short in stature, outsize in personality

i started trying to walk in my grandmother's steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

i started trying to walk in my grandmother’s steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

My grandmother died this summer.

She was 96 and had lived on her own until age 92, when she suffered a stroke on the same day as her identical twin sister, who was living 800 miles and three states away (and who sadly passed away just a few days later). Because of the selflessness of my aunt and uncle, the last four years of her life she was able to continue to live in her home of 30 years, in Austin, Texas — cared for by the two of them and two wonderful home aides.

Gay Barr Wilkes had a full life and passed away surrounded by people who loved her. Her death is the kind we probably all aspire to; it’s certainly not a tragedy. But it’s still hard. In some ways I lost the Granny Gay I knew my whole life on the day of the stroke that reduced her so much. But I could still hug her and talk to her, and even though she didn’t say my name anymore, I knew that she knew who I was. And I knew that she loved me as much as she always had.

My mom is struggling with mourning both her mom who was and the one who she became in those last years. I am struggling with feeling so far away from my family the vast majority of the time that the force of this important event seems to have only struck a glancing blow. Did I really say goodbye to Granny Gay when I moved 2,000 miles away? I couldn’t make it to say a final goodbye in person, when her body began to shut down and we knew the end was near, but I was incredibly privileged to be able to organize a final farewell — because my family let me design her memorial service.

In the conversations my aunt and I had in the weeks leading up her my grandmother’s death, I asked about plans for the memorial service. I am, after all, training to be clergy: I think about the rituals of life transitions all the time. My grandmother was a woman of faith more than of religion, and since the Methodist minister of the church that she and my grandfather would on occasion attend had since moved on, my aunt wasn’t left with a meaningful choice for an officiant. (Ever the planners, my grandparents had long ago purchased a package with a local funeral home — meaning that the location and other arrangements had long since been finalized.) With many deaths, a non-family clergy member is needed, or just wanted, to hold the space for mourners. My family wasn’t wracked with grief, though; more than that, I wanted to lead the service. It’s something I knew I could do, and do well, for my family. And my aunt was trusting enough to turn it over to me.

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother's Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother’s Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Everyone got a part — daughters, sons-in-law, nephews, grandchildren. I was in awe of how eloquent they all were in sharing different parts of her life and talking about what she meant to them. I lost it when her oldest grandson, my cousin Seth, started crying when he spoke about Granny.

He had lived with her and Papa as when he finally finished his undergraduate degree almost 10 years after high school. Discouraged by his slow progress, he complained to her that he would be 27 by the time he finished at the University of Texas at Austin. Her response is a piece of advice I’ve turned to many a time during my winding journey to where I am today. “You’re going to be 27 anyway.” Time passes by regardless, she had reason to know, so you might as well do what you want to do.

Seth also provided an important antidote to the rhapsody that inevitably occurs at funerals. He talked about a time when she was wrong, admitted it, and changed her behavior. Of course, that ultimately makes her even more worthy of praise.

I lived in Austin for five years, from 1997 to 2002, the only of her children and grandchildren there at that time. I got to spend lots of time with her and my grandfather, precious time of eating dinner, doing laundry, and studying at their house. I am thankful that I was smart enough to recognize it even then for the gift that it was. After college I moved to Raleigh, then to D.C., and finally to Boston, my trip up the Atlantic coast taking me farther and farther away from her. I don’t know how much of my new path to rabbinical school she ever understood (and I mean that literally, as she had already begun deteriorating from the stroke when I went back to school), but I am sure she was proud of me to the end.

When I was very young, she told me, “Salem you can be whatever you want to be.” As a child I later slightly reinterpreted her words when my mother announced it was time for bed: “Nope! Granny said I can do whatever I want to do.”

I’ll be almost 40 be the time I’m ordained as rabbi, but I’ll be almost 40 (bs”d) anyway. And I’ll be what I want to be.

guide my steps

I’m a mikveh guide!

Or as my friend Sarah likes to say: I’m a mivkeh lady!

This is not new information; in fact, I completed my training at Mayyim Hayyim at the beginning of May. But since I’ve hardly written in this space since the beginning of the year, I thought I would start to do some catching up.

mayyim hayyim nametag

it’s official!; photo by salem pearce via instagram

In the spring I participated in an eight-week course for new mikveh guides. The group was mostly middle-aged women, save one man, as well as Sarah and I and two other students. We were the ninth cohort of mikveh attendants trained since Mayyim Hayyim opened its doors 10 years ago. The training consisted of history and law of mikveh, most of which I already knew, logistics of facilitating immersions, and general education about the different reasons people might immerse. Mayyim Hayyim is a community mikveh that allows all Jews to immerse for just about any occasion, which makes it unique among most mikva’ot. Folks come to celebrate conversion, marriage, childbirth, gender transition, and cancer remission — as well as to heal from divorce, miscarriage, and sexual abuse, to name a few.

I have written about mikveh in general before in this space. I shared my last two pre-High Holiday immersion experiences, in the fall of 2012 and in the fall of 2013 (both at Mayyim Hayyim) as well as at least a little about my conversion immersion. I also wrote about a powerful play about mikveh I saw at the DCJCC a number of years ago.

