Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Child in a Box

 * a poem *

The UPS man just delivered a brown cardboard box.
It is taped with light brown tape;
next to the scrawled address is a warning:
Caution! Contents may cause fragile objects to break!
Before I open the box, I check my apartment for breakables.
(I forget to look inside myself).

I slide the dull blade of a scissor through the tape and a child pops out.
“I’m hungry!”
I lead the child into the kitchen and listen to baby teeth crunch a sugary granola bar as I boil water and stir in some instant hot cocoa mix.There are marshmallows, of course.

The child slurps up the last chocolate-y dregs and pronounces,
“Let’s play Legos!”
but I shake my head. I gave all my Legos away years ago.
“Do you have trucks?” It tries again,
but I have to say no. I never owned any trucks.
“Then let’s make snow angels.”
This time it is certain. But I shamefully look down at the hardwood floor because, well, people like me grew out of their snow pants one day and didn't buy new ones.

The child plops down on the floor
looking up at me with round brown eyes.
I twinge inside (but don’t break)
and I think of the eight-pack of Crayola markers hiding in my closet.
I retrieve it.
The round brown eyes get rounder.

We begin drawing on the walls.
The walls were boring and white (very adult)
but we fill them with stories.
A swirl of blue forms an ocean,
a spurt of red is a volcano,
a blob of green is a jumping frog prince,
a spot of orange is a retreating sun.
We are busy for hours
writing our lives’ adventures together.
And oh, what adventures they are.

The child gets tired
and curls up against me,
the head snuggling sweetly into my waist.
I want only to feel its softness there forever.
I look up at our wall
and begin to tell the child our stories.
If I tell of a frog prince and princess
who meet just as the sun is setting
and who flick their rough tongues out at each other
at just the right moment
so that magic begins
maybe I can keep the child’s head
nesting against my belly for just a little bit longer.

But then I notice a black spot where the orange sun was just a few minutes ago.
I falter, pausing for a second. How did it get there?
The child twitches.
The story comes back to me then,
but it no longer flows like it once did.

Suddenly, there is a knock on the door.
The child stirs.
I feel an unpleasant pressure in my hip as the child’s elbow digs into it.
When my hand touches the cold metal knob, I know who waits on the other side.

The UPS man--always kind, always polite--holds out his roll of tape and a fresh box.
The child scurries toward him and climbs in.
“But why?” I ask. “Why do you have to go?”
The child looks at me as if it should be obvious.
“You don’t have snow pants.”
With that, the child ducks down and the man tapes up the box.
Because children, like lovers, need you 
and warm your body for only a short time.

With the child gone,
I return to the hardwood floor
and sit
--and perhaps broken--
staring at the blazing wall
and reading our story
again and again
and again.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Prophet

"Who needs soap-operas when you have a family?" my grandmother likes to say. Safta Bilmes, as we call her, never has a shortage of stories about her youth, adulthood, motherhood and grand-motherhood -- each one more riveting than the last, and most of them revolving around her family. As I grow up, I can start to see the truth of her statement: families are a web of weird uncles, long-lost cousins, estranged daughters, divorced parents and wandering children. I have never actually watched a true soap opera, but I can only imagine the mosaic of characters and plot lines. If my Safta says that's family, then that's family.

But we all know that, for the most part, television is highly unrealistic. Especially reality shows (irony of all ironies). Doctors just aren't that gorgeous; there are no vampire slayers; parents don't commit such high levels of cheesy-crime when telling their kids that they love them; string music does not start playing as soon as two lovers lock eyes.

Oddly enough, however, occasionally television does imitate life. I noticed a striking example last week when I re-watched an episode in the seventh season of Gilmore Girls (thank you, Netflix). I have been slowly re-making my way through the last season of the show, hoping to find some redeeming plot points in it while entertaining myself with episodes I have only seen once before.

The first time I watched Season 7 was in 2007 -- I was 16. I watched Rory graduate college with the wide eyes of someone who had only yet dreamed of such halls of intellect and tome-filled libraries. Someday, I would be her.

