Can you hear me now?

June 1st, 2011

I’m going to visit the ConductMom and my old Kansas City gang this week and next, so posting may be slow. Which reminds me of the last blog break I took, over Passover. I wrote,

Anyway, I’m going to take a few days off to get my head straightened out. I am not connecting a whole lot with my religion these days. Like any relationship, it has its ups and downs. Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you go through the motions and wait for grace.

It turned out to be more the “going through the motions” kind of holiday:

The break was nice, although I never had any sort of great Passover-y moment of revelation. One thing I found myself thinking of a lot was the people who were born and died during those 40 years in the wilderness, who had no memory of Egypt and didn’t live long enough to see the Promised Land. I’ve never greatly identified with Moses ? the Lord is always sayething unto him, for one thing, and the Lord doesn’t sayeth unto me very often, if at all. But those cynical Gen-Xers of Exodus, tired of the Greatest Generation’s war stories, wondering if there is anything to hope for, really — them, I get.

In response, commenter Molly wrote:

I’m wondering at the moment if those of us who are Jewish-by-choice* feel more of an obligation to feel connected with our faith than born Jews. It’s sort of like “Well, since I chose this, I SHOULD feel that it’s Deeply Meaningful ALL THE TIME, and if I don’t feel that way, did I make a mistake in the first place?”

*Or any other religion-by-choice, I suppose, but I don’t have experience with those.

This is a good point. We do feel a stronger sense of obligation when we’re engaging in something chosen, for at least two reasons. One is ethical — if I’m engaging in a task or relationship of my own free will, then I feel more strongly obligated to tend that task or relationship. The Jewish people didn’t have to accept me. They did, and because of that I believe that I have a particular responsibility to do right by God, Torah, and Israel. Being a Chosen Person is a certain level of responsibility — being a Choosing Person feels like even more!

The other reason for this sense of obligation is more internal, more about how we reason things out. Experiments have shown that if you make people do something really boring and pay them good money for it, they will tell you that they are doing something really boring for cash. Make them do something boring and pay them nothing or very little … and people will come to believe that they enjoyed the task, because there is no good external reason for them to have done it. So converts have to be really religious, because there’s no real external reason for us to be where we are.

These are two reasons why the circumstance of being a convert might lead to a feeling that every damn holiday has to be a big deal — the social psychology perspective. Going from a personality psychology POV, I wonder also if people who convert aren’t by nature the kind of folk who want every damn holiday to be a big deal. Who want religion to feel meaningful all the time. Maybe that’s why we’re converts. Changing religions isn’t a small thing, after all. Maybe if we were the kind of people who were better at taking things as they are, at going through the motions and waiting for grace, we’d have stayed in the worship communities we were born into.

Kestrel and I once did an interesting project that, while inconclusive, was intriguing. Much of her research is about how people react emotionally to words. Show people words in their native language, and they have an emotional response (to swear words, sexual words, emotional words). They don’t have a similar response to words in a second language, even if they are fluent. Hit your thumb with a hammer and “merde!” won’t relieve you as much as “shit!”

Kestrel has done this research mostly with immigrants and ESL speakers, but we once tried an experiment with religious converts, too. The idea was to see if learning a new religion was like learning a new language — do you have a greater response to the words and images associated with the religion of your upbringing, or of the religion you chose?

It turned out that people who had not changed religion had a galvanic skin response to words associated with their religion, but not to words from another religion, or to neutral words (ball, sky, orange). Converts, on the other hand, had an emotional response to words from their original religion, and the religion they converted to, and to neutral words. To put it another way, show us any stimulus at all and we flip out all over creation like we’d seen the world in grain of sand and eternity in an hour. It’s all wildly significant to us.

Exile, fandom, acne, hair, dance

April 25th, 2011

And I’m back, everyone! The break was nice, although I never had any sort of great Passover-y moment of revelation. One thing I found myself thinking of a lot was the people who were born and died during those 40 years in the wilderness, who had no memory of Egypt and didn’t live long enough to see the Promised Land. I’ve never greatly identified with Moses — the Lord is always sayething unto him, for one thing, and the Lord doesn’t sayeth unto me very often, if at all. But those cynical Gen-Xers of Exodus, tired of the Greatest Generation’s war stories, wondering if they’re anything to hope for, really … them, I get.

