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Preview: Everybody's Got Something to Hide

Everybody's Got Something to Hide

...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Updated: 2018-03-06T13:15:09.105-08:00


One of these things is not like the others


Books acquired this afternoon at Powell's:

1. Working Out in Japan: Shaping the Female Body in Tokyo Fitness Clubs, by Laura Spielvogel;
2. The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women's Bodies, by Helena Michie;
3. Breasts: Women Speak About Their Breasts and Their Lives, by Daphna Ayalah and Isaac J. Weinstock;
4. The Complete Artscroll Siddur [prayer book], nusach Ashkanaz.

Does that line ever work?


I was waiting for the bus last night around SE Pine and Grand when a short twenty-something guy with long brown hair came right up to me. He was dressed all in black and wore pentagram necklace. "It's too bad Andy & Bax [a military supply store in the area] closes so early," he said, looking at me. "Uh huh," I said, in my frostiest Do Not Talk to Me voice. "Yeah...I really need a knife," he said. I took a step back and looked down Grand to see if the bus was coming yet. "I need it to do magic. A knife is very important for magic." I don't know what response he was expecting to get from me, but he clearly didn't get it, because he backed away and started rambling about how he would just go to Andy & Bax the next morning. Then he turned back to me suddenly and grabbed his pentagram. "What do you think of this?" he said, jangling it in my face.

When the bus arrived, I made sure to sit as far away as possible.

Tzariah, Metzorah, liminality, feminism, and embodiment (part 1)


(This is really long. I'll post part 2 sometime next week, probably. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts about this part and any issues it raises for you.)One of the things I love most about Judaism is the way the calendar works. The Torah is divided into fifty-four portions, one of which is read every week (in non-leap years, like this year, there are a couple weeks that have two portions); at Simchat Torah, the cycle ends with the last portion of Deuteronomy and begins again with the first portion of Genesis. It's a cycle, but it's not quite circular; the Jewish year is more like a spiral. Each year when a particular portion rolls around you have the insight of what you learned about it last year and the growth that's taken place over the year; you're in the same place in the Torah, but you're not in the same place personally. It was an exciting time in my life as a baby Jew when I had experienced a whole year's cycle, and could remember last year's learning about a particular portion. It made me think of years in the future, when I'll have twenty or thirty experiences of a particular portion--all the learning and study and discussion from different communities that I'll have experienced by that point. It was such a happy, contented feeling--a satisfaction with and awe of the inheritance into which I've come.(I think the same could be said of the traditional liturgical Christian calendar--not just the holidays, but the division of the year into different church seasons, and among churches that follow a lectionary. The UCC churches I grew up in only paid lip service to the Christian calendar, however, so it was never really my experience growing up. I'm curious to hear from my Christian friends if you have the same experiences with the Christian year.)I have a Jewish calendar pinned to the wall of the kitchen to help me keep track of the Jewish months and days and the cycles of the moon and the Torah portions. I glanced at it a week ago and said, "Huh!" Daniel, who was sitting at the table, was like, "What 'huh'?" That week there were two Torah portions, Tzaria and Metzorah. I told Daniel that I said "huh" because last year I kept intending to write a blog post about Tzaria and Metzorah, and now I've officially been procrastinating for a year on that blog post.Tzaria and Metzorah (which you can find in Leviticus 12:1-15:33) are some of the most challenging portions for modern Jews, especially for feminists: they're all about different kinds of skin diseases, emissions from the body, and other conditions that render someone tumeh (impure--roughly and perhaps inaccurately translated). I actually remember being at P'nai Or two years ago when these portions came around; it was the only service that Daniel ever attended, and we were both somewhere between amused and uncomfortable with reading about how seminal emissions rendered a man impure until he could immerse in a mikvah (it's not exactly the most date-friendly of Torah portions). That night at his house, we were talking about it and joking that (sacrilege alert) Orthodox communities should have drive-through mikvaot so that frum men could purify themselves at any time. I believe I suggested that the slogan of such a mikvah should be: "So you can daven great, even late!"Tzaria and Metzorah can be difficult for contemporary Jews to accept or understand because, for one thing, now we know that semen, menstrual blood, and skin rashes are not things that we have to be afraid of; and for another thing, the prescribed purification rites--sacrificing different kinds of animals and things like that--are so foreign to our context. But these parshaiot are especially troublesome from a feminist perspective because of the associations they can suggest between women's bodies and processes and impurity. A woman can't enter the sacred sanctuary while she's menstruating, and for several days afterward; after giving birth to a boy child, she is tumah/impure for thirty days, but for a girl child, the impurity lasts double[...]