Now, eight years later, my stage of life matches Rory's and all of a sudden, I understand what's going on. She's floundering in a pool of self-doubt and uncertainty, looking for a first job post-degree. Is she "good enough"? Will employers be willing to take a chance on her inexperience? She also faces a question of priorities: will she follow a job or follow a man? She and Logan have decided to "factor each other in," but what does that really mean? About a year ago, a certain guy and I had decided to "factor each other in" in our job searches, too, but as that process progressed, I realized I wasn't ready to factor in such a wild card. My own self was wild card enough. So I chose career. Spoiler: Rory will, too.

I was struck by how well the lowly art form of television could imitate my life. It made me think about my own journey and my own choices. It made me empathize just a little bit with the brilliant, privileged, gorgeous Rory Gilmore. It made me thankful for what I have (cue cheesy violin music).

And now there is a poem that I want to share with you. It does not relate to Gilmore Girls, but it is the episode of my life that most resembles television, or perhaps a movie. As it was happening to me, a part of my brain knocked at my consciousness: Is this real? Are you sure this is real? Because this is the type of thing that only happens in movies. Except, of course, that it happened to me.
Exactly  like this.  

The Prophet

I met him on a plane.

No, that’s not right.
I met him on the public ride-share van on the way to the airport
but it sounds more like a fairy tale (a modern one) to say that
I met him on a plane.

He hurtled into the van
full of sweat and beer
but wearing a tall suit
and a badge with the name of a prophet on it.
He was breathing hard
so I took a breath and a word slipped out—
just a little one, with a question mark dangling on the end.

The mark led us through the snaking airport lines
(and by “us” I mean me, him and his harmonica)
and as we pushed one cart,
music flowed around us
and the people looked more friendly
than they would have if I had been traveling alone.
We glided past the candy kiosks and the cascading fountain,
and when his passport picture smiled up at me
mine blinked, in disbelief,
back at him.

It was past midnight
and the prince had not yet
turned into a pumpkin.

And then we were in the golden carriage;
bumping along and then flying—magically—
into the night  
and past the second star on the right
and backwards, towards the sunrise.

With the harmonica tucked away,
our voices swung quietly back and forth
between our two seats
until finally he asked,
Can I see your hand?
and so I showed it to him; gave it to him,
wondering if he was reading my palm
with his prophecy,
but it turned out that he just wanted to hold it.
Which was even better.

When we finally fell asleep,
there had been stories
and music
and musical stories
and gazes
in silence
and gazes
with words
and moments when I had closed my eyes
praying that there would be something to gaze at
when I opened them.

And shoulders became pillows
and words became dreams
and every so often
I would wake
in wonder
because arms that I had known for only a few hours
were around me
in comfort
saving me
from the world
that I had come from
and the world
that I was going to.

(Maybe he knew about this place that I was going to.
Maybe he could tell me—he was a prophet, after all.
But prophets don’t reveal the word to just anyone.
You have to deserve it. Would I?)

His lips on my forehead
and the squeeze of his arms
were the final touches
that made our world complete.
Just the two of us.
No other passengers,
no shrink-wrapped omelets,
no dinging seatbelt signs.
Just the prophet and me.

But plane rides end,
and so do all Edens.
All I have left are apple seeds
that the wind blew through my fingers
when I tried to plant them,
and withered flower petals
that flew away
into the sunrise.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Every Girl's Dream

Winter vacation has come and gone, and third-graders still send forth hilarity. Just about every day.
Lately, however, I've noticed a theme to their hilarious comments: gender. I don't really know what to make of this, except that I am fascinated to watch how gender socialization starts to manifest at such a young age. I find myself thinking: What is contributing to their concepts of gender? Do I, the non-influential teaching assistant, get any input? How can I prevent them from thinking that boys are Y and girls are X? But if boys are at least partly Y and girls are at least partly X, is it worth trying persuade them otherwise?