Some good reading from last week: this article in the Globe about fandom. It focuses on sports fans, but many of the dynamics are true of fans of anything else (a celebrity, a television show, a band) as well. Are you a “fan” of anything, to the point of buying a t-shirt, following someone on Twitter, or joining a group (online or off) for the purposes of discussing that thing? I’ve become a fairly avid fan of several television shows, most notably “Deadwood,” to the point of writing fan fiction and buying a “Star & Bullock Hardware” shirt.

A piece in Slate on why humans are the only animals to have acne, and also the only ones that would be psychologically bothered by it. (Evolution is a cruel trickster.) New treatments have made acne rarer among teens, but that very fact might increase the suffering of those who can’t afford treatment, or for whom nothing has been successful.

I was fascinated to read that blogger S.E. Smith recently cut her long hair very short, and found that she was darned near considered antisocial for wanting to keep it her business what she did with the ponytail. Specifically, she faced a lot of pressure to donate her hair, a practice which has gone from being a nifty option for people suddenly in possession of a braid no longer attached to their head, to becoming near-mandatory, the default option. The thing you have to explain if you don’t do it.

This bothers me. A great deal. Two years ago, I wrote about a New Yorker article on people who donate kidneys to strangers. My reaction to it then was strong and visceral, and has since become more focused. This notion of one’s body as a resource that may be owed to strangers is deeply problematic. As I wrote two years ago:

I would not donate a kidney to a stranger, nor do I feel any sense of a moral call to do so merely on the grounds that I could. My body and its functions are not some form of wealth that I am hoarding like Scrooge McDuck: they are constitutive of my identity. They are ME. And no one has an a priori right to my blood, my organs, my womb. I may choose to share, but that is my choice. Having two kidneys when others have none is not the same has having two loaves of bread when others have none. The body is different. I do not owe anyone access to my body.

As an etiquette matter, let’s all take note that “Did you donate your hair?” is a question better left unasked.

Finally, on a less existential note, let this hilarious pantomime/interpretive dance by David Armand brighten your Monday. I love this guy’s work! Am I the only one who finds brilliantly talented physical comedians way sexy? (See also: Danny Pudi.)

Church, people

November 9th, 2010

Did anyone see last week’s episode of “The Office”? I’d been about ready to trash the show for good last season, especially after the unforgivably heinous “Scott’s Tots.” But dang, they had to go bring Timothy Olyphant in as a guest character. Now that, I’m afraid, is just not playing fair with Miss Conduct. I adored “Deadwood,” and am also a big fan of “Damages.” In both those shows, though, it’s never clear if Mr. Olyphant can act, or if he can just clench his jaw meaningfully.

So of course I had to watch that episode, and then I wound up watching the rest of the season, which has definitely been on an upswing. (And yes, Mr. Olyphant can act, as long as there are no guns around. As Anton Chekhov famously said, “If there is a gun in the first act, do not cast Timothy Olyphant, because all he will do is stare at it and clench his jaw meaningfully.”)

ANYWAY.

I thought last week’s episode, “The Christening,” was one of the best television episodes about church, and church people, and how non-church-people cope with church, ever. Television doesn’t do religion well, by and large; it’s either ignored completely or made the utter center of things in a way that doesn’t reflect most people’s lives. (“Six Feet Under” was a notable exception.)

“The Christening” was, perhaps obviously, about the christening of Jim and Pam “Halbert”‘s baby. (This is the one thing I found wrong. In my experience, no clergyperson at such an intimate, high-energy church would agree to christen a baby if she didn’t even know the couple’s last name. Clergy make mistakes, but they’re performers: they keep it fresh every time, remember names, and realize that babies aren’t reliable at ritualized events and have plenty of options on hand at naming ceremonies, christening, and brisses in case things go wrong. Regardless of how good your scriptural exegesis is, you don’t graduate preacher school without knowing how to handle a vomiting infant.)

