After the Bomb Threat

“But we didn’t DO anything to them!”

Her deep blue eyes beg me to make sense of this for her, to bring order to the chaos.  The problem is, there are some things in this world that just don’t make logical sense, at least not in my very human mind.

Hate is one of them.

She sat in her pajamas, all fuzzy, all sweet.  Her hair was tangled.  I worked to find words to explain blind hatred, to explain why some adults, somewhere, want children to be afraid, simply because of which daycare they go to.  Even though she’s past that age, this was the place she goes to Hebrew school, where she sings cute songs and earns points that she uses to trade for a can of flarp, a goo that makes a sound like a fart when she pushes on it and makes her giggle.  This is the place where she sits on my lap while I pray and where she sneaks up to the Rabbi’s table to get a piece of challah sooner so she can talk and laugh with her friends sooner.

“It doesn’t matter,” I try to explain, “these people don’t know us and probably don’t even know a Jew or anything about Judaism.  It’s nothing we did or didn’t do.”

I hold her in my arms and think of the parents who rushed to pick up their much smaller children yesterday afternoon, probably leaving work early after a phone call.  Would they feel safe letting those children go today?  How would I feel this weekend?  I already knew we were going to continue as usual.  That’s who we are.  But how will it feel?

We talked about bullies and fear and bravery and courage.  We talked about how our Synagogue was probably just one more number on a list of places the voice on the phone had never visited.  We talked about the police and FBI and how many people were working on finding out who is behind all this.  We reassured her.  Our son had already gone back to sleep, dealing with this all in his own way.

Antisemites don’t care much about halakhic status.  This isn’t the first time our family has been impacted by them and it won’t be the last.

Finally, she smiles and looks up at me through her bangs, which are getting too long again.

“Hashem will protect us, right?”  She says.  I’m not courageous enough to tell her it’s more complicated than that.  For now, she needs a simpler answer, the one that will bring sense to all this, so I comply.

“Yes.  Yes He will.”  I reply dutifully and as I pack up for work, I realize I’ll need to work on fully believing that myself, just as I’ll spend most of today trying to bring order to this chaos.  I grab my Siddur because, when the world seems like it doesn’t make sense, about all I have left is prayer.

For now, it will have to do.

Of Jews and Dogs

His big brown eyes look up at mine with perfect trust and loyalty.  He’s a comfort to me whenever I’m sick, his big furry body cuddled against mine as he tries to protect me and help me feel better.  I never fear intruders because I know they’ll prefer a house that doesn’t have him waiting behind the door.

He’s not my husband…he’s my dog, Sam.

I grew up with dogs, living on a farm.  My older brothers were so much older than me that dogs were my most common companions and playmates.  My husband, however, raised as an Orthodox Jew, had no experience with dogs at all beyond occasionally petting or playing with a non-Jewish friend’s dog.  He was open to the idea of a dog, but didn’t really understand my strong desire for one.

Jews have a complicated relationship with canines, it seems.

The Torah rarely speaks of dogs.  I once was curious if there was a famous dog in the Torah that I could bless my dog by on Shabbat.  After all, there seemed to be a blessing for everything else, why not my buddy?  No, not a single dog is called by name.  There is one positive mention of dogs, that of the dogs in Egypt not barking at the Hebrews as they fled during the Exodus.  It still didn’t seem right to bless Sam by Egyptian dogs.  Surely he’s better than that.  Besides, his ancestors were in the snowy alps and Belgium, not Egypt.

The Talmud speaks more about dogs, but it’s not nearly as flattering.  They’re non-kosher animals and apparently considered pretty dirty.  There are laws for treating all your animals humanely, but dogs in particular seem to be looked down on.  In a book I’m reading about a specific area of law I need to study, dogs are even used as an example of something tamei, meaning in Hebrew, ritually impure.  There’s even some disagreement among different Rabbis whether a dog is mutzik (not allowed to be touched because they’d lead to breaking Shabbos, due to their fur coming loose).

