My interview with Rivka Galchen today in Times of Israel

I so enjoyed Little Labors, the latest book out from award-winning novelist Rivka Galchen. A stunning, intimate, but thoughtful hybrid work, Little Labors is definitely a recommended read for this summer.

Check out my review and interview with Galchen, up on The Times of Israel today.

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Age is just a number

In a dream last night, a woman older than I asked me, “So what do you say when someone asks you how old you are?”

“I say, ‘I’m 41.'”

“Do you?” She pressed.

Do I? I considered.

I don’t remember who the woman was, but I’ve been dreaming lately about Diane, the psychic massage therapist, and the woman in the dream resembled her. They had the same hair. This is often enough, at least in a dream.

Also there was music. An old song off a mixed tape I made once by pressing the button on the box radio in my bedroom the instant a song I liked, but didn’t own, began playing.

“Without You” could have been the song. It would have made sense, since the previous night my oldest son and I watched the reboot of National Lampoon’s Vacation and that song is on the soundtrack.

No, it was another. A B-grade memory attached to a C-grade song. No isolated scene, no captive smell, just the box radio on the lavender carpet next to the vent in my bedroom. Just that girl, just that me. I’m embarrassed for her now, but also want to hold her and place my hand on the small of her back. “A basic touch point,” Ariella called it yesterday in the library when she touched me there with the palm of her hand.

In the dream, Shoshana grabbed a tower of cassette tapes from her car and carefully balanced them between her two hands as she carried them inside to the party where I knew no one well, but everyone by-the-way.

This morning, I sense I am close to the answer, but not close enough. I understand and almost accept there will be no answer, not today, but that an answer may in fact be close.

In formation, I might say.

If pressed, I might say, “in formation.”

 

I cry at bar mitzvahs

There is nothing like a lifecycle event to open my heart. Combined with the penetrating power of song and prayer, these moments make me so feel so vulnerable, so very aware of our humanity, of life’s fragility.

Since we moved to Hannaton in late 2010, I’ve been present for six bar or bat mitzvahs, five brises or baby namings. I’ve cried at all of them. Sometimes I’ve cried, too, at Shabbat services during the mishaberach prayer for the ill or during a minyan enabling one of my neighbors to say the mourner’s kaddish. Seven have lost a parent since I’ve lived here.

This past weekend — as our oldest child became a bar mitzvah in the synagogue on Kibbutz Hannaton — it was our family’s turn to be at the center of the community’s attention. My body still reverberates the joy that filled every inch of it on Saturday, as our friends and family welcomed my son into symbolic “adulthood.” At some later date, I might share my reflections on the immense gratitude I feel in response to the volunteer efforts of our friends and extended family so we could simply be present for this occasion. It was a gift like no other.

For family and friends who were not able to attend, and for readers of this blog, below is the dvar torah (a reflection on the weekly chapters of Torah read this past Shabbat) I offered to the community on Friday night in advance of the bar mitzvah. The torah portion, the beginning of Shemot, should be familiar even to non-Jews as it’s the story that is the basis for the film, The Ten Commandments.

I welcome your own reflections in the comments.


 

If Moshe had a bar mitzvah, I wonder what language he would have given the dvar torah in?

We learn in the parsha this week, that Moshe was a Hebrew by birth and in his early years, as he is nursed by his mother, is part of his Hebrew family’s household. Presumably, he learns their language, their traditions; becomes accustomed to them. But — though, we don’t know when exactly — Moshe leaves his early home and grows up in the royal palace, among Egyptian family, and Egyptian friends.

It could be, if Moshe had to give a dvar torah in young adulthood, he might have preferred to speak in his Egyptian language.  This was a revelation to me, and a comfort. That Moshe — one of our greatest heroes — was also a person who lived between two languages, two identities.

We also know Moshe questioned his ability to speak in front of a crowd, to be able to move the people God intended him to move.  He says to God in chapter 4:

“God, I am not a man of words … for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.”

Maybe that difficulty with speech had something to do with his living between languages.