As you might imagine, my experiences as an immersee have been quite moving. I was a little nervous about how it would feel to be on the other side, to witness immersions, and indeed, the curtain has been pulled back a little. I can still see the magic of Mayyim Hayyim, especially through the eyes of those who visit, but it’s hard to view as a refuge a place where I’m asked to do laundry. (Keeping the machines cleaning the constant accumulation of sheets and towels and robes and bath mats and wash cloths is part of my job now.) I was able to do my annual pre-holiday dunk last month, but I’ll admit that it felt less special than it had in years past. I did have a really wonderful experience facilitating the immersion of a friend who was preparing for a big life event, and I hope to be able to talk about that in this space soon.

park slope mikvah towel

embroidery on the towels at the park slope mikvah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

What I do want to share is my experience this summer in New York. I did a fair amount of reflection on the ritual of mikveh this summer for a number of reasons — one of which is that my friend Sarah facilitated a series of salon conversations about the practice of niddah as part of her work as a summer fellow with ImmerseNYC, another community mikveh.

Niddah is the term in Hebrew for a menstruating woman, with whom intercourse is forbidden; the metaphorical impurity of menstruation is expunged by immersion in the mikveh some days after the end of her cycle. It’s an ancient practice — still held by many Orthodox communities — most definitely informed by misogyny. However, there is a movement in more liberal Jewish circles to reclaim the practice. Though at first skeptical, I’ve come to believe more in that possibility.

So this summer I twice immersed at the Park Slope Mikvah, which I discovered by accident on a walk around my adopted neighborhood. I scheduled the appointments around my menstrual cycle, but mostly out of respect for the space, which caters to women who practice niddah. I was more interested in exploring a regular practice of mivkeh — and in experiencing a different mikveh.

With all due respect to Mayyim Hayyim, the Park Slope Mikvah is unparalleled in its facilities. It’s brand new (open for less than a year), and it feels like a spa: Beautifully appointed rooms with music and candles and huge bathtubs; embroidered, fluffy white towels, robes, and slippers; gorgeous, shimmering pools; and supplies in a gift-wrapped box, complete with preparation instructions on Park Slope Mikvah stationery. Even more welcoming than all of these creature comforts were the two mikveh ladies that witnessed my immersion.

The mikveh in Park Slope is a project of Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish outreach organization. So the folks associated with it are by profession welcoming. But I don’t present as a typical woman who practices niddah, and the guides still could not have been more kind and helpful. One mikveh lady in particular was effusive in her blessings. And the names of the preparation rooms reflected this expansive feeling: I prepared both times in the hilariously dubbed “Chamber of Chic Simplicity.”

park slope mikvah handwashing sink

park slope mikvah handwashing sink; photo by salem pearce

I don’t know how I would feel about restricting intimate contact with my partner for about half of each month, which is the traditional practice of niddah, but this summer I was struck by the effort it takes to go to the mikveh each month (and I only went two months in a row), and by the appeal that I’m guessing that visit has for many a busy woman. Having the time to take a bath — and being expected to take that time in careful preparation for immersion — seemed even to me, without children or partner, to be a decadent luxury. During my training this spring one of the instructors pointed out that for some women, the time they spend at the mikveh is the only time they will truly have to themselves all month. I feel like I understand the appeal of the mikveh a little more now.

To be sure, the heterocentric focus of the mikveh in Park Slope is procreation. Hence, for instance, the plaque above the ritual handwashing sink:

The unique eggshell shape of this vessel sink in both sculptured and inspirational . . . Just as an egg opens to reveal new life, the mikvah waters breathe new life into our most meaningful relationship. The mikvah has always been — and continues to be — a place of spiritual rebirth and renewal. a mitzvah that celebrates Jewish marriage and family.

As heavy-handed as it’s possible to read this — along with the meditation prayer for fertility that I was handed to read after immersion — I think the fact that the mikveh is clearly engaging in literal hiddur mitzvah (“beautification of the mitzvah”) speaks to the potential power of the use of the ritual for any reason.

One final note: As of this writing on 10/14/14, the D.C. Jewish community (of which I was once a part) is reeling from the news of the recent arrest of Kesher Israel Rabbi Barry Freundel on charges of voyeurism — specifically that there was he installed a hidden camera in the showers of the synagogue’s mikveh. While assuming Rabbi Freundel’s innocence until proven otherwise, I mention this as a way of understanding the vulnerability and intimacy inherent in this ritual.

10/15/14 update: Read Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s beautiful response to these allegations here.

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriachs: buy your Jewish feminist t-shirt today at www.therearesix.com

The t-shirt I mention in this post is available for purchase! All proceeds go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, a local organization that my husband and I think is doing really important work. Wear your Jewish feminist commitment with pride. To own your very own matriarchs t-shirt, go to www.therearesix.com.

In an odd confluence of events, I’ve had occasion recently to think a lot about ancestry.

First, my husband made me an awesome shirt. (It’s in the style of this “goddesses” shirt — at least this is the first instantiation that I knew about; one of my classmates said the meme was originally from a band.) My shirt lists the six Jewish matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah. You can buy one here, thanks to my husband, and all proceeds will go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

When my husband and I were talking about making the shirt, his idea included just the first four women, who are indeed traditionally considered “the matriarchs.” Abraham’s wife, Sarah, gave birth to Isaac, who married Rebecca, who had Jacob, who married Rachel and Leah. The latter two women gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin (Rachel) and Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun (Leah).