But aside from that … it was about church. I grew up with church people, and that’s what they’re like. On the down side, they can honestly believe that going to a Mexican city for three months to build a school will make them “practically Mexicans.” On the plus side, they accept, and love, and have fun, and enjoy dorkiness. It was brilliant how even Michael Scott, a man who expects to be welcomed as a hero wherever he goes, is taken aback by genuine Christian hospitality. Deep down, he never really expected anyone to like or accept him — but Christians will. He is faced with people who are willing to believe in his goodness, in his capacity to transform himself, who believe in dreams and making them come true — and he is terrified, and runs from them.

William James described the two types of religious temperament as “healthy-minded” and “sick-souled.” Jim and Pam, the youth group — for people like this, religion is … calm. An ordinary part of life. Community, moral and emotional support, the beauty of the Scriptures, saying a prayer at night. No drama.

Michael, though, wants the drama. Religion can teach you the truth about yourself or it can bolster your self-delusions like no other power on earth, and for some of us sick-souled ones, it can do both with vertiginous speed and force. Michael yearns for an authentic life, at the same time as he clings desperately to the very delusions that keep him from having one.

And Toby? Toby, who wanders outside the church for almost the entire episode, unable to step over the threshold. Toby, who when he does, walks up to the altar and asks, simply, “Why you always gotta be so mean to me?”

A prayer for the ages.

What I think when I see Muslims

October 29th, 2010

When I decided to go to graduate school, I came out east to interview at B.U., Carnegie Mellon, and Temple University. It was delightful taking the train around, and reading books on political psychology as I traveled.

I got into Boston’s South Station late at night from Philadelphia. If you haven’t been to South Station, it is somewhat large, and there’s a good chunk of it that isn’t marked well, so you’re more or less taking it on faith that this is they way you’re supposed to be going. It was after midnight, and I was alone.

I saw a group of Muslims, men and women, ahead of me. And I relaxed. I stepped up my pace so that I was behind them, far enough not to be overhearing conversation, but close enough that if I yelled for help, they would hear me. I felt safer.

I won’t pretend that my reaction was caused entirely by some deeply spiritual sense of oneness. This was in 1995, and I didn’t think any petty criminals would mess with a group of people, particularly Muslims. And I knew that the eyes of security officers and police would be on them, and therefore near me.

But I also knew these were people who were taking the risk of showing their allegiance to their faith despite the personal difficulties and even dangers it could cause. They were brave. They were already conspicuous, so might not fear making themselves more so for a good cause. They had chosen to represent their religion in a public fashion. If I needed help, they would be likely to help me. And if they did not do so immediately, I know enough to lay an effective guilt trip on a member of any of the Abrahamic faiths. My chances, I felt, were pretty good.

This is how it makes me feel when I see Muslims while traveling.

Simchat Torah

September 29th, 2010

IT’S SIMCHAT TORAH, BAYBEEZ!!!!!!

I love Simchat Torah. I love it, I love it, I love it. It is my favorite Jewish holiday. Even last year, when I was too sick to make it to the High Holy Days, go to my in-laws for latkes on Hanukkah, or observe Passover, I still went to Simchat Torah. It took a lot of painkillers to get me through it, but I did it.

I’ve got a question up on Miss Conduct blog about what your personal Simchat Torah would look like. What would you go dancing in the street with?

Of course, just because I like Simchat Torah doesn’t mean I’m good at it. I love communal dancing. But the Jewish-mother cliche of “You could put an eye out doing that”? I’m pretty sure it came from people with my lack of coordination trying to dance with heavy scrolls.

To the tune of “Tradition”:

Who every time will trip over die kinder
Tread upon the rabbi,
Klopf you with a scroll?
And who ev’ry time
When chanting Amidah
Will go at least two times off key?
Miss Conduct! Miss Conduct!
Miss Conduct!

Pictures of me all swirly from last year’s celebration. And my manga shooz.

Bible boo-boos

September 24th, 2010

So, last night I went to see a play — I’m not going to link to what I saw, in case this would embarrass anyone, which it shouldn’t — in which there was a reference to Rahab, the virtuous prostitute in the Hebrew Bible who helped the Israelites conquer Jericho. They pronounced it “Rehab,” which I thought was a pretty cute joke.

Except drinks with the cast later revealed that it wasn’t — they just didn’t know.

Sigh. Do you have to be a fundamentalist to wish people knew the Bible better? Certainly not. It’s one of the cornerstone documents of Western civilization, there’s so much of art and literature and music that you simply can’t appreciate unless you have a good grounding in the Bible.

