It's so simple to be wise.  Just think of something stupid to say, and then don't say it.     Sam Levenson (1911-1980)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

One Abbreviates, One Educates

I was thinking about swimming this morning, specifically, swimming lessons.   Which brings me to this:

Q:  What do a swimming instructor and a mohel have in common?

A:  Both perform a mitzvah for children, in lieu of the children's own parents.

mohel, of course, performs a brit mila (ritual circumcision), a  mitzvah the Torah has commanded the father* of a baby boy, (and since most Jewish fathers are not trained to carry out on their own, they graciously pass the duty onwards, to somebody who is).

A swimming instructor teaches children to be water-safe, a mitzvah the Rabbis, via the Talmud, have assigned to the parents of all children, as an extension of the mitzvah to keep oneself alive.  (Again, while most parents may be able swim, teaching is an entirely different matter and requires an expert.  Go RivkA!).

Which means that both men and women can fill in for a child's parents on this one.  In fact, when I think about it, this might be the only mitzvah a non-Jewish person can do on behalf of a Jewish person.  What a cool thought.

(I know, I know... technically, the parent of the child is doing the mitzvah by paying for the lesson.  Or in our case, the grandparents of our children.  Thank you...)  

Keep the balance,

*Only fathers are commanded to give their sons a brit mila since, generally, one is only commanded to perform a mitzvah for others if he himself is obligated to do it.  

Goodbye, G., part 2

(I've made some references to the original post about G.  See it here).

At the beginning of the school year I made a very difficult decision;  I decided I was not going to make regular 
shiva calls at my patients' families.

I used to go to most of them.  Jews, Muslims -- it didn't matter, as long as their parents' home was legally and safely accessible, I would go.  I needed the closure, and I knew it was important to the family.  It also gave me a lot of insight into how these families live their lives, and helped me to feel a certain closeness with the child they lost.  I have never regretted going, not once.  

This year I took on new, additional roles at work, and so work began taking a lot of more my time and energy  than every before.  In one attempt to keep things balanced, I decided I could not make shiva calls at the expense of family/personal time, and my own limited emotional energy.

But G. was different.  For one thing, he had been our patient for over two years.  When he returned with a relapse, it was painfully clear to everyone, including him, that we would lose him. I remember the first day he returned to us to begin treatment yet again.  He understood everything, and he expressed his anger, fear, and sadness in all kinds of ways -- through his jokes, his artwork, his questions, his body language.  I felt only a minimal sense of comfort seeing that G. felt comfortable coming back to be with our department staff, with people who he knew he could trust, to listen in the most genuine way, to love him and accept him.  I, like many others, felt especially close to him.

When G. died, I felt a real need for closure, and so his shiva was one of only two I attended this year.  (The other one is a much longer story, for another time).

Upon entering, what stood out were photographs of G, everywhere -- in multiple photo albums, framed on the walls, taped neatly onto the poster board covering the television -- and thousands of pictures had already been uploaded to a memorial website.  G. had older siblings who long since moved out when he came along, and so his parents basically raised him as an only child.  He was the center of their life. 

I had come with a CD of pictures and a digital copy of the essay he had written about his travel plans.   I shared some stories with G's much-older brother, who is married with children of his own.  The brother explained that the memorial website was only the first step;  after the shiva, he would create another website for family and close friends, with stories from G's life.  

On the CD I'd brought to give his family, there were a series of photos of the vehicle G. had designed.  I was struck by a need to give this family any additional concrete piece of their son's life that I could, and so I offered, on the spot, to write a brief explanation of the process G. went through to develop the vehicle and plan his classroom trip.  His brother swiveled his laptop around towards me and I sat down and began to type.  

I am not used to writing essays during a shiva visit.  It is so often a time of listening, a time of being, and not a time of doing.  Words and tears flow, and after the week is up, the family is left behind in a miserable, quiet house, trying to figure out what they have lost, willing themselves to believe the unbelievable.*

But I did not want to make a promise, only to break it and walk away from the family without having returned to them a part of G that he had temporarily entrusted to me.  When the essay was finished, I parted from them and hugged G's mother, as she reminded me that she wants to stay in touch. 