And all this is even before we get to the common negative views of dogs caused by so many centuries of persecution by non-Jews that did often involve attack dogs.

So…it’s pretty easy to say that my husband and I had very different feelings about four legs and a tail, but given that we were kind of at a point where the choice was really more a puppy or another child and he was hoping for a break, he opened his mind to the idea of a puppy and we eventually found Sam.  I can say now that he’s just as attached as I am to our furry friend and Sam is solidly a part of the family.

It does make me wonder, though, as I absentmindedly pet my furry shadow, is everything that is impure “bad?”  I can definitely conceive of where a dog physically would become tamei.  Dogs, as much as I love them, are not the cleanest creatures and they often love things dearly that I find revolting.  Similarly, they live in the moment, not really thinking through their actions much.  I can understand the idea of a dog lacking the same sort of soul as a human in that they pretty much live their lives reacting to the moment in a combination of instinct and training, rather than having the same free will we do.

And yet, I also feel like there is so much to admire and learn from a dog.

Dogs devote themselves to each moment fully.  There is no joy quite like that of a dog whose owner just came home.  Dogs really don’t lie, their outer world matches their inner world without conflict.  They show with complete honesty how they feel and they can be capable of great empathy and loyalty to their families.  These are all wonderful qualities and remind me of some parts of how our relationship to G-d is when it is at its best.  That level of trust and loyalty and honesty…is inspiring!

I can also remember the moments I’ve had with dogs growing up that were sad and stark reminders of their animal nefesh, or soul.  I once had a dog as a child that decided a litter of kittens would be a great snack.  I was absolutely heartbroken and so enraged at the dog.  I felt betrayed!  My best friend had done something so awful and horrible, I didn’t know if I could ever love her again.  She was a cold blooded killer.  No, even worse!  She was a predator who had thoroughly enjoyed her kill.  I remember sobbing as my mother tried to explain that my dog had only done what dogs are meant to do.  She had followed her instincts to hunt.  She tried to explain to me that this was how nature worked and that my dog wasn’t to blame.

It still took me quite a while to forgive and to look at my dog the same way again.

I imagine it might be similar when we humans give in to our lesser natures.  It could be G-d looks at us with similar anger and sadness and feels betrayed, even as He realizes that this, too is a part of us.  The difference is that as humans we can choose to act against that lesser part of our nature.

We choose to keep a dog in our family, beyond just his companionship, for lessons like these also.  He can teach us about the better part of our own nature and following it as well as through his shortcomings.  He can teach us to love something imperfect and to care for someone even after they’ve eaten a favorite toy.  He brings joy and richness to our lives and, one day, he will also teach us about loss, leaving about a 100lb hole in our lives when his short life comes to a close.

In sum, I feel it’s worth having to explain to other Jews why we would want such a crazy, huge, shedding creature in our lives because our lives simply wouldn’t be the same without him.

Finding the Good…in Pneumonia

I’ve been down for the count, punched out by pneumonia.  I’ve been sleeping a lot, having trouble breathing, missing out on family activities and work.  It would be easy to get down when I’m as sick as I’ve been.  It would be tempting to blame this kind of sickness on random chance, seeing it as a cosmic roll of the dice that wound me up with a bacteria deciding it was a good idea to make a home in my lungs.  Or, it’s tempting to think of it as the work of something more sinister, some evil force.

But Judaism doesn’t allow such easy outs.  Everything, even the things we don’t like, come from G-d and it’s our challenge to reconcile that when what we’re given isn’t what we want.  Everything is for our good, but not everything feels good.

As I worked on healing my body, taking antibiotics and drinking lots of fluids, I pondered how having pneumonia might be for my good.  For one, I certainly appreciate my health a lot more now that I’m getting better!  Just breathing freely is a huge gift that is easy to take for granted.  I have more gratitude for my family, who took such kind care of me while I was sick.  Even the kids tenderly cared for me.  It’s also a great lesson to them in how family takes care of each other and pitches in.  I was grateful for my husband’s patience and kindness as he did double duty.  I was thankful for an employer that was more concerned that I get better than about missed work.