Here are a few examples of what I have heard recently:

*     *     *

We have been learning how to describe eyes and hair in Hebrew: blue eyes, brown eyes, glasses, blonde hair, red hair, short hair, long hair, curly hair, straight hair, there's-no-Hebrew-word-for-wavy hair, etc. A wiry little boy (let's call him T) who is either giggling and giddy with energy or mortally angry because someone took his [insert coveted object here] today, decides to offer his input about hair. E, a very bright but socially awkward boy sits next to T. Depending on the day, T and E are either best friends or arch-nemeses. After we learn that "long hair" is שערות ארוכות (se'arot arukot), T says,

"My sister wants long hair. That's every girl's dream." 
E has a different opinion: "My sister's dream is to overrule her mom," he says

So here we have two eight-year-old boys waxing scholarly on the hopes and dreams of girls. I'd say they've got it about right. Except that they obviously don't know about angled, asymmetrical pixie cuts.

Um, that's a boy. Click if you don't believe me.

*   *   *

Here's another:

An incredibly sweet and kind boy -- you met him a few posts ago -- loves spicy salsa and thinks he becomes "a man" if he eats it without drinking water. He remembered that I laughed heartily at this joke (which I probably shouldn't have if I wanted to discourage him from thinking in gender stereotypes, but it was just SO CUTE) and has since continued with his "be a man" regimen -- mostly to make me laugh. When the class made Hanukkah cookies, he asked me to peel his dreidel-shaped dough off of the table and put it on the cookie sheet.
"I'm a man," he pronounced, "and I can't do delicate things! That's why YOU need to do it for me." I pointed out that he was already deep into the baking process, which might be construed as 'delicate' if he wasn't careful.
A few weeks later, the same child comes in from recess yelling,
"Morah Naomi! I'm the manliest of the manliest and the craziest of the craziest!" I have yet to figure out exactly what that means, but I think I get the gist.

She made the cookies, of course.
As you can see, the concept of "manliness" is already evident in eight-year-olds, even if they don't have a complete grasp on what it can mean. When I ask the boys what they want to be when they grow up, they say things like: engineer, scientist, IDF soldier, police officer. During lunch, one of the boys sometimes pushes around a trash can and says in a deep voice: "Hey, I'm a janitor!" At this point, it seems that the boys are just modelling what they see in their own lives. It doesn't occur to them yet that men can be bakers, artists and teachers -- even though some of them love art class and others greatly enjoy explaining things to others. Hm. They will learn.

Venus Flytrap! The sides close and the fly gets trapped.
But my favorite gender comment by far came from a girl. She has quite the sense of humor and consistently badgers me to buy her a dog. She got a Venus flytrap for Hanukkah and, in addition to her obsession with carnivorous things, has a great sense of style. On one lovely occasion when I had lunch duty, she got up from her boy-heavy table (totally breaking a rule -- the kids are supposed to raise their hand if they need something) and made a request of me:

"Morah Naomi, can you make the boys be less boy?"

I knew exactly what she meant. Unfortunately, I had to say,
"No, I can't."
If only! But now I know what every girl's dream is: not to grow long locks, nor to overrule a parental figure; rather, to make third grade boys act less like third grade boys. To make them stop burping, teasing, and launching food particles off of their spoons. To make them move off the soccer field so the girls can practice cartwheels and back-bends. To make them stop tackling each other at every possible moment.

Because one thing I have noticed is that, at the third grade level, boys are distinctly "boy" and girls are distinctly "girl" and there is very little overlap. They do not play together, and a girl will even submit a request "to sit with more girls" at her classroom desk cluster. The girls bring in dolls and stuffed animals to play with at recess, and the boys bring in toy cars, Gameboys, and spy watches. And so I come back to the questions: Where did they learn that? Did their parents teach them? Did their siblings teach them? Did society teach them? When? They're only eight!

Well, eight years is plenty of time -- plenty of time for norms to take hold. And dare I say that these norms will always exist? I dare. And when they come to an end, every girl's dream will be... a Venus flytrap.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Journey -- It Goes On

Since Facebook did such a terrible job of summing up my year, I'll have to do it myself. 

This year contained a lot of "firsts" for me, so I'll start with those. Then I'll move on to the constants -- mostly struggles, states of being, ideas and people that continued to be present throughout my year. I hope you enjoy!

So, here goes Part I: 2014 is the first time I...