Then I left, feeling just a little lighter, having returned a shard of precious jewel back to its true owner, and knowing it is one of many that, together, will continue to reflect the light of G, but will never be whole again.

Keep the balance,

*According to Lynne Halamish, the premier expert in Israel on the subject of death and mourning, the process of accepting the loss of a loved one takes about  90 days.  The purpose of the shiva week is to give the community a defined period to learn of, and acknowledge, the family's loss, within the boundaries of the family's home environment.  I was fortunate enough to attend a recent workshop in which Lynne discussed different aspects of the mourning process, but the above description is my own paraphrasing of her ideas.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Have You Stopped to Smell the Flowers? They Have!

Too tired for words.  Instead, I offer you images.

From today's outing to a butterfly reserve (yes, we are on vacation in the Old Country).  They are quite used to us humans entering their domain, and so were willing to hang around for the mug shots.  


Keep the balance,


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Everyone's Saying Thank You

Juggling Frogs has put out an an open invite for us to say a monthly thank you to whoever's on our list! Her reasoning (not that she needs one):

My to-do list is littered with unrealized good intentions. It's less an agenda than a menu. Each morning, I try to choose well from the Activity Buffet. But, inevitably, there's stuff left on my plate at the end of the day. I pack up the leftovers with care, dutifully copying them to tomorrow's list....

If I accomplished one tenth of what I list, I'd be a much better person. I owe a wedding gift to a couple who have had their second child. There is the family that moved here three years ago, whom I keep meaning to invite to welcome to the neighborhood. I have a pile of e-mails and blog comments to answer. 

And then there are the thank-you-notes...

(And while we're on the subject, make sure to catch her previous post on the subject, with some excellent guidelines for how to nudge our children -- and ourselves -- one step further into menchhood).  

So let's join her, folks... 

Keep the balance,


Imperfect is Normal

I began a comment responding to a post by Conversations in Klal entitled "We, the Perfect People," then realized that the topic is definitely worth a longer response.

Klal, you're absolutely right.  

After all, the Seven Laws of Noah require all other societies to set up a legal system and solve their interpersonal disputes... and we can't admit we have problems?  The only way to solve them is to accept that it's about time we become a fully normative society, by yanking our problems out into the light, even when they are excruciatingly painful.

This one hit me hard: A couple of years ago I worked with a young boy who was being physically and emotional abused by his Rebbe. His parents knew about it and felt powerless, especially his mother, who felt unable to physically enter the school, a domain of men. Many in the community knew about this Rebbe, including the school administration. Community members were afraid, or unwilling, to do anything about it, either because they subscribe to that horrific "spare the rod" principle (does someone have the Pirkei Avot on that?), or more likely, because they understood that their families would be socially isolated, and their kids would not be accepted into any of the private religious schools, if they were to earn a reputation as whistle-blowers.  

This kid was traumatized. His expressions of fear, sadness and victimhood were overpowering. Throughout his life he had been taught that his Rebbe is the most important person in his life, after his parents. That his Rebbe was to be respected and obeyed. Except that this Rebbe was hitting him, grabbing him by the neck, and yelling unspeakable things -- in the name of G-d and the Torah, so how could he be wrong?   This boy was being abused on so many levels, caught between the supposed "authority" of G-d, and the private hell of his own suffering. 

It was painful to watch. Worse yet, I identified with this boy's feelings of powerlessness, since I, too, felt that my ability to help him was limited. The family did not want me to say a word ("The Rebbe is old, he's near retirement, his wife is ill, he's under a lot of pressure. We don't want our daughters being refused acceptance into good schools because of this."). My workplace, a small, nonprofit development center, was in a bind because they knew they would be censured - i.e. lose their clientele - if they single-handedly took on the educational system. This was way beyond a business consideration; it was an understanding that the center would no longer be able to help many, many children in need if their schools forbade families to use our services.

I continued to work with the boy and his family, offering counseling, strength and support so that they could feel empowered and work through their options. My professional supervisors spoke with people of influence within the community. The family eventually chose to speak to the school about the problematic Rebbe, and to move the child to another school, where he could begin the process of learning to trust a new Rebbe. I felt relief for the child, but a complete lack of satisfaction with the larger picture.

