Monday, April 27, 2015
I have never made a birthday party for any of my three children. Granted, my oldest is turning only four, but even so, we have already attended several parties with clowns, balloons, party favors, and frosted cakes, and I feel a bit awkward that I haven’t returned any of those invitations. But I know my kids, and I know myself – and birthday parties are just not our speed.
Each time we attend a friend’s party, my kids stay as far away from the action as possible. Generally we spend most of our time huddled up in an older sibling’s empty bedroom, my kids pulling books off the shelf and asking me to read them, or else playing with puzzles and dolls as I try and fail to sneak out and socialize with the other parents so as to seem less rude. When the lights are dimmed and the birthday cake is presented with candles and fanfare, I drag my kids out and they cling to me for dear life, my son hiding between my legs and my toddler twins on each hip, their heads burrowed into my armpits. They don’t like big groups or loud noise, and I can’t blame them, because neither do I.
As a child I never let my mother make me birthday parties. Always loathe to be the center of attention, I attended friends’ parties reluctantly but never wanted one of my own. “What’s the big deal,” I kept insisting. “So I’m one year older. Why is that a cause for celebration? It’s not like I did anything great.” One year my mother thought she could win me over by making me a surprise party. When I got home from school she told me to take my novel and read in her walk-in closet, and I, happy for any excuse to read uninterrupted, didn’t ask any questions. An hour later, when she tried to drag me out, I implored, “Let me just finish the chapter,” oblivious to the seven friends who were gathered excitedly in the kitchen. It took me a while to come out of the closet, though when I did, I tried to be a good sport.
Now that I’m the mother, I see things a bit differently. I respect my kids’ aversion to parties, and I confess that I’m somewhat relieved that I won't be dealing with the challenge of entertaining rambunctious, thrill-seeking toddlers and their equally demanding parents. At the same time, I now have an answer to my younger self who thought that birthdays were no big deal. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from being a parent, it’s that a turning one year older is a big deal indeed.
I most recently learned this lesson shortly before Passover, when my daughter had a terrible fall and lost two teeth. She was bleeding for several days and had to re-learn first how to drink and then, a full week later, how to start eating again. Her speech is slurred and she can no longer eat apples, but thank God she is otherwise completely fine, if tooth-less. When we sat down to the Seder a few days later, we made the blessing recited on Jewish festivals and on the occasion of major milestones: “Blessed are You O Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this day.” Those words took on new meaning with my daughter on my lap, happily sucking on her matzah.
My daughter’s injury sensitized me to how lucky we were that things were not worse. Every day there are countless dangers in our path – I worry most about the cars that rush across the highway I cross each morning with three kids precariously perched in a stroller built for two, but there are also germs and sharp objects and daredevil toddler antics in that split second I turn my back. Each night when I tuck my kids in bed, I ought to thank God for keeping them alive and sustaining them and enabling them to complete the day. All the more so when a full year has elapsed with my children growing healthy and strong. The Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) relates that Rav Yosef made himself a sixtieth birthday party to celebrate that death had not cut him off from his people, referring to the biblical punishment of karet, or excision, which the sages believed a person was susceptible to only until this age. Neither I nor my kids are close to that point, but I can identify with his sigh of relief.
When my son turns four this month, I am not going to throw him a party. But I’m also not going to let the day go by without marking it in a way that is significant for me, for him, and for our family. Because even if we don’t do it with clowns and balloons, there is no doubt we have much to celebrate.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
I am an avid reader, though these days I read fewer novels and far more children’s picture books. I’m not complaining; one of the greatest pleasures of being a parent is reading aloud to my children. And read aloud I do, all the time. Although a staggering proportion of children’s books are bedtime stories—on the final page the character either falls asleep or wishes the reader good night—in our home we read all day long, in every imaginable context. In the middle of our kitchen table sits a shtender, a wooden stand more commonly used to support volumes of Talmud and other heavy religious tomes. Ours contains a line calligraphied from the Mishnah: “Do not say: When I have time, I will study; lest you never have time.” When I bought it ten years ago, I had far more time to study Torah than I do now, but I have rehabilitated it by using it as a stand for the picture books we read at the breakfast table, including several food-related favorites: The Watermelon Seed, Pete’s a Pizza, Spoon.
While I am pushing the kids in the stroller—we have a 25-minute walk to and from their preschool every day—I recite to them from the books I’ve committed to memory, particularly those that are in verse. When reading rhyming books to my kids, I usually sing them to a melody of my own devising; as a result, I tend to memorize rhyming books pretty quickly, and can belt them out as we wait for the traffic light to change or make our way across the noisy four-lane highway. Dr. Seuss comes in handy in this regard, especially One Fish, Two Fish, which is essentially a delightful collection of nonsense verse: “The moon was out/ we saw some sheep / we saw some sheep/ take a walk in their sleep…” I want my kids to internalize various meters and rhyme schemes in the hope of cultivating their poetic sensibilities.
And I want them, too, to learn poetry, and towards that end we have managed to find a few children’s books that consist of illustrated poems, like Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” (which all my kids can more or less sing by heart) and William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger” (they deliver a mean first stanza). Well, I didn’t actually find an illustrated children’s version of “Tyger, Tyger” – it is a song of Experience rather than Innocence, and therefore not standard children’s fare – but we owned a book about a tiger in a forest with awful text but dazzling illustrations, so I printed out the poem from my computer and pasted one stanza over the text of each page. I do this sometimes when we have books with terrific illustrations but terrible text; the book becomes a palimpsest, with another layer of text overlaying the original. Our copy of In My Nest, a silly board book with a three-dimensional felt bird that pops out on the last page, is now called “Shiluah HaKen,” and it contains the full text of the biblical verses about the commandment to send away the mother bird from the nest. This, too, my kids can sing.
When we have time for more complicated narratives—while waiting our turn at the doctor’s office, or sitting before daunting plates of meatballs and spaghetti—I read them longer books that are essentially short stories for children – like Otto the Story of a Mirror, a delightful tale about a mirror working in a hat shop who is bored with his job and runs away to reflect wondrous and magical sights; at the end of the book he arrives at the famous Isle of Koodle, which he had previously only read and dreamt about, where he meets another mirror, Miranda, and they set sail together. Instead of falling asleep at the end of this book, these characters fall in love: “The two mirrors reflected many wondrous things. But sometimes on a moonlit night, Otto and Miranda just like to look at each other, reflecting back and forth, back and forth, on and on and on, forever and ever and ever.”
And then there are the stories we read before bed, like Before You Were Born and The Baby Goes Beep, two books edited and published by the gifted Deborah Brodie z”l; both are excellent transitions to “Now get in your cribs!” – a request often met with demands for an encore. Though it’s not a bedtime story, I unfailingly give in to any request to read our all-time favorite Wild About Books, about a librarian named Molly McGrew who drives her bookmobile into the zoo and gets all the animals hooked on reading: “Raccoons read alone / and babboons read in bunches. / And llamas read dramas / while eating their llunches.” I like to think that my kids fall asleep dreaming of insects scribbling haiku.
