the Kotel and in Jerusalem, informally counselling young women about natural childbirth, caring for Mother Earth, and staging theater performances with Israeli and Palestinian women to solve the conflict in the Middle East. One of her sons said that she understood her name to be Bonna DvarYa – that is, a builder of the words of God. Just as the midrash in Breishit Rabba relates that God used the blueprint of Torah to create the world, Bonna looked to Torah for inspiration to repair the world. Another one of her sons said that Bonna, particularly in her last few months of illness, never wanted to sleep. “I’ll have enough time to sleep in the grave,” she insisted. But her son was not so sure. He assured us at the funeral that he has no doubt his mother has already staged a revolution in heaven.
          And he is probably right. I can just imagine Bonna taking the angels by a storm, gathering them in a circle for a frenzied recitation of Mareh Kohen in which it is the angels who are analogized to the priests rather than vice versa. I will miss her presence in shul, especially during Birkat Kohanim – but regardless of what she is up to in heaven, I have no doubt she will still be shining her blessing upon us. יהי זכרה ברוך

In Memory of Phyllis Kurshan

Up until just a few months ago I would exchange emails with my grandmother on a weekly basis. I would tell her about what was going on with my work and my children, and she would respond with the latest news from the Jewish Center, an update on the current household repair project on 73 Random Road, and of course a detailed Princeton weather report. I looked forward to and appreciated her emails, each of which was signed with “All my love, Grandma.” She was always very attuned to what was going on in my life, asking just the right questions about which child was or was not walking yet, and how my latest translation project was progressing, and whether my husband’s semester was over yet. Grandma’s emails also served to update me about what was going on in the life of our family – she corresponded more regularly with the rest of my siblings than we corresponded with each other, and so it was through Grandma that I’d learn about Naamit’s upcoming exam, or Ariella and Leo’s wedding plans, or Eytan’s most recent flight around the world.

I don’t know of any other great grandmothers who are as comfortable with email as Grandma was, but she and Grandpa have always been early adapters. I learned about Skype from them; ever bent on thrift, my grandparents stopped using the phone to call me internationally the moment they discovered Skype. I remember that when Daniel and I decided to get married five years ago, I picked up the phone to call my grandparents because such momentous news seemed deserving of a proper call. I dialed their number in Princeton, and let the phone ring. “Hello?” Grandma answered. “It’s Ilana,” I told her, and immediately shared the good news: “We’re getting married!” I expected her to say mazel tov, but instead her response was, “What happened to your Skype?”

Grandma and I were in touch so frequently because we had a lot in common. We shared recipes – each week I would write with a full list of everything I was cooking for Shabbat, and she would compliment me on my industriousness and ambition and tell me what was boiling on her stove in Princeton. To this day, whenever I want to make my favorite lentil soup, I pull up the email I sent grandma in 2009, because I typed up the recipe for her, and that is the only place I have it saved. In addition to recipes. Grandma and I also shared melodies – Grandma loved to sing, especially in shul, and in the last decade of her life she began leading the Torah service regularly at the Princeton Jewish Center. I, too, led services regularly at my minyan in Jerusalem, and so I would ask her which tunes she’d use for the various parts of the service and share my own melodies. And finally, Grandma and I shared a birthday – almost. We were born 52 years and one day apart – she was May 21, and I May 22—and so each year we’d exchange birthday messages on consecutive days. For the first three decades of my life, she and Grandpa would send me Hallmark cards every year on my birthday; more recently, they \switched to  animated e-cards which featured electronic music , dancing candles, and piles of presents that paraded across my computer screen. I did not always have the time or patience for such things. But With time I learned that I had to actually listen to the entire video, or else my grandparents would receive a message saying that the card had not been read, and I’d be outted.

            Two months ago I tried to make a birthday cake for my son’s third birthday; it was a simple chocolate cake baked in an aluminum foil pan that tasted not nearly as good as the fudgey chocolate brownie squares I associate with her wooden dessert drawer on Random Road. I thought back to Grandma’s spectacular birthday cakes, which were unparalleled in their creativity and colorfulness: The cookie monster cake with turquoise icing, the M & M cake with rows hundreds of M&M’s organized by color. If only Matan’s mother were one tenth as talented as his great grandmother! In recent weeks, when Grandma’s health has been especially precarious, I invoked her by singing the songs she used to sing to me as a child, many of which I have not thought about in at least thirty years: Zoom Gali Gali (which I have a distinct memory of singing with her in the car over and over, counting each round, until our count reached over a hundred!). And then there was Grandma’s other favorite, a song that is so terrifying that I can’t believe I have taught it to my own kids: “I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor/ I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor/ I’m being eaten by a boa constrictorrrrrrrr / And it’s already up to my neck.” If only you were here so I could ask you now: Grandma, what were you thinking?

