Saturday, June 28, 2008
Unfortunately, space did not permit this positive response to be published:
I don't know if you remember me...we met at Aish a couple of months ago. I just wanted to let you know that I read your editorial in the Jewish [Planet] and I thought it was wonderful. Actually, someone at Ohab Zedek photocopied it and handed it out to my whole conversion class. We are all so upset about what is going on with this ruling, and it was comforting to see you address the topic so eloquently and with much emotion. Thank you for writing it, and for giving a voice to all of our concerns.
Friday, June 27, 2008
Lacey's parents were good at keeping secrets. They didn't reveal that her biological father was black until Lacey was eighteen years old. Her story is the spark behind a documentary that her MySpace page claims will allows us to join "Lacey on her journey to confront her mother and two fathers about her mixed-race identity, and uncover the traditions, heroes, heritage, roots, and identity of the larger American Black Jewish community."
I love the title of the documentary, "Outside the Box." It encompasses in such few words the struggles of those of us with multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial identities and how those little boxes people try to force us into can't truly express our lifestyles.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Yosef Abrahamson, 16, right, with his mother, Dinah, and his sister, Sarah, near their home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
If Yosef represents Brooklyn, then perhaps, I, as a Dominican Jewess, represent Washington Heights?
Friday, June 20, 2008
The class, which is held at a local community college, is a lot of fun. Three hours, one night a week, for six sessions. I figured as long as I’m trying to get my creative juices going here, I meant as well let all of them working so aside from writing, I’ll be drawing here and there.
I’m not a big fan of my teacher, though she’s nice enough. She’s one of those “Fine Arts” buffs. She thinks that anyone who does art in any other way should be deprogrammed. She thinks starting a figure drawing with the top of the head is insane. She's having us do "contour" drawings of the figure, which basically means doing an outline of the entire figure (from the feet up to the head). Basically, it’s like the chalk outline police officers draw around a dead body. Then we're allowed to start our pieces. In fact, she used some colorful expletives to describe her feelings on commercial artwork. That was just a tad too intense for me. But I figure since I am paying her to teach me something, I might as well try to learn something from her without gritting my teeth too hard.
By the end of the three hours, my arms were in excruciating pain. Drawing is really taxing on my arms and back muscles. My little infusion of pain medication didn’t cut it at all. The teacher looked at me like I was totally crazy when I told her I was having a hard time rubbing in the charcoal with my hands to shade the figure. I tried to explain vaguely that it was because of a disability and she finally tried to help me figure out a different way of doing things. It still hurt. By that point, I couldn’t even tell if it hurt less to do things her way.
My husband almost had a heart attack when I told him about the class after we met up after his Spanish class, which he takes on the same nights I take Figuring Drawing. Apparently, I hadn’t mentioned earlier that in Figure Drawing class, we basically spend three hours drawing a nude model. He recovered eventually, though not too quickly. My in-laws, who heard about my class from my husband, apparently think the whole “drawing naked people thing” is uproarious. My mother-in-law asked if the model covered his “thing” with something and when I told her that he was totally naked, her eyes nearly crossed as she started laughing again.
Here are two pieces I created in my first class:
And here's a link to an article I wrote, Ugly Naked Guy, about my first Figure Drawing class in college: A personal essay about a modest girl's foray into Figure Drawing and the illuminating results.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
I was whisked away to a garden in a Beverly Hills backyard yesterday. It's part of my Los Angeles education program, which so far includes writing classes, art classes, driving lessons and garden-hopping. Above is a collage of the photos that nearly took out my Blackberry when I tried to email them to friends!
The pictures are a motley assortment of the vegetation growing all over the extensive gardens, which I was told were 25 years in the making and are maintained by a full-time staff that includes a UCLA professor. Along with tomato trees, I photographed some fresh basil, grapes, flowers, oranges, lemons and yummy scallions.
This is a long, long way from asphalt backyards in the Bronx. And the fruit picked from the various trees by our gracious hosts, which included oranges, plums, pears, peaches, nectarines and more, was infinitely more delicious than the raspberries we used to pick off a wild tree on Ft. George Hill in Washington Heights.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
After finishing up a recent Shabbat meal, I was enthralled by a pregnant friend who started to vent about her frustrations with being pregnant and motherhood. After we’d all done the requisite “oohhing” and “ahhing” and thanking G-d for everything, we began to discuss the anxieties that come with impending motherhood.
My friend talked about feeling nauseous all the time and losing weight from being unable to keep anything down. She also ranted about fears she was having for the pregnancy as well as fears for after the baby’s born. The other women, who rounded out the conversation, included a recent mother and a woman who had recently endured a miscarriage.
