Thursday, October 29, 2009

Leonard Cohen for Shabbat with a Side of Broken-Heartedness

"You are hungry for experience," observed a friend last year, seated opposite me at a cafe just north of Columbia University.

"Sometimes you skate close to the edge of danger," he offered as a bonus, leaning in to catch my expression. "You have to be careful."

As I sat next to Big Babe this past Friday night at Leonard Cohen's spectacular one-night-concert at Madison Square Garden, crammed into my seat, shivering with fever, weeping at the beauty of the music, shattered by new sorrow, hypnotized by the aesthetics of the performance, saddened by Leonard Cohen's advanced age even as I was enchanted by his ageless elegance, bonded to my first-born in love of him, this moment and this music, I thought of my friend's observation and uttered a shehechiyanu -- the blessing Jews are commanded to say upon attaining a remarkable experience.
Because it was Shabbat, there were several other prayers I might also have uttered, in fact, I teasingly dared Big Babe to yell out "Good Shabbos," between songs. Though we did not recite the kiddush over wine that night, Shabbat was not forgotten; indeed, she was all around us. Squeezed into the inadequate seat beside me was the Shabbat Queen -- dressed as a gypsy, wandering, forsaken, almost human, also shivering, also broken-hearted. The Shabbos aspect of this concert was key. A strictly Orthodox person would likely have given up the experience of being at the concert, but it seemed to me a worthy challenge to both attend this great cultural event AND keep Shabbat.

Thus, all the measures we had undertaken en route to the concert were in service to this ideal -- the pre-Shabbat cab to the Time Warner Center before sundown; the Whole Foods salads hastily purchased within the magic eighteen minutes; the brisk jaunt down Broadway to the Garden; the stoic resolve to walk home after the concert, traversing the four miles by foot despite my hacking cough, high temperature and the hairline fracture in my right foot.

Those were the reasons and that was New York and this concert is now in my recent history, having taken place one week ago tomorrow. My firstborn sat beside me, he who made me a mother. The music drew my sadness from me, as a healer draws venom from the bee-sting. The tears flowed easily. It was, for me, the day after the discovery of a painful truth; the third generation of a particular sorrow. The discovery introduced me to true loneliness, which exists in a physical sense, weighing about the same as a human heart.

Last Shabbat, in Madison Square Garden, Leonard Cohen befriended and comforted me, he lay down beside me, he was my man, my rabbi, my brother of mercy, my yedid nefesh, friend of my soul; his music my personal kiddush, my Shalom Aleichem, my promise of redemption.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Howl of the Wild

The Bungalow Bunch participated in a rare family-wide cultural excursion last night -- an opening weekend viewing of the film version of Where the Wild Things Are, easily the most beloved book of the Bungalow Babies' respective and collective childhoods, a book I read so often I can recite it by heart, even now, at least a dozen years after I last held it in my hands.

With Big Babe living in Berlin, Middle Babe living at college in Maryland, Little Babe and me spending two-plus months every summer at the bungalow in Monroe and the general peripatetic pace of our lives - not to mention an 11-year spread between Big and Little Babe - we tend to take our culture in clusters, bunches and a variety of configurations and geographical settings.

Because I was in New Orleans last week, HOBB put himself in charge of the family's social life over the weekend, suggesting Where the Wild Things Are for Saturday night, a plan I enthusiastically endorsed. With Big Babe visiting for a month due to an NEA fellowship, Middle Babe popping in for a long weekend and Little Babe forming our only source of resistance ("I hope it's not a baby movie!" ), we wanted to create an indelible family memory, revisit a moment in our history, bond over the cinematic interpretation of a favorite book.

We had the magical experience of meeting, en masse, at the movie theatre -- Big Babe fresh from dinner at Alouette with the NEA fellows, me walking uptown after my workout and art lecture at the JCC, and HOBB, Middle and Little Babe coming, via taxi, from our apartment.