Birkat HaChamah and Passover


Clearly I fail at blogging.April 8 was a holiday that only comes once every twenty-eight years: Birkat HaChamah, the Blessing of the Sun. The tradition has it that once every twenty-eight years, the sun returns to the same place in the sky relative to the stars and the Earth where God placed it on the 4th day of creation. (The same place as viewed from the Earth, obviously, since the sun and stars themselves don't move). The calculations are totes confusing and I gave up on trying to understand exactly why it was that particular morning, and why the Jewish year (5769) isn't divisible by 28, and just tried to enjoy the fact that this is an unusual occasion that last occurred in 1981 and won't come again until I'm in my 50s.P'nai Or met at the gardens behind Pittock Mansion at 6am and sang and danced until we realized that it was too overcast to see the sunrise, at which point we said a shortened version of the blessing (you have to actually be able to see the sun to say the full blessing), said the Kaddish, and trickled off. Afterwards I went out to breakfast with some Pnai Orniks then got dropped off at work, feeling very disoriented, sleepy, and off-rhythm. Whenever I do something before work, even something as mundane as getting up early to finish a Netflix movie so I can send off the disk that day, it makes work feel really strange. It makes it feel like just one of several things I happened to decide to do that day, rather than something I have to do. By the time I got to work at 9am, it felt like it was noon because I had gotten up so early.The 8th was doubly auspicious (truly a mazel tov--literally "good constellation!") because it was also the first day of Passover (which actually began that evening, since Jewish days begin at dusk). Birkat HaChamah and Passover are not always aligned, it was just just a coincidence--one that made my day all the more weird and off-rhythm. A friend from P'nai Or invited me to her house for the first night seder. She warned me that it would be a long evening, so I planned to get off work at 3pm, go home to take a nap, then another person would pick me up....the seder started around seven-thirty or eight; dinner was served at 10:30 and at midnight, the person who gave me a ride and I left because he was exhausted. Dessert hadn't been served yet; I can only imagine how late the seder must have gone. Two in the morning? Although it was a strange day and a really late night, I was happy to have been invited and to have a place to spend the first night seder. This friend has two college-age children, and it was fun to spend the holiday with a family. They're also on the more observant/halakhic end of the spectrum for P'nai Or and I'm always interested in learning about how people blend a Jewish Renewal consciousness with halakhic observance.The next night P'nai Or had a community seder at St. Mark's. I got a ride with my friend Jess, and sat with my friend Helana (another Lewis & Clark graduate, but we got to know each other at P'nai Or). P'nai Or's seder was big and sprawling and semi-chaotic (there were eighty people there and there was a ton of unnecessary drama about moving chairs around and seating arrangements...I'm so burned out on synagogue politics right now), but also sweet and emotional and touching. We used a Haggadah that Reb Aryeh had put together, and I think everyone cried a little at different points.Finally, last Sunday Daniel and I had our own seder at our apartment. Our guests were my parents, Daniel's parents, Amy, Carla, Helana, my friend Jade from work, and her fried Kat. I invited several more people, but I think the mixture ended up being exactly right and anyways, it would have been difficult to fit any more chairs around the table. We used the Velveteen Rabbi haggadah. I think it went well--I can't speak for the others (Amy?) but I know I had a great time and I appreciated that everyone contributed their energy, insights, voices, and laughter. It was my parents' first seder, and I[...]

Two months later


It's been two months since I last posted on my blog. I never meant so stop writing, really, it's just that given the gravitas of my last post it didn't feel right to pop in and say "Hello, I'm brewing kombucha," or "Yay, I got an awesome job in Ohio over the summer" or "Here's this fun song I sing with the kids" or even "Here are my semi-deep reflections on this aspect of religious phenomenology." Because while all of those other fun things, life things, are going on, there's this pressing sadness that I'm not sure how to write about. But now it's been two months and I think it's time to start writing again. Tonight is Purim, though, the Feast of Lots, and right now I'm hard-pressed to tell the difference between "Blessed is Mordechai" and "Cursed is Haman" (in other words, I've been drinking; it's Purim!) and writing will have to wait.

Thank you to those who commented on my last post, or expressed condolences to me in person. It means a lot. And to the last commenter on my last post--did you really think that that was an appropriate time to try to evangelize me? Really?

Baruch Dayan Emet


That's what a traditional Jew is supposed to say when witnessing or learning of a death: "Blessed is the one true judge."

Around 1am, early Wednesday morning, I learned that my beloved rabbi, teacher, and guide Aryeh Hirschfield drowned while snorkeling on vacation in Mexico with his family. (Here is the article from The Oregonian). Cassandra, the woman I spoke to on the phone, said "Aryeh drowned," and I kept turning it over in my head and trying to come up with a way that "drowned" wouldn't mean "died."

The words "baruch dayan emet" popped into my head but I couldn't say them. It didn't seem right. I thought that if I said those words it would be suggesting that Reb Aryeh's death was just. I can't see it that way.

Last night there was a community gathering at St. Mark's, where P'nai Or holds services. I rode there in silence with three other people. There were at least 200 people there, completely broken and devastated. After I found a seat I saw my former thesis adviser and teacher Sylvia walk in. She said "Oh, Jessica" and held out her arms and I fell onto her sobbing. I heard and felt her crying as well. The last time we had seen each other was at my bet din, at which Aryeh officiated.

I can't believe he's gone.

Leap Frog: designed to keep children passive and dumb


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Take a minute to watch this commercial for the Leap Frog reading ("reading") toy. The toy system seems to consist of electronic books about different TV and movie characters. When a child runs the corresponding Leap Frog electronic wand over the words in the "book," the character's voice speaks the words. This is touted as a great way to make kids love reading FOR LIFE!

