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Tag : spirituality

The Lilith Blog

April 15, 2020 by

An Imaginary Quarter of a Food-Obsessed City

Consider the Feast (Open Books, $19.95) offers a wild ride through an imaginary quarter of a food-obsessed city.  Debut novelist Carmit Delman talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how food becomes both marker and symbol for the haves and the have nots.

Yona Zeldis McDonough: Like your protagonist,Talia, you have a background that’s both Indian and Israeli. Can you describe growing up within those two cultures? 

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April 15, 2020 by

Fiction: Anniversary

MIRIAM’S HUSBAND broke his leg and couldn’t drive his cab any more. The unemployment money was hardly enough, life was getting dearer every week, and she was growing restless taking care of him. When they started arguing about the right way to twirl pasta on a fork—Manny said clockwise, Miriam counterclockwise—she’d had enough. The next day she took bus #18 to the shuk, and haggled with her old friend Sami for some flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and vanilla essence. Her persistence paid off. He sold her everything wholesale.

She set up shop in the apartment. At first the neighbors bought from her out of pity. When the sweet aroma of baking wafted daily through the dark corridors of the building, pity was soon replaced by gluttony.

When someone came to place an order, Miriam interviewed them, “Motek, tagid, who’s the cake for? What’s she like? What’s the occasion?” So on. Each cake was unique. For Mrs. Kroenig, who loved opera, Miriam made a cake with tiny sugar pyramids, a miniature Sphinx, and a turquoise rivulet of powdered sugar. Someone told Miriam the Nile was murkier, but she figured poetic license applied to pastries also. Mrs. Kroenig ate it on her balcony, Ritorna Vincitor spinning on the turntable.

Mrs. Kroenig praised Miriam’s talent to anyone who listened. That’s how the Shachars decided to relieve their daughter’s nostalgia for their native Romania with one of Miriam’s cake. Miriam looked at little Shoshi’s downcast eyes and was inspired. She covered the entire surface with arabesques of sugar roses. When Mr. Shachar picked it up, he took the longest path to his building in the squat gray complex, holding the cake before him. The kids playing ball on the parking lot dropped their game to gawk. It was the most beautiful sight anyone had seen in the working-class neighborhood of Katamonim.

Word got around. Jerusalem’s small. People came from other neighborhoods: well-dressed ladies from Rehavia; blue-jeaned students from French Hills; an occasional American tourist from the Old City. It was something to see, all those people coming through Katamonim’s run-down streets and into Miriam’s hot kitchen. The Voice of the City published a small item with the headline, “Let Us Eat Cake.” Miriam cried when she read it. “Struggled all my life and now, at fifty-eight, I’m famous!” She clipped the item, got it laminated and hung it underneath the picture of the mystic Baba Sali.

She worked six days a week, from the moment the Sabbath went out on Saturday night until three hours before sundown on Friday. She was never tired. If anything, her eyes shone and there was an extra zip in her walk.

One morning a young woman stopped in front of Miriam’s building balancing a cake on one hand. It was intact save for a triangular wedge. Scowling, she addressed Miriam’s teenage son, Rafi, looking down at her from the balcony.

“Hey! Your mother ruined my life!”

Miriam peered over Rafi’s shoulder. “What are you talking about? What’s with your shouting?”

“Your cake ruined my life!” The girl repeated. She threw the cake on the ground. It was decorated with irises because Iris was the girl’s name.

“Ruined your life? How can a cake ruin your life? Are you crazy? Are you diabetic, maybe?”

Several women opened their windows and decided it was the perfect time to beat their rugs, spacing out the whacks so they could hear every word.

“I ask you again, how could a cake ruin your life?” The women in their balconies and the children on the stairways stared, dying of curiosity.

“My fiancée took two bites and didn’t want to marry me!”

“And you blame me? Sorry, miss, but I don’t see how you can come here and insult me in front of all my neighbors!”

“You don’t understand. He looked right into my eyes and his gaze cut right through me. I could feel him read my soul!”

