Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Love in the Time of Omer, Again

This Lag Ba’Omer I found myself thinking of Shimon bar Yochai and his son, who studied Torah together in a cave for twelve years. The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) relates that they shed their clothes and sat covered in sand up to their necks and broke from study only to dress and daven. It dawns on me that this is not so different from how Matan and I have been spending our mornings -- albeit without the sand.

Matan generally wakes up around 6am (to the extent that one can generalize about the daily habits of a two-week old). He doesn’t cry, but when I peer into his bassinet in the early morning light, I notice that his eyes (which are no longer brown, but bluish) are wide open. He blinks furiously when he catches my gaze, and I lift him up out and begin singing “Rise and Shine.” By the time Noah is getting his children into the “arky arky,” I’ve changed his diaper and carried him over to the rocking chair where I sit and nurse him. I marvel at the fact that my body can satisfy all his nutritional needs, like the carob tree and spring of water miraculously created for Bar Yochai and his son to sustain them in the cave. During this first nursing of the morning, I sing him Modeh Ani followed by “greatest hits” from Psukei D’Zimra and Shacharit, including most of the Hallelujahs. (My repertoire also includes El Adon, even on weekdays, because I love the melody so much.) Often he’ll wait to detach from the breast until I finish a particular Tefillah, though I’m not sure whether this is out of Koved Rosh or a keen sense of melody.

When Matan finishes nursing, we move on to Daf Yomi, which I don’t really learn but rather sing aloud. In the interest of time, I merely read through Steinstaltz’s commentary, making my best attempt to understand the discussion at hand. (As a friend recently quipped, instead of Baby Einstein, we are educating Matan through Baby Steinsaltz.) Yesterday we learned a sugya about the number of times oil must be added to a Minchah sacrifice that is offered in a vessel. The term used for each addition of oil is “Matan Shemen,” as I was excited to point out to our Matan. And now that we are on the Korban Todah, the thanksgiving offering (and the bread that came with it), I have the opportunity to share with Matan all the many reasons I have to be thankful after nine months of anticipating what it would be like to hold our child in my arms.

Matan usually falls asleep at some point in the middle of Daf Yomi (lately he’s been holding out until Amud Bet, so maybe there’s hope). I put him down in his bassinet and take advantage of the break to brush my teeth (at last!), jump in the shower, throw on some clothes, and eat breakfast. Then we head out for a morning walk. I gently place Matan in a sling without rousing him, strap the diaper bag (which has replaced my L.L. Bean backpack) over my shoulder, and invent a destination. Everywhere we go, we see the rest of the world busy at work, and I am reminded of how my life is so different now that I am on maternity leave. I think about Bar Yochai and his son, who emerged from the cave and saw everyone around them plowing and sowing and engaging in other forms of labor. They had just spent twelve years learning Torah, and so they could not identify with the working life. I know how they must have felt. Our apartment often feels like a cave, with my whole existence confined to the seat where I nurse and the table where I change Matan. It is hard to imagine that just two weeks ago, I was at my desk at work at 8:30 every morning, selling books to publishers across the country and communicating with clients around the world.

By the time Matan and I return from our walk, he is usually just waking up again, so I change him and nurse him while reading to him aloud from my novel. I want Matan to be exposed only to wholesome literature – thus far he’s been read Alexander McCall Smith’s The Lost Art of Gratitude and the first half of Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’ s Last Stand. I enjoy reading him novels with dialogue because I can act out the various voices. Nonfiction doesn’t work as well; inevitably I give up and start reading to myself, because it doesn’t seem worth the effort of vocalizing in a monotone.

Matan falls asleep as I read to him, so I wheel his bassinet into the kitchen and place him down in it. While he sleeps I eat my lunch and try to answer a few emails. As soon as he wakes up, we turn on Skype and speak with either Matan’s Savta or my grandmother, depending on who is available. Everyone wants to see Matan on the video, but he’s too short to reach the camera, so I construct a booster seat atop the kitchen table consisting of my Norton Anthology of Poetry and Heschel’s Man is Not Alone. Matan’s feet dangle over the edge of the books, about an inch off the table, and he swings them while we Skype. Often he falls asleep mid-conversation, generally when my grandmother starts complaining about the weather in Princeton. I quickly lift him over my shoulder so his back is to the camera and he doesn’t seem rude.

Although he is a big sleeper, Matan always wakes up when I start playing our CD of Bialik nursery rhymes. We dance around the house to Yossi BaKinor and Rutz Ben Susi, two songs that I learned for the first time only this past week. (I now know them both by heart.) As the light begins to fade, I place Matan in his mechanical swing and play NadNed, and once again he dozes off. His head slumps forward and his blue hat creeps down over his eyes, so he looks like a smurf, or like one of the seven dwarves.

By the time Matan next stirs, his Abba is home to entertain him, make dinner, and relieve me for a while. One night last week the three of us tried to go to an evening shiur. We brought Matan in a carseat and D sat in between the two of us. After about ten minutes, Matan had woken up and I’d fallen fast asleep. D looked to his left and then to his right, trying to figure out what was wrong with this picture….

When Matan falls asleep for the night (errr, for the first Ashmura of the night) we sing him the Shema followed by a few soothing songs, mostly Seudah Shlishit melodies. He will wake up every two hours throughout the night. Each time I hear him whimper, I find myself muttering God’s words to Bar Yochai: “Have you come to destroy my world?” But then I peer into his bassinet at his tiny clenched fists which he holds over his head, and at his fingernails the size of sesame seeds. As I lift him out to feed him yet again, I remember that I have created his world, and that he has essentially recreated mine. His eyes peek out from under his hat like Bar Yochai’s head beneath the sand, and I kiss him and hold him close.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Speeches for Brit of Matan Aharon, 18.5.11


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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