I mostly listened. But it was refreshing to hear the women talk about their anxiety openly, knowing that I have my own mixed feelings about growing a big belly, becoming someone’s mom and being able to afford it…not just financially, but mentally and emotionally. But no one ever seemed to talk to want to discuss these issues. Perhaps, they worry that talking about any negative aspects will “jinx” their current or future pregnancies. Or maybe it’s that as women, we know that we’re expected to cope with motherhood and we try to do it as gracefully as possible.
But there’s just so much pressure in the Jewish community to have babies. The first year we were married, people (men and women) would ask whether or not I was trying to get pregnant or whether or not I was pregnant. And if the answer was “no” and “no,” then people hummed around me with sympathy and well wishes for a baby. It got to the point where I said flat out that I wasn’t interested in having babies before my thirtieth birthday. Some people responded with looks of dismay or words of condescension: “But, of course, you want to have a baby!” After all, why didn’t I want to be part of the box they wanted me to fit in, that they thought I should fit in? Now that I’d finally checked off the married box, why didn’t I want to work on putting a checkmark next to “married with children”?
When I asked other Jewish women if they felt pressured, their eyes would grow wide before it would all pour out. They would tell me that they were under constant interrogation from the community, having heard “Are you pregnant?” often from relative strangers and close relatives. They talked about money trouble keeping them from taking the next step. They wanted to finish their Master’s degrees (sometimes, Bachelor’s degrees) or establish their careers. They wanted to work on their marriages. They just couldn’t imagine juggling anything else. But everywhere, someone was lurking, ready to pressure them to “have it all.”
But our husbands lived in a bubble in the meantime. “Honey, did anyone ask you if we were pregnant?” the wives would ask after a Shabbos meal or Jewish family function. Their husbands would wrinkle their noses in disgust. “Who would ask that?” “Well, everyone,” the wives would respond with a sigh after realizing they’d lost count (on both hands) of the amount of times someone had asked them such intrusive questions.
No one (except for his father) asked my husband if we were trying to get pregnant. And he was sure that I had exaggerating the amount of times someone had inquired about the state of my reproductive system. Without his sympathy, I began to seethe.
It struck me as…well, impolite, that people would ask about such a personal subject. I was coming from a Latino culture where there wasn’t too much that was considered “TMI” (too much information) and it seemed like there was an endless list of things that weren’t appropriate for Jewish discussions. I didn’t understand why pregnancy wasn’t an off limits topic, too.
Finally, I wrote about it, posting an update to my blog on my website, entitled “Don’t ask me about my uterus…please.” The final straw had been someone suggesting that because I was out on disability and unemployed that I should be working on getting pregnant. Because what with not being able to take care of myself, beginning eighteen or so years of taking care of someone else would be a breeze, I wondered angrily. I wrote in exclamations: “Did you hear that, people? It's my uterus and it's VIP. You're not invited!”
A married woman whispered in my ear conspiratorially that people would stop asking about my womb once my husband and I made it to our first anniversary.
“Why?” I asked with confusion. “Why would they stop asking after the first year?”
“Because they’ll think you’re having problems.”
And she was right.
After we reached the first year mark, the questions stopped abruptly. But only to be replaced by questioning glances. If I gained a little weight or wore an unflattering dress, people would stare down at my stomach and cock their heads to the side inquisitively.
I would respond with an exasperated shake of the head: “No, I’m not pregnant.”
And now and then, a sad look would overtake my interrogators and they would talk sympathetically about how hard it was to “get pregnant.”
It seemed that suddenly, without any help from me, people had started to believe we might be having trouble. And though I wasn’t, I suddenly realized that I was surrounded by a world of women that were.
One out of four women miscarries, I learned, after a whisper told me that a woman in the community delivered a stillborn baby. Suddenly, there were whispers everywhere about miscarriages that closer friends had had. Women began talking behind closed doors about “trying for months” and falling into deep depressions after miscarriages. I had never imagined that so many women around me might be suffering silently around me.
And when I imagined what it might be like to be asked in the midst of their suffering if they were pregnant, I was horrified for them.
The suffering was everywhere. A NY Times article on women who had battled infertility and lost only compounded my horror further. People were still asking them questions. Only this time, people were asking these women when they were going to adopt. I found myself wincing as I paged through an article in a women’s magazine written by a man who detailed the painful process and expense of fertility treatments.
I think that people ask because they think it’s a safe subject. Somewhere along the line, asking someone who’s married about pregnancy became no more socially incongruous than asking what one does for a living (another subject which may become taboo given the current economy). But it’s not a safe subject when we think about all the couples everywhere who are struggling silently with the subject. Then we realize that questions born out of natural curiosity can be hurtful, even traumatic. And so, I offer that it’s time we make asking about pregnancy and talking about having children off limits in polite conversation. We shouldn’t make people share any more about the subject than they would feel comfortable doing so. We should tiptoe around it like we would any other loaded topic.