“So, sue your soul!”

The neighbors whooped with delight. At a loss for words, Iris shuffled back to her car. Miriam had won. Everyone laughed at the poor deluded girl and the incident would have been forgotten had Sami Myer not bought a cake for his wife shortly after.

That motzei Shabbat, Sam’s wife ran him out of the house. Then she strutted right down to Edna Toledano’s and nearly knocked her door down. Mrs. Myer claimed that once she ate the cake, all her husband’s secrets unfolded right before her. “It was like a book opening right before me!” Others came forward with similar stories, at first timidly. They grew bold as their numbers grew.

Before long, Katamonim was divided into those who claimed their lives had been destroyed by the cakes and those who dismissed them as idle superstition. It wasn’t all disasters, though. Old Mrs. Borenstein from Stairwell B bought one for her daughter-inlaw’s birthday. The young woman looked into Mrs. Borenstein’s rheumy eyes and began crying, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know!” They spent the entire night exchanging confidences, and fifteen years of mutual suspicion dissolved over a bottle of schnapps. One shopkeeper’s clerk bought one for his boss and the next day the store manager was fired and arrested. The clerk was promoted.

Indignant, Miriam denied it all, but after a while she stopped complaining. The cakes’ alleged magical qualities raised such a furor that orders increased. She had to hire three helpers.  Jealous wives and suspicious husbands slunk in at night to place orders. Lots of people were suddenly on diets and blanched at the sight of dessert. A new ritual sprang up at birthday parties: people would nibble a few crumbs, and then a hush would fall as everyone searched each other. Politicians proposed that no dessert be served at political meetings or in public places.

The head of psychiatric studies at Talbiah declared it a public mental crisis on a popular talk show.

“It’s a variant of Jerusalem syndrome. Mass madness has historical precedents! The Dutch tulip craze of the 1600s, for instance, or the panic provoked by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast,” he intoned in an authoritative bass.

Some scoffed at the comparison: these were modern times, after all, how could anyone believe such superstition? In the meantime, Miriam nearly died of exhaustion due to the number of orders. Other bakers grew jealous and grumbled: if Miriam wasn’t guilty, why didn’t she publish her recipe? Fortunetellers and Tarot card readers were equally annoyed. This woman’s confections were threatening their millenarian monopoly on the Unknown. The Sephardic Head Rabbi gave a long speech in which he reminded the nation that certain mysteries were too heady and proposed that, like the Kabbalah, no one under the age of forty sample Miriam’s cakes. The Ashkenazi Head Rabbi praised God’s inscrutability.

Manny’s leg healed. Thanks to Miriam’s success, he bought his own taxicab. The truth was Miriam’s fame was beginning to disturb him. Her work no longer made her happy. People now ordered bare cakes so as not to give away their intention to eavesdrop on their neighbors’ souls.

“They might as well come from a factory,” Miriam mumbled. If she couldn’t make something beautiful what was the point of laboring over them? She questioned the very meaning of her life.

The constant assault of the press, the pressure to reveal her secret ingredients, the accusations and counteraccusations—all this kept her housebound for weeks. She was being crushed under the weight of her mystique.

No one in Miriam’s own family ate her cakes. It wasn’t out of superstitious caution. Her husband and children were simply tired of the cloying aroma. Manny never gave the accusations much credence until the day he ran into a fellow cab driver at a falafel stand.

“Go ahead, Manny. What are you afraid of ? Ask your wife to bake you a cake. See how you like it. Itzik here did just that for his ten year anniversary and what has it gotten him? His wife won’t talk to him!”

