Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cataclysm from Left Field

I have heard it said that when cataclysmic change comes, it arrives from left field.

Despite the pronouncements of pundits and predictors, the events that change the course of history are often unheralded, flagged mostly by madmen and prophets.

Something is shifting in our universe. I felt it at the mid-point of this past winter. The earth has slipped from her axis and a hateful spirit has taken hold.

The cold of this past winter felt spiteful.

Spring felt far too slim, skimpy, evasive.

And this summer -- so long-awaited -- is not the summer of years past. It is filled with angst and what is increasingly referred to as "extreme weather" -- rain that is aggressive, heat that feels nuclear, a malicious void where cosmic benevolence used to be.

I am up, sleepless, unable to rest, keeping vigil, reading news, headlines, posts on Facebook, statements that arrive via email, analyses, Op-Eds, blogs, Breaking News alerts, Red Alert warnings of Hamas missiles launched and a steady stream of images coming out of the place that is at the epicenter of my soul: Israel.

And its heart of hearts: Jerusalem.

There is a malevolence afoot now -- not only in the murderous intent of Hamas -- but in the complicity of countries filled with Jew-haters who are all-too-eager to use this so-called "conflict" to give voice to their evil passions, which have evidently been simmering beneath the surface of their civility all along.

We knew/I knew, that the golden age of our security had to end. We knew/I knew that the ability for a Jew to be a heedless, careless, fancy-free citizen of the world had an expiration date stamped on it.

I don't mean that I am imperiled in New York City today, right here, right now but I do know that a tide has turned.

The genie of European anti-Semitism has been released and there is no stuffing it back into the bottle; no way to pretend we hadn't seen it. Of course, Europe is not the only new/old Ground Zero of hatred and hostility to Jews, but -- soaked with Jewish blood -- it does it deserves special mention.

The violent rallies with bloodthirsty proclamations -- Death to the Jews! and similar slogans -- stun us in their profusion, in their magnitude, in their suddenness.

It is as if we have been drugged for decades, sleeping through the dress rehearsal for this world-wide scene shift.

It is late and I am tired. I am terrified. I am heartbroken. I cannot bear the photographs of the slain Israeli soldiers, in numbers too high to accept. They are my loss, members of my family and I cannot pretend that the grief I feel for them is equivalent to the sorrow I feel for the innocent Palestinian victims of the hellbent Hamas fighters.

I bemoan -- as do all people of conscience -- the senseless loss of life, their suffering and the mess of the awful, so old, so eternal. I understand their cruel fate; how their leaders chose to make them sacrifices out of spite.

But personal loss is always different. It has to be. That is the way the human animal is built. Why should we pretend otherwise?

I scream into the abyss of the conscience of the world:

What do you not understand? How can you fail to see the evil unfolding before you?

At this time, the force of my fears, my love and the entirety of my vigilance is focused on my family, my people, my tribe -- the historic Children of Israel who have somehow made it into the second millennium. At this time, the dangerous winds of the new/old extreme weather threaten us and we run for shelter. How, O Lord, do we stay safe in this new time and space? What have we learned through persecution and pogrom, through death camps and deportations, through hateful rhetoric and harmful legislation? What gifts has modernity given us in our existential battle? What is our special status as American Jews? Or is that an illusion that is about to be shattered?

It is late.  It is late in New York but a new day is dawning in Israel. I split my attention between computer screens, reading frightening new reports, alarming predictions, protestations over yesterday's disturbing ban on air travel to and from Israel.

Guardian of Israel, do not sleep. Stay awake. Keep vigil. Protect us.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Thinking/Writing Cure

At 1:30 a.m. I was wrested from my dreams by an insistently barking Pomeranian who just turned 14, which makes him quite an elderly canine.

Alfie, a master communicator, had something to tell me relating to business that was not completed during his failed late night walk with HOBB.

