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

Divrei Vayera

            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)
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.
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.

Dear Grandma,

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

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Learning How to Pray: Time-Bound Exemptions

Recently I noticed that most of my davening takes place in doctor's offices and hospital waiting rooms. Davening has become less a regular practice than a red telephone to God in times of urgent need. This goes against everything I have always believed most deeply about prayer – that one needs a regular discipline of prayer so as to keep the channels of communication open; that prayer is most effective in a communal context; that one should pray out of gratitude as much as one prays out of need. Instead, prayer seems less like a spiritual practice and more like a siren of alarm, or, when necessary, a howl of distress.

Have I become a less spiritual person? I suppose that the change in my prayer practice is largely due to motherhood – with three kids under the age of three, I cannot concentrate on davening in shul, and even davening in the morning seems impossible so long as the kids are underfoot. D somehow always manages to steal a few minutes to put on tefillin and mumble into his siddur, often with a baby on the bed before him playing with his tefillin cases or wrapping tzitzit around a finger, an image that reminds me of Psalms 119:92: "Were it not that your Torah were my plaything…" But unlike D, I have not managed to make davening enough of a priority to find a way to integrate it into my everyday routine. I am more likely to daven minchah at work—when I can close the office door for a few quiet moments—than shacharit at home with the kids.

And whereas I used to lead davening and read Torah regularly at a local egalitarian minyan, now I am more reluctant to accept when I am asked to take on a formal role in shul. First I need to make sure that I will have coverage for the kids—that either my husband will agree to join me in shul that morning (instead of attending his own shul with our son), or else that there is a friend I'll be able to ask to watch the twins for as long as I am standing in front of the congregation. I also have to feel confident enough that I'll be able to leave the house on Shabbat morning by a specific time, which does not always seem possible. And so although I want to contribute my skills to egalitarian religious prayer communities in Jerusalem, whose values I hold dear, all too often it just seems too difficult to orchestrate.

For a while I've been feeling like a bit of a hypocrite. I spent most of my adult life leading egalitarian minyanim, championing the cause of egalitarian davening, taking on the lion's share of the Torah reading, recruiting others to join the prayer groups with which I was involved. Many of my friends davened in Orthodox shuls, where women sat behind mehitzot and did not participate as equal members in synagogue ritual. These friends considered themselves feminists and regarded themselves as equal to men in all other aspects of their lives, but synagogue ritual remained somehow compartmentalized.

I write "somehow," but of course I understood why. Historically the ancient rabbis exempted women from positive time-bound commandments (Kidushin 1:7), and someone who is not obligated in a commandment does not have the authority to exempt someone who is (Rosh Hashanah 3:8). I will not go into the halakhic analysis here, because many others who are far more learned have done so before me; but suffice it to say that the Talmud and the most prominent medieval commentators held that women were indeed obligated in daily prayer, and it is not clear why the conclusion should be that women cannot serve as prayer leaders. Indeed, it was not until the seventeenth century that any major halakhic authority argued that regular prayer with a fixed liturgy was not obligatory upon women. It is true that for most of Jewish history, women did not lead services or fulfill certain ritual obligations that were regarded as the exclusive province of men; but in any case the women of today are different from the women of ancient times whom the rabbis had in mind when they issued these rulings. If today's women can sit on the boards of major organizations, run schools and banks and laboratories, and serve as the primary (or sole) wage-earners in their households, why should they be second-class citizens when it comes to Jewish ritual? Jewish law has to evolve to reflect the changing social reality, I argued (even though a close look at the halakhic sources would render even such arguments superfluous). And so I made it my business to become competent at all synagogue roles that had been historically reserved for men, and to daven in minyanim in which no ritual roles were specifically gendered.