This commercial, and the Leap Frog reading system in general, makes me so angry. Speaking as an early child educator, I feel that Leap Frog is actually doing children a tremendous disservice. Let me count the ways:

First: I find objectionable the crass commercialization and plasticization of children's toys and materials. I don't like reading books about TV and movie characters to children because I think they limit children's own imaginations. I'm thankful that my preschool uses mostly wooden toys and natural materials and non-commercial books. I don't have anything against intelligent children's TV, but I find that intelligent programming is becoming increasingly hard to find.

Second: The colors of this toy are garish and ugly. I think it's insulting to the intelligence and sensitivity of children to assume that they don't have an eye for subtlety and beauty in their materials. The Journal of Amphibious Species or whatever the commercial positions as the Anti-Leap Frog is, in my opinion and according to the philosophy of Reggio Emilia as I understand it, a much healthier material for a child that will actually stimulate and encourage his/her natural curiosity and inquiry into the natural world. It doesn't talk, Mr. Garish Frog Man, because books aren't supposed to talk.

Third: The commercial suggests that kids need the Leap Frog system to make reading fun. Bullshit. Reading can be and should be fun, but children who use the Leap Frog system to support their reading are being sold a bill of goods. Cartoon characters are not always going to be able to read to them; what happens when they outgrow Leap Frog and actually have to start exerting effort to read words themselves? Having been trained by Leap Frog and similar toys to be passive rather than active learners, reading will seem difficult and unrewarding. Reading becomes a novelty that can be shunted aside as soon as the next shiny plastic piece of junk comes out. Instead of helping kids love reading for life, Leap Frog helps kids love reading for five minutes.

Fourth: Children who use this toy are not actually reading. Reading is an active process. Even being read to by an adult, looking at the pictures, following the words on the page, talking about the story, making predictions, etc. can be an active process. The Leap Frog system encourages passivity. It's not education, it's edutainment.

Fifth: I find the Leap Frog system to be indicative of a general societal discomfort with difficulty. It's true that it can be difficult to learn to read; I was a late reader myself. But many valuable things are difficult; to paraphrase Rilke, the fact that they are difficult is all the more reason to pursue them. Achievements that come easily are often valued little. If a child is struggling to learn to read, I don't think giving him or her a Leap Frog reading toy will make it any easier, at least not in the long run.

What do you think? I'm curious if anyone can parse out more reasons to hate this commercial.

2008 Retrospective


1. What did you do in 2008 that you'd never done before? So many things related to converting to Judaism: immersing in the mikveh, being counted in a minyan, wearing a tallit as a Jew, lighting Shabbat and Chanukah candles, making Havdalah, etc. I hosted my first Passover seder this year. I lived by myself in my own apartment for the first time; I also lived with a romantic partner for the first time. This was the first year I worked full-time for the whole year (as opposed to being in school for part of the year). I assumed more responsibility at work and attended a few professional conferences, which I'd never done before. In January 2008 I got pretty sick and it was the first time I've managed all of my medical care without someone else's help.2. Did you keep your New Year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year? I don't think I made any resolutions last year; in any case, I didn't keep them. I've been trying to cut processed and industrial foods out of my diet for the past several months, and I'd like to continue that in 2009. I'd also like to progress in my observance of kashrut by making more of a separation between dairy and meat products, and continue learning Hebrew. This isn't a resolution per se but I want to continue to make time to read academic-type books in sociology, gender studies, and religious studies.3. Did anyone close to you give birth? Several parents I know through the preschool gave birth. I'm friendly with a couple of them, but not especially close.4. Did anyone close to you die? No.5. What countries did you visit? I didn't visit any other countries. Actually, I don't think I made it out of Oregon in 2008. (Can that be right? The only other state we visit on a regular basis is Washington, and I don't think I went up there this past year. Huh.)6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008? Hmmm...this was a pretty good year, actually. Not perfect, but I can't think of anything that I really lacked.7. What dates from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory? November 2: my conversion. November 4: Obama's election.8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? Converting to Judaism, natch.9. What was your biggest failure? Losing contact with old friends.10. Did you suffer illness or injury? Yes. Towards the end of 2007 I developed a very painful, deep cough. I coughed so hard that I was certain I had fractured a rib; the pain was so severe that it hurt to breathe. I also had a 104 degree fever. On December 31, 2007 (what a way to spend New Year's Eve) I checked into Urgent Care at Kaiser Permanente and had my chest X-rayed. Diagnosis: I had walking pneumonia that I had exacerbated by walking around with it for a month instead of getting it treated. My rib wasn't broken--the doctor said that a bit of the lining of my lung had become inflamed and was pressing against my rib, which is why it hurt so bad. I was prescribed an inhaler, some narcotic cough syrup, and a round of antibiotics, but the antibiotics didn't kill everything and I ended up visiting Kaiser several more times over the next couple months. Each time I got a different diagnosis, which was pretty frustrating. Finally everything seemed to go away on its own. I also had a few bladder infections (fun!) and a minor bike accident a few weeks ago.11. What was the best thing you bought? It's funny, because when I answered this question two years ago I was all talking about plane and train and bus tickets for my travels. In 2008 the best things I bought were much more mundane: a safety can-opener that makes opening cans a delight; and big black rain galoshes. Laugh it up (Daniel) but I'm thankful for those boots every time in rains.12. Whose behavior merited celebration? My spiritual community's; friends; Daniel's. Those who supported me in my spiritual search.13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?[...]