There had been a torrential downpour and Alfie is a bit of a prima donna, so he stubbornly sat in the lobby of the Urban Bungalow, not wishing to sully his perfect blond coat.

In the middle of the night he realized the error of his ways and improvised in the bathroom. A neat freak, he needed me to know.

That is how I found myself wide away shortly after midnight, though I spent a futile hour trying to will myself back to sleep. I should not have even bothered. With a resolute tossing back of the blankets, I bounded out of bed and began my workday around 3 a.m.

Through I did grouse and call Alfie some choice names, though I even felt sorry for myself initially, the minute I sat down in front of my computer, I was reminded of the advantages of working in the middle of the night, when the distractions of the world fall away.

And of something else: the easy flow of ideas when sleep has allowed my mind to loosen its familiar bonds.

So I've been up and working for hours. Seeing me online, Big Babe in Berlin sent me a Skype invitation and we had a lovely chat. A few clients were up as well and emails were exchanged. I took care of wedding details and of last-minute arrangements for Middle Babe's Bridal Shower this weekend. I got a jumpstart on the news from Israel, the latest chapter in an ongoing existential saga, as old as the Bible.

And I've been thinking of this time before the marriage of my middle child, of what such a union means, of the idea of a lifelong love relationship, of her beautiful bond with her Gentleman Caller -- soon to be my son-in-law.

I've been thinking of what it means to have raised a child who now believes in marriage, against statistical evidence that we are in a post-marital era, or at least a marriage-optional era.

I've been thinking of what it means to be a modern mother of the bride, of my role in supporting my daughter as she plans her wedding in an admirable hands-on way, of the hard work that happened -- during the day as well as the middle of the night -- to enable this wedding.

There is pride in being able to provide for one's child.

And I know that Middle Babe feels proud of the hard work she has done, just as I gaze at her efforts with admiration and wonder. My daughter is no one's diva, no Disney Princess for a day. She has approached her wedding with the same determined focus with which she regards her challenging work at a non-profit organization.

She has inspired me throughout this year of planning, which had its difficult moments. With six weeks to go, we have drawn closer, united in purpose.

Wedding guests are correct to be touched by the fresh, hopeful love and dreams of a bride and groom.

Beyond the details of the day -- flowers, food, the choice of music, the venue, the colors of the bridal party -- there is the fact of an important new venture being launched, two people pledging their love and loyalty for life, forming a fortress for one another in an often-inhospitable world.

As the sun rises over Morningside Heights, it strikes me that the most enduring monument one can build in this world is a home which is a sanctuary with gates that open to the great outdoors and a private footpath for the master and mistress of the manor which leads to their inner sanctum, their holy of holies.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Recovery of Writings Past

While searching online today for something I had written a couple of years ago, I inadvertently found an essay/book review of Simone Zelitch's work, Louisa that I had entirely forgotten about. I read it with shameless glee, sobered only by two terrible details: the rabbi I refer to as metaphysical has since been revealed to be a sexual predator, and the host of the sumptuous breakfast at the King David Hotel was revealed to have been a crook, his generosity funded by white collar crime. Still, finding this essay now is a gift. In the midst of an unusually stressful time in my personal life as well as that of the Jewish people, reading about my magical midnight foray in Jerusalem on a summer night in 1998 provided a much-welcome window into a simpler time. The timing also seems unusually apt as I just published my novella, The Jerusalem Lover, yesterday morning. This essay brings me back to that era before 9/11, which provides one of the frames for The Jerusalem Lover. We were careless. We were clueless. I linger in the memory of that moment and share it with you, here:

At four in the morning, a solemn breeze wafted through the ancient Hurva synagogue, raising the tarpaulin-like roof, ruffling the hair and garments of the hundreds who were gathered inside, sitting cross-legged on the cold, stone floor. It was Shavuot night, 1998, the setting was Jerusalem, and I was on the third leg of my night-long tikkun, the traditional learning marathon held on the first night of the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.