            Grandma, there is so much more I wish I could ask you and share with you, and it makes me so sad to think that I won’t be able to send you emails anymore. I have one last message I wish I could send, and I’m typing it out here in the hope that somehow it will reach you.

Dear Grandma,

I miss you so much and wish I could be closer now. E-mail has done a remarkable job of bridging the distance between us, but at times like these, I feel so far away. Even though it is the height of summer, I made our lentil soup recipe today. If it ever cools down outside, I’ll be able to taste it and let you know how it came out. How is the weather in Princeton? I miss you. I love you. All my love, Ilana

Simchat Banot — Liav and Tagel

Friday morning, 22 February 2013
י”ב אדר תשע”ג

INK:

Our daughters were born last Thursday afternoon, and so I was still in the maternity ward on Shabbat parshat Teruma. As I do whenever I cannot make it to shul, I leyned the parsha aloud, this time while sitting in my hospital bed with the bassinets of our two daughters on either side of me. The hospital bassinets are essentially rectangular transparent plastic cases containing mattresses resting on a cart with wheels, and so I could observe my daughters at all times. As newborns are wont, they lay with their hands above their heads, each one looking towards the other and hence facing me as well as I taught them about the building of the Mishkan. I smiled when I came to the description of the two planks supporting the corners of the tabernacle, which are supposed to be To’amim, matching – a word I accidentally misread as Te’omim, twins. But the pasuk that most resonated for me was the description of the Keruvim on either side of the Kaporet: (24:20).

והיו הכרובים פורשי כנפיים למעלה, סוככים בכנפיהם על-הכפורת, ופניהם, איש אל-אחיו; אל-הכפורת–יהיו, פני הכרובים.

As I watched my two angelic daughters face towards one another with their arms swaying above their heads, I felt myself in that most holy of holy places between the Keruvim, where the divine presence communicated with the people of Israel (25:22):

ונועדתי לך, שם, ודיברתי איתך מעל הכפורת מבין שני הכרובים, אשר על-ארון העדות–את כל-אשר אצווה אותך, אל-בני ישראל.

The space between the Keruvim was the point of contact between the divine and the human. For me, the experience of giving birth to our twin daughters also afforded rare and intimate access to the divine, the Boreh Olam, creator of all living things. As I lay in the hospital between my two daughters leyning parshat Teruma, I was reminded that the Mishkan offered a new way of meeting God in the world and a new avenue for religious expression, which are gifts that our daughters offer us as well.

The Torah teaches that the faces of the Keruvim were turned toward one another. To my astonishment, this is also how Liav and Tagel sleep. Ever since we returned from the hospital, we have been placing them side-by-side in our pack-and-play crib. Regardless of how we position them, within a few moments they always turn their heads towards one another. Sometimes one baby opens her eyes and peers intently at her sister; other times they look into each other’s eyes before sinking into sleep. But they are almost always facing one another, each somehow reassured and calmed by the presence of her sister. We can only hope that this is how they will go through the rest of their lives, turning to one another in friendship, support, reassurance, and love.

The image of angelic presences speaks to me on another level as well. This past week, Daniel and I spent many intense hours trying to name our daughters. In so doing, we were reminded  of a midrash about Jacob’s struggle with the angel in Parshat Vayishlach. Jacob asks the angel his name:

הגידה נא שמך

And the angel responds:

למה זה תשאל לשמי

The midrash in Breishit Rabba connects this verse to another encounter between a human and angel that appears in Sefer Shoftim: Shimshon’s father Manoach asks the angel his wife has encountered for the angel’s name, and the angel responds:

למה זה תשאל לשמי והוא פלאי

The midrash explains that angels change their names based on the particular mission they are sent to accomplish at any given moment. And so I imagine that in choosing a name for our daughters, we are also in some sense charging them with a unique mission in the world. I have felt this past week that so long as our daughters were still unnamed, every mission remained open to them. I imagined thousands of winged angels hovering over us, each representing a different name we might choose, and each angel beating its wings in hopeful anticipation that perhaps that angel might be the one whose mission matches the name we choose for our child. This amassing of angelic presences may explain why the first week of a newborn child’s life is such a time of intense connection to an otherworldly realm. The moment our daughters are named—like the moment when the box with Schroedinger’s cat is opened—all the angels fly off, leaving just two, one for each of our girls.