I realize just how blessed I am that this is unusual for me, that I’m usually so able to keep up with things and healthy enough to do so.

Then there’s all those things I can never know.  Did being sick prevent me from being somewhere or doing something that could have been bad for me?  Did having to rest during this time prevent me from having something worse happen?  I only can see my small part of the bigger picture, so there’s no way to know what a gift this sickness might have been.

I am grateful to be feeling better, but I also thank G-d for pneumonia.

Separation

I pinch off a piece of dough, separating that which is a sacrifice, holy, from that which is allowed to me.  Likewise, my kitchen is carefully arranged to keep meat and dairy separate.  A barrier separates men from women in the Synagogue.  Judaism is a religion of carefully, intentionally categorizing and separating things.

Wool from linen.
Meat from milk.
Men from women.

We live in a world where boundaries are blurred and lines crossed, differences downplayed.  Judaism steadfastly challenges this, creating fences to separate this from that, defining what this is versus what that is.  Order upon chaos.

And so it is that for about half of a month, my beloved and I are separate.  While I don’t get go to the mikvah at the end, we observe the laws that Orthodox Jews do as practice.  To me, it’s more challenging than koshering my kitchen or following the laws of Shabbat.  Even more challenging is that we don’t *completely* separate during this time.  It would almost be easier if the men went off somewhere, to contemplate life on a mountaintop.  Instead, we’re encouraged to maintain a connection…just without touch.

How do you comfort someone who has had a bad day if a hug is off the table?  How do you express devotion if you can’t reach for a hand?  These are things that we have to wrestle with.  How do you even sleep well without the steady sound of your other half’s breathing?

I think that’s why it’s even more crucial that we practice these laws than most, because those answers take time to work out.  Finding words and actions that can soothe and calm and steady without touch isn’t always easy.

Then there is the time when we’re reunited and sometimes, it’s actually hard to overcome the barriers within ourselves that we’ve build up.  When you awkwardly remember that now you can hug…when touch becomes an afterthought.

Throughout the Torah, G-d himself separates and reunites with the Jewish people, just as they constantly separate from the land of Israel and are reunited.  This back and forth takes time to learn to do gracefully.

At least we often seem blessed with an abundance of time to practice.

Kneading In Blessings

It is almost Friday. All around the world, that means that women are baking challah for the Sabbath. For many, it’s easier to bake it on Thursday, leaving the bulk of the cooking time on Friday, the oven unoccupied. Or, they’re on the other side of the globe, in Israel, where the Sabbath starts soon. I see them in my cooking groups, asking for last minute recipes or substitutions and, inevitably, every 4th or 5th post, is a picture of the dough and an offer.

“Tell me who you would like me to pray for…” they ask.

They ask so that they can knead names into the dough as they work. Names are given, the first name followed by ben or bat/bas, meaning son or daughter and then the mother’s name. When you give someone an honor, you call them their father’s son or daughter, but if they need something, they are their mother’s, always. As names are kneaded into dough, everyone is the child of a mother, no matter what their need. Some, need healing, others a better job or more money, still others need help searching for a spouse or conceiving a child.

When we ask for mercy, we are our mother’s children partly because it’s a mother’s cries, a mother’s tears, and mother’s whispered hopes and wishes that carry greater weight in the spiritual world. They are what calls down blessings, they are what compels compassion and mercy.

And so it goes. Every so often, a woman kneading her own dough, but asking for more names and names are given, from all around the world for her to add, names linking every child to their mother and every child to each other in a long unbroken chain circling the globe in something as mundane as a recipe group.

Women keep the chain connected.

Do and Be

“Think about it.”
“Come on, be rational.”
“You need to think this through first.”
“USE YOUR HEAD!”
“Don’t lose your head.”
“It’s all in your head.”

No.

For most of my life, I’ve digested the world to pieces in my mind.

Ruminating thoughts, chewing them in my safe pasture, safely watching the world through the fence.

No.