And yet, I believe change is happening... slowly. In Israel, special education is more accepted than ever before. There is an entire branch of the school system, both formal and informal education, dedicated to children with physical, mental and emotional challenges. As Conversations in Klal pointed out, Special ed., and all the various paramedical fields (physical therapy, occupational therapy, expressive therapies, etc. etc) have become some of the most popular fields of study, especially for religious young women of all types.  I don't know about the graduates of Touro and similar places, but I would suspect that the young Israeli graduates, especially the Haredi ones, are working within their communities, since they are most unlikely to work outside of them. (Maybe we have it slightly "easier" in Israel, since we are all living together in this country and we cannot send the problem away as easily. But I'd love to think that it's something a little loftier....)

On a personal note, my Haredi relatives have a child with Down's Syndrome who takes part in public and private family life in every way, and always has. When I asked her mother how her community sees it, her reply was, "The kids in our neighborhood see it all the time now -- she's not the only child with Down's. They know R. is a little slower than the others, but she joins in all their games, and everyone is patient with her." And go figure: two of R's older sisters have already gotten married to very fine young men, and she was dancing out there with the rest of the ladies. (Let's not celebrate yet. This same girl's 12-year-old sister, when hearing that I work with kids with cancer, asked earnestly, in astonishment, But isn't that contagious?!).

So, Klal, I'm sending you some optimism.... You're right: there's not enough change out there, but there's definitely change. Meanwhile, our work is cut out for us, and the question remains:  What are we gonna do about it?

Keep the balance,


Monday, July 28, 2008

Culture Shock

The kids and I are barely over jet-lag (Israel to California = 10 time zones), but now I think we're still in culture-lag.  

It doesn't necessarily help having grown up in a place.  Places change, and so do people.  My high school campus (complete with full-size theater football field, Olympic-size pool, science complex) is on par with some Israel college campuses.  Everything is big.  Huge.  I was in an "upscale" supermarket on Thursday (they have a kosher fish section of their regular butcher department).  I don't remember the aisles being so wide, and so long.  One aisle was entirely shelved with crackers on one side, cookies on the other.  This was certainly an anomaly to me, with all the hysteria over carb consumption.  Everything is low-fat, except the people.  

What surprised me the most?  All the plastic bags.  In Israel people have really started acclimatizing (pun intended -- forgive me) to bringing those semi-permanent, reusable shopping bags when they visit the supermarket.  Here in California they just haven't gotten there, though the bags are readily available.  

Stepping outside the house around five in the afternoon, onto the perfectly manicured public grounds surrounding the neighborhood, we find a gathering of dogs and their owners, representatives of both species perfectly groomed (the canines, perhaps, more so than their owners).  One owner informs me that his dog is receiving chemo and radiation for osteosarcoma.  Really.  I've heard so much about Americans without medical insurance, I cannot figure out how to classify the concept of a dog on chemo.  And I'm an animal lover, really.

(Speaking of worries over other questionable division of resources in America, apparently I'm not alone.  See Ima Shalom's recent post for this note:
I got upset on the 4th of July when I thought about how much money was being spent on this ostentatious display of fireworks when it could go to feed starving children in Africa.
Ima Shalom, I don't know about the Africa part, but starving American children, definitely).

Even the toilet seat is lower... I keep falling down onto it.  And I keep banging my head into the glass shower door because I don't see a shower curtain and assume it's open.

This past Shabbat fell into a category of its own.  My brother and his wife were also in from out of state, and a flurry of friends and relatives (some Jewish, some not, none Shomrei Shabbat) were streaming through the house throughout the day.

As the last of them drove away Shabbat afternoon, my eldest (nine-years old) turned to me and said, Mommy, it doesn't feel like Shabbat.  Everyone is driving and taking pictures and doing everything else!  It's hard.

I felt the same way.  I told her that this was how I grew up, surrounded by people who do not keep Shabbat, cars going by, everyone going about their weekend.  I told her I had to walk a long way to my synagogue to be with other Jews who were keeping Shabbat together, since it really does take a community.  (That idea in itself got me thinking a lot about Shabbat and community... more later).