Most of the books we read are heavy on text; I tend to stay away from books that are illustrations only. I will not, for instance, read Goodnight Gorilla. I understand that the point is for the parent and child to come up with their own words, but I much prefer a fixed text. Nor do I stop to explain things as I read – it is more Mikra than Parshanut. Instead I assume that the kids will understand what they can understand, and internalize the rest nonetheless. Sure, there are dangers of this approach. Recently while reading my daughter an illustrated children’s book version of “Sunrise, Sunset,” we came to the line “Share the sweet wine and break the glass” and she pointed to the eyes of the bespectacled groom in the picture and yelled “break the glasses, break the glasses” before lunging for my pair as well. (I hope she marries a guy who wears contacts.)
Sometimes I wonder if I focus too much on memorization when reading to my kids. But it has been such an important part of my own learning. When I first started reading Shakespeare in high school, I committed to memory several sonnets and soliloquies, even though I only partially understood them. Over the years, a couplet or stanza would inexplicably pop into my head and I’d find that I suddenly understood what it meant, and how it was relevant. Likewise, much of the Torah I know by heart comes from leyning, practicing again and again to chant the verses aloud in synagogue until I know them nearly by heart. To memorize something is to be able to summon it at any time, and therefore truly to own it. Like those sages in the Talmud who were valued not for what they understood but for what they had memorized, I’d like my children to become “walking books,” able to recite the text of their favorite books to themselves and thus to sit down and “read” to themselves even before they are literate. This hasn’t quite happened yet, but when it does, I’m looking forward to some quiet time to finish my novel.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Baby Showers: A Teshuva
A pregnant friend recently asked me whether or not she ought to have a baby shower. “My mother-in-law really wants to make me one. I know that Jews are not supposed to do those kinds of things, but why not? Is it just about superstition?”
I thought about her question. Is there any other reason? Why do many Jews not have baby showers? Yes, there is the superstitious fear of the evil eye, namely that celebrating the baby before it is born would attract the attention of dark spirits, who would mark the baby for disaster. Jewish superstitions go back very far – in the Talmud, for instance, the sages speak of a very real fear of doing anything in even numbers because pairs were considered demonic; this fear led the rabbis to question how we can possibly drink four cups of wine at the Pesach seder, a practice that no one thinks twice about today. Indeed, many of the superstitions that may have plagued our great grandmothers in the shtetl seem to have fallen away. Why then should we not turn a blind eye to the evil eye and have that baby shower after all?
When I think back to my own pregnancies, I can say with certainty that a baby shower was the furthest thing from my mind. Pregnancy, more than any other experience, awakened me to a sense of the miraculous. I was overcome by awe at the ability to take part in creation, but along with that awe came tremendous trepidation. Just as the baby inside me was completely dependent on me for all its needs, I felt myself entirely dependent on God. Though the baby was forming just inches below the surface of my skin, I had very little control over whether it would be healthy or strong, curious or loving. This seemed entirely up to God, and all I could do was hope and pray and tremble.
The Talmud relates that the uncertainty that characterizes pregnancy and childbirth gave rise to a series of astrological superstitions: “One who is born on Sunday will be strong; one who is born on Monday will be quarrelsome; one who is born on Tuesday will be rich and fornicating….” I related to the desperate wish to be able to control the outcome of pregnancy, but I knew it was in vain. The day on which my child was born would make no difference, and I had no control over that day anyway. Elsewhere the Talmud relates that three keys are in the hand of God and are not entrusted to any messenger – the key to rain, the key to the revival of the dead, and the key to childbirth. It is only God who decides how an unborn child will fare.
And so every day that passed in which my baby seemed to be fine, I regarded as a miracle. Every day I received a positive report from a doctor or ultrasound technician, I found myself chanting psalms of praise as I skipped my way out the office. People often ask me how I felt when I found out I had twins: “Were you panicked? Terrified?” I tell them the truth -- that I broke out in joyous and incredulous laughter at my unbelievable good fortune, and identified more with the matriarch’s Sarah’s response to her own annunciation than with Rebecca’s dismay at her twin pregnancy. It seemed so wildly wonderful and impossible – I had been hoping for a baby to grow inside me, and lo and behold there were two!
Throughout my pregnancies I was constantly overcome by gratitude. Several of my friends had been through devastating miscarriages and never for a moment did I assume that everything would go smoothly; even the language of “expecting” seemed a bit presumptuous. I was hoping and praying for a healthy child, and if my child were not healthy, I was hoping and praying for the strength to help him or her to thrive nonetheless. I did not find out the sex of my children in advance because I experienced pregnancy as a way of getting in touch with the unknown, the mysterious, the wondrous, and I wanted to retain that sense as much as possible. A baby shower – a party that seemed designed to celebrate a baby who would surely come – felt so antithetical to my sensibility. I did not want to assume or expect anything, but to take each day as a gift. For the time being, this was gift enough, and already I was showered in blessing.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
The Mehitza and the Ramp
As I sat behind the mehitza in synagogue last week peering through its wooden latticework to catch a glimpse of my son playing at my husband’s feet, I couldn’t help but feel that I had crossed a great divide. I have always been a staunch defender of egalitarian Judaism, reluctant to attend any synagogue which assigned distinct gender roles in prayer. In the Conservative synagogue in which I grew up, men and women sat together and participated equally in the service. My father was the rabbi, which meant that my parents could not sit together even in this egalitarian prayer space, an irony my mother often lamented. While he stood on the bima leading the congregation in prayer, she sat beneath her wide-brimmed hat and plied us with bags of cheerios and little boxes of raisins, always keeping one finger in the siddur to mark her place.
When I left my parents’ home and went to college, I soon became a leader of a small but stalwart egalitarian prayer community which held services not just on Friday nights and Shabbat day, but also a couple of mornings a week. The nights before we met I would call our various constituents individually to find out whom we could count on and whom we could count, since the full prayer service requires a quorum of ten. The Hillel building in which we prayed had transparent glass walls, and I often looked wisfully at the Orthodox minyan, which seemed to organize itself automatically. Our much smaller minyan, in contrast, would not happen unless we made it happen -- unless every single one of us showed up as pledged, helped set up the chairs, and took a part in the service.