(My neighbors got a dog named “Vashti” a couple of years ago, and thought she was named after a Hindu goddess. They totally didn’t get my joke “Good luck teaching her to come when she’s called.”)

Anyway, I posted this on Facebook, and got this hilarious response from a friend of mine: “Had a Bible teacher who once heard a sermon in which the preacher meant to be talking about the Shema, but kept calling it ‘the Great Shamu.’ Like, over and over.” Let me tell you, a protein shake hurts when it comes out your nose.

There’s got to be a joke in there somewhere about the Orca of the Covenant.

Does this ad work for you?

September 13th, 2010

If you are a Christian, does this Vineyard Fellowship ad work for you?

The same design can also be seen on billboards. I get the appeal of trying to break stereotypes about what religious institutions and individuals are like — but this doesn’t strike me as appealing to the sacred at all.

It looks like an ad for a cell phone company.

If your opinions differ, though, I’d like to hear them.

PeaceBang bats it out, and a poll

September 2nd, 2010

Speaking of the powerless, the silenced, PeaceBang blew me out of the water with this insight:

“To be a religious person is to notice everyone, period.”

Read the whole post, it’s thought-provoking and also rather funny. And that line certainly smacked me out of my comfortable feeling that of course I’m a good person, and made me take a hard look at how I treat certain kinds of people.

PeaceBang’s doing some good stuff these days — I tweeted another blog post of hers a day or so ago. Which brings me to: how many of you who don’t follow me on Twitter read the tweets on the right column of this blog? Do you find them interesting, useful, value-added? I don’t often tweet about my personal activities (that seems entirely too “oooh I’m a celebrity”; I don’t assume that because a person enjoys my writing they necessarily want to know what I had for breakfast). I use it mostly to link to stuff I think would be of interest to people who like my writing. Is that what you all want?

How many of you who don’t follow me on Twitter read the Tweets on the side?

Purim!

February 26th, 2010

Purim is this weekend — very early this year, and I am planning, God and gut willing, to enjoy a wonderful party at my synagogue tomorrow night. For those not in the know, Purim celebrates the book of Esther. This is one of my very favorite texts in the Bible. Ancient — and modern — stories are full of warnings about how women’s sexuality, boldness, curiosity turn the natural order of the world upside down. (Think of Eve, Pandora, Psyche and Eros …) In the book of Esther, it takes a woman’s sexuality, boldness, and curiosity to turn a disordered world right again. It reminds me of Sojourner Truth: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!”

Esther is about coming out of the closet.

Esther is about being fabulous and unashamed.

Esther is about facing the music and dancing.

Esther is also my Hebrew name, and when I converted, I gave this talk at my naming ceremony:

I chose Esther as much for her weaknesses as for her strengths. She is the least heroic of heroines. Esther is not a judge or a warrior or a matriarch: Esther is a girly girl. She is pretty and charming and wants life to be easy. She wants other people to make the hard decisions, to wrestle the scary angels of history and destiny. The traditional role of women is not a burden or a constraint on Esther—rather, it is her greatest temptation. Women can get away with not taking ultimate responsibility for our lives. Women can get by on our charm and good looks. Women can sit in the boat admiring the scenery while the men do the heavy rowing. And this is what Esther wants to do.

And yet, when the dice are thrown, she does take responsibility, and when she does, she takes it all the way. Although Mordechai must convince her to take action, she is not simply his handmaiden or puppet. Independently, she assesses his arguments and is persuaded. Independently, she plans a course of action. Independently, she improvises brilliantly and bravely, with lipstick, dinner-party banter, and a bottle of wine.

I look at Esther and I see a warning about the temptations I face.

I look at Esther and I see an inspiration to take responsibility and improvise.

I look at Esther and I see a woman I would like to have as a friend.

Esther’s story is comic, it is improbable, it does not mention God.* The story of Esther teaches us to take control of our destiny, yet always be ready to accept the unpredictable turns of events. It teaches us to enjoy good times but never assume that they will last. It teaches us that we can do great things in diaspora, but that ultimately Jewish security rests on having our own land. It teaches us that sometimes we need another person to remind us to be a hero, and there is no shame in that. It teaches us that the one who is rescued can become the rescuer, that the student can educate the teacher. It teaches us that we must take responsibility without the luxury of signs and miracles, without a sense of being called. Finally, it teaches the most important ways for a Jew to serve God is not through ostentatious piety, but through fighting idolatry and working for the future of the Jewish people.