1.     Moved to Boston
2.     Got a full-time job (I am not a full-time student)
3.     Am fully funding myself! (rent, food, transportation, bills...oh, wait, I'm still on my parents' insurance. Never mind).
4.     Created a budget spread sheet (see #3). 
5.     Spent the entire summer at a Ramah Camp (and lived to tell about it. Remember that other summer when I didn't live to tell about it?)
6.     Had a three-week period when I didn't know when I was leaving West Hartford because I didn't have plan for the next yearTalk about scary moments. I was considering getting on a first-name basis with the Noah Webster Librarians. Thankfully, that didn't happen and they currently remain cheery faces spouting Dewey Decimal System numbers on request.
7.     Had a serious relationship.
8.     Had a seriously terrible break-up (see #7). I have never used the "Block" function on so many websites. Oof.
9.     Am officially "on the dating scene." Turns out that there are a ton of people in Boston. Half of them are men. Three point six percent of those men are Jewish (Shalom Boston). Of the 3.6 percent of men in Boston who are Jewish, about 70 percent are involved Jewishly. About half of those are what I might call 'religious.' And maybe I will find 10 percent of those men (those who are straight, mind you) attractive. And of the 10 percent I find attractive, at least half of them will already be married. And then maybe 50 percent of the Jewish, single men whom I find attractive will find me attractive. And maybe I can have an interesting, sustainable conversation with 20 percent of them. So, evidently, when I've dated approximately ten people in Boston, it will be time to move to a different city. But for now, I'm "on the dating scene."
The first couple on their first day on earth.

10. Have to work to create a social group. (Unlike high school, college, and Pardes, where like-minded peers were built in to my daily life, I have to find my people!! It's hard work, but it's rewarding.)
11. Choose my tefillah spaces based on kavannah and religious comfort level, giving a slight priority to kavannah. This means that since May (read: since Jerusalem), I have prayed in numerous traditional and egalitarian spaces. At Ramah, it was egalitarian by default. In Boston, sometimes I choose egalitarian services on Friday night because the davening is just better and I want to sing and pray and be with other people who also want to sing and pray!!      *kavannah = prayerful intention, which usually manifests as focus and spirituality
12. Wore my tallit since I was 12. The shema just makes so much more sense when you have tzitzit to kiss.
13. Made vegan, gluten-free black bean brownies! Recipe here.
14. Went to the wedding of one of my best friends!! And was honored to be placed in the role of bridesmaid and spiritual tefillah leader.
Best friend's wedding

15. Got a pedicure (included in #14)

16. Have been asked over 50 times: "Are you making aliyah?" The answer is still: I DON'T KNOW. I love Israel, especially Jerusalem. I love the spirituality, the Torah, and the holiness. I love the natural beauty. I love my brothers. I love kosher everything and city-wide Shabbat and chag. But... I want to be high school English teacher. And I don't want to teach English-as-a-second-language; I want to teach English literature. And (most of) my family is in America. And so are my best friends. And I don't want to forget about the Western world. And do I want my children to be Israeli? (Is that a selfish question?) And will I ever feel Israeli? Or... am I missing out on the "main event" of the Jewish people by staying in America? If Israel exists, why shouldn't I enjoy it every day of my life?...........(to be continued)

17.  Had a Skype siyyum.

18. Am spending more than 40 hours a week with children and I LOVE IT. I love them. Right now, other people's. One day, my own.

Yep, they're all perfect.

19. Am a guitar-playing song-leader!

20. Wrote a short story in the style of Etgar Keret (stay tuned for this one).

I'm sure I could spend hours sitting on my gray-blue carpet and thinking of firsts. And so could you. But lets move on; 2015 is coming and I have to be done by then. Here is Part II: 
Continuations and Constants

1.     My parents. I love them. My brothers. I love them.
2.     My Skype dates. Ask any of my past and present roommates and you will know that I spend, at the very least, an hour a week on Skype with my close friends.
3.     My love of teaching.
4.     My love of reading. And writing.
5.     My love of Torah.
6.     My religious journey. It goes on. Who am I in relation to Hashem? To other Jews? To Israel? To the Torah? To halacha? To myself?...
7.     The Israel question. See above.
8.     Walking. Yoga. Biking. Running. Hiking. 
9.     Gilmore Girls (a huge thanks to my mom for sharing her Netflix account with me. See #1).
10. The attention I pay to apostrophes, semicolons, periods, commas, dashes, hyphens and interrobangs (I always like to play around: is it What?! or What!? or What )
11. My love of newspapers.
12. My drive to always be doing something productive.
13. My inability to sleep when I am stressed or excited.

