Monthly Archives: September 2010

Next.

Me. I am looking, I think, toward the future. Atlantic Ocean at dusk. August 2010

I like, well actually, I love this photo.  I think it is a photo of me looking toward the future.  My own as well as the future in the much bigger picture sense.  I am someone who– on a feeling level, feels despair and loss often, deeply. Yet I am also a wildly hopeful person.  In a very profound way.

I am now officially unemployed, but I do not, lest you think that the life of a Torah-studying mother is otherwise, have any big swath of free time.  The time I used to spend working for pay has been effortlessly absorbed by other work; by study and by attention for my daughter.  I haven’t blogged in two weeks and then a little.

I am, as I write, sitting at my table in the dining room which is  a very good spot in my apartment– with a new laptop which will theoretically make my blogging and other writing a little easier– more accessible to me.

My Torah portion is before me– and I have just finished emailing my Bat Mitzvah sisters my comments on the speech that one of them wrote for us–about the Haftarah portion that goes along with our Torah reading.  After I write this, I will return to trying to learn to chant the very last line of my Torah portion before I go to get my daughter at school and go to meet with my Hebrew tutor.  This study is interesting– I like the work of it.

My daughter is in school with fourth grade in full swing.  And there are things to write about.  Big challenges that are already happening this school year, a plan the school has put in place in an effort to find a fix to help her and other students who are struggling with reading.  A plan that is, I think, an ill-conceived plan which in trying to do good, may do harm.  As parents, my partner and I are again confronted with a set of difficult decisions and challenges about whether to simply say no to this latest invention and with challenges about how to be vigilant and careful in our thinking when our thinking is against the grain.

Since becoming a parent there are things we have believed were problematic, not good, that are not only generally accepted, but are often considered beneficial.  We didn’t believe in a pacifier.  We didn’t believe she should learn to “self-sooth” to get herself to sleep or back to sleep at night–quite the opposite.  We didn’t believe a number of other common things made sense.  How to say no to certain things for my daughter has always filled me with anxiety about whether I am right or wrong, whether I am missing something.  And ultimately how to say no without alienating teachers, other parents, and a whole range of other people who saw no problem to begin with–with the thing we are refusing has been a source of worry and anxiety.  People get defensive.  I don’t want them to, but they do.

On this subject, my sister gave me some interesting advice the other day.  I was lamenting this situation with the proposed reading program and other similar situations on the phone with her.  I said I didn’t want the school staff to not like me.  She listened a long time and then she said “oh, the ones you’re worried about?  They already don’t like you.  Stop worrying about it and do what you think is right.”  I have to admit I was waiting for her to reassure me that they would like me.  I have to admit, I hadn’t thought of that one.  That maybe those who are open to listening will understand and respect me.  And those who aren’t open, well maybe they already don’t like me.  So maybe there is no good reason, including wanting to be liked– to hesitate in taking a stand.

It is a new year, Jewishly speaking.  And it is a new school year and a new year, a new kind of year for me without paid work.  With a big open question about what next for me.  It’s gorgeous; early fall– my favorite time of year.  We are done with services at synagogue–said goodbye yesterday after a visit from my mother from Chicago, done with the things we do for the holidays.  I am thinking about some of the highlights of the year past– and the things that bode well for the coming year.

About a month ago we took a trip to Wisconsin where we were part of a weekend gathering of parents, our young people and a group of adult allies.  We were there for a workshop which is part of a group we are active in.  The weekend workshops are set up to give our children a space to get close to each other, to get close to us, their parents, and to experience a space where the adults make a serious effort to challenge the oppression of young people.  We get together every year or two.

We play.  We play what they want to play.  We wrestle.  We stay up late.  We laugh a lot.  We don’t rush them.   We make a mess.  We adults don’t take phone calls or do email.   The young people invent the kinds of games they always wanted to play and we adults play with them– the things we don’t have the slack for at home.  They set up games where they climb to high places– a ledge near the ceiling in a room or the top of a tall set of bunk beds and we gather mattresses and they climb and jump.  They find a trolley or dolly and make a makeshift wagon and we pull them around.  For like an hour. Not for 10 minutes that feel like an hour but for a real hour or so.  Then we take a break and go back to it sometime later for another hour later.  (Or some other equivalent activity).

On these weekends I love to watch my partner too– the things she is good at and can do that I can’t.  The things I learn from being around her in general and as a mother in specific.

On Sunday during my “special time”  with my daughter she chose to build a very hot fire in a fire pit at the camp where we were staying.  It was already over 90 degrees that morning.  Fire-building was really something.  Hot. I was the wood-gatherer and cheerer- on person.  I managed to do a minimal amount of barking worries at her as she competently built and lit and relit the fire until she had a roaring flame going.  When I was so hot I could hardly bear it, she moved over to a group playing nearby on the lawn with a hose spurting icy water and she drenched herself and then me.  In our clothes.  We laughed and she chased me over and over with the hose until I was more than partially drenched.  Several times.

In a world that is increasingly harsh and busy and in which young people are increasingly schooled and benchmarked and tested and diagnosed– we set this weekend every few years to renew our relationships and to try to figure things out.  We try things with them that they want to try.  We remember what we love about them.  We remember what drives us nuts or what worries us most.