Several of my college friends who had grown up in egalitarian synagogues did not feel it was worth the effort to sustain an egalitarian minyan, and instead elected to daven in the Orthodox community, where their absence would not be as noticeable nor their presence as vital. I tried to respect their decision, but to me it seemed like they were selling out. I believed that prayer should not be about gender, but that all men and women should stand equally before God. Although the sages of the Talmud excluded women from fixed prayer and other time-bound obligations, I did not identify with the Talmudic category of “women.” As an independent woman in charge of her own finances and not beholden to any man, and as a scholar of Torah, I identified far more with the men of the Talmud than with their wives or daughters. The rabbinic category of “women,” I felt, was largely anachronistic. In our modern world where men and women were treated as equal in the courtroom, the voting booth, and the college campus, it seemed only fitting that men and women should also be equal in synagogue. And so I cast my lot with the few other like-minded Jews wherever I found myself—on the college campus, the Upper West Side of
York, and in Jerusalem,
where I have since made my home.
And then I had children, and everything changed. At first it was impossible to pray in synagogue altogether. When my son was four days old and had not yet been initiated into the covenant or received his name, I insisted on carrying him in a sling to synagogue, determined that he should become a "shul baby." I had not counted on how often I would need to leave to nurse him, and always at the most inopportune times – when I wanted to hear the Torah reading, or recite the prayer for the sick, or stand with my feet together in imitation of the angels for the silent prayer. Babies may look like angels, but they generally don’t allow their parents to stand angelically still. And so in subsequent weeks I instead prayed from home whenever the baby napped or my husband could take him off my hands.
Now that we have three toddlers, it is important to us that our children grow accustomed to attending synagogue and learning the prayers and melodies. I want synagogue to be a strong Shabbat association, as it was for me. And so like my mother, I pack up the cheerios and raisins and set out with my husband--who has already davened elsewhere--and kids in tow. There is an egalitarian minyan that meets a few neighborhoods over, and before I had children I would always pray there. But now it is a far walk with the kids, and it’s not easily accessible with a stroller, and so we go there only rarely. More often we daven in an Orthodox partnership minyan where men and women sit separately and there are parts of the service that only men can lead. It has a mehitza, true – but it also has a wide ramp leading up to the synagogue, a place for me to park my double stroller, and a children’s service in which my kids have learned to sing many of the Shabbat morning prayers.
I do not feel entirely comfortable in that minyan, even though it is committed to many of my most deeply-held progressive and feminist ideals. Though I love to read Torah, I will not leyn at the partnership minyan because on some level I am not prepared to call it home. For the same reason, I have not become a member, though we gave a donation equivalent to the membership dues. Only rarely do I manage to make it into the main sanctuary, since I'm usually in the children's service and then the playground. But there are times when I find myself sitting behind the mehitza, trying not to think about what my idealistic twenty-year-old self would have thought if only she could see my now.
Have I, too, sold out? Part of what I always found so frustrating about the egalitarian minyanim I took part in both in college and beyond was that they rarely attracted families. Most of our members were students and single people in their twenties. I am beginning to understand why. Even if we were in an egalitarian synagogue, it would be impossible for my husband and me to sit in synagogue at the same time, or for both of us to take on leadership roles. Someone would have to be primarily responsible for the kids. And so I have a newfound appreciation for the Talmudic sages’ exemption of women from time-bound commandments. There are some stages of life when it is simply impossible to pray regularly at fixed times. Being a parent of small children is one such stage. It need not necessarily be the woman who is exempt, but the reality is that at any given moment, it is generally only one parent who can be praying. And so the “woman” – a Talmudic category that I would define as whichever parent is in charge of childrearing at that moment – is granted an exemption that affirms the sanctity of his or her work. Handing cheerios to a child or adjudicating a dispute between toddlers is just as important as praying; it too is a form of divine service, and so the one who engaged in that service is excused from prayer.
I remain committed to gender egalitarianism as an ideal, but I would like to think about how to translate that ideal in a reality more sensitive to the needs of young families. I hope that as soon as we are stroller-free, I'll be back in the egalitarian minyan so my kids can hear me leyn more regularly. In the meantime, I leyn the full three paragraphs of the Shema every night to them—its frightening threats notwithstanding—so that one day it will be easier for them to associate the words with the trope. On Shabbat mornings, when I sit with my kids in the children’s service, I imagine a time when my daughters as well as my son will lead the congregation in these prayers. And hopefully by the time they have kids of their own, they won’t have to choose a synagogue based on the ramp, but on the very same deep-seated commitments for which they are inspired to pray.
Sunday, January 04, 2015
Holy Eating (Zevahim / Menahot / Hullin)
If there was any quality that Daniel and I were certain that we did not want to pass on to our children, it was my vegetarianism. I did not realize that I was a vegetarian until I met Daniel and joined his family at a Shabbat table laden with roast beef, rack of lamb, and sautéed duck, none of which I could identify. His mother noticed that I filled my plate with rice and broccoli and asked if I was vegetarian. “I guess so,” I told her, wondering about it myself. I did not avoid meat as a matter of identity or principle, but as a general aesthetic preference: Why pick the flesh off the wing of a dead bird when there was fresh quinoa salad on the table? I became a full-fledged vegetarian only a year later, after learning Seder Kodashim, the order of the Talmud that deals primarily with sacrificial worship and ritual slaughter.
The first tractate, Zevahim, is essentially a giant barbecue. We learn about which animals may be burnt on the altar, and who may eat the leftovers, and what happens if they are left to burn for too long or sacrificed with improper intentions or accidentally mixed with other sacrificial offerings. The Talmud enumerates four primary sacrificial rites: slaughtering the animal, receiving its blood in a basin, carrying the animal to the altar, and sprinkling the blood on the cover of the ark. Sacrifice was such a bloody business that there were holes in the floor of the Temple intended for draining the excess blood, which would flow into the Kidron river (35a). And the pile of ashes from a day’s worth of sacrifices grew so high that it had to be cleared off first thing every morning, a task I often think of when I start my day by taking out the garbage.
As I read about the priest slicing the neck of a bird with his nail, taking care not to sever it completely (a process known as melika, which the Talmud describes in graphic detail, 64b), I decided that I could no longer eat my mother’s chicken soup, my last carnivorous vestige, which I’d previously permitted myself because it didn’t look anything like flesh and because, well, because it made my mother happy. I realized that chicken soup, too, was once a thing with feathers. In consciously renouncing flesh-eating I was perhaps bringing myself back to that antediluvian stage before God permitted Noah to eat meat, that idyllic Edenic era in which the trees of the garden provided for all of humanity’s needs. At the very least I was returning to the period of the Israelites’ desert wanderings, when, according to Rabbi Yishmael, they were forbidden to slaughter “lustful meat,” that is, meat that they desired to eat for their own nourishment and pleasure, without any sacrificial component. Rabbi Akiva disagrees, arguing that although the Israelites had not yet been given the laws of how to ritually slaughter animals, they were permitted to stab animals in the nose—a process known as nehira—and consume the flesh (Hullin 17a). I was prepared to engage neither in ritual slaughter nor in nostril stabbing, and decided that I would simply abstain from meat altogether.
