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.

Rededicating Chanukah

Last year I lit Chanukah candles in a shiva house. My father-in-law had just passed away, and my husband, his mother, and his four siblings were sitting shiva in their New Jersey home. Each afternoon at about 5pm, the family would get up from their low chairs, take leave of any visitors, and make their way to the foyer to try to introduce a few moments of light into one of the darkest weeks of their lives. Several of my husband’s siblings commented that lighting Chanukah candles and saying Hallel and Shehechiyanu seemed so incongruous during a period of mourning; and it was especially hard to say the final line of the psalm for Chanukah, “You have converted my mourning into dance.” I remember standing alone by the burning candles after everyone had returned to their shiva chairs, watching the flames flicker like trembling tears and wondering whether my husband would ever be able to celebrate Chanukah with a full heart again.

Now, a year later, my associations with Chanukah could not be more different. Our son Matan, now 18 months, has been learning about Chanukah in Gan since Rosh Chodesh. He has come home with painted Styrofoam candles, homemade dreidls, and several new additions to his vocabulary: “Yvonne” (which we eventually realized is “Sevivon”), “Kad katan,” and “Poe” (not the author, but the emphatic completion of the sentence that begins Nes Gadol Haya). He refuses to eat dinner without an Yvonne in each hand, and he responds with glee each time it spins and lands on the floor. If you sing Matan the Sevivon song, he will put his hands on his head and spin around like a whirling dervish until he collapses from dizziness or exhaustion. I have been looking for an electrical Chanukiya for him, since he is obsessed with electricity and enamored of anything he can turn “on” and “off,” but I was told by several storeowners that they are not sold in Israel because the Israeli rabbinate won’t grant a Hekhsher for them lest someone “light” on Shabbat. I was told I could order one from the “Reformim” in America, though I’m still too bemused by this response to pursue the matter any further.

Thanks to Matan, this is the first year I have given Chanukah any thought before the 25thof Kislev, when I usually remember at the last minute to buy a turquoise box of standard-issue candles and dust off my ratty metal Chanukiyah. I have never been able to connect to this holiday; my relationship to most festivals is through texts, but Chanukah lacks a megillah, at least not one that is part of our canon. Although I learned not long ago the chapter of the Talmud that deals with Chanukah, perek Bameh Madlikin of Shabbat, I cannot say that I found the halakhot of candlelighting particularly meaningful or illuminating. Chanukah candles are supposed to be lit only until the last person returns home from the marketplace, but in Jerusalem it is customary to light at nightfall, usually before 5pm. When in the past was I ever home before 5pm to light candles? I identified with the Talmud’s description of Rabbi Zeyra, who would spend the days of Chanukah in an inn and simply add a few coins to a communal pot so that he could be included when the innkeeper lit. This year, though, everything has changed. I pick up Matan at Gan at 4pm every day, and so we are almost always home before 5pm. This seems like the perfect time to light candles, and I can already anticipate how much Matan the pyromaniac (who begs us to do Havdalah every night of the week) will enjoy this mitzvah.

In a sense, my new associations with Chanukah have perhaps re-dedicated this holiday for me, and I hope for my husband as well. Last year Chanukah was a time of darkness and grief, in which we spent more time thinking about a flame—a Nishmat Adam—that had been snuffed out before its time than about the miracle of a small jug of oil that lasted longer than anyone expected. Chanukah, I am reminded, is about how things can last longer than one ever dreamed possible – not just burning oil, but also the memories of those we love who are no longer with us. As we stand watching the candles by the window in the winter chill, I hope that God will indeed convert mourning into rejoicing, and that the flames that once seemed to be flickering will be dancing instead.

Speech for Pidyon HaBen of Matan Aharon 10.6.11

Two days ago, on Shavuot morning, Daniel and I sat in this park with Matan trying to lull him to sleep. Matan had conducted his own Tikun Leyl the night before, waking each hour to eat milk and spit up cheese in accordance with the custom to eat dairy on this chag. After a night of no sleep, I did not make it to shul that morning, so I davened in the park with Matan, sharing with him the highlights of Shacharit. Chief among them was Akdamut, the piyut recited before beginning the Torah reading, a long liturgical poem composed in the eleventh century by Rabbi Meir Yitzchak of Worms. This mystical poem moves from a description of the creation of the world to the splendors of the World to Come, and as I chanted aloud to Matan each of the ninety Aramaic stanzas, I realized how much of the piyut’s imagery was appropriate to the place where we were sitting that morning and where we are all now gathered today – beneath a trellis covered by a canopy of trees in a quiet corner of this beautiful park. The poem describes a messianic future in which all of the Tzadikim will gather in Yerushalayim, beneath a divine bridal canopy inside the Garden of Eden. There God will prepare a banquet for the righteous, and they will sit around tables of precious gems and drink their fill from overflowing goblets in a redeemed world. As we stand here today overflowing with joy, preparing to redeem our precious son and enjoy a Seudat Mitzvah on this beautiful Jerusalem morning, I cannot help but think that after joining with God in the creation of Matan, we have truly been granted a taste of the World to Come.