14. TEA
15. Peanut butter
16. My struggle with IBS (gluten, dairy, meat, veggies, lunchtime...) and eating in general. If you feel like guessing, then the answer is yes, I have a stomach ache today. I did yesterday, too. And I will still have one tomorrow.
17. I am still a morning person!
18. No smartphone. Although....we'll see how long that lasts. I have been pondering it recently ...pondering...pondering...Uber...pondering...GPS...pondering...
19. Introversion.
20. Reflection. For example, right now I am reflecting on this post and wondering if it is so very self-centered of me to write a post about my year. What about everyone else's year? What about the economy? What about global warming? What about all the poor people I could be helping if I just stopped writing and did community service instead? Sheesh.

A Happy New Year to all!! (excluding my super Zionist and/or religious acquaintances to whom January first means nothing). Here's to more firsts, lasts, and continuations. 

And to realistic goals!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Children are Cute (especially when they eat spicy salsa)

It's 8:40 in the morning. As usual, the day has gotten off to a loud start. After 40 minutes of scream-davening, I am debating whether I should bring a megaphone or a whistle to tefillah. During Aleinu, one of the last prayers, I stand next to the kid pumping his vocal chord the hardest so at least I'm not battling with his tempo. All of a sudden, he turns to me with a mischievous smile on his face.

"I'm tired. Can I have a snack?"
"No," I tell him, "It's the middle of tefillah."
"That's what I was doing in the bathroom," he informs me, referencing his ten-minute absence. "I was having a snack."
I pause, marveling at the simultaneous genius and stupidity of his plan. Genius: He found a place to secretly have a snack. Stupidity: He told me about it. I reply with a simple "Oh."
He continues: "Sometimes I don't go the bathroom when I say I'm going to the bathroom. I just go in there and eat." He is still grinning at me, almost laughing, as if he has just told me the funniest joke. But thanks to the empty chocolate wrappers in his pockets and the smell of his breath, I know he isn't joking. Just being himself.

Later in the day, he gave me one of his prized candies: a Ghirardelli milk chocolate with caramel filling. To keep me quiet? Or to simply illustrate the decadence of his secret snack? Who knows. Either way, it was delicious.

*     *     *

More on food: A few weeks ago, we finally finished one chapter of Breishit so of course we had a siyum (a "finishing" party).  Five kids from each section were selected to bring a snack. Five snacks seems like a lot, but at least two of the assigned students completely forgot their contributions (and then yelled really loudly when they realized that they had forgotten). So the amount of food was reasonable.

One kid decided to bring chips and salsa. Spicy salsa. I retrieved plastic cups from the cafeteria and offered the fiery-mouthers water. When I proposed the water solution to one kid in particular, he replied,
"No water. If I eat all of this without taking a drink, then I'm a man!" 
This kid is one of the cutest, sweetest, kindest and funniest eight-year-olds you will ever meet. When I was out sick, he asked how I was feeling when I got back. When he comes in late, he davens to himself to catch up. He invited me to his B'nei Akivah Shabbat group. He makes puns and jokes on a very high level. He has two high-school-aged brothers and hates being called "cute."
One day during art class (my time to purely have fun with the kids) he made some adorable comment and I told him, "You're so cute!" He replied,
"No I'm not! I'm a man! The salsa, remember?"
Oh yes, I remember. "Right. The salsa. You're not cute, you're ugly!"
He grins. "Okay, that's better."

Except this child.

*     *     *

For the first time this year, we watched a movie in class. It is called "Lights" and I recall seeing it multiple times in my day school career. An animated film about Jewish assimilation in the time of Alexander the Great, its trademark features are dancing Hebrew letters and repetitive, tinny guitar (sitar?) music. It's a classic.

