Thursday, March 26, 2015

Walking Books

            I am an avid reader, though these days I read fewer novels and far more children’s picture books. I’m not complaining; one of the greatest pleasures of being a parent is reading aloud to my children. And read aloud I do, all the time. Although a staggering proportion of children’s books are bedtime stories—on the final page the character either falls asleep or wishes the reader good night—in our home we read all day long, in every imaginable context. In the middle of our kitchen table sits a shtender, a wooden stand more commonly used to support volumes of Talmud and other heavy religious tomes. Ours contains a line calligraphied from the Mishnah: “Do not say: When I have time, I will study; lest you never have time.” When I bought it ten years ago, I had far more time to study Torah than I do now, but I have rehabilitated it by using it as a stand for the picture books we read at the breakfast table, including several food-related favorites: The Watermelon Seed, Pete’s a Pizza, Spoon.

            While I am pushing the kids in the stroller—we have a 25-minute walk to and from their preschool every day—I recite to them from the books I’ve committed to memory, particularly those that are in verse. When reading rhyming books to my kids, I usually sing them to a melody of my own devising; as a result, I tend to memorize rhyming books pretty quickly, and can belt them out as we wait for the traffic light to change or make our way across the noisy four-lane highway. Dr. Seuss comes in handy in this regard, especially One Fish, Two Fish, which is essentially a delightful collection of nonsense verse: “The moon was out/ we saw some sheep / we saw some sheep/ take a walk in their sleep…” I want my kids to internalize various meters and rhyme schemes in the hope of cultivating their poetic sensibilities.

            And I want them, too, to learn poetry, and towards that end we have managed to find a few children’s books that consist of illustrated poems, like Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” (which all my kids can more or less sing by heart) and William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger” (they deliver a mean first stanza). Well, I didn’t actually find an illustrated children’s version of “Tyger, Tyger” – it is a song of Experience rather than Innocence, and therefore not standard children’s fare – but we owned a book about a tiger in a forest with awful text but dazzling illustrations, so I printed out the poem from my computer and pasted one stanza over the text of each page. I do this sometimes when we have books with terrific illustrations but terrible text; the book becomes a palimpsest, with another layer of text overlaying the original. Our copy of In My Nest, a silly board book with a three-dimensional felt bird that pops out on the last page, is now called “Shiluah HaKen,” and it contains the full text of the biblical verses about the commandment to send away the mother bird from the nest. This, too, my kids can sing.

            When we have time for more complicated narratives—while waiting our turn at the doctor’s office, or sitting before daunting plates of meatballs and spaghetti—I read them longer books that are essentially short stories for children – like Otto the Story of a Mirror, a delightful tale about a mirror working in a hat shop who is bored with his job and runs away to reflect wondrous and magical sights; at the end of the book he arrives at the famous Isle of Koodle, which he had previously only read and dreamt about, where he meets another mirror, Miranda, and they set sail together. Instead of falling asleep at the end of this book, these characters fall in love: “The two mirrors reflected many wondrous things. But sometimes on a moonlit night, Otto and Miranda just like to look at each other, reflecting back and forth, back and forth, on and on and on, forever and ever and ever.”

            And then there are the stories we read before bed, like Before You Were Born and The Baby Goes Beep, two books edited and published by the gifted Deborah Brodie z”l; both are excellent transitions to “Now get in your cribs!” – a request often met with demands for an encore. Though it’s not a bedtime story, I unfailingly give in to any request to read our all-time favorite Wild About Books, about a librarian named Molly McGrew who drives her bookmobile into the zoo and gets all the animals hooked on reading: “Raccoons read alone / and babboons read in bunches. / And llamas read dramas / while eating their llunches.” I like to think that my kids fall asleep dreaming of insects scribbling haiku.

            Most of the books we read are heavy on text; I tend to stay away from books that are illustrations only. I will not, for instance, read Goodnight Gorilla. I understand that the point is for the parent and child to come up with their own words, but I much prefer a fixed text. Nor do I stop to explain things as I read – it is more Mikra than Parshanut. Instead I assume that the kids will understand what they can understand, and internalize the rest nonetheless. Sure, there are dangers of this approach. Recently while reading my daughter an illustrated children’s book version of “Sunrise, Sunset,” we came to the line “Share the sweet wine and break the glass” and she pointed to the eyes of the bespectacled groom in the picture and yelled “break the glasses, break the glasses” before lunging for my pair as well. (I hope she marries a guy who wears contacts.)