Snow day?

2008-12-19T14:04:28.071-08:00 snow day. After an unusual week at the preschool (we had a delayed start on Monday and an early release on Wednesday due to snowy and icy conditions; on Monday and Tuesday especially, it felt like the Arctic Tundra outside), I was really hoping that today would be a snow day. I had already planned how I would spend the day: curling up with Sarna's American Judaism: A History and a cup of tea, watching some daytime TV, going downtown to Powell's to finish my holiday shopping. Alas, although it was snowing lightly this morning, the powers that be decided we would just have a delayed start. Oh well; we only have half of our normal amount of students, and the composition of children is such that it's been a really fun, peaceful, collaborative day (in other words, the screamers and biters are absent). It's been the kind of day that reminds me what attracted me to early childhood ed. in the first place: collaborative projects, funny stories, working together creatively, learning how to communicate with each other, those kinds of things. Everyone in the class spontaneously began playing this game that they were on the Polar Express to the North Pole, and Cara and I got some fantastic documentation done (part of the Reggio approach is documenting children's play and conversations).Thanks to those who expressed concern and well-wishes after my bike accident at the beginning of last week. My right arm got progressively more sore over the course of the day, and by Monday night I could hardly move it. I knew it wasn't broken but I guess I just strained the muscle or something, since I landed on my right side and my arm and shoulder absorbed most of the shock. It's nearly back to normal by now. My nose is not broken, although it does still sort of hurt when I blow it--when I fell, I think my nose must have hit against my right arm, and maybe I bruised the cartilge or something.I made a resolution a couple months ago that I would read the Torah portion each week on Friday night, so that I could be an informed participant in the Saturday morning Shabbat service. Of course, in the couple months since I made the resolution, it's been realized exactly twice. Last Friday I read the portion V'yishlach, from Genesis (it's the portion immediately preceding the Joseph cycle); V'yishlach contains, amongst other things, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. There's this part when Esau comes up to Jacob and everyone's like biting their fingernails because they think Esau's going to kill Jacob, but then he "falls on Jacob's neck" and kisses him. I was reading the portion in the Jewish study Bible that Daniel's parents gave me, and it has this little explanatory notes from the midrash (interpretation) on the side. At this part it notes that in the Torah scroll there's a series of six dots over the word "kiss;" they're not related to the pronunciation of the word, so it's kind of a mystery about why they're there. Some rabbis say that the dots denote rabbinic suspicion over the inclusion of the word "kiss" in the story, pointing out that "kiss" and "bite" are nearly the same word in Hebrew. And, according to the explanatory note, a traditional midrash is that Esau did indeed intend to bite Jacob, but God--just in the nick of time--hardened Jacob's skin so that Esau could only kiss him. And that's why the Jews are called a stiff-necked people. (Rimshot!)There's another explanatory note about why Jacob crossed back over the river to the place where he ended up wrestling with the angels. Rabbinic commentators wondered why he would return to the place he'd come from all alone--so they decided that he must have gone back to retrieve some "little jars he'd forgotten." I absolutely love that kind of minutely detailed midrash (and there are midrash like that for seriously everything[...]



I was on my way to school this morning on my bike. I had two bags full of egg cartons that I was bringing in for an art project dangling off my handlebars. I don't know what happened exactly but I think my knee bumped one of the bags and it threw off my balance and I fell ass over ankles off my bike and onto the street. I stood up and shook myself off, disoriented. My right shoulder and nose both really hurt but nothing seemed broken and I didn't feel or see any blood. I was still in sight of the apartment and I wanted nothing so much as to hobble home and crawl back into bed with Daniel.

A couple people stopped to see if I was okay and one kind, compassionate young woman put my bike in her car and drove me the rest of the way to work. My boss said I should take as much time as I needed before going into the classroom and one of my co-workers said I was in shock, so I laid down and drank water and held an ice pack to my shoulder and cried a little. I called Daniel to tell him what had happened but instead of starting with, "Daniel, I'm okay" I started with "Daniel, I was in an accident on the way to work" so he got scared and I felt bad for scaring him.

I don't think my nose is broken, but it definitely hurts. I think it's swollen--it feels swollen--but it's hard to tell because my nose was already pretty big. My shoulder's hurting more and more as the day goes on. I was planning on going to the gym after work, but I think instead I'm just going to go home and drink some tea and watch DVDs with Daniel.

Fun with Photobooth


The other night Daniel and I spent some time playing around with Photobooth on our Mac.

Look at us. We're so mumblecore.


I call these next two "Geek Love."



And lo, the Spirit of the Lord descended upon me in the form of hands. Giant freak hands.


Contrary to popular belief, the sun is not the center of the universe. The center of the universe is Daniel's glasses.