It seems fitting that we are celebrating Matan’s Pidyon HaBen not just two days after reciting Akdamut but also one day before reading parashat Baha’alotcha, the parsha that provides the textual underpinning for this ceremony.

כִּי לִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי אֹתָם לִי. יח וָאֶקַּח אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל-בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. יט וָאֶתְּנָה אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם נְתֻנִים לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַעֲבֹד אֶת-עֲבֹדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
“Every firstborn among the Israelites, man as well as beast, is Mine; I consecrated them to Myself at the time that I smote the firstborn in the land of Egypt. Now I take the Levites instead of every firstborn of the Israelites, and from among the Israelites I formally assign the Levites and Aharon and his sons, to perform the ritual service for the Israelites in Ohel Moed.” (Numbers 8:17-19).

Another connection to this week’s parsha appears in a recent daf yomi, Menachot 86b. In speaking of the lights that were kindled in the Mishkan—which is also the subject of the opening of the parsha, B’haalotcha et HaNerot– we are told:
צו את בני ישראל ויקחו אליך שמן זית זך כתית למאור להעלות נר תמיד

“Command the Israelite people to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling the eternal lamp.” (Leviticus 24:2). The Talmud teaches:
אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אליך ולא לי לא לאורה אני צריך
Shmuel bar Nachmani questions why the Torah adds the extra word Elecha, for you. The Talmud’s response is that God specifies that the oil for this light is “for you” because the Ner Tamid is lit for the sake of human beings who need to be reminded of God’s eternal presence, and not for God, who needs no such reminder. It is we human beings whose faith in God’s presence may flicker and grow dim, and it is therefore we who need the eternal lamp, which burns not for God’s sake, but for ours.

We might extend this concept to say that God does not need the Bekhorot consecrated to him, and when we redeem them back, we are not just exempting them from priestly service. Just as God does not need the light of the eternal lamp, so too does God not need Matan Aharon to engage in Temple service. It is human beings of imperfect faith who need the reminder the lamp provides, just as it is human beings in an imperfect world who look to the potential of new life to perform some act of Tikun in the world, thereby inspiring us with hope for the future. And so Daniel and I would like to think that today we are not just buying back our son from the Kohanim; we are also dedicating him to doing God’s work in a world sorely in need of repair and renewal. We offer our Matan as a gift to partner in some aspect of God’s work, and to heal some part of God’s creation.

It is in this spirit of partnering in creation that we will shortly be planting a tree in honor of Matan’s birth and in honor of the birth of Hallel Libson, daughter of our friends Ayelet and Adi. The Talmud teaches in Masechet Gittin, in the midst of the aggadot about the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem, that there was a custom whereby whenever a baby boy was born, a cedar tree would be planted in his honor; and when a girl was born, a cypress. And when they would get married, the two trees would be cut down and used to make the poles for their chuppah. Now, we don’t want to make any assumptions about Hallel and Matan’s future romantic predilections –we cannot know whether Matan will date older women, or whether Hallel will consent to marry the boy next door—but Daniel and I do like the idea of putting down roots in the soil of Eretz Yisrael just a few years after we each made aliyah, as per the words of Shirat HaYam:
תְּבִאֵמוֹ וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ פָּעַלְתָּ יְהוָה מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָי כּוֹנְנוּ יָדֶיךָ.
You, God, will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain, the place You made to dwell in, O Lord, the sanctuary O Lord. (Exodus 15:17)

The Mikdash is the province of Aharon HaKohen, Matan’s Biblical namesake, to whom many of the commandments of this week’s parsha are addressed. It is Aharon who is supposed to mount the lamps of the Menorah, and it is Aharon who supervises the Levites and prepares them to serve in Ohel Moed, the place of God’s dwelling during the Israelites’ journey to the promised land where they ultimately put down roots. More generally, Aharon is responsible for the ritual aspects of Jewish worship, whereas his brother Moshe gives them the Torah, the book of laws and teachings that we are meant to occupy ourselves with day and night, as we are reminded in Akdamut:
צבי וחמיד ורגיג דילאון בלעותא
God desires and longs and covets that Israel should toil in Torah study.