Her response floored me:  But Mommy, what made you choose to be like that?  Why did you choose to be different?

Whoa, what a question.

I told her I couldn't answer that one on such short notice, though I did have lots of good reasons, and I know what they are.  Since those days, some of them have probably changed.  As That Guy I Married pointed out (not completely accurately, but I know what he means), we don't always get back to the kids with thorough answers to such monumental questions.   Meanwhile, almost a week has gone by and my daughter's still waiting to hear from me.  I'd better get working on my answer.

Keep the balance,


Addendum:  I have gotten some family feedback that I am generalizing in this post, that not all of America is like this.  I am just reporting on what I see... there is much that I don't see, and I leave that to others, for the time being.

Receiving is Giving

When we first moved into our little community, some eight years ago, I spent quite a few weeks feeling really lonely.  We knew only one family in the neighborhood.   Our first-born was a year old, and so that natural, time-proven way of meeting the neighbors (that is, through your kids), was not such an option.  It was the height of summer, and even Shabbat was not the greatest opportunity to get to know people, since so many of them were away.  I began to feel like a real outsider.

When did I feel it the most?  It doesn't sound nearly half as ironic now as it did then, but here it is:  Nobody ever came over asking to borrow something.  No one knocked on our door for a cup of flour, an egg, a bag of milk.  Nothing.   For weeks.  

I felt so out of it.  So, well, useless.  People were coming to meet us, offering us help, even inviting us for meals, and that was certainly nice, and appreciated.

But who wants to be on the receiving end every time?

And then, one day.... one of our neighbors came over, apologizing.  Could she borrow a cup of flour?  

Are you kidding?!?!  

I was so excited, I could've hugged her.  (I know, that would have completely confused her).  She had no idea what a huge thing she was doing for me, asking to borrow something, because it wasn't the asking that mattered, it was the giving.  She was giving me, a new person on the block, the chance to be on the giving end, to feel like I (finally) had a role in the community.  A small role, but it meant everything to me.

I work in the hospital with really sick kids.  I wish there was something I could do to make them well, or better yet, to have kept them from getting sick in the first place.  But I know I can't.  I can only try to help them get through their illness with as much strength and love as possible.  And I can do this with the complete awareness that their existence as sick children is the very thing that allows me to do my job, and to give to them.  Their act of receiving my help is, in essence, a very great act of giving.  

No one wants to feel like they are constantly on the receiving end, even (especially?) children. Maybe this type of work has really driven that point home for me... so much so, that I'm constantly reminding the kids I work with, how much they give me, how much I appreciate their willingness to share with me, to learn, to express themselves honestly, even when the subject matter is often painful, frightening, and threatening.

RivkA, I know that you -- and everyone who loves you -- would never, ever choose the circumstances surrounding your "new" role, of helping people to give.  But it is one of the most important roles in this world, and I wish you courage and strength of every sort as you continue to cross all the challenging bridges that come your way.

Keep the balance,


Sunday, July 20, 2008

P is for Prophet, P is for Pervasive

In honor of the seventeenth day of Tammuz, I'd like to share a thought that came to me over Shabbat.

(The seventeenth of the Hebrew month of Tammuz is a minor fast day beginning three weeks of mourning over a series of historical tragedies that befell the Jewish people.  Due to the plethora of source materials on the subject, I won't go into detail here about The Three Weeks.   Short List: Aish haTorah for inspirational stories, Yeshiva Har Etzion's Virtual Beit Midrash for high-level shiurim, the Orthodox Union, for a general explanation, and for shiurim with a scholarly/historical bend).

Regarding the historical role and character of a prophet:  Our neighbor S. explained that in this week's haftarah, the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah) was chastised for learning nothing and changing nothing in his zealous approach toward the Jewish people, even after God bestowed upon him a personal vision of, basically, what it means to be a multi-faceted God.  

I commented to S's wife (who happens to know a thing or two about the workings of the brain, being a neurologist and all) that it seems perfectly logical that most prophets, at least the fire-and-doomsday types, probably would have been diagnosed with PDD, were they to live in our era.