I guess, I’m saying that perhaps, it’s time to start asking about the weather again.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
The article came to mind this weekend when interestingly enough, I discovered an article about the deaf in this week's Jewish Week. In Hear, O Israel, Carolyn Slutsky writes about how two newly ordained deaf rabbis might signal the acceptance of diversity within the Jewish community. But what both articles, in fact, seem to point out is that it's hard out there for people for disabilities, though in some circles better than it has been in the past. (I have my own problems dealing with fibromylagia in the Jewish community and beyond.) Still, both articles together seem to point towards the need to ensure that we're making the world a more accessible place for everyone...
An article in today's New York Times, In Europe, Debate Over Islam and Virginity, explores a debate over Islam and virginity that has broken out in Europe recently. In France, a Muslim man asked to have his marriage annulled when it came to light on his wedding night that his bride was not a virgin. A 23-year-old in the article is dropping close to three thousand dollars to have hymenoplasty, a surgery that will restore her hymen, giving anyone who's curious the illusion of virginity. And Europeans (and now Americans) are up in arms about what this all says about religion and culture.
Strangely enough, this is not the first time I had heard of this new development in plastic surgery. Watching a Spanish-language network news broadcast, several years ago, women in Latin America discussed undergoing similar procedures before their wedding night (to "keep up appearances") or after having given birth (to reinvigorate their vaginas). Some Latin American men, though often a lapsed Catholic bunch, would also like their brides-to-be to be virgins. As a doctor in the article mentions, he tries not to judge anyone, including the women he knows are using vaginal plastic surgery as Valentine's Day presents.
Sadly, as the article points out, the hymens that are being touted as ultimate proof of virginity can often be broken during childhood in any number of ways, including horseback riding. So even true virgins with "bad luck" might have to save up towards a down-payment on a hymenoplasty. And in the end, this whole debacle says quite a lot about religion and culture, especially what both expect from women (and often, do not from men). In the Latino culture I grew up in, women had to be saints like Mother Mary while men could be deplorable lascivious brutes, that, of course, the same women prayed for every day. I don't remember any of my male cousins being told that their virginities were a "precious gift." In my adopted Orthodox Jewish culture, both men and women are socialized to be remain virgins until marriage by being "shomer negia," refraining from touching the opposite sex (except for their spouses and close relatives).
Perhaps, it would be easier to hand out chastity belts? And if this is going to be an equal opportunity situation, just how would they work on men? Don't get me wrong, I don't think anything's funny about this situation in Europe. My heart goes out to the bride whose wedding night not only ended in much misery, but whose reputation has been tarnished unforgivably. But my heart also goes out to women everywhere who still suffer needlessly for just being women.
Monday, June 2, 2008
To say that I am a different person since fibromyalgia would be an understatement. I don't think that the healthier me of old would recognize the disabled me of today. My mind and my body have both suffered, grown and changed. It's hard to explain it to other people. My disability is mostly invisible and so it is very difficult for people to understand the toll it has taken on my life. I think the following poem, written by a mother with a disabled child, really encapsulates how fibromyalgia and depression have changed my life.
WELCOME TO HOLLAND
byEmily Perl Kingsley.
c1987 by Emily Perl Kingsley. All rights reserved
I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this......
When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."
"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."
But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.
The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.
So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.
It's just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."
And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.
But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.
I haven't gotten used to "Holland." In many ways, I've taken inventory and I can see the good things that this change in destinations has brought to my life. There are many beautiful things, deeply touching things, that I would never have experienced had I not become disabled.
And yet, unfortunately, I miss "Italy" deeply. I miss the life I thought I would have had in "Italy," in a healthier life. I haven't been able to let go. Instead, I feel like I'm still in shock. Still disbelieving. This can't be my life. You must have gotten me confused with someone else because this can't be my life. And I'm not strong enough to be in this much physical pain for the rest of my life. My heart and mind have suffered so much trauma, an entire childhood of abuse, an early adulthood of constant struggle, all in the past twenty seven years. And it feels sometimes like I'm at the edge of a cliff, and either close or beyond my breaking point.
I am in mourning. And as I mourn, I am surrounded by people who talk about "Italy," who take "Italy" for granted, who can't imagine what "Holland" is like. As they chatter away about their lives and their plans, I feel like a caged animal trying to reach for something too far from my cafe. I have no plan. Because no one plans for "Holland. " "Holland" just happens. And so I cry about "Italy," for the life that should have been and for all the unearthed, long buried pain and the new pain that "Holland" has been etched into my soul.