In naming our son Matan Aharon, we hope that he will embody both of these aspects of Jewish tradition – the lifelong commitment to Talmud Torah, as well as the rituals involved in divine service. We hope that our son, like his namesake, will be Ohev et HaBriot, and that his love for human beings will find expression in the teaching of Torah, so that he might be m’karvan la Torah – bringing other people closer to Torah. The root of m’karvan is also the root of korban, sacrifice. As we redeem our Matan Aharon today from the priestly responsibility for the korbanot, it is our fervent wish that he will dedicate himself to being one who is m’karvan laTorah, one who brings the light of Torah into people’s lives so that it may burn steadily and unwaveringly for all eternity.

Speeches for Brit of Matan Aharon, 18.5.11

INK:

From the moment we found out I was pregnant, D and I began counting. A pregnancy is measured in nine months or forty weeks, each of which we counted in excited anticipation. By the time we came to Pesach and sang about Tisha Yarchei Leida, we were no longer counting months or weeks, but days to my due date. And then that date passed, and we moved to counting the days past my due date. By Yom HaZikaron the baby was three days late, so we walked the entire way back from Har Herzl to our apartment in the German Colony to try to stimulate the onset of labor. Then on Yom Haatzmaut, when I was four days overdue, we went to the Jerusalem Theatre for Hidon HaTanakh, a program I watch every year on the internet, hoping that if we watched it live, then the suspense that accompanied each Biblical trivia question would intensify the contractions that had already begun. We also wanted to give our baby a chance to review all the Torah he had learned in the womb, before he came out and forgot it all. (We are confident that if only his voice could have been heard from inside my uterus, he would have been the winner this year!) The Hidon seemed to have done the trick, because by the time we got home that afternoon, we were already counting the minutes between contractions.

That night, in between contractions I remembered to count the Omer – I guess that my head was already so used to counting by that point, which is perhaps the reason that this is one of the only years that I have made it so far in the Sefira. When we count the Omer, we are of course counting up the days to Shavuot, Zman Matan Torateinu, for which our son is named. He was born during the week of Shabbat Parashat Behar Sinai, which reviews the laws given at Sinai, including the countdown to שנת השמיטה. And he was also born during the sixth perek of Masekhet Menahot in the Daf Yomi cycle, the chapter that deals with Minchat HaOmer, the barley sacrifice brought to the Temple on the sixteenth day of Nisan, the second night of Pesach. The Talmud explains that this is also the night that we begin counting the Omer, and this chapter elaborates on the details of how we count, when we count, and what happens if we miss a day in the countdown to Matan Torah.

Our own Matan, having internalized the lesson of Yom Haatzmaut, held out until he could have his own independent birthday, and so he was not born until 7am the next morning. He was given to us after an unforgettable Tikun Leyl, a long night which I spent at home with my mother and D and our wonderful doula. As the night drew on and my labor intensified, it truly felt like the heavens were opening for our child to pass through into this world. When we finally drove to the hospital at 5:30am, the sun rising in a magnificent האיר מזרח over the hills of Ein Karem, it felt a little like the delirium of early Shavuot morning davening after a night of no sleep. Like Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai, it was with loud cries and trembling that I received from heaven the gift of our son, our Matan.

Matan means gift, and it is used to refer to the gift of Torah, which Matan learned in the womb and which D and I have been teaching him since the moment he was born – today he is eight dapim old. The first letter of his name, Mem, is a remez to the first name of my mother’s father, Rabbi Mordecai Rubin, a beloved teacher of Torah with whom I had the privilege to study before he died just a year after my Bat Mitzvah. Matan’s name also contains the two letters Taf and Nun, which are the root of the Aramaic word for “teach” or “learn,” used in the Talmud to introduce an earlier teaching: Tanya, Tani, Tanu Rabbanan. Torah is passed down from generation to generation by teaching and learning, and it is our fervent wish to transmit to our son the love of Talmud Torah which is such an integral part of the lives of both of our families, and of our love for one another. D, I feel so fortunate that my son has such a special father, and so blessed that you are my husband. Watching you fall in love in love with our son has made me fall in love with you all over again. I pray that God will grant us the merit to raise our son to Torah, as well as to Chuppah and Maasim Tovim, and that the gift of our Matan will teach us the lessons of gratitude and awe, so that we may forever remember to count our blessings.