“Oh, enough already! You’ve all gone crazy, I tell you. As if we didn’t have enough problems!” Manny slapped his rolled up newspaper against the table. He left it at that and kept eating. But he couldn’t help but brood about it as he dropped off passengers. That night he woke up before dawn, like he had done so often when he couldn’t drive and worried about providing for his family. It was four in the morning, the hour when worries and fears rouse one from deep slumber. Miriam was asleep beside him, the tide of her breath marking the anxious minutes in which he lay awake looking up at the ceiling. He heard the muezzin call the Muslims to prayer, drawling out the ancient call, his voice drifting above the sleeping city. Manny asked himself, “Wasn’t it perfectly reasonable to want to know your wife better?”

He drifted off to sleep. When Miriam stirred a few hours later he pretended to sleep and observed her through his lashes. In the dimness, he saw she was no longer young, but he could see traces of the girl she had been. She still had that same wry smile when she thought no one was looking. She put on a robe and went to the kitchen.

“We change, we grow old,” thought Manny. “I’ve changed also. I too am old but when I look in the mirror, it’s a shock, a shock to see this old face looking back at me. I wonder, do our souls age?” He tiptoed to the kitchen.

The light filtered in from the window. Miriam sat in her robe, sipping mint-tea from a small glass. She reached into the shelf where she kept the salt and spices, and brought out a small radio held together with brown tape and rubber bands. She turned it to the morning news. Then she caught sight of Manny and jumped in her chair.

“You scared me, Manny! What’s the matter with you?”

“What’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with you? What are you so serious for?”

She laughed at herself and he tried to kiss her. She let him, but squirmed in his arms when she saw the time. “I have orders, I don’t have time for all this nonsense…”

“You’re such a busy businesswoman you haven’t got time to talk with your husband?” She sighed. She shrugged.

“Mirileh, do you remember that one time, before the kids came along, we were in bed—“he stopped and winked at her and she just looked at him, puzzled, until the memory clicked. She blushed. She waved at him to shut him up, but Manny continued.

“And then the bed fell and the legs broke?

” Despite herself, Miriam started giggling. “Was that us? That was another life!”

“Yes, my love, it was another life. And we couldn’t afford a new bed, then…”

“And you placed the mattress on some crates you found on the Midrehov…”

“Except we had to be careful so the mattress wouldn’t slip off the crates.”

“Those were hard days, hard days,” Miriam said.

Manny held his bearded chin with his left hand. “Yes, yes. But good days.”

“But good days,” she agreed. “Forty years!”

They sat in silence for a long time before Manny dared to ask, “Will you bake a cake for our anniversary?”

“But you don’t like cake!”

He drew invisible circles on the oil-cloth.

“Miri, I have to ask, all this balagan, all this talk about your cakes—do you think it’s true?”

“Oh, Manny, you know how people are! They’re not happy unless they make trouble for themselves.”

“Aren’t you curious?”

“Some things you shouldn’t try and find out.”

They sat still, listening to the creaking of the bus brakes outside and the indistinct talk of their neighbors in the stairwells.

Then Miriam shrugged. “Should we try it? Should I bake us a cake and find out?”

Manny looked at her face, and saw the puckering of the skin around her eyes. He stroked her hand as they pondered the question in silence.

“What if we stop loving each other?” was the question in Miriam’s eyes.

“What if I’m not the man you thought I was?” asked Manny’s gaze in return.

Looking at each other again, they needed no words.

“But it’ll be a small cake,” she warned.

“No use making a bigger one,” Manny said.

“And we’ll eat it alone.”

“No need for anyone else to have any!”

They held hands across the table. It had been a long time since they’d held each other’s hands like tongue-tied lovers.

Was it a sign? That day she didn’t have any orders to fill. As she mixed and measured, cracked eggs and poured vanilla essence, tasted with the tip of her little finger, she wondered: Could it be true? It was an old family recipe but she’d read many similar ones in cookbooks. Was it the butter, maybe? Had someone added something to the flour? As she mixed the batter, memories long-forgotten reemerged: the moments of doubt, the fights, the sleepless nights wondering where money would come from, the honest sweat of hard work, the long nights putting the children to bed and the stolen moments of mutual revelations. The early years of parenthood, when she woke in the middle of the night to breast-feed and Manny kept her company, talking about this and that. The kisses, at first passionate, and a little later, indifferent, cursory; the tears of jealousy, the recriminations and the apologetic embraces. The times Manny left for miluim, and she accompanied him in her imagination, picturing him in the desert or the Golan. The times she held her breath listening to the news or suppressed a jump when the phone rang. The times she prayed for him to come back safe. And then when their sons went into the army, the hours she and Manny enacted the waiting ritual together: Manny shuffling playing cards, and she mumbling psalms under her breath pretending to be dusting.