We include adult allies so that there is time where we adults take turns going off in smaller groups and in pairs to talk and laugh and cry and refresh our selves and our minds so that we can keep thinking and playing with and enjoying our children.  Sometimes the parents, sometimes the allies, and the young people keep going– keep playing, keep finding ways to connect with each other, with their parents and other adults and with themselves.  I do not mean to romanticize.  These are challenging weekends.  They are complicated.  Exhausting.  Often without a shower which I hate.  But as a parent they are amazing.  Hopeful.  They are one of the few places where I have a group of people who say collectively–ok, it isn’t the world that is, but let’s make a little space of the world as it should be.  Just for the weekend.  And run with it.  When we leave, we all manage to feel more hopeful and to hang onto the hope somehow.  Until next time.

I look at my daughter, and at my nephews who have also come to these weekends and who are like she is, also like the sunshine to me– beautiful, interesting, warm and necessary and at the other children in this group, some of whom I know and others whom I barely know– also trying things, being themselves and feeling some relief from the world as it usually is for young people.  I feel hope in this messy world and purpose in my daily work of being my daughter’s mother, my nephews’ aunt, a friend to other young people.

So in many important regards, I do not know what is actually next.  Work-wise for me, writing-wise for me, school-wise for my daughter and in many other regards– I really don’t know.  But I feel a little bit ready.  A little bit excited. Hopeful even.  So, like they say when they call you forward after waiting in line or for an appointment… Next?

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Why a Bat Mitzvah?

 

My upcoming adult Bat Mitzvah is now a few days less than two months away.   Several of you have asked me to write something in response to the question  that is the title of this post.  I appreciate the question.   It’s an important question, I suppose, not just about the uses of my time, but about what is deep within me that would make this a priority.  I have thought a lot about it and I have both more to say than I can write in one post, and in other ways I do not know or at least cannot articulate yet some important aspects of the answer.  But I will write this one and hopefully a few other posts about what I have been thinking about in answer to that question.  

The actual day of the Bat Mitzvah (October 30, 2010) will be almost two years to the day from the day I first set foot in the office/study of my Rabbi for a meeting that he had posted asking people to come to a meeting if they wanted the opportunity to “explore” the possibility of preparing for an adult Bat or Bar Mitzvah (October 27, 2008).  I joke about having backed into this to some extent.  I went to that meeting.  I was interested, having not had a Bat Mitzvah as a young girl, and because we had just joined the congregation and I thought, “how could it be anything but good to go spend a couple hours in a small group with the rabbi, getting to know him, talk to him and connecting with other members of my newly chosen congregation?”  As it turned out, after the meeting was over, we started talking scheduling for upcoming meetings and what books to buy.  I thought, “hey, wait, what happened to the whole exploration part?  The part where I get to consider do I want to do this or maybe not, or maybe yes but maybe not now? ”  But the meetings got going and finding no good reason to not go, and thinking for the first many months, “I can always drop out later…” I went.  I enjoyed the time in his study enormously.  I enjoyed the reading I did. Two months from now will be the culmination of what turned out to be a lot of hard work, some soul-searching, some routine plugging away at something.  It will be the culmination of a project where part of the process of doing the project has been actually figuring out why I was doing it.  It was like I couldn’t make the decision about doing it without the experience of actually doing it.  The why is complex and multifaceted.  I’ve been a resounding yes, on the if question for some time now. I don’t view the Bat Mitzvah itself so much as the end of something but rather as the beginning of something– a skill that can take me to places I think I want to be at different times in the future, a giving to myself the opportunity to take my membership in my community more seriously.  A quiet putting my stake in the ground about something I’ve known since I was about 14 years old– that it was very significant to me to be a Jew and that given the choice to un-choose it, I would choose being a Jew again; I do choose being a Jew and casting my lot with the Jewish people and all our great strengths and all our deep foibles. 

I have a lot to do and to learn and some things to write for the Bat Mitzvah itself.   Being unemployed has not left me vast hours of free time, as one might assume.  In fact on many days, quite the opposite.  Nonetheless I have finally really ramped up my Hebrew study, which is fortunate, interesting, and satisfying (those three things are not necessarily synonymous, but that is how it is happening for me). 

So other than having walked into a meeting not knowing that I couldn’t just not show up to the next meeting without telling someone why, I am studying for and doing this Bat Mitzvah for my daughter.  Well, for me, but doing this for my daughter, is how I found my way to do this for me.  Even this is hard to explain, but here is how I can put it.  When we were preparing to adopt I was crystal clear in my own mind and with my partner, that it was very important to me that we raise our child as a Jew in a Jewish household and with a Jewish community around her or him.  My wonderful partner, raised a Catholic, but no longer a practicing Catholic, agreed without much waffling.  We already had a Jewish household.  By which I mean all the ritual observance in our household before and since my daughter, is Jewish observance.  We aren’t part Jewish and part Christian.  We aren’t Jews who just have a Christmas tree because my partner did have one growing up.  The household is a Jewish household and my partner comes to services and knows and does Jewish observance alongside of me.  She has always done this and always chosen to do so, freely, on her own.  Although she has not converted to Judaism and doesn’t consider herself Jewish (nor do I), from the earliest days of her relationship, she took my Judaism seriously.  She took the long historical and current oppression of the Jewish people seriously.  And she took on, what I think was in her own mind, a serious role as an ally to me as a Jewish woman and to Jews everywhere.  And one, but by far not the only way, she has done this is to have with me, a Jewish household.  Her clarity and dedication to this is right, but also quite remarkable in the very liberal society in which we live– a society that lacks a certain kind of rigor.  Her dedication to this is worthy of another post all to itself, or many.  But that, as I often say, for later. 