Since then people have often asked me if my vegetarianism is related to an affinity for animals; I tell them they are barking up the wrong tree. I am no animal lover. I am terrified by the dogs that run alongside me when I jog and repulsed by the cats that leap out from the municipal garbage bins (known as “frogs” in Hebrew because they are big and green) when I try to throw out the trash. But as I made my way through Seder Kodashim, I was struck that alongside countless passages about bloody dead animals and their entrails, the Talmud also contains several stories and legends about living animals, many of them quite entertaining. There is the discussion at the end of tractate Zevahim about how the mythical re’em – a kind of unicorn -- survived the flood; surely it could not fit in Noah’s ark, since, as Rabba bar Hana testified, “I once saw a young unicorn and it was as big as Mount Tabor!” The rabbis suggest that perhaps Noah inserted the tip of its nose into the ark. But then wouldn’t the waters of the flood plunge the unicorn up and down, another rabbi asks? No, reassures Reish Lakish, they tied its horns to the ark and thus it was spared from drowning. But weren’t the waters of the flood boiling as punishment for the hot passion with which people sinned? Yes, but the waters adjacent to the ark were cooled so that the unicorn could survive. And thus the rabbis manage to spare the unicorn not just from the flood but also from their own barrage of Talmudic questioning.
The other richly imagined animal tale I loved is of the Emperor and the lion (Hullin 59b). The Talmud contains several tales in which the Roman Emperor challenges one of the sages with a theological question. In this case, he asks Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania about a Biblical verse (Amos 3:8) that compares God to a lion. The Emperor asks how God can be so great if He is likened to a lion; after all, any good horseman can kill a lion. The rabbi responds that God is not likened to an ordinary lion, but to a special kind of lion from Bei Ilai. “Show him to me,” demands the Emperor, and the rabbi warns him that he will not be able to behold this creature. But the Emperor insists, and so Rabbi Joshua prays and the lion sets forth. When it is still quite a distance away, it roars. Immediately all the pregnant women miscarry and the walls of Rome collapse. When it comes a little closer, it roars again and the teeth fall out of the mouth of every man, including the Emperor himself. Like Pharaoh begging Moses to stop the plagues, or like the Israelites beseeching Moses to shield them from God’s voice at Sinai, the Emperor pleads with Rabbi Joshua to pray that the lion return to its place. And so it does.
The lions and unicorns of Kodashim were far more appealing to me than the detailed anatomical diagrams of gullets and gizzards that filled the back pages of my volume of Hullin, the tractate dealing with the laws of kashrut. But my vegetarianism was less about any affinity for wildlife—real or mythological—than about a general minimalist tendency. I like to get by on less, and for me this has become not just a principle of economy but of aesthetics as well. During my anorexic phase I took this notion to a dangerous extreme when I tried to get by on eating almost nothing, a temptation that I still sometimes struggle to keep in check. The laws of Kashrut appeal to me because they limit what we can and cannot eat, reducing the overwhelming number of choices out there. Vegetarianism takes this one step further. The world is enough with beans and grains and chocolate; I do not need hamburgers too. Besides, at least according to Rav Nahman’s wife Yalta, everything that is forbidden has a kosher counterpart that tastes just as good (Hulllin 109b) – for every bacon there are bacon bits. Yalta gives several examples: we are forbidden to eat pig, but we can eat the shibbuta fish which tastes similar (though one has to wonder how she knew what pig tastes like); it is forbidden to eat blood of animals, but we can eat liver. She also cites a few examples that conflate eating and sex: It is forbidden to sleep with a married woman, but one can sleep with a divorced woman during her husband’s lifetime and therefore “taste” the forbidden. The story ends when the ever truculent Yalta insists that she wants to taste meat and milk together, but can find no kosher equivalent. Thereupon her husband instructs the butchers, “Give her roasted udders.”
Of course, vegetarianism is not kashrut, though you’d be surprised by how many people confuse the two. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I should have cooked the potatoes separate from the meat,” our Shabbat host will apologize. But I have no problem eating potatoes just because they were cooked next to meat; there is no issue of noten ta’am – of a forbidden substance lending its taste to a permitted substance –when it comes to vegetarianism. And I am far more flexible with my vegetarianism than with my Kashrut. I would never eat food that is not kosher, but when it comes to vegetarianism, I have my own mental hierarchy of the increasingly permissible – from fish to chicken to beef. I try to eat the “most vegetarian” option available without inconveniencing myself or my hosts. After all, given that my guiding principle is one of minimalism and simplicity, it would be ironic if my vegetarianism made life more complicated.
My notion of hierarchy is not entirely foreign to the Talmudic sages, who discuss how many “signs” various kinds of living things must have in order to be considerd kosher (Hullin 27b). Their claims reflect a primitive evolutionary theory: Animals, which the sages say were created from land, need two signs – both the trachea and the esophagus must be incised. Birds, which were created from swamps (and which the rabbis claim have scales on their feet like fish) need only one sign – either the esophagus or the tracha must be cut. But fish, which were created from water, need no signs; fish can be eaten even without ritual slaughter. My preference is always to eat the food with the fewest signs. If there is no plant-based protein source available, I would each fish. Lacking that, I suppose I would consider chicken. But I would have to be pretty desperate to bite into a steak.
For me, there are so many gustatory pleasures that are not meat – or wine for that matter, which I eschew for similar reasons. A dark chocolate bar is infinitely more appealing than the most expensive cut of lamb. And I would always take a hot cup of coffee with steamed milk over a glass of alcohol. One of my favorite treats is to sit in a coffee shop engrossed in a book; the little caffeine I allow myself gives me a boost of energy and confidence, particularly in those late afternoon hours when my concentration starts to flag. These are simple pleasures, I know. But the Talmud advises that a person should always spend less on eating and drink than his means allow and honor his wife and children more than his means allow (Hullin 84b). Food should be a way of honoring our bodies, and of honoring Shabbat and other sacred occasions, and of honoring the guests we invite into our homes; it is these values, above all, that I would like to transmit.
I do not want to pass on my own hang-ups about food to my children; if they wish to become vegetarian of their own accord, they are welcome to make that choice later in life. But when they are young, it is important to me that they see me modelling healthy and respectful eating. In tractate Menahot, which deals with grain offerings, The Talmud references the figure of Ben Drosai (Menahot 57a) a highway robber contemporaneous with the early Talmudic sages who was so impulsive that he would grab his meat off the fire before it was fully cooked. When I come home starving and I’m tempted to devour anything in sight, I remind myself not to eat like Ben Drosai, but to stop to sit down like a civilized human being and take pleasure in my food. “Food is Kadosh [holy],” I will later tell my son when he tries to throw his supper or leave too much on his plate; and I’ll repeat this so many times that when I then take him to synagogue and point to the Torah and tell him it’s Kadosh, he’ll look at me earnestly and ask, “Can we eat it?” Still, I find it appropriate that the order of the Talmud that includes the laws of kashrut is known as Kodashim, holy things. The rabbis teach that following the destruction of the Temple, a man’s table resembles the altar (Menahot 97a) – a reminder that in a world without sacrifices, the food that we eat has the potential to bring us close to the sacred.
