Help, Thanks, Wow. And Amen by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Help, thanks, wow. Those are the touchstones of prayer identified by the writer Anne Lamott. Lamott is a person of faith, a Christian who has something to say to everyone. The word “inclusive” comes to mind when I think about Lamott. She’s a church-going equal opportunity ecumenist, which is why I took so much away from her new book simply called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.

Helpthankswow

I can guess why Lamott set up three central points to rein in the overwhelming notion of prayer. She’s given her broad readership a user-friendly guide to the sacred trinity of Christianity. But she’s also given me, as a Jew, a way to think about Judaism’s formal schedule of worship. I read Help, Thanks, Wow within the framework of shacharit, mincha and ma’ariv—the set prayers for morning, noon and night that complement spontaneous prayer for reaching out to G-d.

Help-Shacharit.-Morning—Lamott describes calling out for G-d’s help as, “[t]he first great prayer.” To my mind this plea feels like a morning prayer. It’s so primal to shout, to ask, to whisper for G-d’s help.

Help me G-d. The days are so long when you are with young children. Ken travelled constantly when the kids were toddlers. Nothing struck fear in my heart quite as deeply as when I knew he would be away over a weekend. Weekdays we had a routine. Pre-school, scheduled naps, dinner at 5:30 and a couple of hours later a bath-induced sleepiness that gave way to bedtime. On the weekend time flowed like molten lava. Routines went out the window. And to top it off, I was outnumbered two to one. Twelve hours a day of non-stop hard labor.

And then my babies grew older and it got even more difficult. Help me G-d from pretzelitizing my children. “Pretzelitizing” is Anne Lamott’s word, a great word that says so much. Here’s a context for it: Help us G-d to witness the transformation of our children into the people they were meant to be before we pretzelitized them into high achievers, anxious, stressed-out automatons or “charming wired robots.”

Thanks-Mincha-Afternoon—Lamott describes the prayer of thanks as a chance for grace. And grace for her “can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and strength to hang on.” Thank you God.

I’m a morning person by necessity. Given my druthers, I’d stay up late and sleep late. With the morning obligations behind me, I welcome the afternoon. A second wind. When the kids were little, they sort of reliably napped in the afternoon when I could read or just think. Then they graduated to grammar school and my afternoon pick up made me realize how much I’d missed them during the day. Thank you, G-d for trusting me with these lovely children.

I also associate the teen years with the mincha part of my parenthood. It’s still broad daylight in terms of parenting, but there’s the heat of noon, the glare of the deep afternoon sun with which to contend. You can’t look directly at the sun in the afternoon and you can’t look straight on at your occasionally frustrating, obnoxious, glorious, I-really-wouldn’t-trade-this-kid-in teenager. Hormones, driver’s licenses, puppy love, first real love. Thankfully the teen years are a relatively short stretch of time and mincha is the shortest of the three services.

Wow-Ma’ariv-Evening—For better or for worse, another day in Kid Land signed, sealed and delivered to the annals of memory. Wow. Baby took a few steps into toddlerhood. Toddler grabbed words from here, there and everywhere and formed sentences. My boy wrote a fantastic short story with an imagination still pure and free of self-consciousness. My daughter has a fierce kick that gives her a leg up in a soccer game. Wow.

Some etymologists speculate that the word “wow” was once a blurry contraction of the words “I vow.” Here’s another lovely observation from Lamott: “The words ‘wow’ and ‘awe’ are the same height and width, all w’s and short vowels. They could dance together.” Indeed they could. Wow.

The rabbi pronouncing Ken and me husband and wife for the first time. Wow.  The look on Ken’s face as each of our children was born. Wow. Anna going off to her senior prom in a dress and hairdo to die for. Wow.  Adam writing my mother a lengthy note in her native Spanish wishing her a speedy recovery from surgery. Wow.

Wowwowwowwowwow. Strung together, the word is rhythmic, pulsating. Like a miracle it might respond to, wow has its own reverberation.

A Midnight Utterance-Amen. Amen the final word. It’s also from the Hebrew word emunah—faith.  Amen is a concise proclamation of faith in what has been expressed.  Amen completes us. Amen is certainty.