We had the further surprise and pleasure of meeting friends inside the theatre, playing quickie catch-up with them, showing off our kids.

And then we settled into our seats for the film to begin...which is where the family togetherness ended.

Two of us loved the film, two of us hated the film and one stated that he was "confused" by the filmmaker's intentions.

Two of us were enchanted, two of us were bored silly and one sought to articulate his problems with the film in a measured, nearly academic manner.

Such was my hatred for the film that I found myself chomping at the bit, then blurting out my assessment before the credits even stopped rolling.

"Omigod, I HATED this movie! I could not wait for it to end!! What did you guys think!!!!???"

To which Middle Babe snapped, "Stop being so negative!" and Little Babe high-fived me. "I know!" he groaned. "It sucked!"

HOBB looked surprised by his youngest son's reaction. "Really?" he asked, stung. "I loved it!"

"Me too," said Middle Babe, narrowing her gaze at the alliances being formed. All eyes instantly fell upon Big Babe, the family culture critic.

"So," I asked, holding my breath. "What did you think?"

Big Babe looked pained. He cradled his chin in his hand. He tilted his head slightly to the side. "I was confused by what the filmmaker was trying to do," he finally said.

"Did you hate it?" Little Babe asked avidly.

"Nooo," Big Babe said, thoughtfully. "I'm just disappointed. It didn't work for me."

"I loved it," repeated Middle Babe, tossing her hair. "I think it's not nice to diss the movie when dad planned this and bought us all tickets."

"We're not criticizing dad," I protested. "We're just debating the film's merits."

"But you were crying!" she stated, accusingly."I saw you! You cried when Max had to leave."

Middle Babe was right. When Max leaves the island, causing Carol the Wild Thing to let out a wrenching howl, I sobbed at the sound and the sight of the awkward creature expressing his grief. That howl pierced me and held me captive to its honest sorrow.

That howl reverberated all day long; it still echoes within the chambers of my heart. It has the texture of unadorned loss. It is a primal wound. It might be a small or negligible or even forgettable moment in the film but for me, it is what remains.

Now it is late, so late that my eyes are closing as I finish this post. In her room, Middle Babe is Skyping a friend and I have heard every word of her animated conversation. Next to me, Big Babe is grumpily writing a classical music review -- an assignment for his fellowship.

Little Babe is asleep now for nearly two hours and I suppose that HOBB is reading or went to sleep without saying goodnight.

Now Middle Babe is singing. Big Babe is still typing. With my fatigue comes a grace of sorts, or at least a reprieve. My sadness feels less central to my definition of self. This new thought forms the boat that delivers me to the shores of a new workweek with this dislocating day finally coming to a close.

I hold tight the magic of my family gathering on a Saturday night in October to watch a new, much-heralded movie -- two young adults, one teen, one parent newly turned 60, the other caught in the amber of forever waiting for her real life to begin -- lured by the romance of revisiting cherished memories from points in time both distant and forever at hand, by the irresistable offer of putting on a wolf suit, making mischief of one kind or another and joining Max as he sets sail for the place where the wild things are, knowing that the only way to survive a wild rumpus is to have a home where someone loves you best of all.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Birth, A Death, a Glimpse of the Soul

Seventeen years ago this weekend, I got a call from my friend Judy at 10:30 at night. "I'm in labor," she told me. "Can you come now?"

It was the festival of Shemini Atzeret, a time that I would normally not even answer the phone. However, as we had arranged that I would not only attend but photograph the birth of Judy's child, I readied myself to leave for the night, tossing off a guilty goodbye to HOBB, who looked skeptical about the entire enterprise.

"Is this really necessary?" he asked, alluding not just to my departure but to the forbidden act of driving during the holiday.

I did not answer, wondering the same.

It was the early 1990's and Judy and I were revolutionaries in Westchester County, New York -- critics of the often-invasive style of obstetric care, avid consumers of midwifery, which most people believed to have been outlawed about a century earlier. My own daughter, Middle Babe, had been born in 1987 in a crowded municipal hospital in the Bronx because Westchester hadn't yet granted delivery privileges to midwives.