I will try to write even more about this later, but mine and my sister’s history is something like this.  We were born to two Jewish parents.  I was born just 10 years after the end of the Holocaust and my sister, 15 years after.  Our parents had two similar but very different experiences with Judaism growing up.  The effects of class and money shaped their parents’ different relationships to Jewish community life, assimilation, and other things.  But both our parents were unquestionably identified as Jews and so were we, growing up.  My mother was raised in a tight, interconnected Conservative Jewish congregation and community in St. Louis.  Her mother kept a kosher kitchen/household.   My father was more working class– from a kind of lapsed Orthodox family– which is to say as far as I can tell, they didn’t practice as consistently as my mother’s family did, but what they knew– what was Jewish to them, was simply and plainly, Orthodox Judaism.

One thing about being in my 50’s as opposed to say, my 30’s is that I have a much longer view of certain things.  For reasons also related to class and classism, my father, who moved our family out of the city and to the suburbs, got mad about something classist that was directed at him when he joined a suburban Jewish congregation when I was a toddler.  And (as Jews who have been, as a people, thrown out of so many places, are sometimes wont to do) he “tore up his membership” right then and there.  They didn’t join a congregation for about 18 or 20 years.  Now in hindsight, this was a rather long, but finite spat with organized Judaism in my father’s lifetime.  One that anyone who knew him could have foreseen would come to an end soon.  But it so happens that his spat with congregational affiliation coincided with all the years my sister and I were growing up and we didn’t have the benefit of either that long view or of growing up in a congregational community.  So for our childhoods, we were Jews with all of the Jewish oppression and internalized oppression, but without a warm Jewish community, a Jewish home base, a formal Jewish education or all of the lovely songs, stories, traditions and people surrounding us.  We missed the things that you get not just from your own household, but from a larger community.  We were in exile from the relatively small (Jewish) community that carried on somewhat in exile from the larger, dominant Christian community of the US.  It was lonely and without a frame of reference.  Confusing.  I fault no one for this neither my father nor my mother, but it took both my sister and me a long time to sort out our own desires and needs for a larger Jewish community.

So when my daughter was born, and even before, I knew I wanted to raise my child as a Jew and one thing I knew for sure.  I  knew that one thing that brings joy, that makes the harsh and complicated easier, is a community.  A Jewish community if you happen to be a Jew.  My beautiful daughter as it turned out, would have a complex life– a life with the complexities of adoption, of racism and being part of a mixed race family, of having lesbian parents, white parents and older parents.  She is part of a mixed heritage household though we live as a Jewish household.   As it turned out she is also embracing the joys and complexities of having a brother to whom she is close but who doesn’t live with her.     She handles all of this with her usual great depth of intelligence, with aplomb and with style– her own style.  It is actually not as complicated as I thought.

So I thought about her and about Judaism and I thought the one thing that is a must is a community.  I wanted her to have all that and to do some of the things that give you credibility in a community– a Bat Mitzvah for starters.  I didn’t think at that point of the meaning of being able to read Torah– I just thought of the membership that is conferred with that ritual.  And then when she was about 5 or 6, having been to several Bar and Bat mitzvahs of her cousins, who are young people who are very important to us, she began to declare that she didn’t want to have one.  She didn’t want to do it.  And I couldn’t make her… Did she have to have a Bat Mitzvah?, she would ask.  I would say, yes, I thought she did have to have one– but that we would keep discussing.  And then came the clincher.  “You didn’t have one.” she started saying.

I do have a policy that I will generally not force her to do anything that I have not taken on myself.  And because she has a long memory and a grip on certain things as fierce as a terrier dog, I decided I’d better get going on my own if I was to have any leverage pushing the issue with her. What I foolishly didn’t anticipate was that this wasn’t just the prerequisite for forcing her to do something.  But that it would be good for me to really become part of a community.  To tackle a very serious piece of study.  That there would be great joy and great personal depth as well as a sense of accomplishment in learning to read Torah.  That this would be deeply meaningful to me, just as I believed it would be for her.  That it would be good for her to see me do this, precisely because I am doing something good, valuable, meaningful and hard.

So here I am.  Two months away.  With more to learn and more to be revealed to me about the meaning of this undertaking.  But it is coming clearer and clearer.  As is often the case, in my case, and for many of us parents we think we are leading and guiding them, but ultimately if you open your mind and heart, it is unclear who is the leader and who is the follower.  What is clear is that I am very much the student, the learner here.  And I feel very lucky that it is so.