The evening had begun at a friend's house in Baka and moved on to Yakar, the spirited, soulful synagogue located in the Old Katamon neighborhood. Now I had come to the Hurva, located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, to hear the metaphysical rabbi, Mordechai Gafni.

As Gafni spoke, the sun rose over the ancient city of Jerusalem As the sky lightened at five, I rose and left the Hurva, making my way through winding streets until I met the members of my davening group, N'shei Ha-Kotel, the Women of the Wall. Gathering together, we commenced our recitation of shacharit, the morning prayers.

While we davened, streams of Jews poured onto the Kotel plaza, black-hat and bohemian alike. This parade of people had come from every corner of Jerusalem–and beyond–in commemoration of the pilgrimages made in the time of the ancient Temple.
As the hour approached seven, I made my way out of the Old City and towards the King David Hotel. It was on the hotel's capacious lawn that I concluded mytikkun leil Shavuot–tired yet exhilarated–at a reception thrown by family friends, feasting on traditional holiday fare: cheesecake, blintzes, rice pudding with raisins, pie, custard and all manner of dairy treats.

There is an otherworldly magic to staying up all night, studying Jewish texts. There is a surprising sense of revelation to studying–once again, the Ten Commandments, and finding new insights and commentaries. And there is the profound beauty of the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of the righteous Moabite woman Ruth, one of history's best known Jews-by-choice, great-grandmother of King David and ancestor of the Messiah.
Widowed as a young woman, Ruth "cleaves" to Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law, pledging complete loyalty to her tradition and people. Though Naomi urges her to return to her Moabite kinsmen, Ruth refuses, stating her now-immortal vow:

Entreat me not to leave you, and do not tell me to return from following after you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.

These oft-quoted words have inspired humankind over the course of centuries. Evidently, they took up residence within the literary imagination of Simone Zelitch. The result is her remarkable novel, Louisa , which offers a modern retelling of the story of Ruth, set in post-World War II Palestine, with ample flashbacks to Szeged and Budapest, Hungary.

Louisa offers us the story of the relationship between Nora and Louisa, a latter-day Naomi and Ruth. Louisa is a young German Christian woman who falls in love with Gabor Gratz, an inscrutable and restless young Jewish composer. Finding herself pregnant by him, they marry, at the insistence of Gabor's mother, Nora. The pregnancy does not survive; neither does Gabor. As the Jews are hunted throughout Budapest, Nora seeks refuge in the cellar of Louisa's home and there waits out the end of the war before being transported to Palestine.

The problem is, Louisa refuses to leave her bitter and grief-stricken mother-in-law and gains passage with Nora to Palestine. Landing at a kibbutz, she endures hatred and suspicion (some refugees swear they saw her working as a Nazi guard at a concentration camp), works in the fruit orchard, studies Hebrew and begins studying for conversion with the kibbutz rabbi.

She also does some covert work, tracking down Nora's beloved cousin Bela (now known as Jonah), with whom Nora grew up in Hungary. Bela immigrated to Palestine prior to the war and had tried to convince Nora to do likewise. His mother and sister were killed in the course of the war. Arabs murdered Leah, his young French-Israeli wife, outside of their kibbutz.

Bela/Jonah represents the Boaz character in the Ruth story, the older kinsman of Naomi whom Ruth marries to carry on the family legacy. Claiming to work in the orchards well beyond the harvesting season, Louisa finds Bela/Jonah, works for him and eventually falls in love with him. They marry, bear a child named Tamar who carries on Bela's bloodline and Louisa keeps her pledge to Nora to redeem Gabor's death by having children, bringing new life into the Jewish people.

Zelitch's Nora is hardly an endearing character. She is bitter, similar to the biblical Naomi who asked that her name be changed to Mara, bitter one. She is frequently unkind to Louisa. She misses out on love and its fulfillment. She makes Louisa all the more heroic.