Those memories were theirs, really theirs, an abundant harvest.

She flavored the cake with bitter almond essence for the years of difficulty and stress; with rose extract for their early passion; and flakes of kosher salt for the times they’d been lonely despite the other’s presence. She decorated it simply with two marzipan gold rings and miniature braided challot. In pink letters she wrote, “Our daily bread, our love.”

The children came that evening. Their daughter Rivka cooked them a sumptuous dinner, their son Shlomi brought two bottles of Baron Herzog champagne, and everyone cried in admiration. Racheli, their daughter-in-law, sang “Erev Shel Shoshanim”, accompanied by Rafi on the guitar. Manny and Miriam stole glances at each other over their children’s chatter. At last the children left, the older two to their respective homes, the youngest to the movies.

They were alone. Miriam brought out the cake. She and Manny stood before it, with a similar anxiety and hopefulness with which they’d stood under the wedding canopy forty years before.

She cut two wedges. They chewed methodically. They swallowed. They waited.

“I don’t see anything. Do you?”

“Not a thing,” said Manny. “Now what?” asked Miriam.

But he was too busy wolfing down the cake to answer.

“It’s that good?”

“It’s delicious! How could I have denied myself the pleasure for so long?”

Miriam cut a bigger piece for herself and they ate without a care. Before they knew it, they finished the entire cake and sat back, fully sated.

“Miriam, I tell you, I tasted nothing like it! It’s the best thing you’ve ever made!”

“When my grandmother baked it, may she rest in peace, it was like food for the angels.”

That’s when it struck.

In an instant their inner selves unfolded before each other. Miriam saw Manny in his petty desires for other women, more money, easier work. And Manny saw Miriam in her need for serenity, her longing for a moment far away from him and the kids; and envying a neighbor’s new furniture or clothing. His long-forgotten dreams of adventure and travel. Her rage and frustration—which she was forced to disguise. Every aspect of themselves they’d previously hidden was now illuminated in chiaroscuro, like an old painting by a Dutch master, so that each one saw the other in full.

They didn’t just see each other with their eyes; each sense was engaged in appreciation of the other. Their souls emanated the lingering aroma of delight; the bittersweet balsam of melancholy; the spiky sweat of despair; and the purifying zest of hope. And the rising tide of these emanations was accompanied by textures: the viscous ooze of malice; the silken flesh of desire; the liquid coolness of confidence; the prickle of envy.

The longer they sat without stirring, the more concrete and real the other became. As the evening progressed it became a conversation in which they spoke in their own impenetrable, unutterable language, which only they could perceive.

Finally, they broke it off. There was still life to attend to. There was so much they’d never know about the other. Miriam and Manny sighed with placid exhaustion. When Miriam looked at Manny again – and he at her—, all was as before.

They said nothing, there was nothing to say, and the first look they exchanged was timid. They both had the same question “What will he think of me now?” “Does she still love me?”

Manny looked at Miriam fully and she returned his gaze. And they sat there, truly together for the first time ever, as morning broke and the sun rose over the city. 

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January 10, 2019 by

“And With All Your Might”

Screen Shot 2019-01-09 at 3.19.57 PM“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” —Deuteronomy 6:5

It’s not the three miscarriages that have distanced me from God; the three miscarriages make me wish I weren’t already so distant. It’s hard to remember that the wheels of my traditionally observant Jewish life were set spinning 14 years ago by an intense sense of meaning and flow, that God’s presence in my life was a gift to be unwrapped in eager breaths. At the time, I was underfed and scrappy, shelving books at work while my former classmates returned to NYU as sophomores, but instead of anger at my circumstances I experienced delight. When the delight faded, when I felt too tired and broke and lonely, I leaned on the backup power of my own resolve. “This is the path you chose,” I reminded myself. “So walk it.”