Think about it:  A good, fiery prophet, like someone with PDD, loves order and rules, and in this case, that includes strict obedience of God's word.  A prophet does not come off as a warm and fuzzy guy. His job has always been to call people to order - people, such as corrupt kings, who aren't so eager to listen.  He cannot, for the life of him, understand why someone would willfully, brazenly choose to cross the line, especially when the line is so clear, and the consequences all spelled out.

Even God's attempts to calm down or comfort a prophet are pretty much useless.  It didn't work in this week's haftarah with Eliyahu, and it didn't usually work with Moshe Rabbeinu, the prophet of all prophets, either.  When I started thinking back to different examples, I realized that yes, during their wanderings in the wilderness, Moshe did petition God not to destroy the Jewish people.  His argument centered not on emotional attachment, but rather on logical argument:  God, you have committed  Yourself to these people, and besides, what will the other nations think?  They will think that you, God, do not keep your Word.   That you brought Your people out of Egypt, only to destroy them.

See?  Purely rational argument. On several occasions, Moshe himself lost patience with all the complaining.  For him, it was very straight forward:  This is what God wants, this is what we do.  He often lost his temper with the people when they complained, or when things didn't go according to plan.  He didn't ever excel in relating to the people on a personal level.   He just wasn't interested.  Even family life did not particularly appeal to him.

(Moshe even refused the role of prophet more than once, arguing - albeit logically - with God Himself that he did not have the skill set required for the job).

This is not to say, of course, that Moshe was did not care, or love the people around him.  But his interpersonal skills, his mode of expression, and his priorities, were different.  Not everyone could relate to him, nor feel inspired by his brand of zeal.  And to be fair, Moshe, as God's representative, often had to draw the line concretely and absolutely;  no room for sensitivity, and absolutely no grey areas.  

It is this characteristic that allowed Moshe to refine the population of Bnei Yisrael as they prepared to enter Israel, and yet, it is the very characteristic that kept Moshe from being able to enter the land, a fact God reiterates to Moshe in this Shabbat's parasha (Pinhas).

It's interesting take on leadership, and quite a statement about what we view, in our days, as a neurological disability.   I'd like to think that our modern emphasis on special education has brought our society full circle, to a place where every person has a meaningful role.


Addendum:  To clarify, in case it didn't come through:  The connection with 17 Tammuz is the centrality of the prophet's role in keeping Klal Yisrael focused on our task(s).   

Keep the balance,


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Life in the Village II: The Rocky Rose Garden

Life around here often takes place in the garden... but it's not always a rose garden.  

It certainly can be.  Last week our neighbor N., who runs after-school art classes for the neighborhood kids, hosted a lovely open studio evening, featuring artwork from all her young pupils from the past year.  (She built her studio is built out of a renovated tin shed - complete with A/C - off the side of her garden, which is open to a lovely view of the surrounding hills).

The gathering was informal, with drinks, pretzels and fruit laid out under the olive tree, crafts and sculptures arranged on the ping-pong table, and drawings hung all around.  Parents strolled around admiring the work, and kids drew and colored in the studio.  N.'s calm presence filled the garden, as she repositioned the artwork and offered compliments to the artists' parents.  Neighbors who hadn't seen each other in a few days (amazing how often that happens) sat chatting in the grass.

What has always given me pause for thought is that beyond a few specific cases, most people here agrees to disagree, and leave it at that.  It's a "I won't trample your boundaries if you don't trample mine" sort of set-up.  

Of course, not all is rosy in our village.   Over-all, there are feelings of closeness and community.  Yet there are always those stuck in some form of social exile, whether external or self-imposed.  Over time, disagreements crop up.  People can feel mistreated, resentful, and angry, and get stuck with a grudge for eons.  Others find themselves in the position of go-between. Still others stay completely out of the loop.

The most common form of dilemma usually involves kids.  What do you do when your neighbors' kids are bullying on one of yours?   How do you feel when your son's best friend likes to watch violent movies you'd rather not expose him to?  What's your reaction when your friends' daughter when she purposely pours water all over your newly cleaned rabbit cage, just to see your reaction?  (Yes, that one actually happened).