Amen is a response to this lovely, messy life that yields moment after moment of wows—moments that Abraham Joshua Heschel described as “radical amazement.”

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A Deep Longing: An Interview with Michael Lowenthal, author of The Paternity Test

Michael Lowenthal’s fourth novel, [“The Paternity Test,”](http://lowenthal.etherweave.com/) is a beautifully told story that brings myriad social issues to the forefront, and also manages to be a literary page-turner.

Lowenthal’s work is hard to categorize. His first book, [“The Same Embrace,”](http://lowenthal.etherweave.com/the-same-embrace.html told the story of identical twins, one of whom became gay while the other became an Orthodox Jew. [“Avoidance”](http://lowenthal.etherweave.com/avoidance.html) explored the cloistered worlds of the Amish and the protagonist’s long-ago summer boys’ camp. [“Charity Girl”](http://lowenthal.etherweave.com/charity-girl.html) took up a little-known chapter of American history when women were incarcerated during the First World War in a government effort to contain venereal disease.

Versatility is a hallmark of Lowenthal’s work, as is the 43-year-old writer’s gift for language and depth of character. “The Paternity Test” gracefully merges gay marriage, Jewish identity, sexuality, the Holocaust, Jewish continuity and sexual fidelity in one story.

Pat Faunce and Stu Nadler have been together for a decade. Pat is a blue blood  (there’s a small street named after his family near Plymouth Rock) and a failed poet who earns his living by writing textbooks. Stu, a dashing airline pilot, is the son of a Holocaust survivor who, as Lowenthal recently described him in a conversation over coffee, “has a boy in every port. But their ‘no rules relationship’ is starting to wear on them. So in a 21st century twist on saving their ‘marriage,’ they decide to have a baby.”

The issue of Jewish continuity following the Holocaust further complicates the story. Stu’s sister, Rina, recently married Richard, a nice Jewish boy, but she cannot conceive. Meanwhile, Stu also feels the pressure of passing on the Nadler genes.

Lowenthal’s grandparents escaped the Holocaust just before deportations began in Germany. The grandson of a rabbi, has a multi-pronged answer when asked if he considers himself a Jewish writer. He said:

I was raised in a [Conservative] Jewish household, and three of my four novels prominently feature Jewish characters and Judaism-related plot elements, so yes, obviously, I’m a Jewish writer. I’m reminded of a remark by a gay writer when he was asked if there is such a thing as a gay sensibility, and, if so, what effect it has on the arts. He said, ‘No, there is no such thing as a gay sensibility, and yes, it has an immense impact on the arts.’ Maybe the same thing could be said of Jewish sensibility?

Stu and Pat’s search for a surrogate begins, as does an intense exploration of Jewish identity. After visiting various agencies and trolling surrogate sites on the Internet, they settle on Debora Cardozo Neuman. In Stu Nadler’s surprisingly traditional mindset, Jewish babies must be born to Jewish mothers and Debora fits the bill, albeit in an unusual way. A native of Brazil, she comes from a *converso*background — generations before her, Jews practiced Catholicism outwardly yet clung to their Judaism. Now Deborah follows a set of quirky habits and mysterious dietary restrictions until the community uncovers its Jewish roots.

While Stu is taken with Debora’s story, Lowenthal raises the stakes: Rina and Richard adopt, which causes Richard to lose himself in the “minutiae of Judaism. Richard pays attention to legalistic questions that shouldn’t trump choosing to raise a child in a Jewish home. For him it’s not enough. It’s better if the child is converted shortly after birth to avoid the possibility of having a *mamzer*.”

A *mamzer* is a child considered to be illegitimate if born to a woman who has conceived a child outside of her marriage. Like the plight of the *aguna* — a woman who is legally stranded in a marriage because a husband refuses to grant her a Jewish divorce or a *get* — *mamzerim* have no control over their fate or their standing in the community. While liberal branches of Judaism have done away with the *mamzer*status, Richard adheres to ultra-Orthodox tradition and in the process destroys his marriage.

“The book,” says Lowenthal, “is so much about looking from the outside with regard to parenthood, family, sexuality and Judaism. Sexuality is also very fluid in the book, which takes on an intimate situation. But intimacy is so much more important than gender and sexuality.”