And yet, look where I am now. I have not been to shul on Shabbat in several weeks. Our daughters still nap from 8:30-10:30 every morning and they refuse to fall asleep outside of the house. If I keep them home, I can daven in our living room while they sleep. If I schlep them to shul, I have two cranky toddlers to entertain and no hope of praying. So shul does not seem worth the effort these days. Instead I let my husband take my son to shul and I stay home, though I am already worrying about the gendered associations he will develop as a result. In theory my husband and I could switch off taking our son and staying home with the girls, and perhaps that is what we will start doing; but this only became an option very recently, when I stopped breastfeeding. I recall one Shabbat morning when I sat in our big armchair nursing one of the twins, trying to reach for a siddur on the bookshelf behind me as the baby, sensing my body's tautness, sucked even more vigorously in fear that I might be pulling away; then all the books on the shelf came tumbling down to the floor and I could not bend down to pick them up. At moments like this I began to wonder whether everything I had always believed about women's synagogue roles was collapsing as well.

And then I thought back to my bat mitzvah. I remembered how meaningful it was to me to chant my Torah portion and lead services and become counted in a minyan. It wasn't until nearly twenty years later that I became a mother. Would I have wanted to give up on twenty years of religious obligation—twenty years of deriving so much spiritual satisfaction from my active participation in egalitarian prayer services—just because I had a the potential to become a mother (a potential that, back then, I had no way of knowing if I would ever realize)? This seems like quite an unreasonable and unnecessary sacrifice. Yes, while raising young children, it is difficult to participate fully in Jewish ritual and prayer, and positive time-bound commandments pose a particular challenge. But would it not make more sense to exempt women for that period when their children are young, especially given that women are having children later and later these days – generally at least a decade after they become b'not mitzvah? Why deprive women of decades of meaningful religious practice?

Bearing all this in mind, I'd like to regard my retreat from active participation in synagogue life as temporary. It is a stage of life dependent on clear-cut physical signs, much as being a קטנה or a נידה are stages and phases of life. Like those stages, it too shall pass. I look to the example of my sister-in-law, who experienced a total transformation in her davening commitment and in her spiritual life in general when her youngest child (of five) turned four. Granted, the immediate impetus for this transformation was her commitment to saying kaddish three times a day with a minyan to honor her father's memory. But I do not think she could have made such a commitment—or have experienced it as more empowering than burdensome—if she still had a child in diapers.

I trust that when my twin daughters are a bit older—and I can't say what age, since (as far as I know) no one has codified the approach I am advocating, and I have not yet lived through it myself—I will be able to get up from that armchair and return to davening regularly, leading services, and leyning full parshiyot. I would like my children to have the example of a mother and a father who daven every day and stand up to lead the congregation in prayer. I would like to believe that I am living by my values and transmitting those values to my children. In the words of the Shema—which I consider myself obligated to say twice a day—"you shall teach them to your children." I hope that both my son and my daughters will share this sense of obligation, and that participating in synagogue ritual will be a source of spiritual meaning and fulfillment for them, as it has been for me.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Matan's Pilgrim

In honor of Shavuot, Matan’s Gan issued instructions to the parents to send their children dressed in white, bearing a basket of Bikurim. They used the Biblical word for basket, טנא, as per Moses’ instructions to the Jewish people to bring a basket of first fruits to God: “You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest form the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket, and go to the pace where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name” (Deuteronomy 26:2).  The only basket we had at home was the large brown wicker basket we used to carry out our newborn Matan during his bris, so we threw in a few peaches and nectarines, dressed Matan in a white t-shirt and beige shorts, and sent him off to Gan, relieved that we had remembered to follow the special instructions for that day. Little did we know.

We realized we had misunderstood even before we entered the Gan. Outside the gates leading into the playground we watched as the other toddlers filed out of their parents’ cars decked out in their Shabbat finery: White lacey dresses for the girls, and white sailor suits (or at least crisp button-down shirts) for all the boys. (Poor Matan, who is almost a size 3T, was wearing an old white 2T undershirt that bared his midriff when he reached his hands in the air.) It seemed they were all carrying identical delicate white baskets, about a fifth the size of the monstrosity that poor Matan could barely balance in his tiny arms. Their baskets were decorated in flowers and leaves; Matan’s was utterly bare. Daniel and I looked at each other and grimaced, cognizant, yet again, of how difficult it is to be new immigrants to the Jewish homeland, whose customs and mores seem both deeply familiar and incomprehensibly foreign.