Sunday, November 30, 2014
The Daf on the Bus, Again
I am on the bus with my double stroller, trying to keep the twins calm. Liav is eating a baguette, strewing crumbs all over her fleece, the stroller, and the floor beneath. Tagel is inexplicably screaming “bubbles,” her favorite activity, but as far as I can tell there are no bubbles in sight and I have no idea how to console her. I hand her a ball. She throws it on the floor angrily, it rolls to the front of the bus, and she sobs louder. I offer her a piece of baguette. She throws this too. I take a sip of my water, unsure what to do next. Tagel starts yelling, “Mayim, mayim,” insisting on holding my bottle. I hand it to her, knowing that she will object if I try to screw the cap back on. Predictably, she spills it all over herself and her sister. Tagel bursts out laughing, but now Liav is shrieking. I reach into my bag for a dry washcloth, and the man sitting across the aisle from me—a religious man with an open Gemara—kindly offers to hold the stroller so I can have two free hands. I look at the top margin of his Gemara and sure enough, he is learning the sixth chapter of Yevamot, which I started last night. Looks like he’s up to the case of the man who is just about to have sex with his wife on a rooftop when suddenly he rolls over, falls off the roof, and lands in the waiting arms of his brother’s childless widow, penetrating her. I wonder if I should spare him all the rabbinic deliberations and just summarize the Talmud’s conclusion: “The bottom line,” I’d tell him, “Is that it all counts. Intentional or unintentional, voluntarily or by force. It’s all the same.” But this man is still holding onto my stroller for me, and so for the sake of my daughters I wisely bite my tongue. I wipe off the girls’ dresses and make out why Liav is screaming – she wants her pacifier. Oh well, so much for trying to wean her off it – in light of the glares from my fellow passengers, I give in. Liav sucks away contentedly, and Tagel amuses herself by alternately crying out “egg” and “moon” while pointing excitedly to the first page of the Very Hungry Caterpillar board book. Both girls are relatively calm. I am about to sit down when a religious woman, her hair and every inch of her body covered, taps me on the shoulder and motions that she wants to whisper something in my ear. I lean in, my mind already racing: What parenting blunder have I committed now? What did I do that this mother of eleven-or-so kids sees fit to censure me? The woman whispers, “Excuse me, when you bend down, I can see your….” I thank her, not even bothering to adjust my pants. Yes, I should tuck in my shirt. But as far as I know, there is no one about to roll off the roof of the bus. And besides, there is no time – the girls are crying again.
Monday, November 03, 2014
Last week was the first Shabbat that we could make Kiddush and Havdalah with the kids, thanks to what is known in Israel as shaon horef, the winter clock. For the first time this season, the kids were awake when the Shabbat siren went off and Matan could rebuke me with cries of “Muktzah, muktzah” when I tried to give our very congested Liav one more dosage on the nebulizer machine during the “eighteen” minutes. Soon we were all lighting candles together in front of an open window, watching the rainstorm abate and breathing in the scent of the freshly-washed earth, as if it too had bathed for Shabbat. The twins, now 1.5, saw me cover my eyes and started playing along, convinced that it was a game of peek-a-boo, known in Hebrew as “Cuckoo.” And so I blessed over the candles to cries of Cuckoo, and then we all made our way around the corner to the neighborhood shul. On the five-minute walk home Matan and Tagel delighted in splashing through the puddle-wonderful driveway; Liav simply took off her shoes and sat on the ground, waiting for someone to pick her up. We came home, took off the kids’ wet clothes, and made Kiddush and Motzi – and miraculously everyone managed to hold off on drinking or spilling their grape juice until it was time. It felt like an idyllic Shabbat -- until it was not.
On Shabbat afternoon we were all cooped up inside because it was raining again. The sky was dark and overcast and I was reminded of the first line of Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” For us, too, “the cold winter had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.” The kids needed constant attention and D and I were exhausted, and at some point I snapped at him unnecessarily. He snapped back. We kept carping at one another, and before long the storm outside was nothing compared to the tempest in our teapot. Arguing in front of the kids on Shabbat; it doesn’t get worse than that, I thought.
I am fortunate that D has a capacious and forgiving soul, and by the time we had turned off the lights and gathered around the havdalah candle—with the kids all washed and ready for bed, excited about the fire and the grape juice—we had more or less made up. But I was still reeling from our fight when I sat down later that evening to read through the following week’s parsha, Vayera. It is a parsha about family dynamics – about the relationship between Abraham and his wife Sarah, Lot and his daughters, Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac. No one has an out-and-out fight, but nor are these models of exemplary relationships.
When the parsha opens, Abraham invites three strangers into his tent, commanding Sarah to “Hurry, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” (18:6) He does not say please or invoke any terms of endearment, nor does he take the time to explain to her why he needs this food so quickly or invite her to join the messengers once they break bread. When Sarah overhears the news that she is going to have a son, she laughs: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?” (18:12) Later she realizes that she has insulted Abraham and covers up by lying, insisting that in fact she did not laugh.
In the parsha’s next scene, Abraham tries and fails to count out ten righteous men so as to defend Sodom from destruction. The angels arrive at the gates of the city and Lot greets them and welcomes them into his home. When the townsmen demand that he release these new arrivals so that they can abuse them, Lot instead offers his own daughters: “I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof” (19:7-8). It is presumably those same daughters who then go on to get their father drunk and sleep with him after the destruction of Sodom: “Our father is old… Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father” (20:31-32).
If these family dynamics weren’t awful enough, the camera then pans back to Abraham and Sarah, who have just arrived in Gerar. Abraham lies and says that Sarah is his sister so as to save his own life, since he is concerned that the king of the place, Avimelech, will kill him so as to take his wife. Following the episode with Avimelech, Isaac is born and Sarah insists that Abraham cast out his other son Ishmael, who is banished to the wilderness. And of course, after banishing one son, Abraham proceeds nearly to sacrifice his second son in response to a divine command in the parsha’s climactic final scene.
Taken as a whole, the figures who populate this week’s parsha seem to be far kinder and more sympathetic to outsiders than to their own family members. Abraham privileges the needs of strangers over his wife’s feelings, and Lot protects those same strangers by sacrificing his own daughters. Abraham listens to God’s voice, which makes him the patriarch of the Jewish people; but he does so at the expense of his own sons. Why?
Alas, I can identify all too well with this tendency. With our own families, we sometimes make the mistake of believing that we can get away with behavior that would be unpardonable with others. Our family members love us unconditionally, so if we fly off the handle on a particular rainy afternoon, then surely they will come around and forgive us. Perhaps it is also the case that we assume that our family members are part of ourselves; if we are rude to them, it is only because we are acting as a team towards some higher purpose – say, to be hospitable to angelic guests, or to perpetuate humanity after terrible destruction. We forget that the people we love have feelings, and that those feelings ought to be as dear to us as our own. When they hurt, we hurt. And it is precisely because they love us unconditionally that we must guard their feelings so carefully.