Place is also important to Lowenthal. Pat and Stu relocate to a house on Cape Cod very similar to the one in which Lowenthal spent his summers. His Portuguese sounds flawless to this Spanish speaker’s ear as I ask him about the word *saudade* — a word that Debora uses when describing Pat and Stu’s need for a child.

“*Saudade* describes a deep longing for something that can never be recaptured,” he explained. “It’s about the immigrant who can’t return to his homeland because so much has changed. It’s the fantasy of family — the mythical idea of who they are.”

There’s no question that a feeling of *saudade* permeates “The Paternity Test.”Each character has his or her own *saudade* in longing for a baby. And their complex desires irrevocably change life for Stu, Pat and Debora in ways they could never imagine.

*My Grandmother’s Tallit – A Letter to Anna

Dear Anna:

It’s been five years since your bat mitzvah. In your bat mitzvah state of mind you read trope cues as easily as ABC’s. You teased out meaning from your Torah portion, which recorded the life and death of Sarah. And your wore a tallit or a prayer shawl you picked out in Jerusalem. If you had done any of these things at the Western Wall in Jerusalem the Israeli police might have arrested you and me, the mother who allowed you to commit such a crime.

I must confess to you my dear daughter that I’ve never felt that any of the rituals your Dad and I gifted you with were truly mine. But in light of Anat Hoffman’s recent arrest last week for wearing her tallit at the Wall, your Bat Mitzvah was as much a political statement as it was a rite of passage.

When I look at your tallit—pink and silk and uniquely yours—I think of my grandmother whom I called Abuela. Abuela was born in Greece at the dawn of the 20th century and went to a school there funded by the Rothschilds. She learned the minimum Hebrew to recite the blessings over the Sabbath candles and did needlepoint to fill in the rest of her life.

Nobody wielded a needle and thread like my Abuela. With deft rhythm and mesmerizing patterns, she conveyed a life story of painstaking work and imposed silence. After she arrived in Cuba, Abuela sewed late into the night to make ends meet. She made my mother and my aunt frilly dresses between the sewing jobs she took in from neighbors. Abuela also crocheted her husband and her son’s tallitot—prayer shawls—for which she carefully tied the ritual fringes with sore fingers.

In America Abuela fashioned a kind of tallit for herself when she pulled the wool shawl she wore year round closer to her chest. In her small apartment she sat in a chair with stuffing peeking out of its arm that she was too tired to mend. The few times a year that she ventured to a synagogue, she stood when the ark was opened and blew kisses toward the bimah or altar as if greeting a lover. In a hoarse voice she muttered the Kaddish or the Mourner’s Prayer with her hand firmly on my shoulder so that I could not stand up and tempt fate.

When I was twelve my mother lugged a reel-to-reel tape recorder home, which she borrowed from the high school where she taught Spanish. She had planned to record Spanish lessons for the kids that she tutored on the side. But I quickly seized the recorder. The microphone that came with the machine transformed me into a roving reporter. I walked around the house inventing news about my mundane summer days.

Abuela spent most of that summer sitting on our porch, staring through the slats of the new jalousie windows. I felt that I was doing something important in the way that she intently watched me playing with the reel-to-reel. And then one day I got the idea to interview her. “Talk about anything,” I told her. Recipes, sewing, childhood stories. But mostly I wanted her to sing again. When she was a young girl she played the lute and sang Ladino songs in a lilting soprano. Her father forbade her to sing when she turned twelve.

 

My grandfather, Abuelo, was more than willing to take Abuela’s turn at the tape recorder. He dressed for prayer, winding the straps of his tefillin around his left arm and placing the leather boxes on his forehead and in the crook of his left arm. Abuelo wore a tallit that he snagged from a local synagogue—he had to leave the one that Abuela made him with the rest of his possessions in Cuba. He sang the shacharit—as if offering that morning liturgy as his personal history. His voice started off as wobbly as the plastic reels spooling the shiny brown ribbon of tape.

His voice was stronger after he gathered the tzitzit or fringes of his tallit to recite the Sh’ma—Judaism’s central prayer. Eyes closed. Voice pleading. I joined him at the microphone. It was thrilling to sing about listening for and loving God with all of my heart and my soul and my strength. In that moment I blurted out that I wanted to be a rabbi.