Recently, inside an old cardboard box, I found the dvar torah from my own bat mitzvah  There it was, my speech, typed up and printed out on 1980s IBM printer paper, marked up first in red by the rabbi and then in blue in my mom’s cursive handwriting.

I read the speech. The words didn’t sound like they came from me. They were the rabbi’s words, and my mother’s. But not mine, not really.

I wondered then, reading my speech from 1987: Do we even have our own words at 13?

Of course we do. Except everyone is trying their hardest to make us say everything else but what we really want to say. They’re trying to shape our words in the same way they’re trying to shape us. In the hopes we’ll grow into smart, kind, loving, good people.

They — our often well-meaning parents, teachers, rabbis — might say to our face, “We love you just the way you are.” But then they act — we act — in a way so counter to this statement. We monitor and evaluate our children’s behavior, we narrate and judge their choices, we edit their words.

I wasn’t very good at speeches when I was 13. Probably because I hadn’t yet found the courage to speak in my real voice, with my choice of words. Since then, I’ve discovered the thrill of sharing my own words with others. Of writing what I think, of investigating my beliefs, of challenging people, of learning others feel the way I do or don’t.

A few weeks ago, however, when I started thinking about writing this speech in honor of Tobey’s bar mitzvah, I got nervous. I found myself asking, What am I going to speak about? What language should I speak in? Would only half the room really be listening if I spoke in English? Would I embarrass Tobey if I spoke in Hebrew? Would I sound like an idiot talking about Torah? Who am I to talk about Torah? Is that really me?

The questions, I realized, were not unlike those of a young person becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

 

*  *  *

 

There’s a movie I used to love as a kid called Freaky Friday. For those of you who don’t know the movie, it’s about a teenage girl and her mother who one morning magically switch places for a few days. As a kid, I loved this movie for the reason most kids love this movie: Wouldn’t it be awesome to get to be a grownup for a day? To switch bodies with my mom and get to be the one to make all the decisions? To CHOOSE the way my day goes, the way my life goes? When to wake up? What to wear? Whether or not to even get out of bed in the morning?

The irony — all of us grownups realize — is that being an adult is a lot harder than a child imagines it is.

But what’s also true — and what grownups often forget — is that being a child is a lot harder than we adults remember.

Being 13 is hard. You’re straddling adulthood and childhood. And you’re not sure, not really, in which direction you’d prefer to travel. Back to fourth grade, when homework was easier and friends were kinder. Or forward, where there is more freedom, but also more responsibility, confusion, and uncertainty.

I’d argue, too, that this splitting of identities is accentuated for a 13 year old living in two languages, two cultures.  English at home but Hebrew at school or on the soccer field. You often might find yourself asking, Tobey, as I often do, who am I? Am I the me in my own mind? Or am I the me out loud? And is there any way to blend the two?

What I want to say to you Tobey is that life is like Freaky Friday. There are days — like in the beginning of the movie — when you wish you were in the body of somebody else. And there are days — after all the madness that ensues — when you realize just how good it is to be you.

And usually we spend more of our time wondering what it might be like to be someone else instead of getting to know better and loving the person we are right now. This is not something that gets much easier in adulthood, but my wish for you this year Tobey and onwards is for a greater awareness of your true you right now.

Who was Moshe really on any given day? What propelled him that day in the fields to strike down the Egyptian? Who was he in the moment he did? Was he a Jew protecting his own? Or a compassionate Egyptian with a general care for humanity?  And what frightened Moshe afterwards? Was it only the idea of getting caught or was it the guilt of hurting someone who was a member of his own community?  Of one of his communities?

Moshe, if you think about it, was both an insider and an outsider wherever he went. There came a time when he had to decide, however, which of his identities was stronger, and that happens to us too, sometimes.

Tobey: I wish for you …to know who you are… and to love who you are. I wish for you self-compassion on the days when you question who you are (and there will be days when you question who you are). I wish for you the wisdom to distinguish between what others want for you and what you want for yourself. Not just in the short-term, but in the long-term. And so I wish for you also patience.