D:

Matan’s middle name is Aharon in memory of his great-grandfather, Aharon Yizhak Levenstein, whose twenty-fourth yahrzeit was yesterday. My zaidie was an extraordinary man: a devoted husband, father, and grandfather, a noted baal tzedaka, Holocaust survivor, businessman, and ardent Zionist. But first and foremost, he was a builder in every sense of the word: he sought, after the Shoah, to lay the foundations for future generations. Like Aharon HaKohen, he suffered the devastating loss of his first children but never lost his optimism and faith in a more vibrant future. After he survived the Shoah thanks to Oskar Schindler, he reconnected with his wife, who had survived separately, and at age 42 and 40, in an Austrian DP camp, they miraculously gave birth to my mother, an only child who in turn raised five children of her own and is now grandmother to ten, ken yirbu. We hope my zaidie is watching today with joy at the enormous success of his efforts to build the family and Jewish future which our Matan inherits.

We hope our son will combine the legacy he inherits with his own unique gifts, fulfilling a bracha in this week’s parsha:
וַאֲכַלְתֶּם יָשָׁן, נוֹשָׁן; וְיָשָׁן, מִפְּנֵי חָדָשׁ תּוֹצִיאוּ.
As a sign of Hashem’s blessing, harvests will be so abundant that older crops will overlap with the newer ones that, during the times of the Beit HaMikdash, were permitted only after the Omer offering had been brought. In naming our son after both of maternal grandfathers, we hope to mingle the old with the new. We pray that our son will embody the values of the older generation, while also coming into his own as a first-generation Israeli, which would have made all of our grandparents very proud.

As we stand here today with Matan Aharon on this seam between the Old City of Yerushalayim and the new, surrounded by all four of Matan’s grandparents and five of his many aunts and uncles, we feel the plenitude of Hashem’s bracha.

The prior generations played an active role in bringing Matan into this world. We are grateful to my parents, Baba and Saba, for remaining in Israel since Pesach and for organizing this simcha. We will also forever remember the devoted role played by Matan’s Savta Alisa, who has been living in our second bedroom for the past two weeks and can now add to her Jewish continuity professional portfolio the title of midwife par excellence. Thank you Savta, and thank you Saba Neil for making the trip at the last minute to join us at Matan’s brit. We know you also bring love and greetings from Matan’s great grandparents in Princeton, שיבדלו לחיים ארוכים. May we merit to celebrate all his milestones in good health together.

We also want to recognize our siblings Michael, Mindy, and Eytan who likewise made the trip to be here today. And a special thanks to Estie and Elizur, who prepared us with every conceivable baby provision except the baby himself. If our child is better dressed than we are, Estie deserves the credit. To all of you and Matan’s many uncles, aunts, and cousins, we love you much and are grateful for your support.

Finally, INK focused on the significance of Matan’s birth during Sefirat HaOmer, but I want to add that this transitional time has additional meaning for the two of us, as it was the period during which we fell in love. It is through the sacrifice of the Omer that the new generation, the latest offspring is celebrated and enjoyed on a festive morning when the eastern sky is illuminated. And it is during the Omer that we find the equilibrium of our love, as we move from the passionate ardor of Shir Hashirim to the more mature commitment of Rut and Boaz. So it is appropriate that it was on an unforgettable night and morning of the Omer that I found my love for you, INK, renewed. As I told our son immediately after he was born, he is blessed with a very special mother, which you have shown yourself to be in the first week of his life. Few mothers would begin reading to their children fifteen minutes after birth, and you are perhaps the only mother who has sung Daf Yomi to your baby each morning throughout his first week. You gave birth to Matan with a sensitivity, vulnerability, and profound strength that is authentically and wholly your own, and I am supremely privileged to share my life with you. Matan’s birth, which we celebrate today on Pesach Sheni, will forever be a midway point for us between Shir Hashirim and Megillat Rut, between passionate Ahava Raba and enduring Ahavat Olam. May we merit to shower our son with every form of affection, as we raise him in the image of our parents and grandparents to love Torah, Am Yisrael, and Eretz Yisrael, and to always seek out the tzelem elokim that is inscribed on his adorable, perfect face.

Against Writer’s Festivals: A Manifesto

Next week is the second annual international writer’s festival in Jerusalem, where authors from all over the world congregate in Yemin Moshe to engage in a dialogue with one another. The festival is open to the public, and for a 40-shekel ticket, one can hear David Grossman in conversation with Paul Auster, or Jonathan Safran-Foer sharing a podium with Etgar Keret. A rare opportunity, and the talk of the town among the literati of Jerusalem. Since I work in publishing, and since my friends know me as a lover of books, everyone I meet keeps stopping to ask: “So, will I see you at the writer’s festival? You must be going to everything!” Contrary to their expectations, I am attending nothing.