Abuelo stopped singing and the only thing audible was the squeaking of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, making me cringe as if I heard nails scratching a blackboard. He dropped his tzitzit and said, “Eso es muy feo”—that is so ugly. Abuela looked up.

Suddenly, finding her voice, Abuela said to me, “You can be anything you want.” Abuela could have been anything she wanted too, only she wasn’t allowed to think that way. If she were born in a different time, she might have used her voice to defend Anat Hoffman.

I’m sure she would have been inspired by you as you happily wore your tallit and celebrated your coming-of-age by reading from the Torah about every woman’s life.

Love,

Mamma

*This piece was reconfigured as a letter to my daughter and published in the Jewish Advocate

 

My Grandmother’ Tallit

It’s been five years since my daughter Anna had her bat mitzvah. In her bat mitzvah state of mind she had read trope cues as easily as ABC’s. She teased out meaning from her Torah portion, which recorded the life and death of Sarah. And she wore a tallit or a prayer shawl she picked out in Jerusalem. I’ve never felt any of the rituals my husband and I gifted her were truly mine, but my daughter didn’t think twice about accepting them. Her Bat Mitzvah was as much about her rights as a Jewish woman as it was her rite of passage.

When I look at Anna’s tallit—pink and silk and uniquely hers—I think of my grandmother whom I called Abuela. Abuela was born in Greece at the dawn of the 20th century and went to a school there funded by the Rothschilds. She learned the minimum Hebrew to recite the blessings over the Sabbath candles and did needlepoint to fill in the rest of her life. Family lore claims that she and her siblings made their way to Cuba after Greek soldiers kidnapped her sister and held her for ransom. Her father and brothers delivered the ransom on horseback and when the exchange was complete, there was just enough money left for passage to Havana. Abuela was a young teenager when she arrived in Havana.

Even in Cuba, nobody wielded a needle and thread like my Abuela. With deft rhythm and mesmerizing patterns, she conveyed a life story of painstaking work and imposed silence. Abuela sewed late into the night to make ends meet. She made my mother and my aunt frilly dresses between the sewing jobs she took in from neighbors. Abuela also crocheted her husband and her son’s tallitot—prayer shawls—for which she carefully tied the ritual fringes with sore fingers.

In America Abuela fashioned a kind of tallit for herself when she pulled the wool shawl she wore year round closer to her chest. In her small apartment she sat in a chair with stuffing peeking out of its arm that she was too tired to mend. The few times a year that she ventured to a synagogue, she stood when the ark was opened and blew kisses toward the bimah or altar as if greeting a lover. In a hoarse voice she muttered the Kaddish or the Mourner’s Prayer with her hand firmly on my shoulder so that I could not stand up and tempt fate.

When I was twelve my mother lugged a reel-to-reel tape recorder home, which she borrowed from the high school where she taught Spanish. She had planned to record Spanish lessons for the kids that she tutored on the side. But I quickly seized the recorder. The microphone that came with the machine transformed me into a roving reporter. I walked around the house inventing news about my mundane summer days.

Abuela spent most of that summer sitting on our porch, staring through the slats of the new jalousie windows. I felt that I was doing something important when Abuela intently watched me playing with the reel-to-reel. And then one day I got the idea to interview her. “Talk about anything,” I told her. Recipes, sewing, childhood stories. But mostly I wanted her to sing again. When she was a young girl she played the lute and sang Ladino songs in a lilting soprano. Her father forbade her to sing when she turned twelve.

My grandfather, Abuelo, was more than willing to take Abuela’s turn at the tape recorder. He held the microphone like a preacher and told me a story from when he was a boy in Turkey. On his way to school he witnessed a Turko soldier stab an Armenian man to death. His family left for Cuba a week later. “Why Cuba?” I asked him. Spanish was easier to learn than English for a Ladino speaker.

The next day Abuelo came back for another recording session dressed for prayer. He wound the straps of his tefillin around his left arm and placed the leather boxes on his forehead in the crook of his left arm. At twelve, I was approaching bat mitzvah age yet had no hope of winding leather straps of my own tefillin around my arm. Abuelo wore a tallit that he snagged from a local synagogue—he had to leave the one that Abuela made him with the rest of his possessions in Cuba. He sang the shacharit—as if offering that morning liturgy as his personal history. His voice started off as wobbly as the plastic reels spooling the shiny brown ribbon of tape.