Beyond that, the most common areas of agree-to-disagreement:  junk piling up in the driveway, neighborhood dues collections, and whether certain kinds of [women's] outfits are suitable for beit knesset.    Other issues involve the personal, or maybe, personality.   Still others are, well... I don't want to know.  In a small community, you learn that when in doubt, keeping your mouth shut might be the best option.

Like all others, our community has had its share of sorrows.  Also of celebrations.  And all of them have felt like community sorrows, and community celebrations.   Since regardless of everything, if you really need something, you know that these people will always be there for you, as you've been - and will be - for them.  

Maybe some of the strongest ties are not necessarily based on agreeing, but rather, on agreeing to disagree.  I imagine we're not the only ones...

Keep the balance,


liberal? yes. "Liberal?" Absolutely not

For now they're playing an endless running loop on the news, since that's all they have, but we know it will be replaced soon with an update, or some other news.  For the parents of Udi and Eldad z"l, that endless loop might never stop playing.

The "Left" will say, It's all Israel's fault -- the Occupation, of course.  They have no choice.

A person with any sense of humanity will say:  Nothing justifies this.

Two mangled, tortured bodies, and those of others of our soldiers, returned to their families after two years of almost no word.  In "exchange" for what?  One live murderer, four additional terrorists, and nearly two hundred bodies, including those of of terrorists.  

What have we come to?

True, this is one of the highest mitzvot, redeeming Jewish POWs.  It is crucial closure for those families who lost their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers in Lebanon.  It closes another chapter of our country's pained history.

But at what price?  

Every time we apologize, every time we justify, every time we capitulate, it weakens our country and ultimately threatens our lives.  Our troubled civil rights conflicts, our loudly corrupt and undeserving leadership, our painful national decisions -- these are all a legitimate part of life in a democracy.  

The countries around us do not ever apologize for human rights violations or breeches of international warfare laws.  No one ever expects them to.  I am waiting, in vain, for the capital-L Liberals to notice and correct this irrationality.

Hizb'Allah has clarified its goals:  Political manipulation, human torture, ethnic cleansing and displacement, outright warfare.  And that's how they treat Lebanese Christian Arabs.  For Israel the stated goal is total destruction.  

Let's not act like idiots, let's not be confused.    Hizb'Allah is not confused.  

Keep the balance,


Monday, July 14, 2008

The Fear of Limited Energy

I'm actually sitting outside at a cafe, blogging while sipping a cappuccino (that is to say, הפוך). It doesn't get more stereotypical than that, does it?  

The reality:  when do I ever have time for things like this?  I'll tell you when:  when I'm waiting for my car to have its guts oiled and realigned.  On any given morning there is no cafe, no lazy breakfast that I've paid someone else to prepare --  it's just work, work, work, then rush home for the second shift: talk and play with the kids, visit a neighbor, prepare supper (maybe fitting a blog post - or part of one - in there somewhere), tidy up the house a bit, and maybe make a couple of phone calls while stuffing the dishes into the dishwasher.  All while thinking, Thank G-d for the dishwasher.  

(And since it's summer, convincing the kids it's time for bed can take, well, 45 minutes on a good day.  "But Mommy, the sun is still out, it's not time for bed yet!"  I'm tired.  I still have twelve things to do this evening.  It's time for you to go to bed).

My friend S calls it her fear of limited energy.  All mothers know to keep some spare, but what happens when we have some timely project to finish and we forget to budget our energy for the rest of the day?  Or we had a particularly stressful or emotional day at work (it can happen)? Or we've been letting "The List" (read:  laundry / dishes / phone calls / paying the bills / helping with a school project / cleaning the litter box-fish tank-hamster cage) run way over board, for way too long?  The day still has hours remaining, but you, my dear, do not.  Then what?

One of my neighbors (name withheld to protect the innocent) once confided in me, in a hushed voice, that she actually lets her kids have cereal for supper once a week.   

I was astonished, not by her "admission," but by the fact that she saw it as such.   