I gave birth to Middle Babe in a hallway, assisted by four women and HOBB, lying sideways on a purloined gurney with one foot pushing on my midwife's shoulder, moaning melodically through my contractions, bellowing like a female moose as I pushed my child out of her private ocean and into the brightly-lit world. The drumbeat of my ancestors echoed in my ears; I walked the path of my great-grandmothers, I transcended the here and now, reached above and beyond myself, became a she-wolf, a lioness, a galloping mare, sinewy and wild.

After the terrifying premature birth of Big Babe four years earlier, when I was only 23, my midwife-assisted second childbirth was spectacular, primal and deeply spiritual -- the ascent up Sinai, the face to face encounter with the Almighty. When I walked out of the chaotic hospital hours later against medical advice, tiny girl wrapped in my arms, I felt like I could run a marathon.
And now, with Middle Babe just three years old, the right for midwives to "catch" babies in Westchester County had been won. Judy queued up to be one of the first to take advantage of this miracle, booking her birth at a swanky, state-of-the-art birthing center in Yonkers which came equipped with Laura Ashley decor and a country cottage motif.

My friend had given a great deal of thought to her midwife-assisted birth and had an elaborate birthing plan. It included long walks down the peaceful birthing center corridor, sips of red raspberry leaf tea, dedicated breathing, visualization, journal writing, dips in the Jacuzzi, talking, resting, listening to music and a harmonious childbirth with her husband at her side.

A writer, she intended to sell her story and asked me along to capture the event on film.

Flattered and greatly moved, I said yes.

And now the drama was about to unfold.

When I arrived at the birthing center, a business-like midwife opened the door. "Diane," she said, by way of introduction, shaking my hand. A far cry from the soothing, hippie-chick midwives I had found up in Ossining, Diane set about to scrub the Jacuzzi in preparation for Judy's immersion. Judy's contractions are quickening, she tossed over her shoulder, disappearing into the bathroom. Remember, she doesn't have to suffer needlessly, she shouted from inside the bathroom. I have medication if she needs it.

I entered a spacious room where Judy was deep into labor -- serious and unsmiling -- leaning into a wall in a flannel nightgown, her dark curls sticking to the back of her neck. Her husband sat on the edge of the bed watching TV. The sound of running water filled the space between us. I put my hand on the small of her back, felt the heat of her labor.

"This is tough," she reported.

For a long while, the water ran. I went to make red raspberry tea with sugar, steaming hot. I brought it in for Judy, who could barely drink it. Her contractions were layered, two and three-tiered, peaking and waning, chasing her then disappearing...only to ambush her again a minute later. Her nightgown grew sweaty. Her eyes were wild and agitated.

"Let's take a walk," I suggested.

We walked and walked. We walked the entire night, it seemed. We stepped forward one or two or three steps, then paused to honor the contraction's will. We barely spoke. I held her hand or arm. I touched her back. I made her drink water. I argued when she said she couldn't do this thing -- give birth. I reminded her that labor ends and babies are born. I told her that she could have medication if she wished. I wondered where Diane was, realized I hadn't seen her for a while. I hope that I was right, that this labor would end...and soon.

The labor squeezed Judy's spine, producing that rare form of torture -- back labor. I had had it with my first child and thought I would not survive the pain. After back labor, regular old labor is a walk in the park.

Do you need anything? I asked uselessly.

"I need the Jacuzzi." she said. "I want to give birth there."

I found Diane sleeping in a small room and woke her up. She examined Judy and found her fully dilated. Together, we helped my friend into the tub, but the hoped-for relief she imagined would arrive cruelly eluded her. When the contractions came, she draped her arms over the sides of the tub and moaned. Diane poured warm water over her back, smoothed the damp hair from her forehead with a washcloth. A female scent hung in the air, thick and heavy. Suddenly, Judy let out a cry.