But Bilhah and Zilpah also gave birth to sons of Jacob whose lines would become four of the twelve tribes of Israel. The two were handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, respectively, given to the women by their father Laban on the occasion of their marriages to Jacob. Bilhah had Dan and Naphtali, while Zilpah had Gad and Asher. The tribes that these men and their brothers (and their nephews) founded ended up in Egypt as slaves to Pharoah, leading to the Exodus story that is foundational in Jewish history. If, in the logic of the Bible, patrilineal descent is what matters, then Bilhah and Zilpah deserve as much recognition as the traditional four matriarchs for their role in the creation of the Israelite people.

Of course, that’s a low bar. If we know little about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, we know even less about Bilhah and Zilpah. They are passed from Laban to his daughters, and then loaned out by them to Jacob. They are so considered property that it is Rachel and Leah who have the honor of naming Bilhah and Ziplah’s sons. So we’re told in Genesis 30:6, after Bilhah gives birth for the first time, “And Rachel said: ‘God has judged me, and has also heard my voice, and has given me a son.’ Therefore called she his name Dan.” Bilhah and Zilpah speak not a word in the Torah.

This issue of inclusion comes up most often in the amidah, the “standing” prayer and the most central one in Judaism. Said at every prayer service, the amidah begins with a section usually called the Avot (“Fathers”). It begins, “Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, G-d of our Fathers, G-d of Abraham, G-d of Jacob, and G-d of Isaac.” In progressive circles, one usually adds the Imahot (“Mothers”): “G-d of Sarah, G-d of Rebecca, G-d of Rachel, and G-d of Leah” — as well as adding a few other words at various places to make the prayer more inclusive.

As my friend and teacher Eli Herb says,

When Jews use the word “imahot” they mean Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. This comes from old traditions that say there are seven ancestors, namely those four women plus Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Many Jews appended the name of the “imahot” to ritual prayer as a feminist gesture. This gesture was remarkable in its time. However, as a convert, I have never been able to figure out how to include imahot authentically. This is for the very simple reason that there are NOT four matriarchs. There are six. The two that are left out are of questionable status as “part of the tribe” because they were slaves. I do not know how any self respecting feminist/progressive Jew can continue to omit two of the imahot. Yet the vast majority of the “progressive” Jewish world, including Hebrew College, can not seem to move past the discussion of how important it was to include “THE imahot” in the amidah. We are NOT including “THE imahot,” friends. Rather we are making a dramatic statement about how we still do not know how to truly include the imahot; we still actively silence women and strangers.

Most of the time at Hebrew College, at my synagogue, and at the Hebrew school where I teach, the prayer leader includes “the” imahot. (A few of my classmates don’t, and, frankly, it irks me.) If not all/none of the imahot are included, I make sure to say them to myself. (A husband of one of my classmates tells me that there is rabbinical precedent for recognizing the six matriarchs, in Bemidbar Rabbah and Esther Rabbah.)

This year I’m in a new tefila group, the so-called “Moshiach Minyan.” We explore the way prayer can be a forum for collective liberation and how it can sustain us in our work as activists. A recent exercise saw us rewriting the Avot section of the amidah. I found this task both daunting and exciting — and in an hour, I came up with a list of names of those who made it possible for me to be me.

Blessed are you, Lord, my G-d and G-d of my ancestors. (Ancestors? Antecedents. The ones who came before.) The G-d who created those who created the world I inhabit, who have accompanied me on my journey, and who allow me to exist as I am. The G-d of Southern Baptists; the G-d of Hardy; the G-d of Homer and Socrates; the G-d of Virgil and Ovid; the G-d of the Brontes and Eliot; the G-d of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekov, Bulgakov, and Akhmatova; the G-d of Wells-Barnett, Lorde, Rich, Sanger, and Doe.

We shared our writing with each other, and almost everyone wrote about some aspect of their inheritance, whether from parents loving or harsh, from civil rights pioneers, or from past experiences. Mine reads like a timeline of my intellectual development, and I’m not totally sure that’s what I am seeking when I say the avot and imahot section of the amidah.

Like Eli, I feel conflicted when saying this portion of the amidah. As a convert, these nine ancestors absolutely are my ancestors. And they’re not. I still feel a tiny twinge when I’m called up to the Torah and I give my Hebrew name as “Rachel Tzippora bat Avraham v’Sarah.” (“Bat/ben Avraham v’Sarah” is the traditional formula for converts, whose parents generally don’t have Hebrew names.) I don’t love being publicly marked as a convert (the only place in Jewish ritual where that happens), and I feel it’s a little disrespectful to my actual parents.

And I can feel even worse when my ancestry is questioned. I volunteer once-a-month at a nearby senior living facility, leading a short Shabbat morning service. The first time I was there, I was talking to several of the residents after the service, and one of them asked me about school and what I was studying. She then exclaimed, “You don’t look Jewish at all! You could be a little Irish girl!” And then she kept repeating it. As I’ve written before, I usually pass pretty easily, so it’s always a bit jarring when I don’t. I didn’t take the bait (if bait it was — I’m never quite sure what people want to hear when they say things like that). I just shrugged and smiled.