The midrash states, “Great is peace, for the great name that was written in holiness may be erased for the sake of peace between a man and his wife” (Vayikra Rabba 9:9). The midrash refers to the Sotah ritual, whereby a man who suspects his wife of adultery tests her by bringing her to the Temple, where the priest writes out the divine name and dissolves it in water. God allows for God’s own name to be erased so that there is peace within the house. My intention here is not to condemn our Biblical forbears, who are powerful if complex role models. But the next time I find myself about to lose my temper with the people I love most, I hope I will stop and count to ten. I may not be able to save the city, but hopefully I will preserve peace within the walls of our home.
Monday, October 27, 2014
On First Looking into Masekhet Yevamot in Summer 2007: A Retrospective
I was unmarried throughout the entire year and a half in which I first learned Seder Nashim, the order of the Talmud that deals with the relationships between husbands and wives. As I pored over Talmudic pages about who is permitted to marry whom, and how betrothal takes place, and what happens if a woman is suspected of being unfaithful, I was reminded of a story about Rabbi Akiva, who tried to come up with a midrash about the plague of frogs in Egypt. “There was just one frog,” said Akiva, interpreting the Biblical verse which literally reads, “The frog came up and covered the land of Egypt” (Exodus 8:2). His colleagues, upon hearing Akiva explain that this one frog in turn gave rise to enough frogs to cover Egypt, go on to chide him for expounding on matters of Aggada. Akiva’s expertise was halakha; he had no business coming up with creative midrashic explanations. As Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya rebuked, “Akiva, what are you doing studying Aggada? Desist from these words, and go study the laws of skin blemishes and impure tents” (Sanhedrin 67b). As a single woman living alone, I felt like I had as much business studying Seder Nashim as Rabbi Akiva had studying Aggada. But I too could not help but be drawn to fairy tales and make-believe, and often in my study of Nashim I found myself daydreaming about that one-and-only Frog who would overlook my blemishes and come to my tent in the guise of a handsome prince.
The name of the first tractate in Nashim, Yevamot, literally means sisters-in-law, and deals with the Biblical law of levirate marriage whereby a man is obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow so long as she is childless. This is the case even if the man already has a wife, since men in Talmudic times were permitted to marry more than one woman. The rival co-wives of polygamous men are known as tzarot, a word that also means troubles. And so when I began learning this tractate during the summer of 2007, I jokingly referred to this period as my summer of tzarot. If nothing else, there was the trouble of how to understand the complicated family relationships discussed in this tracate, such as the case of a man whose brother is married to his mother-in-law, or the case of two men who accidentally switch wives under the wedding canopy, and other confusing liaisons.
And then, of course, there was the trouble of being single. Officially I was still dating Omri, but our relationship was faltering, and by that point I was pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be. I probably ought to have broken up with him sooner than I did, but I was more scared of being alone than of being with the wrong person – and this says a lot, given that I’d been married to the wrong person just two years earlier. That summer in addition to learning Yevamot, I reread D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover when a used copy appeared in the rack outside my local bookstore. I recall being struck by several passages about the difficulty of finding a suitable mate: “The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few, in most personal experiences. There’s lots of good fish in the sea – maybe! But the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself, you are inclined to find very few good fish in the sea.” This lack of eligible single men in Jerusalem was a frequently-voiced lament among my female friends, who always seemed to far outstrip their male counterparts. Lawrence says this explicitly: “‘Go ye into the streets and by-ways of Jerusalem, and see if you can find a man.’ It had been impossible to find a man in the Jerusalem of the prophet -- though there were thousands of male humans. But a man! C’est une autre chose!”
If I found no one in Jerusalem, I resolved, I would head to Harpania, a meeting place for singles who had no luck in their home towns (Yevamot 17a). Rabbi Zeira says that the town Harpania comes from the two Hebrew words har (mountain) and poneh (turn). Harpania is the city that people turn to if they come from such bad genealogical lines that no one wants to marry them: “Whoever cannot identify his family and his tribe turns there to find a mate.” It is clear from the Talmud that the Jews of Talmudic Babylonia were very preoccupied with their family trees. They prided themselves in tracing their ancestry all the way back to the Babylonian exile in the days of King Yechonia (600 BCE). And they were interested in marrying only those of “pure lineage,” those who could construct family trees back for generations. Certain parts of Babylonia were regarded as genealogically “purer” than others, and apparently Harpania was the worst; as Rava goes on to say, “Harpania is deeper than hell.” And so anyone who could not find someone to marry was encouraged to try Harpania, home of the least eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.
Jerusalem was probably not quite as bad as Harpania, but even so, the dating scene did not look good for women. Once I accompanied a friend to a singles event--the only such event I ever attended--and was distressed to see that the women outnumbered the men by nearly two to one. And the gap was not just in quantity, but in quality as well. Most of the women were dressed in stockings and modest but flattering fitted skirts, with any gray hairs dyed, and any wrinkles or skin blemishes covered by painstakingly applied make-up. The men—their pants baggy, their hair disheveled—looked like they had just rolled out of bed. I imagined the men and women as items on sale in a supermarket: The women were the perishables, stamped with expiration dates that were rapidly approaching. The men were the canned goods; they didn’t look all that appealing, but they could remain on the shelves indefinitely until someone finally decided to pick them off the shelf. Everyone sat in a circle nibbling on stale cookies and drinking apple juice from a carton in plastic cups, playing silly icebreaker games led by a pretty woman in a bright purple dress, her hair wrapped in a colorful turban. Whenever it was my turn, she flashed me a smile that seemed kind but patronizing, as if I were a little child with a long way to go, even though I imagined that we were about the same age. I thought of her as the preschool teacher and the rest of us as her toddling charges. Since when did being single become so infantilizing?
Living in Jerusalem, I was surrounded by the assumption that everyone wanted to be married, and that those who weren’t were incomplete and longing that things were otherwise. Unlike New York City or Cambridge, there was no respect for the high-powered career woman or the superstar professor; so long as she was single, she must be unhappy. I could handle being incomplete, but the thought of other people’s pity made me recoil and cringe.
The Talmud, too, looks pitifully upon any woman who does not have a man with whom to share her life and, more specifically, her bed. Five times throughout the Babylonian Talmud, the sage Reish Lakish quotes a popular folk saying to this effect: Tav L’Meytav Tan Du M’l’meytav Armelo. The phrase literally means, “It is better for a woman to sit as two than to sit alone by herself.” The rabbis’ discussion of this folk saying unleashes a flurry of colorful comments attributed to various Talmudic sages about how much a woman is willing to put up with just so that she can have a husband (118b):
Abayey: Even if her husband is the size of a sesame seed, she is proud to place her chair among the free women.