In my book, if she manages to get through her week and have the energy to prepare supper for her family six nights out of seven, that sounds like a real accomplishment to me.  I mean, I practically survived my teenage years on breakfast cereals (and tofu-broccoli stir-fry, and Haagen-Dazs with whipped cream), and it didn't seem to do much harm.  As we know, all major breakfast cereals are fortified -- B vitamins, folic acid  -- and have been so since the FDA realized that this is one way to insure that most Americans will get enough of these nutrients (see a short history c/o the NIH here).

Furthermore, grain products and dairy together?  That's a complete protein.  (And while we're on the subject, see here for the protein content of various vegetarian food sources).  Your kids could certainly do worse. Anyway, with the price of cereal these days, it's practically a luxury food.

Just think of it as buying back a little energy at the end of your never-ending day.

Keep the balance,


Goodbye, G.

I met G. two years, when he first began treatment. 

He was in sixth grade, hardly a social magnet, preferring to socialize with adults and discuss his many interests, including watch collecting and tasting unusual foods, some of which he brought to the hospital to share with us (and all of which, as I reminded him again and again, I could not eat, for religious reasons).  That only made him laugh, since religion played such a small part in his life. He loved Fantasy books and movies, computer games, riddles, and crass jokes, especially if lawyers were the brunt of them.  He loved to read out lists of these jokes to the staff.

Despite his social difficulties, G. made great efforts to share aspects of his life in the hospital.  I remember us sitting together to design a vehicle made of medical paraphernalia, and then document the steps required to build it so that he could go back to school and show his classmates how life in the hospital had its fun and creative moments.

After a relapse began to affect his memory, G. would describe his favorite ideas repeatedly, sometimes several times a day.  His sense of pride and awareness remained keen as he tried to cover up his memory loss by asking, hesitantly, if he had already told us his latest joke, or reported on his recent trip abroad. Despite feeling weak, he dreamed aloud and with full optimism about his next trip to Europe, and I sat with him to plan it, typing his words into the computer so that he could have a memory aid, and his parents, a memory.

G., I miss your smile, your enthusiasm for learning, your creativity, and your dark sense of humor.  I know you were scared, and I respect your trust in us as you opened up and helped us understand what it is like to rage against the dying of the light.  Go in peace.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Woman's Choice(s)

Yes, yet another post on that apparently inexhaustible subject, women's tzniut (modest dress).

A lot of pieces have been circulating the jblogosphere the past few weeks and months regarding religious Jewish women's dress standards, ranging from the Jewish "burqa" sitings in Ramat Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, to the inappropriate imposition of sackcloths on young dancers at the Jerusalem Bridge dedication ceremony.  

Some of these stories, like those regarding the March 2008 arrest of an abusive Beit Shemesh mother of 12, might suggest some link between overly-zealous dress codes, and a tendency toward child abuse.  (If you choose to follow the link, beware: I started to feel sick to my stomach reading just a few of these postings back-to-back).  In this case, a woman, Rabbanit Keren, is the reported leader of a controlling, sect-like approach toward excessively "modest" dress and abusive child-rearing practices.

Other incidents, like the now-famous bridge ceremony, on June 26 (during which a girls' dance troupe was forced to wear dark knit caps and shapeless brow cover-ups over their costumes, or forfeit their performance), reflect a successful attempt on the part of a political-religious leader - in this case, Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Yehoshua Pollack to impose his personal/community standards of women's dress onto others, in this case, directly onto the dancers themselves, and indirectly onto the entire public of Jerusalem.  

I, among many, many others, was not impressed with Mayor Lupolianski's response to his deputy's bullying.  Many people saw it as yet another version of religious coercion by religious city council members.   I, too, am convinced this was a major factor, and having grown up in a country where the separation of church and state is practically holy - or at least was, prior to the second Bush Administration - this aspect of Israeli society is especially challenging for me, on almost every level.  (More on that later).

I tend to classify the concept of tzniut (modesty in dress, as opposed to anava, humility), as a tradition passed by example from mother to daughter, from within the family framework.  This is not to say the community did not play a significant role -- of course it did.    I've no doubt that, a hundred years ago, a young woman who hiked her skirt up, or ran around in trousers, was duly shunned by her teachers (if she was lucky enough to have them) or peers, and possibly also by some version of a community "modesty patrol."