All of these things I believe.

For those of you who are interested in further thoughts on Esther, read my sermon here. Reverend Victoria Weinstein of Norwell First Parish Unitarian Church, whom I met through her wonderful and oft-referenced “Beauty Tips for Ministers” blog, graciously invited me to speak to her congregation three years ago. Her explanation of the role of image in the ministry is first, and my thoughts on style, beauty, and the book of Esther are second.

*If you are reading from a Catholic bible, this isn’t the case. Catholic bibles include verses about Mordechai praying that were deemed non-canonical by the compilers of the Hebrew and Protestant bibles. With due respect to the Catholic tradition, I find it very important that God and the concept of direct communication with the Divine are not mentioned in Esther. Sure, it may not have been easy to be Abraham (what with that self-circumcision and all) or Moses, but God was telling them what to do every step of the way. Mordechai and Esther must make very difficult decisions under conditions of uncertainty, believing they know God’s will but without the specific guidance of how to make that will come to pass. Like most of us.

Happy solstice!

December 21st, 2009

Any pagans, Wiccans, pantheists, followers of Native American spirituality in da house? Now’s the time to throw your hands up and delurk. Tell me a little about yourself, what your tradition means to you, maybe toss in a link to a book or blog you like? I am down with the Abrahamic faiths, and I know a little bit about Buddhism and Hinduism, but the nature-based religions are, for the most part, a mystery to me. (I have read Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, so I know a bit about Wicca.) As someone who was raised Christian and converted to Judaism, the idea of non-text-based religion is a little hard to get my mind around.

If you’re in the broom closet, of course, you can post anonymously. I’m certainly not going to out you. And I’d really like to know who’s out there. I know I’ve got a fair number of Christian, Jewish, and atheist/agnostic/ignostic readers, and a handful of Muslims as well. Who else is out there? I’ll light a candle for you on this longest night if you’ll light one for me.

Hanukkah

December 17th, 2009

I’d mentioned that I had a difficult time finding meaning in Hanukkah. Here‘s an excellent article in Slate that looks at the awkward history behind the holiday, and might explain better to folks — Jewish or not — why a modern person might find some of its messages distasteful, and what meaning we can find in it. I love this paragraph:

Here we find the historical miracle that Hanukkah implicitly celebrates: the capacity to sustain intimate relations with another without totally ceding your own sense of self, the ability to love without permanently merging, to be enchanted by the exquisite beauty of another without losing sight of your own charms. This relational art is ritualized on Hanukkah by the lighting of separate wicks or candles that build daily toward a unison of illumination.

Latkes, here I come

December 9th, 2009

I was planning to blog today about your awesome comments on my “holiday joys and woes” post, and how although Hanukkah doesn’t do it for me on any level, what you wrote helped. Because I realized that all of your joys had to do with stuff you did — not consumed, not believed — so maybe I should just stop trying to figure out Hanukkah and fry a pancake already. And how this relates to a particular scene in the Torah and the concept of na’aseh v’nishma, and what it means to have “experiential learning” in a religion as intellectual and text-based as Judaism, and all that …

And then I saw this. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Mormon from Utah, has written a Hanukkah song.

Now, let me make two points:

1. His song actually doesn’t suck. (There’s a video linked, you can judge for yourself. It’s not great, but in the canon of Hanukkah music, there’s worse. Trust me.)
2. Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” (and also “Easter Parade”), so hey, it’s all good. This is America, buddy.

What is not all good is this:

At one point, Mr. Hatch unbuttons his white dress shirt to expose the golden mezuzah necklace he wears every day. Mezuzahs also adorn the doorways of his homes in Washington and Utah. Mr. Hatch keeps a Torah in his Senate office.

“Not a real Torah, but sort of a mock Torah,” he said. “I feel sorry I’m not Jewish sometimes.”

Well, dude, YOU AREN’T, so suck it the heck up. And I think “mock” Torah pretty well describes it. “Sort of a mock Torah”? How in the name of Ceiling Cat is this in any way showing honor to the Jewish people you claim to respect, Senator Hatch?