Perhaps the two angels who remained were the same angels that accompanied the namesakes of each of our daughters, Daniel’s father and my maternal grandmother. My Savta Gilla Rubin, for whom Tagel is named, was a vibrant, headstrong woman who grew up in Brooklyn but spent her entire adult life as the rebbetzin at the Wantagh Jewish Center on Long Island. Still, the place in the world where she was happiest was Yerushalayim, where she and my Zaidy spent many sabbaticals attending parshat hashavua shiurim just as Daniel and I love to do. Together they took their children on their first family trip here in June 1967, where Savta enjoyed showing off her Biblical Hebrew in all the most modern contexts.  Having grown up with Zionist Hebraist parents and grandparents, Hebrew was, in fact, her first language. I was fortunate to share with her a love not just of Hebrew, but also of crossword puzzles and literary novels – I always knew which books were hers because she wrote in pen in the margins (I only dare use pencil) and because the pages were pervaded by her distinctive perfume which I can still smell to this day, exactly 18 years and one week after her death. We hope Tagel will draw from her spirit and embody her strength, her vibrancy, her love of language and literature and her attachment to the Jewish people.

DBF:

My father, Chuck Feldman, alav hashalom, would have rejoiced at this simcha, and his absence, which we feel so keenly today, is all that impinges on this wonderful occasion. A consummate family man, he knew that every simcha must be celebrated to the fullest. Our girls are the first grandchildren born to the family since our Saba left us, and so it is appropriate that the first of our daughters, Liav, bears a name that pays tribute to his memory. Li-av. To me my father was a model of commitment to family, community, and Am Yisrael. A devoted physician, he was also a leader of the Jewish community in northern New Jersey, especially in the realm of Torah education. He was a trusted advisor whose empathy and concern for others made him beloved to so many. He was a wonderful, charming man, and he relished every moment with his family. As my mother, may she live ad meah v’esrim, holds our beautiful Liav before us, we feel dad’s bracha upon us. Along with Ilana’s Savta Gilla and our other departed grandparents, Zaidy Mel Rubin, Grandma Betty and Grandpa Joe Feldman, Baba Sally and Zaidie Isak Levenstein, Dad is surely looking down upon us from the yeshiva shel ma’ala, smiling his radiant smile with his characteristic twinkle in his eye, as we welcome these two angelic girls into the family he was so proud to build. To quote the words of the Megilla which we will read next week, it is our tefilla that זִכְרו לֹא יָסוּף מִזַּרְעו.

It is also my happy lot in these days of Purim to offer words of shevach and hoda’a for all those responsible for this mishte v’simcha.

First to our parents, whose love and support accompanies us at every step as our family grows. My mom, Baba, arrived with her impeccable timing and inimitable grace just as our twins were born. Mom, you are always selfless in offering to do anything and everything on our behalf, including buying now a second crib for our home. You instill in us a sense of gratitude for all that we are blessed to experience. Ilana’s parents, Savta and Saba Kurshan, have been our neighbors for the past few weeks, helping us prepare for the twins’ arrival, caring for Matan, and offering all kinds of help, love, and support with characteristic good cheer and attention to detail. Thank you for all you have done for us during this special period, including reading the name dictionary that one last time. We are so pleased to celebrate with all of you, and we extend our love to the proud great grandparents in Princeton New Jersey, Grandma Phyllis and Grandpa Jerry Kurshan.

We also recognize the endless generosity of my sister, Estie Agus, who, along with Elizur, and their adorable children, are extraordinary role models of chessed. Estie sends us food, clothes, babysitters, and everything we could possibly need. Liav and Tagel, prepare to be spoiled. As Matan has already discovered, you will quickly learn that visiting your cousins in Raanana is our family’s equivalent of Disneyland – if not Gan Eden.

We are also deeply grateful to our other siblings, including Mindy, who was here with us last Shabbat, and Naamit, who spent hours and hours in late-night phone consultations about matters medical and nomenclatural. Michael and Nira, Joe and Dana, Mindy and Eric, Naamit and Michael, Ariella and Leo, Eytan – we feel your love from afar, and we can’t wait to introduce you to your nieces.