"I'm going to have a baby!" she cried, nearly collapsing as the relentless waves of labor overtook her. Diane crouched at Judy's head, administering a blood pressure test.

"Out of the tub!" Diane commanded, directing me to get my friend up. She turned off the jets of the Jacuzzi and opened the drain. "She's too weak. Her blood pressure isn't stable. This is too dangerous."

"No!" Judy cried. "I want to give birth in the water!"

"Out," Diane said, handing me a large towel. The water slipped down the drain with a gurgle and a hiss. Judy looked like a mother sea mammal, sleek, wet and magnificent. I threw the towel over her shoulders. Diane stepped into the tub and wriggled her hands underneath Judy's arms.

"Stand up," she said. "We've got to get you to the bed."

I don't remember the process of walking my laboring friend to the bed. I don't remember draping the nightgown over her. I do remember her crying. I don't remember seeing her husband. I do remember her kneeling into the bedpost, panting. And then, I recall hearing the sound of something cracking.

"Ohhhh!" she exhaled.

"The baby!" cried Diane, gloving her hands, bringing her birthing kit close.

A current went through my friend. Her face took on a beautiful agony. Her brow was knit in concentration. Her legs were quivering. My heart started galloping. Every cell in my body stood at attention. A white energy filled the room.

"!" she panted. "Pictures of the birth."

What camera?

My lungs filled with the purest air. I felt sheer elation. My breath caught in the back of my throat. Something was in our midst. Something had joined us. We were not alone.


Slipping, sliding, slithering out from my friend's body came a tiny creature, face scrunched in earnest concentration -- the baby, her baby, Judy's baby. We let out a whoop, catching the being, escorting her from the ocean of her mother's womb into the new, waterless world. We told Judy it was a girl. Judy broke into happy tears. "A daughter!" she said. "I have a daughter," she repeated. Diane took the child and did her midwifely or doctorly things. Flushed, Judy lay back on the pillow, weak, relieved, smiling. The punishing labor was now just a dull reverberation in the ever-growing distance.

The baby born that magical, tortuous night is now a beautiful and poised 17-year-old. My friend looks more magnificent with each passing day; indeed mother and daughter share an uncommon resemblance. These intervening years have been dramatic and sometimes difficult for my friend, witnessing the break-up of her marriage, innumerable heartbreaks and staggering successes, personal transformation, stellar achievement, the stuff of life itself.

As for me, I would leave my beloved Tudor home in Westchester a couple of years later for a Manhattan apartment, leave the life I had built as a freelance writer for one which offered greater financial stability, have the remarkable chance to live in Israel and Europe, travel more than I ever had before, give birth to a third child -- also with the help of midwives -- undertake challenges both professionally and personally, endure my share of heartache and disappointment, find myself thrillingly in the middle of important conversations and pressing issues of the day, watch my older children grow to adulthood, have adventures of the mind, heart and soul, keep alive the dream of returning to my life as a full-time writer.

You know, I never did take pictures worth anything that night, I reminded my friend when she called me the other day. I was a good labor support but a lousy photographer.

I know, said my friend. I forgive you. You stayed with me throughout my labor. It was awful. I'll never forget that.

And I will never forget the presence that filled the birthing room at the instant of the birth of Judy's daughter. It was luminous and comforting; it stayed with me for a while afterwards. I have pondered it many times since, trying to recapture the wonder, shyly and secretly wondering -- was it the Shekhina? And if so, are all laboring women so visited?

Or was it the descent of a new human soul into this realm, separating itself from the great collective of souls that is God, that is eternity? Was it the contraction of the Great One, the mystical concept of tzimtzum that I witnessed, the physics of the soul which must be poured into each new person at the moment of birth?