            Sometimes I wonder if I focus too much on memorization when reading to my kids. But it has been such an important part of my own learning. When I first started reading Shakespeare in high school, I committed to memory several sonnets and soliloquies, even though I only partially understood them. Over the years, a couplet or stanza would inexplicably pop into my head and I’d find that I suddenly understood what it meant, and how it was relevant. Likewise, much of the Torah I know by heart comes from leyning, practicing again and again to chant the verses aloud in synagogue until I know them nearly by heart. To memorize something is to be able to summon it at any time, and therefore truly to own it. Like those sages in the Talmud who were valued not for what they understood but for what they had memorized, I’d like my children to become “walking books,” able to recite the text of their favorite books to themselves and thus to sit down and “read” to themselves even before they are literate. This hasn’t quite happened yet, but when it does, I’m looking forward to some quiet time to finish my novel.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Baby Showers: A Teshuva

A pregnant friend recently asked me whether or not she ought to have a baby shower. “My mother-in-law really wants to make me one. I know that Jews are not supposed to do those kinds of things, but why not? Is it just about superstition?”

            I thought about her question. Is there any other reason? Why do many Jews not have baby showers? Yes, there is the superstitious fear of the evil eye, namely that celebrating the baby before it is born would attract the attention of dark spirits, who would mark the baby for disaster. Jewish superstitions go back very far – in the Talmud, for instance, the sages speak of a very real fear of doing anything in even numbers because pairs were considered demonic; this fear led the rabbis to question how we can possibly drink four cups of wine at the Pesach seder, a practice that no one thinks twice about today. Indeed, many of the superstitions that may have plagued our great grandmothers in the shtetl seem to have fallen away. Why then should we not turn a blind eye to the evil eye and have that baby shower after all?

            When I think back to my own pregnancies, I can say with certainty that a baby shower was the furthest thing from my mind. Pregnancy, more than any other experience, awakened me to a sense of the miraculous. I was overcome by awe at the ability to take part in creation, but along with that awe came tremendous trepidation. Just as the baby inside me was completely dependent on me for all its needs, I felt myself entirely dependent on God. Though the baby was forming just inches below the surface of my skin, I had very little control over whether it would be healthy or strong, curious or loving. This seemed entirely up to God, and all I could do was hope and pray and tremble.

            The Talmud relates that the uncertainty that characterizes pregnancy and childbirth gave rise to a series of astrological superstitions: “One who is born on Sunday will be strong; one who is born on Monday will be quarrelsome; one who is born on Tuesday will be rich and fornicating….” I related to the desperate wish to be able to control the outcome of pregnancy, but I knew it was in vain. The day on which my child was born would make no difference, and I had no control over that day anyway. Elsewhere the Talmud relates that three keys are in the hand of God and are not entrusted to any messenger – the key to rain, the key to the revival of the dead, and the key to childbirth. It is only God who decides how an unborn child will fare.

            And so every day that passed in which my baby seemed to be fine, I regarded as a miracle. Every day I received a positive report from a doctor or ultrasound technician, I found myself chanting psalms of praise as I skipped my way out the office. People often ask me how I felt when I found out I had twins: “Were you panicked? Terrified?” I tell them the truth -- that I broke out in joyous and incredulous laughter at my unbelievable good fortune, and identified more with the matriarch’s Sarah’s response to her own annunciation than with Rebecca’s dismay at her twin pregnancy. It seemed so wildly wonderful and impossible – I had been hoping for a baby to grow inside me, and lo and behold there were two!

            Throughout my pregnancies I was constantly overcome by gratitude. Several of my friends had been through devastating miscarriages and never for a moment did I assume that everything would go smoothly; even the language of “expecting” seemed a bit presumptuous. I was hoping and praying for a healthy child, and if my child were not healthy, I was hoping and praying for the strength to help him or her to thrive nonetheless. I did not find out the sex of my children in advance because I experienced pregnancy as a way of getting in touch with the unknown, the mysterious, the wondrous, and I wanted to retain that sense as much as possible. A baby shower – a party that seemed designed to celebrate a baby who would surely come – felt so antithetical to my sensibility. I did not want to assume or expect anything, but to take each day as a gift. For the time being, this was gift enough, and already I was showered in blessing. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Mehitza and the Ramp