If you are not a member of a religious group, it does not honor the people who are to go using their sacred objects or religious symbols as freakin’ accessories. Got it? If you are given something as a gift, with the understanding that it is a cultural/artistic item representing a different faith, that is one thing. (I have a Ganesh statue that was given to everyone who attended a friend’s Big Fat Hindu Wedding a few years back, and some Ukranian Easter eggs from my Ukranian, Christian mother.) Otherwise, no. Religions are not sports teams. You don’t run around wearing the jersey because you like how we play the game. You can attend services, you can study the texts, you can join interfaith groups, you can eat the food, but you do not dress up like something you aren’t. (For more on that, see PeaceBang here.)

Senator Hatch of all people should know this. Interfaith pieties aside, we are not “all one.” Religions differ in fundamental ways. Senator Hatch is a Mormon, and Mormons apparently feel so strongly about protecting their own religious symbols and practices against the casual curiosity or faux-identification of “Mormons for a Day” that they don’t even allow non-Mormons into their temples or allow us to view certain ceremonies. And that’s their perfect right. What if I decided that I, a Jew, was nonetheless a big fan of the Mormonism, and wanted to express that by wearing temple garments under my clothes? Does that put it in perspective for you, Senator Hatch?

And yet, I must thank you. Because your offensive co-opting of my religion has, in fact, inspired me this Hanukkah. If you can celebrate my holiday, I sure as hell can. I am going to make those damn latkes, and I am going to get that wax off my menorah, probably by melting it off with the scorching gaze of my contemptuous laser-eyes and the hot breath of my profanity-laced rant at your discourtesy-masquerading-as-tolerance. (You folks think this is a profanity-laced rant? This is nothing. I can and do kick it “Deadwood“-style when necessary.)

So thank you, Senator Hatch, for teaching me the true meaning of Hanukkah. Which is, frankly, that we need to protect our religions. That we need to set boundaries. That courtesy is not only about acknowledging what binds us together, but about respecting what keeps us apart.

Torah! Torah! Torah!

November 13th, 2009

Since so many of you liked my writing on the first chapters of Genesis, I thought I’d share an essay I wrote on another Torah portion. I wrote this four years ago — we had just gotten Milo, and that year, this Torah portion came on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which as you can tell rather affected my reading of it. Enjoy:

I need to get rid of the leftovers. It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the leftovers are weighing heavy on my mind, my belly, and my refrigerator shelves. It’s been a week of shopping and cooking and planning, but at least I have a wonderful cleaning lady and a nearby Trader Joe’s; my mother got along well with our new dog, and vice versa; and my husband and I are blessed to actually like our families, so that time spent with them is as much pleasure as it is duty.

And duty has its pleasures too. I felt competent and strong this Thanksgiving. I was proud of the dinner I made. I was proud of the warm, book-lined rooms my family ate in, that I worked so hard to arrange and decorate. I was proud to show the local museums off to my mother, and to take her to shops the likes of which they do not have in Nixa, Missouri. I was proud that I knew when she was too tired to walk home after a morning’s shopping, and too proud, herself, to say so immediately, so I took charge and sent my husband off to retrieve the car.

And I wonder about the danger of that pride.

In this week’s Torah portion, we meet Rebecca, the second matriarch of the Jewish people. Abraham is concerned about finding a wife for his son, Isaac: he doesn’t want one of these flashy Canaanite broads, he wants a nice homegirl from Aram-naharaim, his old neighborhood. So he sends his servant off to collect a bride for Isaac. Wanting a kind as well as beautiful woman, the servant devises a test. He will wait at the well outside of town with his camels, and when he sees a young woman, he will ask her for a drink. If she not only gives him a drink, but offers to water his camels too—all 10 of them—he will know that she is the one.

As soon as Eliezer has thought this up, Rebecca appears, and he asks her for water. “When she had let him drink his fill, she said, ‘I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.’ Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. The man, meanwhile, stood gazing at her, silently wondering whether the Lord had made his errand successful or not.” (Genesis 24:19-20.)