When a certain peppy child heard that we were watching a movie, he spouted the line, "I only watch
movies that are farm-raised!" When I began laughing, he continued with the joke: "And organic! And whole wheat! And vegan! And nut-free!" Somehow, this energetic child understood our society's obsession with niche foods and applied it to movie-watching.

The famous octet of suburbia
This same child is from New York City. When we crossed the street to head to gym in the Upper School, I told him to wait for me before crossing.
"But I'm a New Yorker!" he proclaimed. "I've crossed streets much busier than this! I can cross by myself!"
In addition, when he lingered picking out a snack and was almost late to a special program run by two Chabad-nicks from New York, he said,
"It's okay, I'll talk to them! I'm a New Yorker. They'll understand!"

Understand what? I don't know. But I do know that when you're in Boston, people (even children) get really proud about being from New York.

*     *     *

We've moved on to our second chapter of Breishit, in which two angels tell Lot that God is going to destroy Sodom and he has to run away and not look back. Why not? Because he might experience schadenfreude. He might feel some sort of pleasure at the ill fate of his evil comrades, and God does not want that to happen. 
Time-out never looked so boring

The teacher used a sibling analogy to help the kids grasp this concept. "When your sibling gets time-out, do you feel sad? Or do you feel good that they're in time-out and you're not?"

Absent-minded-topographer child answers: "I only get sad when my brother's in time-out, not my sister."
"Why do you get sad when your brother's in time-out?"
"Because he's really cute."

*     *     *

We're splitting up into reading groups, and one of my favorite girls scoots her chair right in next to mine. 
"Did you teach before this year?" she asks me.
"Nope," I reply. (Can't you tell?)
"This must be the best year of your life!" she says.
Either this or when I was in third grade. The jury's still out. I'll keep you posted.  :)  Until then, enjoy Calvin and Hobbes!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Things Heavy and Light

Every year, Maimonides School picks a middah (character trait) to emphasize. This year, the trait is kavod, which means respect or honor. Interestingly enough, the root of kavod (כ.ב.ד.) also means "heavy," the opposite of which is "light" or "easy" (kal in Hebrew). Therefore, if you are honoring someone, you treat him or her with gravitas; this person's presence has weight. If you choose to dishonor someone, you treat him lightly, just as Sarah was "made light" in the eyes of Hagar.

The words "heavy" and "light" have been drifting around my headspace recently in numerous ways. Specifically, I have been thinking about the phenomena of framing, storytelling, and perspective: how one event can seem so serious one day and so inconsequential the next (or vice versa). To illustrate my point, I have decided to do a writing exercise in which I describe situations from a "light" point of view and a "heavy" point of view. Here's the first scene:

That's not him, but you get the idea.
Take One (light): Our favorite question to ask is, "What is Alan* doing?" The kid is a chronic pencil-breaker and fidget-er. He is always twirling something in his hands, tipping backwards in his chair, singing to himself, screeching during davening, or making facial contortions up at the ceiling. He's tall for his age, and often wears an orange sweatshirt. In fact, he wears the sweatshirt so often that the cuffs are becoming permanently gray. The kids like him, but they often move away from him with the declaration, "Alan farted!" He does his homework -- sometimes (he's actually pretty smart). One night, he called the teacher to tell her he hadn't brought the right book home and couldn't do the assignment, so could he do it tomorrow in school? Oy vey, what a hapless child. One day, he threw a gummy ball at the ceiling and it didn't come down. The next morning, all the other kids were asking me if they could throw things at the ceiling to try to get the gummy ball down. I said no. Later, as Alan tipped back his desk chair with scissors, a rubber band, and heaps of mechanical pencil lead in hand, I asked the famous question in my head: "What is Alan doing?" The answer came to me immediately: probably farting.