The issue came up again recently in an “Exploring Jewish Diversity” workshop that I took through the Boston Workman’s Circle. The class was billed as a conversation about how cultural heritage, class, race, and privilege inform Jewish identity. In the States, Jews are largely assumed to be white and Ashkenazi; Jews of color and of other cultural heritages are often ignored. We were given a list of Ashkenazi privilege to examine. Many of them describe me — and some absolutely do not. My friend who attended the workshop with me asked me if I considered myself Ashkenaz. Similarly to my feelings about the avot and imahot, I absolutely do — and yet am not fully. I learned to be Jewish in and I now inhabit an Ashkenazi Jewish world. It is my cultural heritage, one that I chose (if not that thoughtfully). But, for instance, I am obviously not at risk for genetic disorders that are prevalent in this population. And I’m still occasionally questioned about whether I’m “really” Jewish.

questions in a vault

For the past three years between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — often called “The Days of Awe,” or Yamim Noraim in Hebrew — I’ve participated in 10Q‘s question-a-day online activity. Once you sign up, the organization prompts you on each of the ten days to go to its website and answer that day’s question. (If you miss a day, you can go back to previous questions.) The questions are designed to get you to reflect on the past year and make commitments for the coming one. After Yom Kippur, your answers “are sent to the secure online 10Q vault for safekeeping. One year later, the vault will open and your answers will land back in your email inbox for private reflection.” I’m doing it again this year.

a lovely M.A. Hadley plate from my mom; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

a lovely m.a. hadley plate (a family tradition) from my mom; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The website is not explicitly Jewish (I’m not sure why), but I can’t see the timing as anything but. I’m guessing, though, it wouldn’t occur to non-Jewish participants and might just seem like an interesting exercise, if an oddly timed one.

Update: My friend Melanie tells me that the organization behind 10Q, Reboot, intends “to make Judaism relevant to those who are secular/completely assimilated.” I think this extremely interesting, because this exercise appeals to me, too, as a religious Jew. (Plus, I am sort of fascinated by secular or humanist Judaism.)

I was pleased — and not a little surprised — when I got my answers from 2012 at the end of last month. I actually did some of the things that I wrote that I wanted to, and where I didn’t, it’s because it’s still a live issue for me. I voiced my waning support for the president, I talked about my parents’ efforts to be more involved in my Judaism, and I wrote about my ongoing struggle with my weight.

On Day 8, I was asked and I answered:

Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully in 2013?

Your Answer:

Tefillin!

Indeed, my experience wearing tefillin while praying has been one of the best things about rabbinical school for me so far.

While looking through my photos from two years ago to include in this post, I was struck by what I left out. I was definitely in the thrall of my first few weeks of rabbinical school; I wrote quite a bit about it, at the expense of other important events in my life, like my bat mitzvah! For this year’s questions, I definitely need to use my photos from last year to jog my memory, which I recently discovered is quite poor. While I was in England this summer, I saw two old friends (one from college and one from my first job in D.C.), and both of them remembered so many more things about our friendship that I did. On the plus side, it was totally amusing to hear stories that I seemed to have forgotten.

It’s not too late to join in the 10Q fun if you’re interested: we’re only on Day 5!

summer!

Well, I’ve been gone so long that in my absence WordPress updated its blogger interface! The change is nice, by the way.

Since I last posted at the beginning of May, I have done the following:

finished my first year of rabbinical school (passing all of my courses!);

end-of-year "mekorot" class cake (First years got "R"; second years, "Ra", etc. Those graduating got "Rabbi".); photo by salem pearce via instagram

end-of-year “mekorot” class cake (first years got “R”; second years, “Ra”, etc. those graduating got “Rabbi”.); photo by salem pearce via instagram

moved from Brookline to Jamaica Plain (the balcony alone in our new place made the pain of moving worth it);

new home; photo by salem pearce via instagram

new home; photo by salem pearce via instagram

read two books (and half of two others);

went to D.C. for 24 hours for Elissa Froman‘s memorial service (you can see the video here);

popsicle stick craft project at froman's memorial: write a word, phrase, or design that reminds you of Elissa; photo by salem pearce via instagram

popsicle stick craft project at froman’s memorial: write a word, phrase, or design that reminds you of elissa; photo by salem pearce via instagram

began studying Torah three days a week with one classmate and Psalms two days a week with another;

had visits from both my husband’s parents and my parents, as well as two friends from D.C.;

mike's canolli: the best reason for out-of-town visitors; photo by salem pearce via instagram

mike’s cannoli: the best reason for out-of-town visitors; photo by salem pearce via instagram

started a volunteer position with the National Havurah Institute as its fundraising coordinator;

practiced leyning Torah (I’ve read on Shabbat twice and on Thursday morning five times);

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

and gotten lost running in Franklin Park, the green space near our new home, three times.

up close and personal

Knowing I was going to be in D.C. last week, I made an appointment with my friend Emily, non-profit account manager by day, photographer by night, and all-around awesome person. I was inspired by her post “Headshot How-To.” As she notes, “there is something SO empowering about having a set of (professional) photos of yourself that you feel really good about.” So I decided to take the plunge: I’ve been surprised by how often in the past year I’ve been asked for a headshot.

pearce family, 1992; photo by chris pearce

pearce family (with dog Calvin), 1992; photo by chris pearce

I’ve had professionally pictures taken of me a few times in my life. My dad’s brother is a photographer, and for many years he took our family photo for my mom’s annual Christmas card. His directions inevitably led to at least one member of the family putting a hand halfway into a pocket. These sessions, and his staging, provoked howls of irreverent laughter from my brother and me — but after the fact. Always after the fact. Levity was not encouraged during the Pearce family Christmas card picture taking, my uncle being a very somber fellow and my mom and dad taking the portraits very seriously.