As I left the Gan, my head hung in embarrassment for Matan and for myself, I was reminded of one of my favorite children’s picture books, Molly’s Pilgrim. Molly is a Russian immigrant to the Lower East Side. Just before Thanksgiving, her schoolteacher assigns all the students to make a pilgrim doll and bring it to school. When Molly’s mother learns the definition of a pilgrim—a new immigrant who came to America for religious freedom—she creates Molly’s pilgrim in her own image, a babushka-clad woman in a long skirt. The other children tease Molly because her pilgrim looks nothing like theirs, but the kind and sympathetic teacher assures Molly that “it takes all kinds of pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving.” And indeed, this is essentially what Matan’s Ganenet told me at pickup that afternoon, when I apologized that we had sent Matan in the wrong clothes, bearing the wrong basket.

Shavuot, of course, is a pilgrimage festival – one of the three holidays when Jews are required to come to the Land of Israel. Like Thanksgiving, which coincided with the American pilgrims’ first successful harvest, it too is a harvest festival and a time of thanksgiving, in which we offer our first fruits in gratitude to God. This holiday has particular poignancy for us as new immigrants to the State of Israel; we are pilgrims, and Matan is our first fruit. Perhaps it is somewhat appropriate, then, that the basket he paraded across the stage with at Gan during the Shavuot celebration was the basket we used to carry out our firstborn son at his bris. We are grateful to God for sustaining us and enabling us to reach this day; and we hope that by the time we reach this day with our twins, we will have learned from our mistakes. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Matan's Third Birthday (Rosh Hashana 2a)

I live my life against the backdrop of daf yomi, and so when my oldest son turned three on the first day of tractate Rosh Hashana, the coincidence was not lost on me. The opening mishnah of tractate Rosh Hashana lists four “new years” that occur throughout the annual cycle: There is the new year for kings, which determines what counts as the first year of a king’s reign; the new year for tithing one’s livestock; the new year in the sabbatical cycle; and the new year for trees. Much of the first chapter deals with how we measure time and date significant events, including the question of which month the world was created – or, to invoke the Rosh Hashana liturgy, when we can say  ,היום הרת עולם“today is the birthday of the world.” For Matan, too, there were several dates on which we celebrated his birthday, each a reflection of the various ways we mark time, and each a reminder that the passage of time is joyous but bittersweet.

We first celebrated Matan’s birthday on the day after Yom Haatzmaut, which is the day he was born on the Hebrew calendar. And so Matan’s Hebrew birthday dovetails with Israel’s national birthday and serves, for us, as a connection to our adopted homeland. I will never forget sitting in the Jerusalem Theater for Hidon Hanakh, the three-hour long Bible quiz show that takes place each year on Yom Haatzmaut morning, watching as Jewish students from around the globe competed to answer questions about the finer points of Biblical narrative and history. During the lightning round the questions consisted of a series of dates listed in the Bible, and the students had to specify what happened, say, “on the first day of the first month of the second year.” As the tension mounted, my contractions became increasingly frequent, and I remember thinking that my son was surely excitedly reviewing all the Torah he had learned in the womb before making his exit into the world. And so I will forever associate his birthday with Hidon HaTankah and Yom Haatzmaut. This year, when Yom Haatzmaut rolled around, I began telling Matan stories about when he was born. Matan is fascinated by waterworks, so he was excited to learn that he once swam around in my belly – particularly when I told him that he got to swim there first, before his sisters took a turn. “And then I came out through the drain,” he told me, entirely unprompted. In a sense it is true, and so I just nodded.