His voice was stronger after he gathered the tzitzit or fringes of his tallit to recite the Sh’ma—Judaism’s central prayer. Eyes closed. Voice pleading. I joined him at the microphone. It was thrilling to sing about listening for and loving God with all of my heart and my soul and my strength. In that moment I blurted out that I wanted to be a rabbi.

Abuelo stopped singing and the only thing audible was the squeaking of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, making me cringe as if I heard nails scratching a blackboard. He dropped his tzitzit and said, “Eso es muy feo”—that is so ugly. Abuela looked up.

Turko,” she screamed at Abuelo as if he had stabbed me. Finding her voice, she said to me, “You can be anything you want.”

A few years ago Anna had a towel draped around her shoulders. She had been drying her hair. “Look Mom, my tallit,” she joked. I wished I had recorded the moment in memory of my Abuela, in honor of the future. But more importantly, I wished that Abuela could have seen her great-granddaughter happily wearing her tallit and celebrating her coming-of-age by reading from the Torah about every woman’s life.

My Nest

Here’s a joke that I recently heard. An optimist sees the glass half-full. A pessimist sees the glass half-empty. An opportunist drinks the water. Not all that coincidentally, these describe the various emotional states of my half-occupied nest. Sometimes it’s half-full; sometimes it’s half-empty. Although there is more time and space in my house since Anna left for college, I’m still shocked that she packed up and moved away a five hour drive from me. Bearing in mind that our daughter wakes up every day almost 300 miles away, here’s a very short list of what’s changed at my house.

The bedroom. Be careful what you wish for because it may come true. Before she left for school, we blasted Anna’s room, clearing over eight years of detritus. We were sorting stuff that dated all the way back to 4th grade. There was that book project Anna couldn’t part with or that oh so pretty party dress that she wore on the bar mitzvah circuit six years ago! Six years ago?! Mind-boggling. In fact, Parents’ Weekend at Anna’s school falls on the fifth anniversary of her Bat Mitzvah. The quiet, clean bedroom matches the quiet, sort of clean house. I don’t mean to say that Anna is loud. But there is a liveliness, a spirit of wonder and a megawatt smile that she brings into a room. And with her departure for college, I’m now the only girl in the house. Even the dog is a boy and like the men in this house he could care less about the fabulous sweaters and pocketbooks that I find on sale.

The car. Anna never made the deadline we gave her for getting her driver’s license. Even her learner’s permit has expired. This means that Anna needed rides early and often. The longest ride we had together was between her school and Adam’s. I’ll admit I was almost always grumpy about the prospect of driving 15 miles in traffic between schools. But my annoyance evaporated when Anna got in the car and we had a half-hour to ourselves. We put the time to good use. We’d talk about the books she was reading, the people she was hanging out with, the latest doings at Student Council. The car ride was the teenage equivalent of lying down with her before she fell asleep. When she was a little girl that was the time that I learned what was near and dear to her heart, or conversely, what broke her heart.

Mealtime. Anna’s acute dairy allergy shaped who she was and, consequently, who we became as a family. Over the years Ken and I worked to help her advocate for herself at a birthday party or a restaurant. It turns out that Anna’s allergy also informed our Judaism. Since we had such little dairy in our house and we had made the commitment to send our kids to Jewish day school, it was not such a big leap for us to start keeping kosher. At first, we practiced keeping kosher using our non-kosher dishes. That is to say, we didn’t buy new plates or get a second set of plates to separate meat from dairy more fully. The fully stocked kosher kitchen was a natural outcome of our kitchen remodel. Everything was new including a dishwasher with two drawers—one for meat and one for milk. Nevertheless, we mainly lived a meat and pareve existence. When Anna left for college, I was sure that we would have a dairy fest every night in the house. I’ll admit that for the first couple of weeks we went wild and crazy with cheese tortellini and traded some of our Mother’s pareve margarine for a tub of butter. But it wasn’t as fun as we thought it would be. There was something disloyal about indulging in all that dairy and so barely realizing it we went back to our pareve life.