Since that time, I have been visited only once more by the same overwhelming presence and it was in the exact opposite context -- standing graveside at the funeral of my mother-in-law in the spring of 1995... in the eighth month of my pregnancy with Little Babe. With greatly swollen belly I stood next to HOBB in the cemetery, watching the coffin of my vibrant, beautiful mother-in-law lower into the ground. I had feared this moment since she was diagnosed with incurable cancer, nurtured nightmares about the spectacle of her burial, nearly campaigned to stay home, away from death when I was bursting with new life.

As the coffin slipped ever lower into the ground, one of the planks on the top shifted suddenly. The assembled mourners took a collective intake of breath. One of the party -- I cannot remember whom -- knelt to right it. And at that moment, I was visited by that same overwhelming presence, filling me with a feeling of wonder and happiness. It enveloped and comforted me, powerful, maternal and eternal. My eyes filled with tears as a message made its way into my heart. I am saying my farewell. Don't worry about me anymore. I am released.

There are things that I have doubted, there are people who have left me feeling bereft, uncertain, unloved, there are questions that I carry. There is sorrow that I carry in my soul. There are mysteries that surround me.

But one certainty of my earthly life has been the existence of a universal being, He or She whom we call God or any variety of names. And the other certainty has been the existence of our eternal souls, compressed and poured into human form to accomodate our time on earth, property of God, patient and indwelling, longing to be free.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Buzz of Englewood

It is now 12:41 on Tuesday morning. I just got in from seeing A Serious Man with HOBB and Big Babe at Lincoln Plaza Cinema-- a seriously surreal, unpredictable, hilarious, quirky, deeply Jewish and original film that only the Coen brothers could have made.

More than 12 hours earlier, I opened up this template to write a spiritual travelogue of our recent holiday and Shabbat excursion to the beautiful community of Englewood, NJ for Succot but got immediately sidetracked by the pressing demands of work and life.

With the rapid-fire volley of urgent emails on hold, I have returned to my task of earlier today, eager to capture the experience of the weekend before it evaporates from the forefront of my memory.

Our exodus to Englewood is actually a tradition of sorts, now closing in on its first decade. Since the first Succot following 9/11, it has been our tradition to flee Manhattan for the refuge of suburban New Jersey, staying with friends and taking our meals with the loving, generous and culinarily-gifted COBBs (Cousins of Bungalow Babe) -- who come equipped with two teenage boys (a taste of Nirvana for Little Babe) and a wonderland of friends.

Celebrating Succot in Manhattan has always seemed especially pathetic. Fitting oneself into a cramped, crowded Succah in the alleyways of apartment buildings, on a busy urban sidewalk or, gloriously, on the rare and windy roof, is always something of an ordeal. Even when the Succah occupies a beautiful space -- such as the quad of the Jewish Theological Seminary, just blocks from my home -- the logistics of arranging meals is an exhausting manner.

The ultimate destination for Succot (as for all the Jewish holidays) is Israel, but short of buying plane tickets, the drive over the George Washington Bridge transports us to a Succot Xanadu. Whether hand-built wooden shack or prefab cloth structure held up with scaffolding, beautiful Succot adorn porches, backyards, frontyards, driveways and decks as far as the eye can see.

In the final hours of our visits, HOBB and I always stroll solemnly through the streets, gazing hungrily at the FOR SALE signs adorning the charming homes of the neighborhood, asking ourselves, could we, should we consider this pleasant community if only for the sake of Little Babe, born and raised in the city?

Anyway, it was my intention this morning to capture not only the warmth of time with family and friends around the colorful holiday table, the myriad meals, late night wine-sipping, Succah hopping, leisurely strolls and power walks to burn off the gajillion calories we ingested...but also to gleefully report that I had the personally satisfying experience of being greeted as the Jewish equivalent of de Toucqueville during my visit, praised at every turn for an article I had written this summer about the non-sustainability of Jewish day school due to the exorbitant tuition.