Take Two (heavy): Alan is hungry. It's time for morning snack, and he's forgotten to bring one -- again. While the kids are out at recess, the teacher tells me, "I'm going to get Alan an apple from the teachers' room. He's so hungry. He needs to eat." Alan is one of six children; five girls and a boy. He wears the same raggedy clothes to school every day, including a sweatshirt that just gets dirtier and dirtier. He can't focus on anything for more than three minutes, and he is trained to entertain himself -- hence the weird preoccupation with objects that are definitely not toys. Sometimes, we scold Alan for talking or wandering or fidgeting or doodling or distracting other kids; we forget that these are only symptoms of a neglected child, and that such a child needs nurturing as well as discipline. On Wednesdays, Alan gets hot lunch. The teacher has bought it for him. "Pick a day," she said. "I'll buy it for you every week." A secret indulgence for a child who receives few gifts and not enough good food. A child who hungers for hot dogs and chicken nuggets, but also for attention and love. 

*name has been changed

*     *     *

Here's the second scene:

Take One (light): Last week, I had a break-down. Us girls, we're always having break-downs, and they're for all sorts of reasons. Our nail polish came off. The electric bill is too high. We put on three pounds. How are we supposed to deal with co-workers who are so annoying? But the main reason we have breakdowns: Men. Guys. Boys. Males. Whatever you want to call them. They suck. They're
stupid; they don't realize we're pining after them; they're 26 and don't want a serious relationship; they're irresponsible; they wander around waiting for the perfect job, the perfect girl, the perfect life. They want you to cook for them. In this modern era of liberalism, they've even given up their historic role of "provider" and taken on the role of teenager, constantly hinting that they have no money, they're hungry, and they just want to be taken care of (oh, and of course they want sex, too). So, what, now women are supposed to take care of their men emotionally, physically AND financially? That's a lot of work. Where are all the men who buy us flowers and take us out to dinner without commenting that they are spending their entire meager paycheck on us? Where are the men who are sensitive, caring, AND mature enough to take care of themselves? Seriously, it's a crisis. It's enough to make a girl have a breakdown at least once a month. Probably more. As Flannery O'Connor once said, "A Good Man is Hard to Find." 

Take Two: I haven't cried that much since the night I broke up with him. Full, heaving sobs; warm, coursing tears; the infinite desire to not talk -- just to cry and cry against someone's loving shoulder.                It has been a full eight months, and it is still with me. He is still with me. Heavily and guiltily. Still living on in every potential relationship and every empty moment. And every night that I fall asleep alone. 
               I had been dating someone for less than a week, and the warning signs were already blaring out at me; the flashes of him were fast but obvious. So I crumpled inside and put up a wall and accepted the small guilt sooner rather than wait for the bigger guilt later on. But it still made me cry and cry and wonder how one ever leaves something (or someone) behind. Because what is life if not shared? What is life if not full of love? What is life when it is dotted with holes and emptiness and a fishing rod that tugs you back again and again? Sometimes, the "what-ifs" are almost too strong to bear -- especially when those "what-ifs" meant the comfort of someone loving you. 

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So, you see? Lighthearted or heart-breaking -- it's only a matter of how you spin it.

Some events, however (and you knew this was coming) can really only be felt and described with heaviness. Take, for example, the terrorist attack in Israel this past week. Whenever I speak about it, read about it, or hear it spoken about, a chilling heaviness weighs down my arms and hands, and my heart -- well, my heart is always in the east.

The day of the attack, my mom and I exchanged text messages about how we had talked to both of my newly-Israeli brothers that day. Nothing like sheer terror to make you pick up the phone.

Imma: I hate how I feel when something terrible happens in Israel. So heavy and sad and scared for the boys. It is a new normal for me and I have to get used to it.

Naomi: Me too. I literally just wrote down the word "heavy" as a way to describe how this feels.

When all we can do is mourn for the lost, we must try to lift the weight off of our shoulders. And the first step to hefting the weight is feeling, intensely, its heaviness.

But then there are the moments we all live for. The ones where the only the response is laughter. Remember "Alan"? Well, despite whatever might be going on at home or deep inside of him, sometimes the kid is just hilarious:

Alan: Look Morah Naomi, I have two quarters!
Naomi: That's nice.
Alan (wedging one quarter into each ear) Look Morah Naomi! I'm listening to fifty cent! 