The previous fall, as a freshman, was my first time (that I knew of ) in a synagogue. I went with a friend to Rosh Hashanah services in the city. The singing was in Hebrew, but even the English side of the prayer book felt foreign, with lots of language about kingship and judgment. My friend and I left early. No one said goodbye. My Jewish identity remained what it had been during my secular childhood in Houston: mine only in name. But over the summer, something began to shift. It started with a boy I had a crush on. One night, I stayed with a friend in Manhattan, and my whole body buzzed with a sense of the boy’s presence and levitra. He felt so close; I was certain I would see him. I left my friend’s apartment and started walking south on Fifth Avenue. I heard jazz floating from Washington Square Park, and walked towards the music. At the fountain in the middle of the park, there he was. Of course he was there. We sat side by side and I barely spoke, overwhelmed by what had happened.

Coincidences like this accumulated in my life, and with each one came pinpricks of faith. My thoughts swirled with ideas of purpose and soulmates and everything happens for a reason. Meanwhile, I was deciding to drop out of NYU, get a job, rent a room, establish New York residency, and eventually transfer to Hunter College, a city university that would cost me a fraction of the debt I incurred my freshman year. My crush eventually faded into a footnote while larger wheels continued turning.

That same summer, I met a young rabbi with a thick black beard. He was a former hippie; his name used to be Butterfly, and he met his wife at a Grateful Dead concert. Everything about our first interaction sparkled, and his previous name especially resonated: the butterfly is my personal symbol for my mom, who died when I was five. When the rabbi and I met, it was approaching the Hebrew month of Elul—the month of my birthday, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, and an incredibly spiritual time, I quickly learned from him. He overflowed with excitement that I was about to turn 19, because apparently 19 years is how long it takes for the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars to line up. This was clearly meant to be a new cycle for me, a new chapter.

The pinpricks of faith seemed to connect. It all felt right! During high school, when I was alone at my mom’s graveside for the very first time, I promised her that I would learn about my faith one day. This was the day. This was the year. This wacky spiritual guide who used to be a child actor—he sometimes burst into spontaneous songs from Oliver—was going to help me learn. I began going to Shabbat dinners every week at his home with his wife, their small kids, and students my age. He invited me to his class on the weekly Torah portion.

“Is there anything I should bring?” I asked.

“Just your Jewish soul,” he replied.

At the beginning of September, I moved from my cousins’ guest room in New Jersey to a Brooklyn room so tiny that I could stand in the middle and touch everything I had. I also started working at The Strand, a huge used bookstore in downtown Manhattan. This was years before they remodeled. Back then, the piles of books were thrown onto the floor, Sisyphus-like, as soon as the previous piles were shelved—and sometimes sooner.

To have enough time off to go to Rosh Hashanah services that fall, I doubled up day and night shifts, putting in overtime. On the morning of Rosh Hashanah, I woke up to the sound of my own singing. It was a wordless tune, but my soul bubbled to the surface, joyful and clear.

There’s spiritual magic and then there’s plain old contentment, a magic of its own. The year was a jumble of new friends and delicious Shabbat dinners, of willing myself to suddenly understand the Hebrew words in the prayer book, of buying my own groceries and learning how long it takes to hard-boil an egg. I was nostalgic about each experience even then, and basked in my new Jewish vocabulary. My father, far away in Houston, was pleased at first with my exploration of Judaism, and then a little concerned as I traveled past his expectations. But the train had left the station and I was aboard, grinning. “How was Jew night?” one of my coworkers at the Strand used to ask me on Saturday mornings, after my Shabbat evenings with my friends and my rabbi and his family. My answer was always the same. Jew night was great.