I wish for you a peaceful, quiet place for those times when you need to consider your choices and I wish for you the courage to choose to be YOU in the face of self-doubt or criticism.

You’ve shown us since you were a little boy that you have the makings of a leader. Being a leader is not always easy, though, as you’ve seen both at home and outside of it. I want you to hear today — in front of everybody who loves you  — that Dad and I are proud of you. We trust you and we believe in you.

There is light inside of you that shines so brightly, Tobey. We see it most clearly when you’re playing rough with your brother and sister. We can hear it, even, when you’re laughing with your buddies upstairs.

May your life continue to be filled with that light and may you continue to shine it upon others. Our lives are fuller with you in them.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

Make It Easy on Yourself

My husband: “Seriously, Jen. This Facebook post about your thesis defense must be your most popular post ever. People keep liking it.”

Me: “It makes up for the nine birthday wishes I got this year.”

My husband: “No, really. I think it’s because of what you wrote about me.”

Me: “What? Because I was publicly nice to you? That thing about love and support?”

My husband: “Yes. That. Exactly.”

Me: “I don’t think so. People just like milestones. And baby pictures. And cats.”

*   *   *

I love Facebook birthdays. Seriously, the last eight birthdays since I joined Facebook have made up for the 30+ birthdays prior.

My birthday is in August. Worse: the end of August. No one remembers your birthday when they are boogey boarding and eating funnel cake by the Jersey shore.

This year, as most years, I pretended to not be excited about my upcoming Facebook birthday. I also pretended to not be upset at 12 noon on August 19 when I had only received birthday greetings on my wall from my mother and my old friend, Sondra, with whom I share a private birthday challenge. (For decades now, we’ve competed to be the first to wish each other a happy birthday.)

Checking my watch as we set out for our family vacation to the Israeli desert, I silently pacified my ego by blaming the time difference between Israel and the U.S. However, later that evening, only a handful of greetings on “the wall,” I realized the annual sea of flattery and acknowledgment was not coming.

I would, I guess, need to feel satisfied by the real-time, in-person love of the people in my company: my husband, my three kids, and friends we were travelling with. That was new.

susan d note fb

*   *   *

When I turned 18, the week before we all left for college, my girlfriends bought me a book about sex and a package of Today sponges as a birthday present. A how-to guide with illustrated positions, that book might have been the most thoughtful birthday present I ever got from friends. I saved it for many years. It was lost somewhere between Elizabeth, NJ and the port of Haifa.

I wonder if writing today about this memory of the birthday sex book  is why I dreamed last night about a college boyfriend I haven’t seen in decades, and why I remembered this morning he said to me once, “Enough with the hand job. I can do that myself.”

*   *   *

The good thing about your Facebook friends forgetting your birthday is the idea that once something is on the internet, it might have a chance at one day being forgotten. That we don’t have to worry so much about naked photos of our children on instagram or that time we wrote a blog post about the color and consistency of our poop.

*   *   *

There’s a line in my thesis I love. In fact, it might be one of the most important statements in my entire thesis (a lyric essay memoir).

Despite my fears of saying what I really think, I am almost certain the people who have loved me over the years of my life love me because of the words I’ve spoken out loud, not because of the words I’ve kept to myself. 

This almost-belief is what allows me to sleep the nights I’m worried about the words I’ve written: on the blog, in old letters on frayed pages of spiral-bound notebook paper, or in emails during the late nineties. It makes me think I will one day be forgiven by anyone I’ve ever hurt. It gives me the confidence to continue sharing my internal truths, even when I’m so frightened by the consequences of admitting to them.

*   *   *

Truth: I suffered the absence of my Facebook birthday this year. I really did. And I will likely suffer next year, so DON’T FORGET!

I don’t like that about myself. I don’t like how much I want your attention, how much I want you to remember me…and fondly. I don’t like that I still struggle with loving myself enough so that I don’t need to be loved by you.

But I’m getting there.

Maybe this is why so many people liked my “thesis defense post.” They subconsciously know I’m getting there.

 I’m getting there.