At this point in the story, we like Rebecca. We like her very much, even if we are intimidated by her scary biceps. (It takes a strong woman to draw enough water for 10 camels.) Isaac likes Rebecca too, when he meets her, and we are told that he “brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67.)

Does anyone else find that a little creepy? Does anyone else think that maybe Isaac is going to turn into one of those men who calls his wife “mommy”? Is anyone else remembering at this point that while the Greeks may have invented the Oedipus complex, it took the Jews to identify it?

We’re supposed to understand by this that Rebecca is the spiritual daughter of Sarah, and like her will be God-fearing and loyal. We’re supposed to understand that drawing water for the camels is a sign of chesed (lovingkindness). We’re supposed to believe that the things that Rebecca does later on — when she stage-manages a deception to make Isaac, on his deathbed, bless her favorite son, Jacob, rather his, Esau — are a sign of her intelligence and superior understanding of God’s will.

But I’m not so sure about that. I think maybe Rebecca is a control freak.

Her final deception of Isaac is hard to justify, no matter how you twist it around. Rebecca begins her story as a kind and well-intentioned person, but I wonder if the role of caretaker, hostess, Competent Woman Who Does It All, doesn’t eventually go to her head. She takes care of others until she starts believing that they cannot take care of themselves. She knows better than anyone else. And she loves to complain.

I think all women are at least a little bit familiar with this phenomenon. With the glow that comes from providing for everyone else. With the martyred pleasure of putting everyone elses’ needs before your own. With the belief that there’s no point asking for help, because it’s easier to just do it yourself.

Rebecca is a warning about what that kind of attitude can lead to. How easily caretaking can slide into a subtle form of contempt.

Eliezer just stood there watching her as she went to the well, again and again and again, watering all those camels. Rebecca had a choice. She could have asked him to help. Would she have become a different person if she had? A little less generous, perhaps, but also less manipulative?

I did a good job this Thanksgiving. I took care of my husband, and my mother, and my dog. I brought pleasure and delight to my family. And I had a pretty good time in the process, myself. But I need to be watchful of that glow of pride. I need to remember that the people in my life are responsible and competent and can take care of themselves — and even of me, sometimes. I need to relax my hold, my desire for control.

I need to get rid of those leftovers.

Miloversary!

October 23rd, 2009

Tomorrow is Milo’s fourth “Gotcha Day” with us! I wrote a little essay about him on his second, and a poem for him on his third. Digging through some old computer files, recently, I found something I’d written a couple of months after we got him, that will suffice as this year’s celebratory post:

Much as I often type “teh” instead of “the,” I’ve discovered–since the arrival of Milo, our adorable mixed-breed rescue dog–that I usually type “god” when I mean “dog.” I always manage to notice this and correct it, usually with an obscure feeling of guilt. However, if I hadn’t, here are some of the things I would have written in various e-mails to friends in the past month:

• If you’re really not up for having a god in the house along with the new baby that’s perfectly okay.

• He is a great god, bra fetish notwithstanding.

• And we have a new god, who is a constant source of puzzlement and delight, and who appears to find us much the same.

• He’s a gentle god but “calm” is not a word I would use to describe him.

• We are working on “quiet god” right now.

• My husband and my god like each other.

• If anyone is afraid of or allergic to gods be assured that he will be crated and upstairs during our meeting. If anyone likes gods you can go meet him after we’ve concluded our business.

• The important question is how are you doing these days, and the really important question is when are you going to come admire my new god?

• And can I force you all to admire the attached picture of my new god, bravely defending us against an evil, scary bunch of bananas?

• He doesn’t feel the need to mark his territory as male gods often do.

• On the upside, I LOVE MY NEW GOD! He is the BEST god ever and we just signed the adoption papers today.

Happy Gotcha Day, little man. While your humans are cavorting in Italy, you are staying with a friend in the country, and I hope you are having a wonderful time. We are probably looking at all of the Italian dogs and saying to ourselves, and sometimes each other, “That dog’s not as cute as Milo.” You remain a source of puzzlement and delight to us, and it appears we remain so to you, as well.

And here, for anyone who cares to see it, is the picture of Milo the second night we had him, defending his new home against that sleeper cell of terrorist bananas (he’d been barking at them, so we put them on the floor and let him investigate):

milobanana

Does a Bere’shit in the woods?

