I'm not sure whether or not to laugh or cry. You decide?
Monday, September 29, 2008
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Meanwhile, here's a practical guide to preparing for Rosh Hashana: 6 Steps to Fulfilling Your Dream by Azriel Hirsh Friedman. I found it at Aish! And oooh, there are charts. I'm all about the systems. I am printing the article right now and away I go.
What would I do without Aish or Chabad or National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP) or all these lovely Jewish organizations that keep the more Jewish-knowledge-impaired folks like me up to snuff. I just printed out a stack of guides that promise to explain Rosh Hashanah in a "nutshell." Maybe next year, I'll be ready for the whole nut.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
So I’ve taken to decompressing by reading anything and everything fiction that doesn’t fall into the realm of work. Though, honestly, I had to put one book down for a second when I started to think, hey, maybe I should write a vampire novel.
Reading Dirty Girls on Top wasn’t very pleasant for the first couple of pages when one of the character, Usnavys, narrates us through the first time she cheats on her husband. I survived those tortured scenes by force of sheer will. I’ve rarely, if ever, put a book down once I start it. Luckily, the book is narrated from the perspective of all the sucias (dirty girls) who became friends in college and are riding out the drama of their 30s together. It was pretty good chick lit and I like the Spanish peppered here and there. I wish I could wield that device so well and so saucily.
But seriously, lugging around Dirty Girls on Top in your purse and hiding it from prying eyes when you’re a future rabbi’s wife is certainly a tough job.
Manic is another book I had to plow through in the beginning. It is Terri Cheney’s memoir on living with bipolar disorder. I’ve also read the memoir, Detour: My Bipolar Roadtrip in 4-D by Lizzie Simon which I literally couldn’t put down once I started. The narrator was very engaging and I would have followed her anywhere.
Bipolar disorder has also been in the news lately, featuring mostly how parents are coping with the diagnosis in young children. Though I was not particularly drawn to the style of writing, Cheney paints an incredibly vivid portrait of living with mental illness. I felt like I was on the rollercoaster ride with her. And sometimes, I definitely wanted to give up and throw up. In the end, I really connected with the idea of living with chronic illness. I love when she “comes out” to people at a party when they ask her “what she does for a living” and she wonders how they’d respond to “I’m a full-time sick person.”
The heroine of the series, Queen Betsey is a firecracker who becomes a vampire only to find that she’s been prophesied as Queen of all of them. According to the author’s website, “Betsy Taylor turns 30, gets laid off, is killed by an SUV and wakes up dead all in the same week. The vampire community is convinced she's their prophesied Queen. But she's not having any of it - she's got shoes to buy!”
Next, I'm reading A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America.
Friend: Hey, question, are you always in pain?
Jewminicana: Yes, very little time am I ever NOT in pain, maybe an hour here or there.
Friend: So how do you function?
Jewminicana: You ever get a papercut?
Jewminicana: I have a HUGE, huge papercut!
Friend: So how do you function with it?
Jewminicana: I grit my teeth, take breaks. I push through the pain. Sometimes I can’t. I don’t have a full-time job. I’m not quite sure how I do it.
Friend: But I am trying to figure out how to function.
Jewminicana: I know exercise helps me. Sometimes, muscle relaxers and other medications. But also it’s how you think about it. It’s never going to go away. It’s always going to be there. You have to train yourself to get used to it.
Friend: Maybe you have some tips.
Jewminicana: Get mad and try to get over it.
Ever since I started writing about fibromyalgia and telling people about it, I’ve had conversations like these. Every once in a while, I unearth another chronic pain sufferer and we try to cope with the stuff that seems impossible, living with pain on a day-to-day basis.
People come to me looking for hope. That if I’m there writing about it, I must be functioning. It all depends on what you mean by functioning it. I’ve learned to live with my fibromyalgia in ways that I never thought I would. But I never forget that I’m a full-time disabled person. A person who can’t work full-time or even part-time. A person who can’t support themselves. A person who is very dependent on the kindness of others.
I wish that I had words of wisdom. When I think back to my horrible childhood, I wonder what I can offer someone else who is also suffering through a tough time. Sometimes, all I can offer is that I endured. I survived. I think, I hope, that I have survived fibromyalgia, too. That I have done the best I can on a day-to-day basis, in spite of it even working towards a new career.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
So how come I don’t have cable?
