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.

 

 

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This house is not haunted

My latest column is up on District Lit today. It’s not about real estate, nor about ghosts, but about the lies I tell myself about the idea of home.  Check it out.

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What I imagine when I imagine the end of the world

Short Fiction

When I imagine the end of the world, I am alone at the edge of a cliff. It’s evening and God Only Knows by the Beach Boys is playing on a box radio I looted from my neighbor’s basement.

If it were a movie, I’d be gazing out over the city lights of Los Angeles just as the electricity went out, as one by one the skyscrapers lost power, and the city fell dark.

A blazing comet approaches.

Or a neon green burst of light from beyond the reaches of time.

Or a giant tidal wave shimmies up the coast.

If it were a movie, my heart would swell as I accepted my fate. I would open my arms and embrace humanity’s extinction for I knew I had lived life to its fullest.

But it’s not a movie.

It’s my real life.

In which almost every day is the end of the world.

* * *

 

I have a disease without a name.

If it had a name, it would be called something like redemptionitis or zombisteria or hypotrychtapocalypse.

The closest anyone has ever come to labelling my disease was in the years leading up to the much-publicized end of the Mayan Calendar in December 2012.

Doomsday Phobia, they called it.

Anyone who stocked their basements with toilet paper and canned sardines in preparation for Armageddon; anyone who hoarded books of medicinal herbs or learned how to forage for mushrooms in a weekend workshop held in the back woods of Westchester County, NY; anyone who stocked in the back of the medicine cabinet antibiotics from their child’s most recent prescription for strep throat: We were all quietly laughed at and labeled “preppers.”

Back when it was cute, the way a touch of crazy is cute, as long as it doesn’t lead to a shootout in a movie theater.

Back then, I wondered to myself if I was on a CIA watch list. Did they suspect me? A suburban New Jersey mom of two? A college educated professional with a real job and a real paycheck?

I certainly didn’t fit the profile.

I wore Ann Taylor suits and took the NJ Transit train every day from the suburbs into the city where I walked six blocks to my midtown workplace. In our open floor plan, I had the closest thing to an office – a transparent cube looking out over the East River, made from glass walls so others could look in. It was called the Rainbow Fish Bowl because of the stickers my daughter once placed on the sliding glass door. Every other Friday, I got a pedicure at Trudy’s Green Nails on Lexington Avenue. I was in a book club. I volunteered at the preschool. People liked me.

Each day, I put effort into smiling at my coworkers as if life wasn’t about to abruptly end by Avian Bird Flu.  I’d make jokes over the phone with the sales consultants who’d ask me if I thought wheatgrass was gluten free. I played along. Drank Nespresso in the coffee room with the writers; made snide remarks with the editors about our wacky advertisers; especially the ones who placed ads offering organic MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) purported to last 15 years. Secretly, I wondered if it made sense to pay for organic canned food when the cans were probably lined with BPA.

Could my coworkers view my computer monitor, however, they would have noticed I spent half the day reading headlines on alternative news web sites, corresponding in code with people named “Zen Grower” about the latest UFO sighting over New Mexico or the best price on bulk dehydrated food. I read blogs from people living in half-completed bunkers in the mountains of West Virginia; with strangers supposedly privy to knowledge that was never reported on CNN.  “The ‘Illuminati’ kills scientists, you know,” wrote Jade, my telepathic friend. She communicates with an alien race who is trying to save us from another alien race who’s been trying to destroy us since the Revolutionary War. “All war,” says Jade, “is the fault of the Reptilians.”

I would search “new world order Russian scientists reveal underwater pyramid” and “fourth dimensional beings plot to reprogram our brains” because I knew the search results would give me the intel I required to plan. And I planned. I had one to-do list that included vaccinations, playdates, and dentist appointments. Another to-do list for the end of the world.

My day job, I guess, was a ruse.

It was a way to satisfy my compulsion and still remain a member of society. Or so says Dr. Solomon. I saw it as a healthy way to educate myself on tactics I would surely need for the post-apocalyptic world I was certain was looming. Easily-learned skills like:

  • Reiki for when we no longer had the option to see surgeons for bone breaks or muscle sprains;
  • Acupressure, which I would use in the place of the anti-inflammatories we so depended on in the Before Times for headaches and menstrual cramps;
  • Nutritional supplements and herbal teas — like Chia and Flax seeds; dandelion and feverfew — I’d grow in a rooftop urban garden, where I’d herd my children before the Flood.

Back then, I was Advertising Director of a major national healthy living magazine. I courted and secured advertisers from multiple sectors: home and garden, health and wellness, exercise and fitness, diet and nutrition. And, of course, our bestsellers: classifieds from personal vegan chefs, Hindu tantric sex practitioners and Henna artists.

I was really good at my job. I was good at selling ads because I really believed all of the service providers and multi-level marketing professionals.  When they heard acknowledgment and acceptance in my voice over the phone, they eagerly placed half or more of their advertising budget in my hands.