October 19th, 2009

Whether they are Reform or Orthodox, all religious Jews are literally on the same page: we all read the same section of the Torah every week, broken up so that we read the entire Torah (i.e., the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) every year. Each Torah portion is named after its first word or phrase. We finished the Torah, this year, on October 10, and started it again in Genesis this past Saturday.

Genesis begins with “In the beginning,” which in Hebrew is Bere’shit, so that is what we call it. Four years ago, I’d started writing a little essay on Sundays, a personal reflection on that week’s portion. Because I couldn’t find anyone interested in publishing these, that didn’t last too long. But I thought I’d share the one I wrote on Bere’shit with you. Even if you’re not religious, I think it speaks to something about the nature of creativity and otherness. Or maybe it will leave you cold. I don’t expect every post to hit home with every reader.

This week’s Torah portion, Bere’shit, contains one of the oddest and funniest scenes in the Torah. In Genesis 2:18-21 we read, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone, I will make a fitting helper for him.’ And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for Adam no fitting helper was found.”

Now this, to me, clearly indicates that HaShem* may not have known exactly what it was He’d created when he made Adam. The issue of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, as well as the entire question of how we can have free will if God already knows everything we will do—that I will leave to theologians. But taking a purely literary or theatrical approach to the passage, there is no doubt that HaShem is, at this point, a bit confused about what he might have on His divine hands, if He seriously thinks that He can find Adam a suitable mate from all the animals in creation.

It’s a scene I’d love to see the old Monty Python crew perform (John Cleese as God, of course, and Michael Palin as Adam). “All right then, Adam, let’s get you some company, my boy. Giraffe? No, no, too tall. A tiger, perhaps? Erm, might be a bit dangerous, that. Sheep? No, you’re not from New Zealand, are you … Bother, I’m not quite sure what is going to work here …” And when He does finally decide He’d better just make another human, He creates her from the original model, as though He’s not quite sure what might happen if he tried that “breathing life into dust” thing again.

To suggest that God may have been a bit unclear about the nature of His creation is not to take away from His authority or wisdom. Parents, and artists, can all attest to the “shock of the new,” the awareness that this thing you made has a life, and a spirit, entirely of its own. I think this is what’s going on in Parashat Bere’shit, and it shed light, for me, on why, perhaps, God created us.

Here’s what I think: I think He wanted to be surprised. Look at verse 19, in which God brings the animals before Adam not just to see which might make him a suitable mate, but “to see what he would call them.” What’s he gonna do? That’s what God is asking Himself. I feel a sense of play, of experiment, in HaShem at this point. What will Adam make of all of this? It’s the same delight you see in a parent giving her baby a new toy. Will he like it? Will he be afraid of it? Will he do something utterly surprising and funny, and take my breath away with delight?

Of course, as the Canadian folk singer Jane Siberry so wisely noted, “Everything Reminds Me of My Dog.” And I suspect having gotten a new dog—on Simchat Torah, no less—is strongly influencing my reading of this passage. Milo pleases me when he obeys me. But he delights me when he surprises me—by doing something so purely and ineluctably him, that for all my superior wisdom and learning I could never have predicted it. When he jumps straight up in the air, almost as high as my shoulder. When he decides for his own obscure canine reasons that he must, right now, protect us from the evil, menacing bunch of bananas lying on the kitchen shelf. When he puts the side of his head on the floor and rotates himself around in a circle like Curly from the Three Stooges. His obedience pleases me, his affection warms me, but his ability to surprise, to always be the unique creature that he is, breaks me out of myself and into sheer joy.

So obey God. And love God. But just as importantly, always, always be yourself and hope that somewhere up there He is laughing in delight at you.

*HaShem is Hebrew for “The Name,” and is one of the ways we refer to God. So please, people, if you’re trying to be all interfaith and tolerant, stop writing things like “Whether you pray to God, Allah, or Yahweh …” For one thing, Allah is God. It’s the Arabic word for “God.” Arab Christians pray to Allah, too. It’s not like some whole different character. For another, no one prays to Yahweh, at least no Jews do. If you want to come up with a Jewish way of saying “God,” it’s “HaShem.” We don’t say “Yahweh,” and we don’t say “Jehovah,” either, except when we’re quoting “Life of Brian.”