Two Hebrew notes


This week was very difficult at work. I'm glad that it's over. Three day week coming up: hurray! On Wednesday evening Daniel and I are taking the train down to Eugene, where we'll spend Thanksgiving with my family; we're coming back up to Portland Saturday afternoon. I haven't had a paid vacation day in a long time (not since Memorial Day last May, since I ended up working on Labor Day and Veteran's Day), and I relish the luxury of being "on the clock" while I sleep in and lounge around my parent's house for two days.

Last week in Hebrew class we heard a very sweet teaching. As I've written before, the first letter of the Torah is Bet, which is sometimes pronounced Vet (depending on whether or not it has a dot in it, I think). The last letter of the Torah is Lamed, from the word "Yisrael." Lamed and Vet together spell the word Lev, or heart--the whole Torah is written around and wrapped around the heart.

When I told Daniel that, he said, "But what if you don't love the whole Torah?" It's a good point. But I think you can love the Torah and its overall message without having to endorse all the ethnocentric and violent and misogynist stuff (in my opinion the homophobic stuff has its root in misogyny). There's this old story about the famous Rabbi Hillel. A gentile asked him to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel is said to have said, "Love your neighbor. The rest is commentary." Would that that Torah be written on my heart.

Hebrew note 2: The Torah portion this week is Chayyei Sarah, usually translated "The Life of Sarah," which begins by talking about the death of Sarah and how Abraham secures a cave for her burial (you can find it near the beginning of Genesis, after the binding of Isaac). When you read it in English it begins with "Sarah was 127 years old," but the Hebrew actually reads, "Sarah was 100 years old, and 20 years old, and 7 years old." Rashi explains that it is written this way because Sarah had the wisdom of a 100-year-old, the idealism of a 20-year-old, and the innocent beauty of a 7-year-old (which Reb Aryeh admitted being a little creeped out by). In Hebrew, there actually is no word for "life," a singular. Chaim, usually translated as life, actually means lives. It's a plural, just as "mayim," water, is plural. "Chayyei Sarah" actually means "The Lives of Sarah." There is no singular life! You could take that to mean that all lives are lived together, running together like water, or part of a collective, or that on some level we live multiple lives, or that there are multiple stages in our one physical life.

If I couldn't have had my bet din and mikvah in the week of Lekh Lekha, the rabbi and I talked about how Chayyei Sarah was my second choice. I remember being struck by this idea of lives being plural last year when this we read this portion, and feeling that it resonated with my experience. I do feel that with conversion (or as my rabbi sometimes refers to it, "revelation"--drawing on Jonathan Omer-Man's idea that converts are "revealed Jews") I'm entering a new phase of my life.

(Bringing it back down to the nitty-gritty plane: who's been going through my blog entries and giving them all one star? Not cool.)

Learning Hebrew with the preschooleres


I'm taking a beginning Hebrew class with a handful of other people from P'nai Or. It's taught by a woman from the congregation, and definitely has a Jewish Renewal flavor to it--we talk a lot about the deeper meanings of the letters and traditions behind them, Kabbalistic significances of the letters, gematria, that kind of thing. I'm really enjoying it, even though it's very difficult (why, oh why do so many of the letters look nearly identical?!).

I had a realization on my way home from class tonight: I'm acquiring Hebrew the same way my preschoolers are learning to write in English. "Teacher Jessica, how do you spell "submarine?" "Let's sound it out together: Sssss. What makes a sssss sound? That's right, S! Su--bbbb--mmm-rrrr---nnn. Sub-ma-rine." The older ones can usually sound out the consonants and then we help with the vowels.

I write in Hebrew the same way. I was trying to spell my Hebrew name Shulamit the other day. I muttered to myself, "Shhh--That's a shin--Le Le Le--lamed---mmmmm-mem, okay, then a TTT--Tav." I wrote down the consonants Shin Lamed Mem Tav and wiped my brow with exertion. Then I threw a couple extra lines and dots in for the vowels. Were they the correct vowels? Maybe, maybe not. But I felt proud of myself for just writing SH-L-M-T.

My preschoolers' letters are big and sprawling, falling all over themselves and the page. They don't have the muscle control or experience to form tidy, contained letters in a neat line. Oftentimes when kids begin writing the letter A, it comes out looking like an H. They don't know how or are not able to slant their lines and make them come to a point. As they gain literacy experience and practice, they start developing the shapes of their own letters. It's the same way for me with Hebrew. My handwriting is big and sloppy-looking, getting confused and tangled in the unfamiliar shapes and proportions of the letters. Sometimes my aleph looks like an X, and ayin's a mess. I was a somewhat late reader when I was a child--my literacy didn't really start to take off until late in first grade. I can only trust that as I eventually learned to read and write in English, if I stick with it and keep practicing and exposing myself to Hebrew, I'll learn that too. For now, my preschoolers and I will keep sounding things out and getting used to the shape of the letters on our papers and in our mouths.