As I sat behind the mehitza in synagogue last week peering through its wooden latticework to catch a glimpse of my son playing at my husband’s feet, I couldn’t help but feel that I had crossed a great divide. I have always been a staunch defender of egalitarian Judaism, reluctant to attend any synagogue which assigned distinct gender roles in prayer. In the Conservative synagogue in which I grew up, men and women sat together and participated equally in the service. My father was the rabbi, which meant that my parents could not sit together even in this egalitarian prayer space, an irony my mother often lamented. While he stood on the bima leading the congregation in prayer, she sat beneath her wide-brimmed hat and plied us with bags of cheerios and little boxes of raisins, always keeping one finger in the siddur to mark her place.
            When I left my parents’ home and went to college, I soon became a leader of a small but stalwart egalitarian prayer community which held services not just on Friday nights and Shabbat day, but also a couple of mornings a week. The nights before we met I would call our various constituents individually to find out whom we could count on and whom we could count, since the full prayer service requires a quorum of ten. The Hillel building in which we prayed had transparent glass walls, and I often looked wisfully at the Orthodox minyan, which seemed to organize itself automatically. Our much smaller minyan, in contrast, would not happen unless we made it happen -- unless every single one of us showed up as pledged, helped set up the chairs, and took a part in the service.
            Several of my college friends who had grown up in egalitarian synagogues did not feel it was worth the effort to sustain an egalitarian minyan, and instead elected to daven in the Orthodox community, where their absence would not be as noticeable nor their presence as vital. I tried to respect their decision, but to me it seemed like they were selling out. I believed that prayer should not be about gender, but that all men and women should stand equally before God. Although the sages of the Talmud excluded women from fixed prayer and other time-bound obligations, I did not identify with the Talmudic category of “women.” As an independent woman in charge of her own finances and not beholden to any man, and as a scholar of Torah, I identified far more with the men of the Talmud than with their wives or daughters. The rabbinic category of “women,” I felt, was largely anachronistic. In our modern world where men and women were treated as equal in the courtroom, the voting booth, and the college campus, it seemed only fitting that men and women should also be equal in synagogue. And so I cast my lot with the few other like-minded Jews wherever I found myself—on the college campus, the Upper West Side of New York, and in Jerusalem, where I have since made my home.
            And then I had children, and everything changed. At first it was impossible to pray in synagogue altogether. When my son was four days old and had not yet been initiated into the covenant or received his name, I insisted on carrying him in a sling to synagogue, determined that he should become a "shul baby." I had not counted on how often I would need to leave to nurse him, and always at the most inopportune times – when I wanted to hear the Torah reading, or recite the prayer for the sick, or stand with my feet together in imitation of the angels for the silent prayer. Babies may look like angels, but they generally don’t allow their parents to stand angelically still. And so in subsequent weeks I instead prayed from home whenever the baby napped or my husband could take him off my hands.
     Now that we have three toddlers, it is important to us that our children grow accustomed to attending synagogue and learning the prayers and melodies. I want synagogue to be a strong Shabbat association, as it was for me. And so like my mother, I pack up the cheerios and raisins and set out with my husband--who has already davened elsewhere--and kids in tow. There is an egalitarian minyan that meets a few neighborhoods over, and before I had children I would always pray there. But now it is a far walk with the kids, and it’s not easily accessible with a stroller, and so we go there only rarely. More often we daven in  an Orthodox partnership minyan where men and women sit separately and there are parts of the service that only men can lead. It has a mehitza, true – but it also has a wide ramp leading up to the synagogue, a place for me to park my double stroller, and a children’s service in which my kids have learned to sing many of the Shabbat morning prayers.
          I do not feel entirely comfortable in that minyan, even though it is committed to many of my most deeply-held progressive and feminist ideals. Though I love to read Torah, I will not leyn at the partnership minyan because on some level I am not prepared to call it home. For the same reason, I have not become a member, though we gave a donation equivalent to the membership dues. Only rarely do I manage to make it into the main sanctuary, since I'm usually in the children's service and then the playground. But there are times when I find myself sitting behind the mehitza, trying not to think about what my idealistic twenty-year-old self would have thought if only she could see my now.
            Have I, too, sold out? Part of what I always found so frustrating about the egalitarian minyanim I took part in both in college and beyond was that they rarely attracted families. Most of our members were students and single people in their twenties. I am beginning to understand why. Even if we were in an egalitarian synagogue, it would be impossible for my husband and me to sit in synagogue at the same time, or for both of us to take on leadership roles. Someone would have to be primarily responsible for the kids. And so I have a newfound appreciation for the Talmudic sages’ exemption of women from time-bound commandments. There are some stages of life when it is simply impossible to pray regularly at fixed times. Being a parent of small children is one such stage. It need not necessarily be the woman who is exempt, but the reality is that at any given moment, it is generally only one parent who can be praying. And so the “woman” – a Talmudic category that I would define as whichever parent is in charge of childrearing at that moment – is granted an exemption that affirms the sanctity of his or her work. Handing cheerios to a child or adjudicating a dispute between toddlers is just as important as praying; it too is a form of divine service, and so the one who engaged in that service is excused from prayer.

            I remain committed to gender egalitarianism as an ideal, but I would like to think about how to translate that ideal in a reality more sensitive to the needs of young families. I hope that as soon as we are stroller-free, I'll be back in the egalitarian minyan so my kids can hear me leyn more regularly. In the meantime, I leyn the full three paragraphs of the Shema every night to them—its frightening threats notwithstanding—so that one day it will be easier for them to associate the words with the trope. On Shabbat mornings, when I sit with my kids in the children’s service, I imagine a time when my daughters as well as my son will lead the congregation in these prayers. And hopefully by the time they have kids of their own, they won’t have to choose a synagogue based on the ramp, but on the very same deep-seated commitments for which they are inspired to pray.