I understood them, after all. Their fears. Their hopes. I knew intimately what it felt like to want to survive, but more so to want to be listened to and believed.

In my own experience, though, there were therapies and products that worked, and those that didn’t. Quackery, some might say. Except in my business, we never use the word quackery. This would alienate the chiropractors and homeopaths who placed half-page color ads for their self-published e-books.

Reiki, for instance, didn’t cure me of recurring yeast infections, as promised. But my Thursday afternoon sessions with Liane, the psychic massage therapist did help identify a sugar addiction. She also told me I had powers like hers; that I could, if I wanted to, study to be a healer.

She was right. I am a sugar addict. But she was also wrong. I can’t seem to heal anyone.

I kept seeing Liane on a regular basis and even believed most of the stories she would tell me: How her client was miraculously cured from testicular cancer by shiatsu and a six-week juice fast. How her deep tissue hot stone massage helped a couple overcome infertility. How the couple now had triplets – all girls.

I believed Liane. Except for that one time she told me that my migraines were the key to time travel, and that I should stop taking the Relert when the auras came on. I also believed the magazine readers who emailed testimony after testimony to our editorial staff profusely thanking us for publishing stories that changed their lives.  I believed the clippable lists we elegantly designed for ease-of-use, like “Pema Chodron’s Top 5 Mantras for Mindful Sex.”

I believed we were helping people.

I believed the jacket copy on the bestseller of contributing editor, celebrity physician Dr. Joel Willey– a book I personally reviewed for the magazine last December — promising increased sexual desire and stamina for peri-menopausal women by switching to a vegan, carbohydrate-free, anti-inflammatory diet.

I believed it all.

Which, apparently, is a symptom of my disease.

I have a disease without a name; without a designation, but with a host of exhibiting symptoms that collectively, for the past fifteen years, I called “conscious living,” but collectively make up a manilla folder of evidence against me, sitting on an antique desk in Dr. Solomon’s office.

All these “symptoms,” which were formerly advantageous qualities on a resume when applying for a job at a natural healthy living magazine, are now being offered up as evidence of my insanity. My inability to continue as a functioning member of society.

My disease is without a name. It’s as lonely as a woman standing on the edge of a cliff waiting for the world to end.

But, as it turns out, no name is necessary.

* * *

 

This work of fiction is an excerpt from an original short story by Jen Maidenberg, “What I imagine when I imagine the end of the world.”

When you don’t have anything to say

This time of year in Israel is often uncomfortable for me.

I won’t say difficult, because it seems highly inappropriate to label anything in my life as “difficult” in the same breath as I speak of the Holocaust, of war, of fallen youth.

But it’s uncomfortable.

In very quick succession, we here in Israel — we being newspaper-reading adults and school-going children — are inundated with Holocaust-related content, followed quickly and intensively by war-related content.

This is the time of year when Israelis mark why we are Israeli, and not Jews of the Diaspora.

It’s important, Yom HaShoah. It is.  Benji Lovitt says it better than I could why Holocaust education is important even in a country saturated both by memory and study of the atrocity.

Yom HaZikaron, the day we remember Israel’s fallen soldiers is important, too. Especially in a country that still has compulsory military service; in a country where soldiers still fall, even those who aren’t in active duty.

But as someone who is not connected directly to the Holocaust (in that I do not have a known blood relative who was killed or who survived the camps); and as someone not connected directly to Israel’s wars for survival (I did not serve in the army, nor has anyone I know personally fallen in service, thank God), I often find myself feeling more dissonance than patriotism during these weeks of remembrance.

And inside that dissonance is the very bad taste of shame. The shame of survival, I think. Those of us who didn’t experience the Holocaust personally, or grow up with a parent who survived; those of us who didn’t serve in the army: We are not without survivor’s guilt, survivor’s shame, so it seems.

Or at least, I am not.

And it is during these few weeks in Israel that I face this.

It bubbles up as an awkwardness, as an inauthenticity. I’m tempted to stay home during the small ceremonies on Hannaton marking these solemn days. I am even tempted to stay home on Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s joyous Independence Day) because I feel as much an outsider on that holiday, if not more, than on the others. I don’t yet — and may never — feel that overwhelming sensation that “this land is mine, God gave this land to me.”

But this is how I face my awkwardness, my shame. It’s simple:

I show up.

Last night, for the first time in our three years living here, I showed up to the Yom HaShoah ceremony, much of which I didn’t understand because the survivor accounts were in a Hebrew a little too over my head.

I also stand up.

Just like everyone else, just like my boys dressed in white today, just like the businessmen in suits driving down the highway to meetings in Tel Aviv at 10 am, I stood up when the sirens wailed.

And I will again next week when they wail for Yom HaZikaron.

I show up and I stand up. And I think that’s pretty much all one can do when one is not really sure what to do.

Honor the fallen. Honor the memories. Honor the tradition.