What strikes me now is how it all happened at once: faith and God and learning and friends and work and purpose and meaning. I wrote constantly, I did indeed establish New York residency and transfer to Hunter College (the first class I signed up for was Hebrew, of course), and while various other crushes came and went, I usually managed to enjoy the romanticism of being lovelorn and alone. Even being broke didn’t particularly haunt me. Shabbat was the only day all week that I had more than one dish at a meal. My friends and I were obsessed with the purple cabbage salad at the Rabbi’s house, and joked that purple salad was the reason we were becoming religious.

And before those Shabbat dinners, during the silent Amidah prayer that was near the end of services, my every cell would vibrate during the last paragraph. “Open my heart to Your Torah, and let my soul eagerly pursue Your commandments,” I read aloud in a whisper. Begged. I would place a hand on my heart—something I still sometimes do when I read that passage. “That Your beloved ones may be delivered, help with Your right hand and answer me. Do it for the sake of Your Name, do it for the sake of Your right hand, do it for the sake of Your Torah, do it for the sake of Your holiness. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer.”

I’m not sure what happened. Or rather, what un-happened. Over the years, I somehow muddled what I had so powerfully found. There was no one moment, no popping of a bubble. The beauty led to belief and the belief led to practice and the practice led to years-long waterfalls of angst. The process seems to have been cumulative: instead of one aspect replacing the other—practice replacing belief and angst replacing practice— everything seemed to be present at once, practice and hesitation and belief and doubt and angst and even moments of awe. As my father always says of his experience as an immigrant, I can’t return to how I was before, and I also haven’t been able to maintain a feeling of ease in my current life. Honestly, I’m embarrassed to catch up with my rabbi whom I still adore; convinced he’ll see immediately that somewhere along the way I lost track.

I can imagine him shouting into the phone now, all love and bravado: “You must reconnect with Hashem! This is the priority of your life and the world is depending on you. Take time off of work if you need to. Treat it like a romantic getaway. Talk to Hashem, just the two of you. Work on your communication skills. Do you understand? This whole thing means bupkis if you’re giving Hashem the silent treatment!”

One night a couple years ago, when I had only two miscarriages under my belt, I did consider my relationship to God. Though hesitant about a finite definition of God as the entity who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, I generally believe there is a being—or force, or energy, a source of good—behind the creation of the universe. But as my husband slept beside me and my thoughts rose into the darkness, I thought: maybe it’s all untrue. Maybe there is no God, and nothing happens for a reason. The bed dipped and swooned beneath me. It was like bungee-jumping, bouncing up and then falling again, my face inches away from vast emptiness.

No God meant no ultimate meaning behind any of creation, nothing to fully explain our bodies, or plants, or music, or the ocean, or art, or love. No source of goodness, just the bubbling of chemicals and the bustle of cells dividing, a miracle in its own right that seemed incomprehensible without a force behind it. That version of the universe seemed cold and random and completely unmoored. I couldn’t handle it.

Okay, I thought, let’s go back to believing there is a God.

Because my mom died so young, I used to say that I would never be upset about getting older, that I would treat each birthday as a blessing. I swore that I would be happy about every grey hair. And, mostly, I have been. What has come as a surprise, though, is the emotional distance I feel from myself at 19. I thought I would forever carry that year as a touchstone, that it would charge and recharge me, but these days it feels more like a glittery storybook with half the sequins rubbed off the cover. Was my sense of wonder and faith back then truly due to God’s revealed presence in my life? Or perhaps there is something about being 19 that comes with sequins in the first place, as well as the needle and thread to attach them at every turn.

It breaks my heart to parse the magic with skepticism, especially on the eve of trying to get pregnant again, when I could use some supernatural support. I’m terrified of a fourth miscarriage, of being a person who has had four miscarriages in a row. (Even three in a row feels untenable.) We are doing everything right medically; there have been tests and answers and results and questions that remain. Phrases that I associate with Christian faith like “praying on it” and “let go and let God” keep coming to mind as good ideas, yet I can’t seem to do either.