When I was in high school, a family friend took pictures of me during my senior year for my yearbook page. (At my college prep school, each senior got an entire page to do with what s/he would. Almost everyone did professional photos with favorite quotations and inside jokes. It was a mixture of trite and precious.)

photo by xx

photo by mark gail, washington post

And of course there was also the photo that ran in a Washington Post story about Rosh Hashanah in the fall of 2009. I talked with one of the paper’s religion reporters while volunteering at a pre-High-Holidays event at Sixth & I; she called me back the next day to set up an appointment with a staff photographer. The session took place in the upper balcony of the Sixth & I sanctuary. However, I am wearing my “Super Jew” t-shirt, which perhaps undercuts any professional possibility for that photo.

As Emily when she had her headshots taken — even though she herself is a photographer — I was nervous before the session. Since I was traveling, I had limited wardrobe choices, and I spent half of the morning wishing for various tops that I had left in my closet at home. Then, I don’t wear make-up, but I convinced myself that I should have had it done. Same thing with my hair.

In spite of all of my worrying, I am thrilled with how the pictures turned out. Emily is such a positive, upbeat presence, and she kept saying encouraging things — “You’re doing great!” — in such a way that I actually believed her. And she’s right: It does feel great to know that I have these photos. I’ve updated all of my social media profiles, including the “About Me” page of this blog, on which I had been using an old picture of me taken by my mom during a family vacation to the beach. I was wearing a strapless dress, so in the headshot version it looks like I’m not wearing any clothes, which is probably not exactly what one should be going for in that situation.

But I’ve been using it because it had that indescribable quality of just seeming like me. That’s how I ended up choosing the picture for my senior page. And it’s what I ended up loving about the photos that Emily took: They look like me. No make-up, no-fancy-hair, simple-shirt-wearing me. And that’s what is so empowering.

P.S. If you need a photographer, I obviously highly recommend Emily. Her speciality is birth story photography, but she takes other assignments. And if she’s not available, she can recommend someone else (almost) as fabulous!

why have kids?

First: I don’t know whether I want children. I’ve never felt a strong desire for children. I have felt pressure from my mom and from (what I perceive is, more on that below) Jewish tradition. I’m mostly undecided, and I think I could be okay not having kids. I do wonder though, if it were socially acceptable, whether I would just decide not to. Which is strange to me, since I am not usually ruled by others’ expectations. I think part of it is the fact that relatively few people choose not to have kids, so I wonder if I’m missing something. I also wonder how to know that I won’t regret that decision. Deciding to become a rabbi has only intensified my anxiety about this issue: I don’t know any rabbis without children.

Over the holidays I read (on my Kindle app on my iPhone) Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness. It’s a short and quick read, and it in no way answers its own question. I was left with the overwhelming feeling that there is no rational reason to have kids. People do it because they want to, because they are expected to, because they were faced with an unintended pregnancy — all valid reasons. But it’s not necessarily going to make you a happier or more fulfilled person (at least not for a long while).

The book is divided into two parts: LIES and TRUTH. The first category includes “Children Make You Happy,” “Breast is Best,” “‘The Hardest Job in the World’”; the former, of “‘Bad’ Mothers Go to Jail,” “Smart Women Don’t Have Children,” and “Women Should Work.” Obviously, some of these are provocative, but Valenti does manage in some way to take on some of the sacred cows of motherhood. Much of the book draws from first-mother accounts, and the stories, quite frankly, are horrifying — and played into my worst fears. The standout in the book is her (unfortunately ill-formed) argument for the need in our country to move from individual to community parenting — thus requiring us to advocate for “government and workplace policies that honor parenting for everyone.” That’s a world into which I would want to bring children. Valenti just doesn’t really offer a way to get there.

Interestingly, related issues were raised last Shabbat in a Jewish context; at Temple Beth Zion, a congregant, the aunt of one of my classmates, gave a d’var Torah about the Biblical imperative to procreate, from the weekly parshah, Bereshit. In the first account of the creation of humans — the only humans at the time — in Genesis 1:28, G-d tells them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The talk was intensely personal, and it deeply resonated with me.

At my request, she sent me a copy of her d’var. Speaking from her perspective as “a Jewish woman who chose not to give birth or be the primary raiser of children,” she talked about her struggle with that decision and her exploration for its validation in Jewish tradition. She grew up in a different time, when women were told that being a mother was part of having a full life. (I’m actually not sure that things have changed that much, though perhaps the messages are less explicit.) She began to speak with women older than she and discovered that this might not be the case. After much agonizing, she related, “I felt at the end of the day that primary parenting is a huge responsibility and a lot of work that, while potentially quite wonderful, was not one of the major life works that I wanted to take on.”