Now is a time for the mind to stop and listen, to stop chattering, stop commanding, stop pushing the pace.

“Do and be…consistently,” The Rabbi says.

It doesn’t matter how smart you are, souls aren’t measured by brainpower.  It doesn’t matter how much your mind can hold within it.  Its contents do little to help a hurting world.

It’s what you do and who you are, not just in your best moments.  Not just when it’s easy or feels good, but when it’s boring.  When it isn’t easy.  When the mind distracts you with chatter.

STOP!  Do and be.

Doing can lead to being or being can lead to doing.  The end result is the same.  Pick one and work on the other.

But, we’re measured by what we know.  Smarter people are more respected!  I have answers!  I have smart questions!  I can get gold stars and certificates and…

No, stop.

Your worth is more than test scores, golden stars, and what you EARN.  Your worth was born with you when you knew nothing.  Forget what you think you know.  Learn how to do and to be.

Ok.

But…someone is WRONG!!!!  I need to correct them.  I know the right answer, the truth, I have MORE INFORMATION.

So?  It’s not your job.

Your job, for now, is to be pregnant with the person you will become, to be silently holding that person as they learn simply to be who they are.  You should be busy with that not distracted by them.

Get back to your real work.

Do and be and that will be enough.

It’s Not About the Head

I’m a thinker by nature, much more comfortable tackling obstacles with my mind.  If I’m not careful, I can live completely there in my head, crunching numbers, unraveling meaning, connecting concepts.  It’s where I retreat to in order to feel safe.

When I first approached conversion, it was completely from my mind.  I created reading lists and ticked off titles.  I memorized concepts and laws.  I banged my head on Hebrew.  I have always loved books and I read them by the stack.  I was mystified when none of this seemed to matter much to my Rabbis.  They raised their eyebrows at my list of dates and books and concepts.  It made no sense to me because I still saw conversion as something you earned like a college degree, yet for all my hard work, I seemed to be missing the point.

It took a break and some years of wandering to finally realize that, really, I was missing the point.

There is a reason why it is the men who study in Orthodox Judaism and why the women do not, but it’s not the one that is most easily grasped on the surface.  People often look at the disparity in study and practice between men and women in Orthodoxy and assume it must be due to some inherent sexism, that somehow women are judged to be less intellectually capable and that’s why they aren’t in the library pouring over books.

While gender roles and the raising of babies does play a role, there’s something else going on there that even though I embraced my side of the gender divide, I didn’t grasp until later.  What I didn’t grasp is that, really, my role as a Jewish woman is to conquer my mind enough to live more in my heart.  My role is more doing than getting lost in my thoughts.  My life is meant to be more of a flow, a moving meditation, than a struggle.  The Rabbis knew this.  That’s why the more I struggled, the less ready I showed myself to be.  I had to learn to give up the struggle.

It isn’t that I wasn’t judged capable of wrestling complex concepts to the ground, forcing them to fit into my mind, it’s that I was created for something else equally important.  I was created to be the heart, the feeling, intuitive center of my home and family.  I was created to connect with my creator less with my intellect and more with my emotion.  The more I do that, the more I train myself to get out of my head and open up my heart, the more I find joy in life and in Judaism, the more I bring peace to my relationships and to my home.

All my life I’ve been fed the message that I need to be tough.  I need to fight and compete and prove myself.  The more I learn about women’s unique place in Judaism, the more I learn that this mindset does not serve me or those I love.  It doesn’t bring me fulfillment and it means that there is no one there who is brave enough to be the softness.  It’s my job to hold the crying child and comfort them, not toughen them…there is a father for that.  It’s my job to find the positive in every situation, not constantly be critical or looking for the risks.  It’s my job to find joy and bring it down for others.  The world has more than enough angry or sad people.  It’s my job to dance and weave my way through life, not trudge uphill in a straight line.  It’s my job to feel Hashem.

This has all been unfamiliar territory for me, this gentleness both for myself and for others.  The more, though, I relax into it, the more peaceful I am and the more at home in Judaism I feel.