God, if I were to pray to you, really pray, it wouldn’t be for a baby. It would be for health. We learned that my risk of getting a blood clot is five times higher than it is for the average person, which may have been a contributing factor to the miscarriages. I think a lot these days about the strange gift of unveiling a potentially dangerous quirk of my blood, this vital part of my body that is almost always invisible to me. Whether or not my body brings a child into this world, I hope to be healthy and strong and able to live a long, long time.

When I reconsider my 19-year-old self, what makes me most jealous is that I was simultaneously in complete control of my life—while also deeply believing that there was a guiding force behind everything happening to me. Somehow those two parts jelled, and maybe it’s no coincidence that they jelled in the context of my new-found Jewish faith.

In contrast, I think about my experience a year ago on Rosh Hashanah—my anger at a never-ending cycle of prayer that sounds exactly the same every year. After one particularly tough morning during the holiday, I sobbed as I thought, I want my Judaism to be about more than Judaism. I want Judaism to reveal more than its own secrets. How can I open this lifestyle up so that it gives space and honor to more than the infinite loop of its own requirements? The meals, the services, the holidays, the sermons—they blend together, creating a world that feeds me and saps me at the same time. I show up and I pray, but at the same time, I know I’m not really showing up and I’m not really praying.

It’s lonely without God, who I imagine is vaguely around and half-listening, like a distracted businessperson on a long conference call. My rabbi’s voice whispers in my ear to remind me: “You’ve put yourself on mute.” But of course that’s not my rabbi’s voice. It’s my own.

Julie Sugar is a writer living in Los Angeles, California.

ART BY IDIT KAPLAN – KSUT STUDIO, PHOTOGRAPHY, SAIKE EITAN-STUDIO HAREL

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September 26, 2018 by

Bnot Esh

The members of a multi-generational Jewish feminist spirituality collective, gathering annually over Memorial Day Weekend since 1981, say they are committed to creating “an innovative, embodied and soulful place for prayer, ritual, healing and connecting with the Divine.” They work in solidarity with other changemakers to heal our broken world, engage as a group with social justice issues, and foster strong, long-term relationship with each other. Now, for the first time, they are welcoming new applications for their 2019 gathering, May 23–27. bnotesh.org

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July 15, 2014 by

Hineni: Here I Am

I am 11 years old, in a small stucco chapel on an American army base in southern Germany, attending a Wednesday night songfest of hymns. The pews are wooden, the carpet blue, and the low prayer stools meant for Catholic services are folded in. Because this is a military base that must include everyone stationed here, Jesus can be positioned so that he shows (for the Catholics) or is hidden (for the Protestants). Tonight he does not show.

Outside, it is the Cold War. 1961. A stone wall with barbed wire left over from Hitler’s era circumvents the base, making this a lone outpost in the Alps. Inside, we are singing The Old Rugged Cross, and then Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, and then Rock of Ages. My music teacher at the Dependents’ School leads us, playing the piano or sometimes the autoharp. From my seat a few rows from the front, I keep looking up to read the wall plaque that lists each hymn’s page.

I’m not here because my parents insist that I come. No, I have walked here alone from our nearby apartment because I love the music, its passionate poetry, and the way that some people close their eyes and look upwards, as if communing with something out there, something I haven’t discovered yet, but can sense in a corner of my heart, a tiny opening to the inexplicable; something that unseals my longing, for what, I don’t know, but it is raw and tender, and expands my small universe in ways I already sense I will never be able to explain to anyone. I love the way the music buoys my life for a while so that my mother’s loneliness in this foreign country and my father’s long absences to prepare for the next war fade into background. I love the peace that fills me on these evenings.