She explained that she made that decision with the belief that it was in opposition to Jewish law and practice. At the time, she identified as a secular Jew, so whether there was support for her choice in Jewish tradition was not of import. When she became more religious mid-life (when having children was no longer an option), she began to explore what Jewish texts actually have to say on the issue. There are in the Tanakh examples of women who do not have children — most notably Dvora – which is to say nothing of the men and women who cannot have children. She also cited the story of Jacob’s reaction to Rachel in her despair over not having children; a 15th century rabbi interprets it as anger at her forgetting her basic worth as a human being.

Wrapping up, she asked, “What does it mean to be a mensch (human) in regards to procreation and the domination of the planet by human beings in the 21st century? What is our holy work and what is our holy work today as we explore our connection back to the very first mitzvah — of procreation?” Citing the writing of Rav Kook (the first chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine) on the issue — his view is that procreation is not mere instinct but pursuit of divine goodness, to be found everywhere — she concluded,

From my point of view this means that procreation originally set the precedent for human holy activity that now includes all activity that nurtures the human race.

Oh my God! I forgot to have children!Thus, her work as a mentor and advocate for Jewish women is her holy work — born of the Biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.”

This decision weighs on me, and it’s something I’ll continue to wrestle with as my window for having children continues to close because of my age. The d’var giver joked that she didn’t want to have the realization of a woman in a t-shirt she saw: “Oh my God! I can’t believe I forgot to have to have children!” Like her, I want “to make an active, intelligent decision about whether or not I [am] going to give birth and raise children.”

survivor

holocaust victims; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Two weeks ago on Yom Kippur I returned to the assisted living facility at which I led first and second day Rosh Hashanah services. Before the service, a resident came up to me and handed me a piece of paper (right) with names. She asked me to read them during the service. “I’m the only one who survived,” she said. The list included her parents, both sets of grandparents, two sisters, and a brother-in-law. It ended with “aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.”

I wish I had had the opportunity to talk with her more then, and I missed her after the service with so many people to greet. I don’t know what to do when faced with the enormity of such an revelation. I only heard a Holocaust survivor speak for the first time a few years ago. That history is not my family’s, and both sides of my husband’s family had long since departed Europe by the war.

A few days after I read these names, the Times published an article and photo essay about young Israelis who have voluntarily gotten the same number tattoos that were forced on their grandparents. Predictably, the trend has been met with mixed reactions, from reverence and pathos to shock and anger. As the articles notes, “[I]nstitutions and individuals are grappling with how best to remember the Holocaust — so integral to Israel’s founding and identity — after those who lived it are gone.” I’m not sure what to think about this way of remembering, except that it is, like the woman’s request, an attempt to make the transition from lived to historical memory. Will her descendants keep this list?

return

empty road sign; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I opened the front passenger-side door and sat down, glancing at the three other people waiting for me in the car as I shut the door. He smiled at me: “You miss home. Not just your family. You must if you’re taking pictures of a sign by the side of an empty road.”

I felt the tears begin to form. “I do miss home. Sometimes so much I can’t allow myself to think about it.”

I’ve never been to this particular place before, but I instinctively feel it as familiar.

I’m at a rest stop in Ellinger, Texas, on Highway 71 between Austin and Houston. I stand at the edge of the small parking lot, on a curb that gives way to a shallow ditch that runs alongside that empty road that passes by green fields and that seems to end at the horizon a couple hundred feet away. Even in mid-September, the heat rises from the road in shimmery waves, the exhaust from cars on the highway and in the parking lot adding to the 90-degree air temperature.

The empty road dead ends into the highway, and across the intersection the arrows of two black-and-white signs, both with “71” inside an outline of the shape of Texas, point in opposite directions: north and south. A few abandoned tin-walled structures sit behind the wooden fence that separates highway from field.

Back on my side of the highway, three signs give the distances to the local Baptist, Lutheran, and Catholic churches, down the empty road that must become fuller past the horizon. Another sign advertises pecans for sale beyond the furthest church.

Peh-CANHS, I think. That’s how we say it here. Not PEE-cans, as they do elsewhere.

Walking across the empty road to take my photograph, I see an enormous white canvas that the church signs have obscured. “Romney-Ryan 2012” is backwards, since the logo faces the highway. I wonder whether it sits on public land at the same time that I know that few will care. This stretch of highway and this empty road is red.

Small white clouds only intermittently dot the expansive blue sky, which I always think seems bigger in Texas. Or was I just taught to think it so? Would I really recognize this landscape as Texas if the outline of the state were removed from the road sign?

I am a Texan, but I haven’t lived in Texas in 12 years. And there’s a chance that I might not again. When my nephew was born, the hospital gave his parents a discharge sheet congratulating them on “the birth of your new little Texan.” Will my children be so-called? What does it mean that he is a “Texan”? What does it mean that I am?

I love my family and Tex-Mex and Shiner Bock and Longhorn football and Astros baseball and bluebonnets and mesquite trees and the hill country and the car ride from Houston to Austin on a hot day.