The day after Yom Haatzmaut is the day I associate with Matan’s birth; I think of it as the birthday of my becoming a mother. But as a day to make Matan feel special and loved, we chose May eleventh, his birthday on the secular calendar. And so when I picked him up at Gan yesterday, I took him to the florist shop and bought him a colorful “happy birthday” helium balloon. Matan, whose current favorite picture book is about hot air balloons, was thrilled, and as we walked home, he looked up at the soaring balloon as if it were magical. “Don’t let go,” I warned him, “or the balloon will go up, up to the sky.” Ever obedient, Matan clutched the string with one hand and the balloon with the other, terrified of losing his precious new gift. I told him he could simply hold the string and let the balloon fly up, but apparently I had traumatized him with my stern cautionary words. Like me, Matan follows rules to a fault. He is so committed to doing the “right thing” that sometimes he misses out on life. I suppose we can both stand to learn to let go a bit. With every passing year I feel the string connecting us to one another growing longer, as Matan makes his own way in the world. When he was born I could provide for all his needs simply by holding him close to my body and letting him sleep and eat; now he has an intellectual curiosity that I cannot always satisfy (as I am reminded when he interrogates me, say, about how the fire is lit under a hot air balloon, and I have no idea myself), and emotional needs that I can sometimes only begin to fathom. I am aware of his limitations, but I remain hopeful that he will aspire to great heights so that I might follow him with the same wide, wondrous eyes with which he looked up at his beloved balloon as we walked through the streets of Jerusalem on that gorgeous spring afternoon.

In addition to Matan’s familial and personal birthdays, as well as the national birthday of the state, there is also the social aspect of celebrating a birthday, especially for a child. We will make him a little party next month on the date his Gan assigned to us when I asked, a week before his birthday, how we might mark the occasion. The teacher told me that they are all “booked” for May, but that I can have a date in early June. And so the celebration of Matan will continue. I feel bad that I did not think to ask the Gan sooner about choosing a date; it never occurred to me that the social calendar would fill up so quickly. This is ironic, given that Matan does not really associate with the other kids in Gan and tends to spend much of the day off in his own world, playing by himself or observing everyone else from a safe distance. When I dropped him off this morning, he asked if I could stay and play with him, and when I told him that he could play with Dariel or Yiftach or any of the other 25 kids in the room, he turned his head away shyly and looked at his feet, reluctantly waving goodbye as I walked out the door with a breaking heart. This is the first birthday on which I am aware of Matan’s social challenges. And so the occasion is somewhat bittersweet; I am excited that Matan is growing older, but I’m concerned for the struggles that lie ahead.

Not all of the new years discussed in tracate Rosh Hashana are celebratory occasions; the first of Elul, for instance, is merely a cutoff point for tithing. And birthdays, too, are not purely celebratory, at least not at my stage of life. I associate my own birthdays with growing older, with the sense that there is less time in which to reinvent myself or figure out, at last, what I want to “do with my life.” With each passing year I am aware that my parents will not be young and vibrant and deeply involved in my life forever; that my husband and I may not always enjoy good health; that my children may not always provide the gratification of making me feel that I am indispensable from the moment they wake up before dawn until the moment they fall asleep after dusk. With my twin daughters, who are “fifteen months,” we are still marking months rather than years, but each month, too, brings with it the heaviness of parental concern: The girls are developing slowly, at their own pace, and not a month passes when I do not find myself praying that they are healthy. 

It is prayer, perhaps, that links Rosh Hashana with birthday celebrations. On Rosh Hashana we stand for hours in synagogue praying fervently that the coming year should bring blessing. On birthdays our prayers take the form of a wish made over a cake filled with candles as the whole room pauses for a moment of silence before erupting in cries of “happy birthday.” I pray that my son will always retain his sense of wonder at the workings of the world, but that he will also learn how to engage with his peers and make friends. I pray that my daughters, too, will develop healthily and continue to charm everyone they meet with their bright blue eyes and beaming smiles. It is hard to believe that it was just three years ago that D and I were blessed to become parents. So far at least, it seems that no amount of worry or concern could ever be as deep and profound as the joys that we have known. 

Hezek Re’iya and Facebook: Overcoming the Fear of Being Seen

After nearly a decade of holding out, I have finally joined Facebook, overcoming—or at least casting aside—my fears of hezek re’iya for the sake of my children. Or so I told myself.