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Mark of Cain's Wife

ויצא קין מלפני ה' וישב בארץ-נוד קדמת-עדן. וידע קין את אשתו...
(בראשית ד', טז-יז)
Cain went out from before God and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife… (Genesis 4:16-17)

            And thus we have one of the biggest problems in the Torah: Where did Cain’s wife come from?
            It is a simple question, often glossed over, and enough to unhinge our entire belief system (which might be precisely why it is so often glossed over). The discussion comes up a good deal in Christian theology, and most famously in Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's dramatic adaptation of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Henry Drummond, the lawyer defending Cates' right to teach evolution, interrogates strident creationist Matthew Brady:

DRUMMOND: Listen to this: Genesis 4:16. "And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the East of Eden. And Cain knew his wife!..." Where the hell did she come from?
The movie adaptation of Inherit the Wind
DRUMMOND: Mrs. Cain. Where'd that extra woman spring from? Ever figure that out?
BRADY: Never bothered me.
DRUMMOND: Do you figure somebody pulled off another creation, over in the next county?
BRADY: The Bible satisfies me. It is enough.
DRUMMOND: It frightens me to imagine the state of learning in this world if everyone had your driving curiosity...
(Inherit the Wind, Act 2, scene 3)  

Call me a creationist or call me a heretic - but please, read on and get ready to be unhinged.

The first option regarding the question of Cain's wife is that God created her and the Torah omitted this act of creation from the narrative.  The Torah omits lots of things, and our job is to figure what is important and why. In this case, we must ask the questions: Why did the Torah omit God's creation of Cain's wife? Was she created from the rib of Cain? Did the Torah omit other things that God created? Who wrote this book, anyway? etc., etc.

The second option is that God didn’t create her. She evolved from monkeys. This, however, leads to further problematic inquiries: Can evolution and divine creation exist in the same world? Can a product of one pro-create with the product of another etc., etc.

The third possibility echoes Drummond's theory above: Another “god” created her somewhere else (perhaps in the land of Nod, where Cain eventually settled). This leads to a faith-breaking problem however; namely: there goes monotheism.

The fourth possibility is one supported by the  majority of midrashic, rabbinic and other (read: Christian) sources: In Genesis 5:4, it says that  Adam had "sons and daughters." One of these unnamed daughters became Cain's wife. Aside from the incest issue, this answer is relatively easy swallow - except for one other thing: chronology. Cain gets married in chapter four, and these sons and daughters are not recorded until chapter five. According to the medieval commentator Rashi, however, this poses no problem because איו מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה - the Torah is most definitely written out of order. And the mention of Adam's sons and daughters was part of a long summary of many generations, so they really could have been born at any time. But then... why didn't the Torah record them at the time they were born? Who wrote this book, anyway?

And thus we come to the fifth option: Adam, Eve, Abel, Cain and Cain's wife did not exist. The story is completely fictional, and inconsistencies don’t matter because they can be attributed to human error. It's just a story, written by humans in an attempt to explain how they got to this earth and why they practice some crazy religion called Judaism (or Christianity or Islam). 

And this is where I put my descended-from-Adam-foot down. Because if this story is fictional, then why do I believe in God? Why am I Jewish? Who am I???  Well, the fact is that I love believing in God, I love Judaism, and I love who I am. And that is enough for me.

Case in point:  
Yesterday afternoon, as Shabbat mellowed into a rainy, cozy evening, my roommate decided she had
 to “catch  up” on the parsha—which meant that we read ten chapters of Genesis together. After reading and discussing the two distinct creations of humanity, she asked me,

“Do you ever find answers to these questions?”

I replied swiftly and happily: “Nope!”

 Because what is Torah for if not asking questions? Discovering the midrashic and rabbinic answers are an amazing exercise in intellect and logic, but they are neither complete nor satisfactory, and I will not accept drash into my understanding of the peshat. I accept the Torah as a divine book that is simply asking to be discovered and explored ("Turn it and turn it for everything is in it!" Pirkei Avot 5:24), and if we find all the answers there is nothing left. If we keep asking questions, however, we have everything.
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