At the end of the songfest, while everyone still stands talking before heading out into the snowy night, I see my friend Alma Elmore take her mother’s hand, and I watch as the two of them prostrate themselves in front of the altar, their foreheads touch- ing the carpet. Mrs. Elmore drapes her arm over her daughter’s back and they lay there for the longest time, praying, I guess, perhaps crying. Their full skirts circle behind them like moments that I sense will travel with me, further and further, concentri- cally, along the trajectory of my life-to-be. No one in the chapel seems to think it’s strange that Alma and her mother lie there, prone, unself-conscious. No one asks them to get up. No one asks if anything is wrong.

With one hand still on my hymnal and the other touching the back of a pew, I stare, embarrassed at first, but also moved by both their liberty and their humility. A tension of opposites holds me. On this army base of stiff uniforms and tattooed forearms, guns in bedroom closets and rucksacks always at the ready, I am not accustomed to seeing women stepping into their own, stepping into something publicly private. Alma and Mrs. Elmore do not move for the longest time, and neither do I, transfixed by something both vulnerable and definitive.

Alma and I never speak of this, not in school and not at our Girl Scout meetings. Her family rotates back to the U.S. in the chess game the government plays with our lives. I will miss my shy, tall friend, the bent of her shoulders, her hair in sausage-like rolls—old-fashioned even then. I will mourn her for a while, but a new girl will come, and we will make room for her because this is what the children of soldiers do. 

But this uncensored moment doesn’t rotate or move, doesn’t make room for another. This moment stays with me. 

oom for another. This moment stays with me.

And now, decades later, as a converted Jew for the sake of marriage, I often live with that night, far away, in a tiny stitch of the Alps. I think I recognize what Alma’s mother might have felt. 

Sometimes, during the Jewish High Holy Days, when I listen to the cantor in her white robe chant the medieval Hineni prayer that translates as “Here I Am”, a wave blows through me and unmasks my life. It opens my heart, though I hadn’t known it was closed, I had no idea. It connects me for a brief moment to everything, to the nub of what it means to be alive, to terror, to joy. And when the cantor prostrates herself in front of the Torah, I feel how close I am to the portal of the unknown, a journey of faith. The stubborn hinges of my life burst open: Here I am. 

After my 36-year marriage painfully ended, my heart burst like that. There was no getting away from the fragility that made me feel empathy for every suffering thing. I needed a ritual to help me; the signed papers were not enough. I needed time to be cleaved in two, like a child might need a parent’s blessing before leaving home.

On a raw afternoon, I entered a mikveh, its simple structure adhering to ancient standards for ritual cleansing. In a room with a square four-meter pool of collected rain, uniform through the centuries, I stood naked as the moment of my birth before a mirror, repeating the Hineni prayer as I prepared myself for dunking. Hineni, I said. Here I am. 

I was alone, proclaiming my presence, after my husband left me. Hineni. I was in a fractured universe with a song of sorrow on my tongue. Hineni. Without a plan, without a place to live, staring back at my wild eyes in the mirror, my middle-aged belly. I was as present in my life as was humanly possible. Suddenly, in the mirror, naked, the image of Alma and her mother leapt across the decades and cracked my heart wide with the force of humility. Prayers haloed out like ecstatic vibrations erasing self, inscribing open, porous impermanence. 

I was back in that army chapel, Alma taking her mother’s hand and the two of them prostrating themselves, reaching for me, keeping me company. I understood as never before how aloneness meets mystery. Bombs could drop, the Soviets could attack at any moment, we could all be killed; release was the only path to transformation, no matter what religion, what creed.

I walked down the tiled steps and lowered myself into the warm living waters, dunking under once, then praying, dunking again, then again, like some primordial creature dying and being reborn at the same time. Let the waters take you, the female rabbi had said. Let the old float away, the new come towards you. As she spoke, I began to experience the water itself as prayer. As hope.

No one in the chapel thinks it’s strange that Alma and her mother lie there, prone, unselfconscious, I remembered. No one asks them to get up. No one asks if anything is wrong.

I felt alive.

Hineni.

Here I am. 

 

 

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