Rav Papa: Even if her husband is just a spinner of wool, she will call out to him to come sit with her at the entrance to their home.
Rav Ashi: Even if her husband is a cabbage-head, at least she will not lack for lentils in her pot.
It seems the Talmud cannot imagine a woman who could be both happy and single. Even so, Abayey, Rav Papa and Rav Ashi are not granted the last word. The passage concludes with the following assertion: “And all these women commit adultery and attribute their offspring to their husbands.” That is, all these women who so desperately want to be married are really just interested in having a convenient excuse when they find themselves pregnant as a result of their adulterous affairs. Why do they need husbands? So that they can point to a legitimate father for their bastard children!
This closing line, astonishing in its flippancy and subversiveness, casts the preceding statements in a new light: According to the Talmudic sages, a woman needs a husband so that she can “place her chair among the free women,” that is, so that she can count herself among those women who are free to have adulterous affairs! And even if her husband is a cabbage-head, she doesn’t care, because she’s just using him as a cover so that she can gallivant off and engage in extramarital sex. For this reason it is better for a woman to be married than to be alone.
To some extent Omri functioned as a similar cover for me. He was not my husband, but as my long-term boyfriend, he enabled me to place my chair among those who were free from the torture of attending singles events and being “set up” by concerned, well-meaning strangers. “Are you looking to meet someone,” people would often ask me, and immediately I would rush to assure them that no, I had quite enough lentils in my pot, thank you very much.
Shortly after I studied this passage in Yevamot, my friend Aviva came for Shabbat dinner bearing the gift of a glass jar full of hard candy. “When you finish all the sweets,” she told me, “you can save the jar and use it as a vase for the next time Omri brings you flowers.” I smiled, knowing that I would do not such thing. Instead, I washed out the jar, filled it with two kilos of lentils, and placed it in my cupboard alongside my beans, split peas and other dried goods. I put a label on the vase with a quote from the passage in Yevamot: “she does not lack for lentils in her pot.” Most nights that summer I had lentil soup for dinner – alone.
In the Talmud it is clear that men have the advantage when it comes to marriage, which is described as a one-way transaction in which a man acquires a woman and may simultaneously be legally wed to several women at once. The Talmud speaks of the sanctity of marriage, but we hear other less conventional voices as well, such as the following account in Yevamot:
When Rav would visit the city of Dardishir, he would announce:
"Who will be mine for a day?"
And when Rav Nachman would visit the city of Shachnetziv, he would announce: "Who will be mine for a day?"(Yevamot 37b)
"Who will be mine for a day?"
And when Rav Nachman would visit the city of Shachnetziv, he would announce: "Who will be mine for a day?"(Yevamot 37b)
Rav and Rav Nachman, two great third-century Babylonian sages, apparently had a practice of marrying (or perhaps simply sleeping with) women for a single day. I understand what was in it for the sages, who presumably had to travel often and could not always take their wives with them. But I can’t help but wonder what sort of woman would be interested in such a one-night stand. Perhaps in Talmudic times, too, there were far more suitable women than men? Perhaps they were so desperate for companionship that they would rather have a man for one night than be alone forever? Or perhaps these women were excited by the notion of being associated with such a great rabbinic luminary?
Personally I am drawn to those Talmudic stories—few and far between though they may be—of women who have free reign to choose among various men, rather than the opposite gender dynamic. This is the case with Rava’s wife, who actively chooses her husband rather than waiting around like a wallflower to be hand-picked. She is introduced in the context of a discussion about marriage and fertility, in which the rabbis put forth principles such as the following (Yevamot 34b):
A woman does not become pregnant upon her first intercourse.
For the twenty-four months after a woman gives birth, her husband will sow inside and seed outside.
A woman who commits an illicit sexual act will invert herself after intercourse lest she become pregnant.
For the twenty-four months after a woman gives birth, her husband will sow inside and seed outside.
A woman who commits an illicit sexual act will invert herself after intercourse lest she become pregnant.
I remember learning these passages in the morning Talmud shiur I attended at a synagogue in Jerusalem, where mine was the only womb in the room. While I knew the Talmud wasn’t talking about me personally, the discussion on the page before us was certainly more about me than about any of the men in the room. And so when we came to these passages, I suddenly felt as conspicuous as Virginia Woolf traipsing across the green quads of Oxbridge.
Unfortunately it gets worse before it gets better. The Talmud goes on to assert, in the name of Ravin, that “any woman who waits ten years after the death of her husband before remarrying will never give birth again.” It had only been two years since Paul and I had separated, but already I was starting to worry about my dormant womb. It seemed that there was hope for me, and least according to Rav Nahman, who goes on to qualify that “This was taught only with regard to one who did not intend to remarry; but if a woman intended to remarry, then she will indeed become pregnant.” Rav Nahman suggests that a woman’s psychology may affect her womb (as we know from the nineteenth-century hysterics). If she intends to have intercourse again, her reproductive organs will not wither. I was reassured, but the subject matter at hand still seemed a little too close to home. I hunched over my volume of Talmud, hoping that none of the men in the room were familiar with my personal circumstances.
It is at this point in the passage that Rava’s wife makes her appearance, though it seems like she was there all along, sitting in on an all-male study group just like me. Unlike me, however, she was not able to remain anonymous. After hearing the discussion between Ravin and Rav Nahman, Rava leans over to his wife and tells her that the rabbis are talking about her. She, too, had been previously married and it seems she had waited a long time before remarrying and becoming Rava’s wife. “The rabbis are murmuring about you,” Rava tells her. Rava’s wife seizes upon Rav Nahman’s corollary and rushes to her own defense. She assures Rava that although she did not remarry for over a decade, her womb did not close up because she always intended to remarry, as per Rav Nahman’s corollary. Or, as she tells Rava somewhat romantically, “My eye was on you all along.”
I am impressed by the bravado of this woman who sits next to her husband while he is learning Torah with his colleagues and dares to confess that she had been interested in him for a while. She clearly has a will of her own, even though she remains nameless. We learn more about her elsewhere in the Talmud, where she is known as the daughter of Rav Hisda. The Talmud relates the following anecdote from her youth:
The daughter of Rav Hisda was sitting on her father's lap. They were seated before Rava and Rami bar Chama. Rav Hisda said to his daughter: "Which of these men do you want [to marry]?" She responded, "Both of them!" Rava said, "Then let me be the second one."
Rav Hisda's daughter, a girl young enough to still sit on her father's lap, is depicted here like a greedy child in an ice cream shop who wants both chocolate and vanilla, or like Shel Silverstein's Terrible Theresa who chooses the middle pancake from the towering stack. If given the choice between two men, she'll take them both! But Rava does not miss a beat. To the extent that he can still control his fate, he intercedes. He does not want to be the first of two men to marry Rav Hisda's daughter, which would mean that either he would die, or that they would divorce. He'd rather be the second, and so he wisely stakes his claim. Now it becomes clear how Rav Hisda’s daughter could have known in advance that she would become Rava’s wife. She had her eye on him all along because she had chosen him when she was just a young girl. She always knew that she would remarry, and so she is confident that her dormant womb will rally when she wishes to become pregnant again.