I don’t love the death penalty and retrograde politics and homegrown presidential candidates and heat and humidity and traffic and suburban sprawl. I’ve become an East Coast urban Jew, like my husband, and so much of my former home has become an anathema to me. And perhaps I have become an anathema to it.

Molly Ivins said, “I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.” She knows the mixed feelings that come with loyalty to a state that is often easy to deride as buffoonish. How can I be homesick and horrified at the same time?

In his memoir of his life under the ayatollah’s fatwa, Salman Rushdie writes about his and others’ dilemma as Indian writers but expats in the United Kingdom:

Who were they, and to what and whom did they belong? Or was the idea of belonging itself a trap, a cage from which they had been lucky enough to escape? He had concluded that the questions needed to be rephrased. The questions he knew how to answer were not about place or roots, but about love. Who do you love? What can you leave behind, and what do you need to hold on to? Where does your heart feel full?

He is surprised when a writer still living in India explains that his writing, that of a native son, is “highly problematic” in the country.

I claim Texas, but would Texas claim me?

As I fly back to Boston, it doesn’t feel like home. I like it, and I may one day grow to love it, as I did D.C. I think that home is Texas, and I always leave a part of me there. It’s a part that wouldn’t know what to do in Boston.

Rushdie calls this migrant consciousness. I moved because I couldn’t do what I want to do there. So I’m here now, and I am grateful and blessed. But the move required the construct of a new identity. You can’t ever go home again.

My parents have lived in Texas for more than 40 years. My grandparents were born and went to school in Texas – and moved back in retirement; my aunt and uncle did the same. My cousin moved to Madison after college for graduate school and then work and moved back several years later. My brother never left.

Re-entry into my “real life” has been very hard this time around. Enrollment in rabbinical school has amplified the differences between who I was and who I am. Will I ever feel whole in either place?

riddle, wrapped in a mystery

Trigger warning: One of the books reviewed here contains a brief episode of sexual assault, which I allude to in my review.

I had originally planned to pair the first book in this post, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, with another book that I read at about the same time, before I left D.C. in May. However, I just finished Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: My Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, and I think it’s a better fit with the former.

Both are memoirs (my favorite genre) written by women who struggle in becoming who they are, Hamilton’s journey less purposeful than Feldman’s. Both women suffered by my curious googling after finishing their stories.

At the end of April, while in New York for a conference, I met my friend Megan (and another friend of hers) for dinner. They had chosen Prune, Hamilton’s small East Village eatery. Both had read her memoir. After the fantastic (although not so vegetarian- or kosher-friendly) food, I decided to check it out. I don’t eat most of the food that Hamilton loves or prepares or writes about, and my mouth still watered. She has a simple aesthetic as a cook: To use simple, real ingredients to make delicious food. Even a non-foodie like me knows how rare that is. I remember and still think about some of the dishes she describes, and I wonder if they are really as good as she says — and if I’ve wasted years being a vegetarian and then observing kashrut.

Two quick asides about the cover: First of all, I had no clue that the art was an upside-down chicken head. Seeing the digital image in this post now makes that mistake seem ridiculous (it took my husband to disabuse me of the notion that it was an odd kind of shellfish mentioned in one of her recipes), but I think it was hard to get the distance necessary to discern the image correctly at a book’s usual distance from one’s face. The second thing is the endorsement by Anthony Bourdain. He proclaims, “Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.” This never failed to make me giggle each time I resumed the book: How many chef memoirs are out there? (Yes, yes: probably more than I know.) But more to the point, Anthony Bourdain wrote his own memoir about his professional life as a chef. I am not running to check it out from the library, because it is clearly at most the second best memoir by a chef.

Hamilton came by her style — and her success — the hard way. The book takes the reader from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania, where her cooking education began in her mother’s kitchen, to her teenage years in New York as a coked-out waitress, to college and graduate school, and back to New York, where she worked terrible catering jobs until she started Prune. The story finally ends in Italy, the mecca of good food, where her husband’s family lives (more about that later).

Hamilton is a great writer. Her graduate work was in creative writing, and she tells wonderful stories. She also has the distance from most of the events of the book to be able to make them coherent and shape them into a larger narrative (perspective which Feldman lacks, but more on that below). What was missing from Hamilton was explanation and motivation, particularly for some of her more unorthodox (see what I did there?) choices. After a lot of turmoil in her childhood (her parents’ divorce, financial troubles), Hamilton struggles to make it to and to stay in college. And then she dispatches her four years there in mere sentences — and is then suddenly off to graduate school, with nary an explanation for her choice of post-undergraduate education. She is also by then in a relationship with a woman, who follows her to Michigan and returns with her to New York.

Her foray into restaurant ownership is just as, if not more, mysterious. As Hamilton tells it, a neighbor happens to drop by to ask if she wants to see some real estate he owns. Her catering jobs leading to no foreseeable career, Hamilton essentially decides to buy the space, once home to a failed restaurant, on the spot – but with no indication that she has ever before considered this step. Just as suddenly, the restaurant is not only up and running – again, without explanation of how she started the business, which by her own admission she knows nothing about – but hugely successful, with lines, stretching down the street, of customers waiting for Saturday and Sunday brunch.