Hezek re’iya, which literally means “the damage of seeing,” refers to the notion that the invasion of privacy caused by looking at someone else’s property is tantamount to physical damage. The term comes up in the opening sugya of Bava Batra, in a discussion about two neighbors who disagree about the construction of a fence. One would like to build a fence so that the other cannot look into his yard, but the other neighbor does not want his yard divided. Is the first neighbor legally authorized to force the second to agree to the fence? Those rabbis who support the notion that hezek re’iya constitutes a real form of damage believe that a person can legally prevent a neighbor from gazing into his property by forcing his neighbor to assist in the expenses of building a fence. On the opposite side of the fence are those rabbis who argue that הזק ראייה לאו שמיה היזק – that is, the damage of being seen is not real damage, and therefore the neighbor who desires privacy cannot force his neighbor to join in the expenses of building a wall. Ultimately, the Talmud concludes that yes, there is indeed a notion of Hezek Re’iya – the damage of a being seen constitutes a very real form of a damage, and people have the right to protect their own privacy.

I live my life with the constant fear of being seen. Ever since I read Harry Potter, I have fantasized about owning an invisibility cloak – not because I want to be a fly on the wall and observe other people, but because I don’t want any flies on the wall noticing me. And so for me, the notion of joining a social network was tantamount to חבורתא מתותא. Why would I want all my “friends” to know what I am reading, how my children look, where my husband is traveling, and everything else that is going on in my life? Jerusalem is enough of a fishbowl already; I often feel that I live not in a sprawling city, but in a small village of overlapping social circles in which everyone knows (and talks about) one another. The street where I work is lined by a dozen small cafes with glass storefronts, and anyone who walks by can see everyone inside. When I meet a friend or client for coffee, I always insist that we sit at the very back table, furthest from the street, in an effort to avoid being seen. What if, say, that friend whom I had just told I was too busy to meet were to pass by and see me with someone else? What if someone were to see me through the window and come in, interrupting the intense conversation I am having with the person sitting across from me? In Jerusalem, perhaps the most popular tourist destination for Jews the world over, I am constantly running into people from earlier stages of my life: a classmate from my Jewish day school, an acquaintance from Harvard Hillel, an old friend from the Upper West Side. Everyone passes through Jerusalem, as my friend Sara once wrote as the refrain of a sestina. For better and for worse.

I suppose I can trace my paranoia about being seen to my early childhood as a rabbi’s daughter, growing up in a house on the synagogue property. Although we had a fence separating our part of the yard from the synagogue’s, anyone who drove into the shul parking lot could always look into our windows. My parents were vigilant about drawing the shades at night and keeping the front yard neat. In shul, too, my siblings and I always had to be on our best behavior, because we were conscious that our actions set an example for others. We grew up feeling the eyes of the community upon us at all times, an experience epitomized by one unforgettable weekend in which my parents declared that we were having a “Shabbat in.” My father had the Shabbat off, but my parents did not feel like traveling. Nor did they want anyone to know that we were home. So we drew the shades, pulled the cars into the garage, and spent Shabbat in Secret Annex mode, davening and eating together without leaving the house. 

From an early age, my siblings and I learned never to reveal more than we needed to about our family. If someone called to speak to the rabbi, we were supposed to say that he “could not come to the phone right now,” and not that he “wasn’t home,” and certainly not that he was “at Mrs. Knecht’s funeral” or “at the supermarket buying more paper towels.”  My parents are warm and welcoming hosts, as everyone who knows them will attest, but they instilled in each of us the value of privacy. For me it has become second nature.

Now that I am a parent, though, I suppose I have newfound appreciation for the value of transparency. Our son Matan has been having trouble at Gan, and the Ganenet encouraged us to find him an occupational therapist. I started asking around for recommendations, but everyone gave me the same answer: “Just ask on Facebook.” I didn’t quite know what this meant, and found myself imagining Facebook as some modern-day Urim v’Tumim that would miraculously deliver up all the answers I needed. Determined above all to help my son, I created a profile and started amassing friends – even though at present, I don’t think I have any friends who know anything about occupational therapy in Jerusalem. But I remain hopeful that Facebook, at the price of relinquishing some of my precious privacy, will connect me to the resources I need for my children. Being a parent has been humbling in many ways; it has made me realize how reliant I am on the experience, guidance, and advice of others. I try, whenever possible, to offer advice openly and freely to others, though I feel like I am still figuring out what this thing called parenthood is all about. If Facebook serves as a way of enabling me to give and receive help, then perhaps I’ll abandon up my dreams of donning an invisibility cloak. For the time being.