Lekh Lekha


My bet din was held last Sunday in a small room at the Portland Jewish Ritualarium in SW Portland, not too far from Portland State. The Ritualarium is a converted house; I gather that the couple who runs it lives upstairs and makes the mikvah and anteroom available for those who need it. The bet din, composed of my rabbi and two men from the congregation, sat on a couch one one side of the room; I sat in a chair facing them in the middle of the room. Behind me in a semi-circle were my parents; Daniel and his parents; Mateh Esther, Harriet, and Chellema, three women from P'nai Or; Jade, a friend from work; and Sylvia, my old professor and thesis advisor from college.I was nervous. So, so nervous! I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to authentically represent my thoughts and feelings. But once the questioning began I eased into it an relaxed. The rabbi asked me about the spiritual path that led me to this point. One of the other men me about elements of Jewish practice that I had adopted; the other man asked how I envisioned my relationship with the nation of Israel. They reminded me that the Jews have been persecuted from time immemorial and that anyone who wants to join a persecuted people has to be a little meshuga. (Okay, they didn't use the word meshuga.) There were moments when I didn't feel like I was able to say exactly what I meant, but overall I felt that I was able to represent myself and my path authentically. And then, the rabbi sent me to the mikvah for the three immersions that would make me a Jew.Mateh Esther, Harriet, and Chellema and I rose and walked down the short hallway. I stopped in the bathroom and disrobed, then joined the other three women in the mikvah. My mom and I had peeked in to see it after we arrived at the Ritualarium, so I knew what to expect: a series of steps leading down to a shoulder-deep tiled pool. Hebrew transliterations of the blessings hung from the walls. This was it. I handed my towel and my glasses to Harriet then walked down the steps into the water. You have to immerse a particular way: all parts of the body have to simultaneously be submerged without touching anything else (ie you can't have your feet on the ground). I was so intent on getting the immersion right that I forgot to close my mouth all the way and when I came back up I was choking. I coughed and spluttered for a minute then said the blessing for immersion and Shecheheyanu. After the second immersion I said the Sh'ma and Baruch Shem; after the third immersion, I said as much of the V'ahavta as I knew. Then I climbed back out of the pool and wrapped in the towel. It was surreal. Mateh Esther began singing and clapping and the other women joined in. My mom later told me that they could hear us in the waiting room, and the rabbi joked that it sounded like we were having too much fun.I went to dry off and get dressed. I remember that I was self-conscious about taking too much time to get dressed, since everyone was waiting for me, so I carried my socks back into the room in my hands and then gave them to Daniel to hold. The rabbi announced the Hebrew name that I had decided on, Shulamit Yiskah, and we signed the papers. Then there were some blessings and the rabbi took out his guitar and began to play. Harriet grabbed my hands and we began to dance, spinning around and around. I grabbed Jade and she joined the circle. Soon everyone in the room, including my parents, had joined hands and was dancing around the small room at the Ritualarium. It was such a moment of joy. Daniel's father Jeff told me afterwards that the look on my face was of pure happiness.Looking back on the experience, the overwhelming feeling and impression is one of affirmation. The bet din, rather [...]

Good Friday


I felt like a good teacher today. It was a wonderful feeling.

On Wednesday, I walked into the classroom and two-year-old E looked right at me with a grin. "Jessica, I love you so much!" he said. We should all receive such affirmation.

(I don't really have anything original to say about President-Elect Obama, so I'll just say: WOOOOOOOO! I'm also planning on posting about my bet din and mikvah later this weekend.)

The line of succession


Daniel's looking at the back of Jessi and the Awful Secret. "What's an alternate officer?" he asks.

"That means she takes over for anybody who can't come to the meetings, like if Stacey is in New York then Dawn's the treasurer," I say.

"So if Kristy's not there, Dawn's the president?"

"Yeah, but Kristy very rarely misses meetings--"

"If Kristy's gone, why wouldn't Claudia just become president, and Dawn the vice-president?"

"Well, that's just not how it works."

"...What if Kristy was shot? That would mean that Claudia would become the president."

"I think if Kristy were shot, the Baby-Sitter's Club would get disbanded."

"The Baby-Sitter's Club must go on, Jessica. THE BABY-SITTER'S CLUB MUST GO ON."

"Prospective Immigrants Please Note"


Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.

I found this poem by Adrienne Rich on Rachel Barenblat's Velveteen Rabbi blog last summer. I remember being struck by it then, and feeling like both the poem and Rachel's commentary on it really spoke to my feelings about my conversion. She writes, "I see a chiastic structure here. For me, the middle stanza is the pivot on which the poem hinges. 'If you do not go through / it is possible / to live worthily,' Rich writes. Whatever leap you're considering taking: there's nothing wrong with not taking it. But if you don't take the leap, you won't know what new vision might await you on the other side." It's true: I could live a good life, a worthy life, a noble life as a non-Jew. I could live in tune with my spirituality; I could participate in loving relationship and live an ethical life. But what will blind me? What will evade me? And when I step throught the door, when I come out of the mikvah as a new-born Jewish woman, what "new visions" will be waiting for me on the other side?

Tomorrow, I'm taking the leap. God willing, tomorrow at 2pm at the Portland Jewish Ritualarium I will have my bet din and mikvah for conversion. Please hold me in your thoughts and prayers. I treasure your good intentions and energies directed my way.