And! Hamilton is by this time pregnant with her second child. The father of both is an Italian doctor whom she started seeing while still living with her girlfriend, each without knowledge of the other. The reader is again offered almost nothing to understand this choice. Please note: I generally believe that folks do not owe others explanations of their sexuality, but as this is a memoir, and the choice, unusual, a fuller exploration seems warranted, especially in light of her clear ambiguity about the relationship with her children’s father.

Hamilton never lives with him, though they co-parent. This decision, however, seems less by design and more by inertia – like the pregnancies. She falls for the doctor after he cooks her a delicious, authentic Italian meal from scratch; indeed, the attractions of his extended Italian family in Rome, his mother’s cooking, and their rural villa in Puglia seem more compelling than he himself.

Later in their relationship, he attempts to cook the wooing meal for her again but forgets a key step in the process, rendering the homemade pasta disappointingly edible. Hamilton feels similarly about his family as their charms began to wane, the Roman apartment becoming cramped and hot, the food becoming predictable and uninventive, and the villa becoming provincial and isolating. The book ends with the impending dissolution of her relationship.

Curious about so many unanswered questions, I googled Hamilton for more information. The (perhaps unsubstantiated) gossip indicates that her divorce was less about her growing disaffection for the Italian side of her chosen family than the fact that she was having an affair with her sister’s husband. A potential second affair – and I use that word carefully, since there is no evidence that the parties involved either time had open relationships – combined with the bafflement about her life’s trajectory – ultimately made the story end for me on a sour note. I don’t know know what to believe about her experience, and that seems odd in a memoir.

Since I started by judging Hamilton’s book by its cover, I begin by judging Feldman’s by its name. As my husband pointed out as soon as he saw me reading it: “I’m sure it’s a great read, but that title is terrible. Did the editors have a contest to see who could come up with the most clichéd name in the shortest amount of time?”

Unorthodox was featured in Lilith magazine along with several other books about women’s experiences with Orthodox Judaism. Feldman grew up a Satmar Hasid in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn speaking only Yiddish; was given the minimal high school education – complete with the daily hour of “English” that allowed the religious school to maintain state accreditation – as befits a girl in that community; was married to a man chosen by her family at age 17; and became a mother at age 19. She left her husband a few years after her son was born.

Feldman’s telling makes it clear from the outset that she simply doesn’t belong in the world of her family of origin. She wants to read books in English – and sneaks into the public library to get them, hiding them in her room – and instinctively feels that the Hasidic approach to mental illness (from which bother her uncle and her father suffer) and to sexual assault (of which she is a victim), of not seeking professional help from the outside world, is troubling. She is fated to leave the community, as her mother did years before. She feels it instinctively and deeply, and from her position on the other side, that feeling certainly seems to have been validated.

The book begins with Feldman sitting down to a meal with her estranged mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years. Writing a book about her experience requires brutal honestly, she figures, and she wants to start with answers from her mother. But this beginning seems only to serve to burnish her credentials as a writer – she’s telling us she set out to be honest, so what follows must therefore be so! – because we’re aren’t actually privy to what her mother says. It’s only later in the story that we discover, along with Feldman when she watches the documentary Trembling Before G-d, about queer folks in Orthodox Jewish communities, that her mother is gay.

The memoir is a quick read, and I zoomed through it, especially when I realized that tales of her married sexual life were forthcoming. (Yes, I am that prurient.) That part of the story did not disappoint: Her marriage begins with a year of physically and emotionally painful attempts to actually have sex, a problem made worse by the fact that everyone in the small community knows about and weighs in on the saga as it occurs. Whatever the root cause of the difficulty, it is also exacerbated by the profound lack of sexual education in the community: Feldman recounts the story of her neighbor, whose husband’s haste, force, and ignorance on their wedding night caused her colon to rupture when they inadvertently had anal instead of vaginal intercourse. Feldman and her husband are similarly clueless. It’s lurid details like this, along with many others, about religious doctrine and anti-Israel rallies, about arranged marriages and purity laws, and that make this a fascinating glimpse into a notoriously insular community.

As the narrative winds down with her decision to leave her husband and Hasidism, she describes the difficulties that this will entail, particularly in gaining at least joint custody of her son. But, in a bizarre omission, nothing of her preparations or the legal battle are recounted. The book ends with her and her son in a new apartment, but we have no idea how they got there.

And so I googled Feldman. Unsurprisingly, the book has come under vitriolic attack by the Satmar Hasidim she describes. And unfortunately, at least some of their objections seem to be warranted: One of the more gruesome accounts in the book (which I do not need to recount here; it will be immediately obvious) was revealed after the book’s publication to be dubious as best. She also omitted the existence of a little sister, and the timeline of her mother’s abandonment has been called into question. Custody of her son was won only after she hid with him at various friends’ houses for several months and survived protracted legal action by her husband’s family.

Unlike Hamilton, Feldman ultimately comes across as young a naïve – she’s writing mere months after her departure, and she is scathing in her indictment of almost everyone in her family. As I finished the book, I wondered whether time would allow her to take a more charitable – or at least more balanced – view of their actions, and if she might end up regretting some of her words.

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