The brother. In many ways, Anna’s departure has been hardest on Adam. When it became clear that Anna was indeed going to college he got downright depressed at the thought of being the only child at home. He’d mumble under his breath, “I can’t believe I’m going to be stuck with those two. “ Those two, in case you haven’t figured it out, are Ken and me. I tried not to be insulted and chalked up his rudeness to anticipatory anxiety. It’s been six weeks since Anna settled into a dorm room with posters of Coldplay and the Beatles, and Adam still can’t believe he’s stuck with the two of us. I thought he’d be thrilled to be picked up on time and have unfettered access to parmesan cheese. It turns out he was just making noise about those things. He’d rather have Anna home.

When it’s all said and done, this half-empty nest, or depending on a given day, half- full nest, is ultimately emotional limbo. I’m not exactly pushing Adam out the door, but I’m kind of curious about what being an opportunist feels like.

Ghosts of Sukkot Past

Sukkot is here and my guests are on the way. Like Chagall’s lovers they fly over the silver moon; their white gauzy clothing double as wings. I greet them in the sukkah—a makeshift structure akin to a hut that we build from a kit. The sukkah also has a roof with slats generously spaced to see the sun and the moon and the stars.

The company I’m talking about stargazing with is called ushpizin—the Hebrew term for mystical guests who will grace sukkot (plural of sukkah) all over the world on each of the seven nights of the holiday. This is my kind of celebration. When I was a kid I loved reenactments of historical events. The old sitcom Bewitched tickled me because someone like Columbus or Shakespeare came alive for me.

To that end, I have a wish list of historical figures I’ve always wanted to meet. Moses and Leah top my list. No one is more associated with the Torah than Moses. In my mind, he’s an inspiration because so much of his leadership was marked by doubt. As a parent in the 21st century, I take solace in the fact that even with God’s direct intervention, Moses still had a difficult time leading the Israelites out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Leah is my role model as a mother. Every parent has been a Leah at some point—taken for granted, ignored, but still triumphant in ordinary yet miraculous ways.

The Rachel that I want to meet was Rabbi Akiva’s wife. I like her rebelliousness. She was from a prosperous family who followed her heart and married the illiterate Akiva against her family’s wishes. To complete the fairytale, she recognized Akiva’s natural genius and encouraged him to learn to read when he was 40. Forty! Akiva excelled in his studies beyond their wildest dreams. Rachel was alone for years as he studied and taught in the greatest Jewish academies.

In his absence, Rachel coped with grace and fortitude. I want to ask her how she did it. I want to know if she was as disoriented as I am when my husband is only away for a week on a business trip. I want to know how she controlled herself when her husband finally came home and his students, protective of their beloved teacher, did not let her through the throng to greet him. When Akiva realized what was happening, he ordered his students to let Rachel pass immediately. He told them that she single-handedly was responsible for everything that he and his students had attained. I want to know if witnessing her husband’s success was worth sacrificing his company all those years.

I want to introduce my daughter Anna to Sara Schenirer. Hunched over her sewing machine, she had a revelation. Or was it a moment of despair that gave way to lucidity? She dared to imagine girls in their own schools studying Torah. It was a radical idea in the late 19th century. Although nowhere near egalitarian, the fact that girls had a classroom of their own to be formally educated was inspiring and enduring and just. I want Anna to know that she is the direct beneficiary of Sara Schenirer’s prescience.

I love spirits. I buy into the notion that there are other times during the year for formal visitation from phantasmagoric souls. There are the seven days of shiva or mourning. The week during which the sheva b’rachot—the seven blessings following a marriage—are celebrated. We boldly mingle with our ancestors on Passover when Elijah joins us and Miriam remembers us with a shake of her timbrel.

But it’s on Sukkot that I reflect on people I would give almost anything to see again. I close my eyes and see my father healthy and strong. I remember my father-in-law’s mega-watt smile and can-do optimism. I feel the presence of Anna’s namesake—a grandmother whom I adored. I miss my friend Miriam so much that I ache. My sukkah is a space painted in a full spectrum of memories and emotional colors.