This week, the yearly cycle of Torah readings begins all over again with Genesis 1: "B'reishit," "In the beginning." Tishrei, the last Jewish month, came in with a bang (actually, it literally came in with a blast of the shofar, a trumpet-like instrument made of a ram's horn) on Rosh Hashana; a week later came Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. We rested for a couple days then Sukkot began; Sukkot lasted a week and a day then was followed immediately by Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. (Simchat Torah was especialy significant for me because it was my very first official Jewish experience, two years ago). (How interesting to re-read the blog entry I wrote about that first Simchat Torah!) Now we ease into the month of Cheshvan, the only Jewish month without any holidays or fast days (finally, a respite!) On Simchat Torah we celebrated the completion of the cycle of Torah portions; now we roll the scrolls back to the beginning and start over again with Genesis. "B'reishit." "In the beginning."

Except, as Reb Aryeh pointed out, "B'reishit" does not mean "in the beginning"--or more accurately, it doesn't have to mean "in the beginning." The Bet (the first letter of the Torah) is missing the diacritical mark that tells you how to pronounce it. If it's pronounced "BAH-rey-sheet" than it means "in the beginning." If it's pronounced "BUH-rey-sheet" then it means "in a beginning."

I just love that. For me, just that article switch opens up whole worlds of interpretive possibilities. What would it mean if we consider that our planet, that we ourselves were part of a beginning, not the beginning? That suggests to me an unending renewal, the sense that we can always begin again. The medieval Kabbalists were turned on to this interpretive possibility (it's not something invented by postmodern theological progressives); according to the rabbi, in the Zohar, Kabbalists elaborate on seventy different ways of understanding what it means to have been created in a beginning.

Another interesting thing that the rabbi pointed out: take a look at the letter Bet, the first letter of the whole Torah. It's closed on one side, and open on the other. Remember that Hebrew is written and read from right to left, so that the subsequent letters flow from the open side of the Bet. Creation flows from the opening of the Bet; Bet literally turns its back on whatever came before. And yet, a little tail extends backwards from the base of the Bet--a little part of the letter reaches back to the space before the beginning. This is significant for me as I think of the beginning of my Jewish life. Like Bet, I'm turning my back on certain things and older ways of being; choosing one path over others. But also like Bet, a little part of me reaches back to what I used to know. This is a beginning for me, but it doesn't necessarily have to be the beginning.

For Daniel


Happy anniversary! There's no one with whom I would have rather spent the last two years. I love you!

Setting the date


First thing you do, drive right through that Holland Tunnel,
Pay your toll to the soul on the other side.
Pick up your ticket, everything will be all right...

That's from the song "Holland Tunnel" by John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas), from his solo album "John the Wolf King of L.A." Daniel and I saw The Squid and the Whale a few months ago, and then Daniel found the soundtrack at the library; both are wonderful. "Holland Tunnel" is my favorite song off of the soundtrack. It's hard to explain exactly how good it is without hearing it; Daniel suggested that one of the reasons it's such a compelling song is that the kind of soporific accompaniment is so evocative of aimlessly traveling. One blog I read suggested that it's meaningful as kind of a prequel to "California Dreamin'." For me, the line "Pay your toll to the soul on the other side" evokes the sense of leaving, of crossing a boundary and beginning to manifest a new identity: meeting your soul on the other side. The "soul on the other side" of the tunnel could be the toll-taker, but it could also be your new manifestation of yourself--the whole "you never step in the same river twice" kind of thing. There's a sense of uncertainty, maybe some sacrifice ("paying your toll") but at the same time the assurance that "everything will be all right."

If the Bible had a soundtrack, "Holland Tunnel" might be playing when God tells Abram "Lech lecha!" Go take yourself out of the land of your father and go to the land that I will show you. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah: they meet their souls on the other side.

Today, Reb Aryeh and I set the date for my conversion. He suggested some time in early December, tying it to Chanukah, a holiday that's all about dedication. That sounded okay, but I asked if we could do it earlier, since I'm anxious to make it official. We started looking at the calendar, and suddenly the first full week of November leapt out: the week when the Torah portion of Lech lecha will be read. What more perfect time for conversion, for my own personal lech lecha, could there be? God willing, on November 2 I will appear before the bet din (religious court) and undergo the mikvah for conversion (immersion in a body of water--kind of like Jewish baptism).

I can't wait to meet that soul. Drive, baby, drive.

You know what I hate?


When you tell a parent that their child did not take a nap that day, and the parent looks at you all quizzically and significantly, like, "Ohh...?!, as though you were kneeling over their child shaking them, like "WAKE UP HEY YOU WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP." I feel like saying, "Yeah, not only did your child not sleep, but he was so noisy and restless on his mat that he kept everyone else up, too. So take it up with your kid, not with me. Believe me, I wanted him to take a nap, too."

Big brown bear


Several months ago, my co-teacher Cara brought introduced our class to a wonderful CD called Dance for the Sun: Yoga Songs for Kids. The CD is comprised of a dozen or so original children's songs arranged to walk kids through various yoga poses. Some of the songs on the CD can be listened to without the yoga component, like "Caterpillar, Caterpillar" or my favorite "Midnight Moonlight." The songs are really catchy but also well-arranged and musically interesting.