However, the past generation or two of religious Jewry has seen what I believe is a significant change in approach.   

Dress standards continue to come from within the family, with the mother remaining a central influence.  But there is another voice which has been growing louder and louder, and this is a male voice - the rabbi writing a book with "approved" line drawings of sleeves that cover the elbow.  The (always male) religious community leader encouraging "modest dress only" signs in supermarkets.   The yeshiva bochers illegally hanging modesty signs and spray-painting graffiti on the property of others.  The violent rabble-rousers throwing rocks at women driving cars, with the intent to scare, threaten, and harm.

Did you catch that?  

Yes, that list went from relatively harmless behavior, to fanatic, injurious behavior.  That's exactly how it happens... what might have begun as an attempt to encourage certain standards within one community, can balloon out of control into a violent, out-of-control demonstration for which no one takes the responsibility to publicly announce, This is wrong.

Don't misunderstand me.  What is difficult for me to fathom is not the idea that religious men care about women's modesty.  Through my work in a large medical institution, I have had the privilege of meeting many men (Jewish and Muslim) who uphold high standards of personal modesty and interpersonal relations.  I believe that most religious men feel real respect toward women and make great efforts to uphold personal and religious standards of interpersonal relations, through avoiding exposure to things they don't want to see, or that they feel they shouldn't see. 

What I don't understand is twofold:  Why do so many religious Jewish community leaders (male and female, self-appointed and otherwise) choose the subject of women's modesty as their main public venue for control and compliance within their communities.

And on a more troubling note, what causes so many women to feel obligated to comply to every last standard, and sometimes far beyond that?

OK, we'll pick this one up later...

Keep the balance,


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Life in the Village

I live in a small community.  Thirty families small.  

It took me awhile - several years, actually - to understand the ramifications of this.  I knew I was getting somewhere when my good friend from work, Y., started describing life in her small town, (where her family has lived for something like five generations), and I could understand what she was talking about.  

However, I wasn't able to really get a perspective until a friend of mine passed me an old (Winter 2004) copy of Brain, Child, the self-designated "magazine for thinking mothers."   (The website has announced that they are in the process of archiving all back issues, so keep a look out).  

In that issue's feature article, entitled "Village People," Emily Wortman-Wunder describes a co-housing community in Colorado, where children grow up running in and out of each others' homes, and neighbors work together to maintain the common areas.

Emily differentiates between a commune, which emphasizes joint ownership of property (and sometimes partners), and co-housing, which is a kind of planned community whose goals include sharing resources such as transportation, recycling, and childcare.  She suggests the in today's hectic times, more families - even those not embracing a co-housing model per se - are looking toward community and togetherness as a counterbalance to the general trends of "families spending less and less time together, and civic and community life deteriorating rapidly."

When Emily visits the River Rock Co-housing community in Colorado, she joins a five-year-old's birthday party and is especially impressed by the mature, generous and relaxed attitudes of the community's children.  She also describes some downfalls of the system, such as the failure of a community babysitting arrangement due to a "clash in parenting styles," or the disapproval of one father toward a set of absent parents who have left their child at the party, screaming and without supervision.

After reading this article, I was finally able to put a label to our style of living here.  Kids run freely in and out of one another's homes (most afternoons, I don't even bother closing the door, I get so sick of it slamming every five minutes as each of my own kids, and each of their three friends, march from house to garden and back).  Nightly sleepovers are a regular event during the summer months.  "Play dates?!?!"  Unheard of.  More likely, a kid will just show up at your house around dinner time, and you'll feed him along with the rest.

As for jointly-owned property, my neighbor L-C and I share a running joke, that each of us has a two-car family... it's just that one of the two cars is theirs.   The transportation arrangements come just short of joint ownership:  I pick up her son at daycare, she gets my girls from the after-school program.  Her husband takes the train back from work and then he and That Guy I Married share a taxi home.   When they are late coming back, she and I discuss various dinner options while our kids play in one house's garden or another.

It's not exactly co-housing, but I certainly understand what Hillary Clinton meant when she said, "It takes a village."  (Missed the reference?  Check out Wikipedia for a quick reminder).

Long live the village.

Keep the balance,