It makes sense that a holiday that welcomes ghosts to the dinner table would end with Yizkor—the service to memorialize the dead. Yom Kippur and the three harvest festivals—Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot—are the four times a year there is time and space to mingle with loved ones who have died.

What comforts me most about remembering my dead on Sukkot is that I can walk out of my fragile sukkah into the sturdy structure of community where, I believe, a lot of people understand that otherworldly visitors frequently stop by throughout the year.

 

 

In the Gray Zone

I’ve been thinking a lot about color lately. Or more to the point, the presence and absence of light that make up white and black. I think all this consideration of color reflects the fact that I’ve been vacillating somewhere between hope and despair this High Holiday season. It’s a state of mind that squarely puts me in the middle of the gray zone. That’s Adam’s term for these ten intermittent days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I clearly remember when he first mentioned the gray zone. It was fifth grade and he had just learned about the Ten Days of Awe—the days between the High Holidays. He didn’t see anything awesome about being suspended in doubt and self-criticism.

Which leads me to the conundrum at the heart of the gray zone discussions I had with him. How do you explain the High Holidays to kids without scaring the living daylights out of them? Just the images alone send me into black hibernation. No light, no consciousness. Let God add and erase names in the Book of Life without my awareness.

But that’s not exactly good role modeling. If there’s anything that should be deleted it’s our understanding of the Sunday School God that dips a feathered quill into ink and enters names as part of some macabre accounting. The God I first became acquainted with had a flowing white beard. When I was a little older, he looked exactly like my Uncle Mac of the booming voice and the rosy cheeks. Uncle Mac was God on earth. I imagine that most kids cope with God as the ultimate abstraction by pretending that He’s some version of their own Uncle Mac.In this patch of gray that Adam constructed as a little boy, it followed that God is also gray. But it’s impossible to see anything through the fog that shrouds Him. Also, note how useless it is to shine headlights in the fog. The light reflects back, illuminating nothing. Maybe that’s the hard-edged perspective of an adult.

I found a lovely children’s book called Because Nothing Looks Like God [(http://www.amazon.com/Because-Nothing-Looks-Like-God/dp/158023092X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1347850420&sr=1-1&keywords=because+nothing+looks+like+god)] by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Karen Kushner that breathes life into some of my grown-up jadedness. God is in the details like a birthday cake, the band-aid that fixes a cut. Ultimately, “God looks like nothing. And nothing looks like God.” The authors challenge children to think about how many things we can’t see like the wind, or the sun drying or the joyous moments of a day at the beach. I ‘d also ask kids to think about what love does and does not look like.

But how do you explain God to a teenager whose earliest memories are singed with images of burning towers? What do you say to your children after you’ve been pulled over by airport security for a more thorough search? You’re part of the danger in this very dangerous world? Or let’s turn to the more mundane. You work hard and you study hard and still that A or that role in the play eludes you. Does God have more important matters to attend to than the disappointments in your life?  Or is God simply too distracted these days to care about your problems. “First world problems,” shrugs Adam the now-jaded teenager. That’s his default position to deal with his disillusionment.

Maybe I’m taking all of this too literally. Children grow into more sophisticated thinkers, leaving a parent like me stuck in the concreteness of pshat—the Jewish term for biblical literalism. I envy my teens who, these days, are in the thick of drash—extracting meaning from the subtext of a story or a new situation. Maybe my time in the gray zone is best spent listening to my kids explain life to me.

This is also the time of year when we read Leviticus 18 on the afternoon of Yom Kippur—a verse that many take in as pshat to condemn gay marriage. At first glance it seems odd to be worrying about forbidden unions on a day when the gates of heaven are clanging shut. (More concreteness.) But who knew that the gray zone could be conducive to a personal and loving discussion on sex education with your kids. Who shall live and who shall die can be transformed into a celebration of whom we love. Who will we love better and more thoughtfully in this New Year?

The Ba’al Shem Tov, the father of the Hasidic movement in the eighteenth century, said “there are many halls in the king’s palace and intricate keys to all the doors. But the master key to God’s house is a broken heart.” That leads up to one of my favorite sayings in the Talmud—“There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” And there’s no better place to learn that than in the space that Adam, in his little boy wisdom, once dubbed the gray zone.