One of the songs is called "Big Brown Bear." The kids love this song and it's incredibly catchy, but lyrically it's not the best song on the CD. Several of the verses don't rhyme, or don't have a consistent rhyme scheme: "I'm a bear, I'm a bear, I'm a big brown bear / munching on some berries / I think the blue ones are the best." Or: "I'm going fishing / salmon fishing / gonna find some fish to eat / the salmon are the best." Still, though, the kids love singing it and clomping around like bears and it's SO CUTE when they all lie down and curl up at the "Gonna find a cozy cave / and take a long rest" part at the end of the song, so we end up singing it a lot.

The other day I was at home singing the song for Daniel. He was like, "I think you might be giving the children an unrealistic image of big brown bears." Then (this part is in poor taste) we started thinking of how to adapt "Big Brown Bear" to be relevant to the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man. Like: "Gonna find a man to eat / the blond one is the best" and "I'm a bear, I'm a bear, I'm a big brown bear / All you see in my eyes / is emptiness and void."

I don't think I'll be introducing the new lyrics to the children.

Nothing says "enforced joviality" like...


...getting an email from your boss with the subject heading, "LEMONADE SOCIAL....attendance required."

27 Dresses and The Banger Sisters: A Study in Opposites


This evening Daniel and I watched 27 Dresses--I know, I know, but I kind of wanted to see it. It looked awful in the trailer, but like possibly either a fun or a hilarious kind of awful that I wanted to experience, so I put it on my Netflix queue.

It wasn't. It was just awful in a mediocre, vaguely distasteful way. The "witty" "banter" fell flat and the characterization was poor. Plus throughout the second act the audio was improperly sync'd, which made it seem like a poorly dubbed foreign film.

On the other hand, The Banger Sisters, which I checked out from the library a month or two ago, was awful in a hilarious, flaming blaze of snakeskin leather pants, faltering English accents, borderline personality disorder-suffering, pseudo deep Jim Morrison references kind of way. Where to begin? How about the awkward and ill-conceived sex scene in which Goldie Hawn's aging groupie seduces neurotic, suicidal writer/hitchhiker Geoffrey Rush? As Daniel put it, "This has to be the least downloaded sex scene in internet history: 'Hey, let's watch Goldie Hawn get it on with the guy from Shine!" Or Goldie Hawn yelling at Susan Sarandon's spoiled kids, a tirade after which they, bowed and humbled, immediately begin to wash the dishes? Or the passing off of common Jim Morrison trivia ("He called himself the Lizard King!") as somehow unique? Or the most incompetent bellboy in the industry, who doesn't understand the meaning of "Please don't tell the crazy lady in the snakeskin what room I'm staying in?" Or Susan Sarandon's entire wardrobe?

Yes, The Banger Sisters was awesome, and it has set the standard for hilariously bad movies. The bar is high, friends. Cool as Ice high.

Hairy-legged feminist


As I mentioned in the last post I stopped shaving my legs a couple months ago. There is a feminist motivation behind it (I do believe that shaving body hair is an artifice of femininity, though I think there's nothing wrong with it per se as long as you acknowledge the artifice), but honestly the primary reason is laziness. I just don't care about having smooth legs enough to expend the time, energy, and money (not to mention the inevitable nicks and cuts) required in keeping them that way. I wear skirts and dresses often, but to my knowledge I've never been looked at askance by anyone I come across for having hairy legs. If anyone at Shaarie Torah or Kesser Israel, the Orthodox synagogue I went to for a lecture on Monday, thought that it was weird, they kept their opinion to themself.

Occasionally now the kids at school notice my hairy legs. The other day I was wearing a skirt out on the playground, sitting on the corner of the sandbox and watching a group of my preschoolers play. S, a four-year-old girl in my class, came up and stood in front of me. She's sometimes like Jekyll and Hyde but we've been going through a great patch for the past couple weeks. She's going through a period of being very affectionate to me. "I love your legs!" she said. "You have hairy legs, but that's okay!" and then she kissed my knee. I don't let the kids kiss me for a multitude of obvious reasons, but she swooped down so fast that I couldn't stop her. There was nothing to do but laugh and tell her that next time she could just blow me a kiss.

Yesterday I was in the sandbox again in a skirt with C, a four-old-boy. I was wearing a skirt again. "Why do have hairy legs?" he asked. "Some women choose to have smooth legs; some women choose to have hairy legs," I explained in my Objective Observation teacher voice. "Oh," he responded, " mom chooses to have smooth legs." "I choose to have hairy legs," I said, and he ran off to play with a friend.

As my leg hair has grown in, I've been interested to notice for the first time that it's kind of patchy. My calves, lower shins, and ankles are pretty hirsute, but there is almost no hair on my thighs, knees, or upper shins. And what hair I do have is pretty light and short. I don't know if it's going to get any longer or darker as it grows, but I did tell Daniel that he could tell me if it gets crazy hairy and starts to bother him.