Finally, to Ilana, I can only express my endless love and admiration. Everyone here knows how remarkable a woman you are, but only the children and I witness the full force of your creative genius day to day. You brought these beautiful girls into the world with determination, intensity, and even your characteristic wit — who else would have been offering divrei torah in the delivery room between contractions to the nurses, the midwife and the anesthesiologist? With the blessed arrival of these two babies wrapped up in their little scrolls, may it be said that we commit our love to each other anew: קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר. It is the supreme privilege of my life to be your husband, partner, and father to our children.

Thank you all for joining us today. Chag Purim Sameach, enjoy the seudat Hodaya, and Mazal tov.

SABBA NEIL:

It was an Et Ratzon, a propitious moment, when we had the privilege of being in the hospital with Ilana and Daniel as Ilana gave birth to these two beautiful babies whom we are naming today. These girls were welcomed into a room  that was Tzahalah v’samecha—a room ringing with joyous cries.
These children are named today during the week we read Parashat Tetzaveh. The Parasha this week continues to address the details of theMishkan—this week not so much the construction of the Mishkan but rather the roles of the Kohanim and specifically the details of the clothing they were to wear when serving in the Mishkan.

Ktzat muzar–it is a little strange that the Parasha spends so much time on the external garments of the Kohanim. Normally in Judaism we focus not so much on the exterior features of a person—we don’t concentrate on their appearance or the clothes they wear but rather onthe integrity and purity that defines their souls and character. We are more concerned for the purity of the soul than the cleanliness of the clothes. But there is an expression “that clothes make the man”– or perhaps it is more appropriate to say today that clothes make the woman.  These tiny girls were born into the world without any outer garments or possessions—just two naked bodies squirming and crying b’simcha u-v’sa-son–as they made the passage from the world of the womb into theroom of the world.

But from the moment of their birth these two babies began the process of individuation that will continue throughout their lives. One was bornfirst; the other was born second.  One with blond hair;  the other with brown. One seemed pensive; the other active. Today the names thatIlana and Daniel give to these girls will further define them.

Each name is an external garment that dresses each of these girls in the clothing of their individuality.  As twins part of their challenge in life will be not only to uncover their distinctiveness, but also to distinguish themselves from each another.

But it is not only their names which will define them during their lives. It is also their parents who will shape who they will become. These girls have been born to parents who share a love of Torah, a passion for literature and a respect for history. They have been born to parents who have chosen to build their lives in Israel and to raise their children in the homeland of the Jewish people. They have born as sisters to their brother, Matan, who so far has been very gentle and loving toward them. They have been born into two families, the Kurshans and the Feldmans who come from a lineage of study, learning and Ahavat Yisrael. I know I speak for Alisa and Rella when I say how privileged we are to be here as grandparents during these weeks and to share  the beginning of these girls’ lives. And I know, Daniel, you will tell your children the stories about your father so they will know the full richness of their inheritance.

And lastly these children will be defined by their community. Aside from the time Alisa and I have been able to spend with you, Ilana and Daniel, and with your children, it has also been wonderful for us to meet so many of your friends and to come to know the personal and professional communities of which you are a part. You will never have to raise your children alone because there is indeed a village of your friends here who will support you. We have been touched, as I know both of you have been, by the overflowing good wishes of all your friends and colleagues as well as by their concrete offers of help. We know that your children will always be surrounded by an abundance of their peers. Theirs will never be the only stroller pushed through the streets of Jerusalem; rather they will be surrounded by the strollers of so many other children that fill the streets of this city.

So these two girls born naked into the world have already been adorned in the garments of our tradition. We know these girls will grow up enveloped by the teachings of our texts and the music of our Masoret. Today you begin to dress and address them by their names. You wrap them in your love  as their parents. You clothe them in the care of their grandparents, your friends, and your community. You crown these girls with the adornment of their Jewish inheritance. May the garments that they wear be like the garments of the ancient Kohanim–clothing l’khavod  ul-tif-ah-ret– garments that adorn these girls in dignity and radiance.

המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע יברך את הנערות

May your daughters always following in the footsteps of the angels who will guide their lives. May they always be a blessing to their families and to their community.  May God watch over them and protect them. May God bless these girls so that they will both become an adornment and a crown l’kol am Yisrael–to the entire community of Israel.