In Yevamot, the emphasis is not just on marriage but also on having children, which is of course the first commandment in the Bible – to increase and multiply. The Talmud in Yevamot (61a) discusses a debate between Beit Hillel, who holds that a man must have at least one son and one daughter to count as having fulfilled this commandment; and Beit Shammai, who holds that a man must have two sons. All the sages agree, however, that fulfilling this mitzvah is so paramount that a man may even sell a Torah scroll so as to have enough money to have children. The Talmud then goes on to cite the case of Rav Sheshet (62b), who was childless because the classes taught by his teacher Rav Huna went on for too long. Presumably Rav Sheshet found himself staying so late in the beit midrash that by the time he got home at night, his wife was already asleep! I, on the other hand, used to go to evening classes with the deliberate goal of staying out late, so that I would not have to come home to an empty house.
The tension between studying Torah and raising a family is dramatized in the figure of Ben Azzai, who captured my imagination when I encountered him in a conversation about procreation in Yevamot (63b). Rabbi Eliezer asserts that anyone who does not engage in this mitzvah is considered as if he has committed murder, since the commandment to procreate is juxtaposed in Genesis with the verse prohibiting bloodshed. Rabbi Yaakov then demurs that anyone who does not engage in this mitzvah is regarded as diminishing the image of God, since the commandment to procreate is also juxtaposed with the verse about man being created in the image of God. At this point, Ben Azzi chimes in and declares that anyone who neglects the commandment to procreate is regarded as if he both commits murder and diminishes the image of God. The other sages leap up and lambast Ben Azzai for his hypocrisy: “Ben Azzai, there are those who preach well and those who practice well, and those who practice well but do not preach well. But you – you preach well but do not practice what you preach!” Presumably Ben Azzai himself was unmarried, or at least he did not have children. And so he can offer only a faltering defense: “What can I do? My soul desires Torah. The world can be sustained by others.” Ben Azzai is so enamored of Torah study that he cannot bear the thought of sacrificing his study time for the sake of raising a family.
On those nights when I found myself walking back from class alone while all my friends with kids were ensconced at home, I sometimes pretended that I, like Ben Azzai, had made a conscious choice. Certainly I had far more time to study Torah than I would if I were saddled with responsibilities of raising a family. I enjoyed waking up early every morning and rushing out the door to my daf yomi shiur, and then coming home late after attending classes on the weekly Torah portion. At the same time, I couldn't help wishing that I'd known, back then, that it was just a temporary stage of life. If only I, like Rav Hisda’s daughter, had sat on my father’s lap as a young girl and hand-picked my two husbands. Then perhaps I wouldn’t feel a flutter in my womb each time I went out among the streets and by-ways of Jerusalem, looking despairingly at the thousands of male humans in search of my Frog. All herring and mackerel, it seemed.
Tuesday, September 02, 2014
The Enchanted Talmud: A Tale of Rabbis and Muggles
When I began studying Talmud in Jewish day school, my friends and I used to act out the cases discussed in the Mishnah: “If a man uncovers a woman’s hair in public… If a man leaves his jug of water in the middle of the street….” We relied on makeshift props – a cheerleading pompom for a head of hair, or a juice box from someone’s lunch for a jug of water. I was reminded of those junior high school plays when I read Enchantress (Plume, $17), Maggie Anton’s second and final book about Rav Hisda’s daughter and the Jewish community of fourth-century Babylonia. Anton dramatizes scenes from the Talmud featuring her eponymous heroine (also known as Hisdadukh), her second husband Rava (her marriage to her first husband was the subject of the previous book), and the rabbis and sorceresses with whom they interact.
Knowledge, in this novel, is highly gendered: Men study Torah and women cast spells. That is not to say that women do not also learn Torah—and indeed, in the book’s closing pages an aged Hisdadukh teaches Mishnah to her granddaughters and their daughters, “according to each girl’s capabilities.” But for the most part, it is the men who quote Mishnah and the women who write incantation bowls, wear special rings that enable them to understand the speech of animals, and cast spells to quell deadly sandstorms and turn men into donkeys. Midway through the book, in a scene reminiscent of countless middle-grade novels about preteen witches and their magic-making moms, Hisdadukh discovers that her mother, too, was a sorceress: “I’d thought it was Father’s study and piety that safeguarded our family all those years,” Hisdadukh relates, dumbfounded to discover that it was in fact their mother’s spells that had protected the family from harm. Several of these spells are included in the novel, as Anton draws on the astrological and demonic lore that is sprinkled like fairy dust throughout the Talmud’s pages, including vividly colorful curses such as “hot excrement in torn baskets.” At these moments the book seems to be a sort of “Harry Potter meets the Talmud,” with the Angel of Death as Dementor and non-rabbinic amei haaretz as muggles.
But Anton’s novel is also a romance, and quite a racy one at that. Hisdaukh and Rava have a passionate marriage, and they “use the bed” (Anton’s apt translation of the Talmudic euphemism) several times per chapter. Indeed, in one of her more daring and dubious leaps of conjecture, Anton suggests that Rava (meaning “great one”) received his epithet not due to his mastery of Torah, but on account of his spectacular endowment. Their sex life, for the most part, is charmed, except when the demon Ashmedai attempts to seduce Hisdadukh in the guise of her previous husband Rami, and Rava is consumed by jealous rage. This scene is perhaps a creative inversion of the Talmudic tale of Rava’s wife’s jealousy of his study partner’s wife Homa, an encounter which Anton surprisingly and disappointingly elects to domesticate.
Anton has elsewhere stated that her goal in writing these novels is to encourage more non-Orthodox Jews, especially women, to study Talmud. Towards this end she bridges an ancient text with contemporary academic scholarship on the Talmud’s Persian and Zoroastrian context, from magi to menstrual rituals. When at her best, she brings Talmudic characters vividly to life, as in her ingenious depiction of Rav Nahman’s imperious and importunate wife Yalta as a hawk-nosed lesbian. At times she seems merely to be dramatizing scene after scene from the Talmud, not unlike my amateur junior high Mishnah plays. But then Anton will let slip, say, that Rav Hisda’s daughter wore tzitzit, or that the rabbis gained their intimate knowledge of women’s bodies by consulting their wives, or that Hisdadukh’s vision of the world to come involved studying Torah with both her husbands simultaneously. Suddenly it becomes clear that only a twenty-first century feminist and critical sensibility like Anton’s could interpret the Talmud in just this way; and for this reader, at least, the novel succeeds in working its magic.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
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.
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