The impact of the article derived from my ability to write candidly about the dramatic effect that this financial overhead has had on my own life over the past two decades, I was told. My willingness to admit that the cost proved ruinous to my personal life in a variety of ways -- shattering the myth that if something is important enough, you simply "stretch" to make it happen -- opened the door for others to do the same.

Even in this enclave of gracious homes and stylish families -- where affluence seems both ubiquitous and effortless -- the high cost of being Jewish had suddenly become a real problem, I learned. But appearances deceive; people have lost their jobs and their savings. The prospect of new employment is elusive. With tuitions soaring over $20K per child at most local Jewish schools (with Manhattan schools topping $30K), the amenity they had counted on is suddenly a luxury item.

So I stopped and listened to people's stories, heard painful details of what it is like to live through an economic cataclysm, took in shamed confessions about applying for financial aid, heard doubt expressed about the soundness of the educational system we had built, gained behind-the-scenes glimpses at the stresses visited on families in their effort to earn enough money to pay for Jewish day school.

Though I had lived it myself, there is power and poignancy in hearing these stories from other people. I was touched by the father of three who cannot afford summer camp (because of day school tuition), the doctor's wife who is astonished to find that her husband doesn't earn enough to support their lifestyle (because of day school tuition), the day school educated twenty-something with the three preschoolers who is adamant upon sending his kids to public school...because of the looming prospect of crushing tuition.

This matter is indeed one of the most pressing issues plaguing the Jewish community and my contribution to the discussion is to keep it on the radar screen. I wish that my expertise was in finding a solution (a communal fund for Jewish day school??) but my role is to identify and explore the dimensions of the problem and stoke outrage that so many of us have suffered in silence. As in the period immediately following the publication of my article, I encountered excitement and relief in Englewood that this matter is finally being aired and change might be on the horizon... as witnessed by the group of local parents who are seeking an alternative within the public school system.

Still, to paraphrase the doctor's wife whom I met on this visit, there is an equal amount of fear that once the economy adjusts itself, the issue will evaporate with the wealthy resuming their ability to pay tuition with nary a thought while the rest of the community is left with their private, shameful struggles.

Which is why it is impossible to ignore the irony of the recent renovation of Ahavath Torah in Englewood. Standing in the lobby on Shabbat morning, the prevailing conversation appeared to be about the new shul building itself, beautiful yet also cringe-inducing in the current economy. Overhead in the bathroom, from two college girls home for the holidays – “I hate coming here; it’s all about your clothes and shoes and how rich you are.”

These are not my words.

Yet it did make me wonder if anyone had proposed that even a portion of the renovation fund might have gone to level the economic playing field and guarantee day school tuition for the Jewish kids in Englewood, which would have set a fine and bold example for the American Jewish community.
Which brings me full circle to A Serious Man.
The most intimately Jewish movie I believe I have ever seen, filled with mystical ideas and insider references, A Serious Man is not for everyone. Some Jewish viewers may have a difficult time with its exaggerated and often unflattering Jewish characters and concepts. Stereotypes prevail; there is often a lampoonish, nearly grotesque aspect to practically every scene. I was fascinated and uncomfortable at the same time.
Yet I cannot recall another movie where Hashem -- called by the name Hashem -- exists in dialogue and concept, where the characters suffer and weep for the lack of their ability to figure out His/Her plan. As the sun comes up on this Tuesday morning, I confront the startling realization that my visit to Ahavath Torah entailed more than grousing about clueless affluence.
Indeed, as a parade of people with movie-star good lucks and outfits passed through the cavernous lobby, I stood in a tight circle with Big Babe and my friend Scott discussing the problem of prayer, the nature of God, Buber's concept of the I and Thou and our respective relationships with Hashem, both inside and outside of the synagogue. We formed a pow-wow in the midst of the kinetic space, our theological musings constituting our shared reality. The synagogue fulfilled its mission after all, housing our Hashem-directed thoughts and conversation.
My article on day school tuition is here, if you wish to read it: http://http/

Chag Sameach!