Why not? Well, it is true that my life revolves around books. During the day I sell translation rights for books to Israeli publishers; I also moonlight as an editor and translator; and in the corners of my time I organize and edit the book reviews section of a Jewish magazine. In addition, I write study guides about books for reader’s groups; and I critique the manuscripts written by the friends of the friends of the friends of my friends (since I don’t seem to know how to say no to anybody, ever). On Shabbat, and when I am too tired to translate or edit or review, I indulge in reading books — not those that have yet to be published (which I must squint at on screen as my eyesight continues to fail me), but those that are already printed and bound and available for sale on Amazon. And so yes, I love books. But loving books is very different from loving writers.

I do not love writers, certainly not most of them. In fact, having made a career out of working with them, I find most writers insufferable. (And here I must add warily: If you are an author-friend of mine kind enough to read the blog of my amateur writing self, please believe me: I am not talking about you!) From my experience, most writers, like most artists, are extremely egotistical. As well they must be. It takes tremendous self-confidence to believe that you have something to say that is worth writing. It takes a healthy ego to think that the best way for you to spend your time when you wake up in the morning is to sit at your desk and write. You have to have faith in yourself, in your talent, and in the fertility of your own creative mind. You have to be patient when the ideas do not flow, and you have to be willing to stare at a blinking cursor and trust that the floodgates of the imagination will burst forth again.

As I do not. I am besieged by doubts about whether what I have to say is worth saying, and I never think that writing is a good use of my prime working hours. I write only in the wee hours of the night (like now!), after I’ve come home from work, translated my daily quota of paragraphs, edited whatever is in my inbox, and read whatever I’ve promised to read for others. I permit myself to write—because writing requires permission, as if I am still in grade school waving my hand in the air for a bathroom pass—only when I have no other commitments, or when I feel sufficiently ahead in my work to take a brief break from other people’s words and indulge in organizing my own thoughts on paper. Disregarding Hillel I say: When I have time, I will write; and then rarely do I have time. Moreover, when the ideas do not come to me as quickly as I would like, I abandon ship and fix myself a bowl of ice cream. And when I do manage to finish a piece, more often than not I am reluctant to share what I have written, convinced that the words I plant excitedly tonight I will want to uproot regretfully in the morning, bearing sheaves of crossed-out pages…..

The writers who speak at writer’s festivals are not like me. For the most part, they trust in themselves and in their craft, and they speak with confidence to a crowd of adoring fans who ask them such inane questions as: Do you use a pen or a computer? Did you always know you were an author? I’m sorry, but I could do without this literary lovefest. Yes, there is much to learn from writers – but I learn not from hearing them speak, but from reading their words. I will read a book several times over and underline and copy out and buttonhole strangers with the passages I love (most recently, the peach seduction scene in Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector). This is far more valuable than hearing an author read from his book (unless he is a poet, but that is a different meter), or discuss the genesis of his most recent masterpiece. If I love a writer, I want to inhabit her paragraphs; I want to read her words until I can recite them by heart — until I find myself unconsciously writing in her style and dreaming about her characters. I do not need to shake his hand. I do not need my copy of his book autographed. And I certainly don’t need to know where and when and how he writes.

I have attended author readings in the past, and rarely do I leave feeling satisfied. Often I become angry at myself for not writing more. Or worse, I grow jealous and resentful of the writer up there on stage, who allowed himself all those hours of cultivating his own ideas instead of editing and translating other people’s words like the lowly amanuensis that I am. What can I say? Literary events do not bring out the best in me. Books do.

I wonder if I will ever allow myself to become a “real” writer, by which I mean someone who dedicates her primary working hours to trying to write. Sometimes I hope I’ll give myself this chance. Most of the time I am just so excited to curl up in bed with a book by a writer I’ve never met and never hope to meet, and call it a day.

Love poems are never as good as sad ones

1.
Love poems are never as good as sad ones—
And rarely do we write in times of joy.
If I could gaze into your eyes forever
I’d happily sink into dreaded cliché
Or abandon my pen to the wind, to the wings of a bird
To a feathered quill that would script out our names in the sky.

2.
They say she will tire of his poems,
Emailed to her desk at work
Not with flowers or fanfare or fantails
Nor folded-up newspaper wrapping
Just his words, in times new roman, time again
–And could I ever want for more than this–
She asks herself, composing
Her features for when she will see him next.

3.
i read too much billy collins
and everything i write sounds much like him.
sometimes i must ask–
is this a poem?
or just a confession i scribbled once
on the bottom of a shopping list–
eggs
yogurt
carrots
lettuce
i read
too much
billy
collins.