Yet Zelitch allows us to see Louisa's devotion to her mother-in-law in a different vein. Louisa somehow intuits that becoming a Jew and going to Palestine are her destiny. She means the words "Your people are my people" quite literally. Her motivating force is not altruism, but a realist grasp of her fate.

The skillful weaving of the Ruth and Naomi theme into Louisa is a testament to Zelitch's keen understanding of the text. The work is a literary tour de force, jumping continents, cultures and chronological boundaries. It raises the interesting question of the Messiah's ancestry and the process ofteshuva, repentance. It asks us to accept the German-Christian Louisa's conversion and active role in perpetuating a Jewish bloodline, as an act of tikkun(restoration) for the sins of her kinsmen during the Shoah.

Louisa and Shavuot share many themes: the power of forgiveness and good deeds, and their potential for repairing the world. The Book of Ruth, however, has an additional twist, for it hints at an instruction manual for repairing the world. The instruction manual of course, is Jewish Law, which is the axis upon which the Ruth narrative turns. One of the many fascinating aspects of the Book of Ruth is we get to see the Torah's laws in action. 

One example of this is when Boaz observes the laws of Tzedekah and instructs his workers to let ample grain fall through their hands so that the poor (in this case Ruth) may glean in the fields. In these instances and others it becomes apparent that what appears to be coincidence is really God's handiwork in the form of Jewish law. Which makes Louisa and the Book of Ruth perfect reading on Shavuot; a holiday which celebrates the giving of the Torah and looks forward to a world redeemed. 

Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Dog Therapy

Last night, at the launch event for Ari's new book at the Corner Bookstore in NYC, the conversation turned to dogs because someone had shown up for the event with her surprisingly well-groomed and behaved pooch.

The discussants included friends of mine who were newly single in mid-life. We spoke about the spirituality of dogs and their function as social networkers.

"If you want to meet new people, just get a dog," I advised, recounting the numerous instances of new (and mostly fascinating) people I have met while walking Alfie and Nala the Pomeranians in Manhattan.

Single people meeting through dog-walking is a charming subplot for many a film but as a much-married woman, the surprise benefit for me has been in the number of deep and resonant conversations I have had with other women while we stroll with our pups along Morningside Drive.

And by other women, I am not talking about friends.

I am speaking here of people I have never met before in my life.

It starts with a friendly introduction by our respective dogs -- butt sniffing, jumping, playful interaction -- and half an hour later I am on my way home, marveling at the spontaneous human bond that was just formed.

I am trying to understand how it happens. My dogs stop to play with another dog, invariably that of a woman. The owner and I exchange casual pleasantries and inquire about each other's pooches. I ask a leading question or two. I get a feeling.

Then I throw out a question and we are off and running.

Today is a perfect case in point. The power of the sunshine lured me outdoors even before my dogs thought to beg for a walk. I nearly skipped down W116th Street to Morningside Drive, half-blinded by the radiance. Moments after arriving there, a young German Shepherd appeared, accompanied by a woman with a colorful paisley frock.

While our dogs cavorted, we had an instantly intimate conversation about our work and our motherhood. We spoke about the choices and compromises we made and how we feel about them. We spoke about our husbands' careers and where our ambition fits in. We spoke about the raising of sons. We spoke about ourselves.

Even after our dogs settled down with one another, we chatted.

It was like being served a delicious entree without the boring appetizer.

We Facebook friended each other before parting. I felt lucky to have been thus connected to a fascinating stranger who is not so strange to me after all.

As I walked home I thought further about our conversation and concluded that I owed part of our connection to the power of sisterhood, that eternal bond that women have with one another; the compulsion to connect and compare life stories and grow from one another.

It is a gift when it happens and I own the fact that I am a proactive pursuer of connections, seeking to share, believing in the commonality of human experience and my own intuition.

But credit must be given to the secret agents of social networking so I thank my furry little friends for enabling this instance of solidarity on a sunny Friday morning on Manhattan's Morningside Heights.