My husband thinks TV rots your brain. He grew up watching it as a treat, not every day like me. Our middle ground is that I’m allowed to ordered shows on DVD from Netflix and watch them online. But the scary thing is…I almost never do. Okay, right now I own a couple of golden oldies on DVD, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Gilmore Girls, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and even The Nanny. If I had my way, my collection would grow exponentially. I’ve been watching Smallville on DVD as of late but the thing is, without cable, it’s hard to keep up with new shows. I never really care anymore about a premiere for this or that, I’m way more willing to wait to watch the whole series on DVD.
I have become one of those people that advertisers hate. The only commercials I ever watch are 30-second slots that pop up while I’m watching a show online. And the only show I have watched religiously online is Heroes. I even downloaded all of Season One off Itunes. The juicy neverending battles between good and evil that play out in super Heroes is decidedly my cup of tea. But I know nothing of Gossip Girl, the new 90210, Grey’s Anatomy and all these other television shows that are referenced in my Newsweek and Time subscriptions. Oh, and my Entertainment Weekly subscription.
So when the locksmith was banging out a new set of keys for me after I bent the old ones by slamming the door ON them and he made a reference to the latest Heroes episode, I smiled. I couldn’t believe that I had not fallen completely off the pop culture planet. But then I watched an episode and a half of Gossip Girl and a couple of Grey’s and I realized that I am one of those people advertisers REALLY hate. The kind that realizes that there’s much more interesting stuff to READ and RENT and DO than watching the latest episode of Gossip Girl and Grey’s Anatomy. Sorry to fans of either.
P.S. But I must admit, the latest Heroes episodes totally ROCKED!
The worst part of keeping kosher is the utter lack of Dominican restaurants. Or for that matter, any kosher Hispanic restaurants. Sure, I dabbled in some rice and beans in Israel at an Argentinean restaurant but it just wasn’t the same.
I had high hopes for Los Angeles. Maybe a Mexican restaurant…and I’m stretching there considering that there’s not too much in common between Mexican and Dominican cuisine. I still keep my hopes up for kosher Puerto Rican food in Puerto Rico and maybe there’s kosher Cuban food in Miami. Ah perchance to dream!
Here are my top choices for foods I’d like to be served in my, so far only theoretical, Dominican restaurant:
Arroz con habichuelas: Rice and (black or red kidney) beans
Okay, I can make them myself. I eat them, like, EVERYDAY. I even brew a mean recaito. But I can’t synthesize the same taste I’ve licked my lips over when chowing down at a real Dominican restaurant. And did I mention that now I’ve gone “healthy” and substitute yellow/white rice for brown and wild rice. My ancestors are rolling in their graves, no?
Crunchy, salty pastries (or "turnovers) filled with beef, raisins, green olives or thick with white Spanish cheese. My husband has attempted to help me relive this delicacy by wrapping beef, peppers and olives in a wrap. But you still don’t get the same texture. I miss crunching through an empanada and the crispiness of pastelitos flaking off in my mouth.
Habichuelas con Dulce/Sweet creamed beans
Abuelitas on the street corners of Washington Heights taunt me with this sweet concoction. It’s the only kind of beans that I’ll eat without rice. I don’t even know how to describe this. It’s a sweet soup. Or is it a drink? My mother used to take hours to make it at home. Now, I salivate over it when I see it sold on the streets. I even stopped a Dominican woman and made her give me the recipe for it. To do this, I had to explain kashrut (kosher laws) to her in Spanish. Considering how rusty my Spanish can get, I’m surprised she even understood me at all.
Survival of the Fittest…
I also miss paella, which I had the misfortune of ordering at a kosher French restaurant. That’s probably like ordering pasta at a deli. Bad move. But I have managed to develop quite the appetite for kosher paella, no shellfish but chicken and sausages will do trick. I’ve also discovered that the kipe I used to eat are Lebanese kibbeh. I almost overdosed on them when I uncovered them at an Israeli food stand in Jerusalem. Now I get them frozen at the local glatt shop.
The point of all this…I love me some Spanish food and someone needs to open a kosher Dominican restaurant in Washington Heights. Please. Get some Dominicana behind a kosher set-up and let her rip! The great thing about Spanish food, as my husband will tell you, is that you can enjoy it without even needing to speak Spanish. He’s trying really hard to stop calling recaito, the green goo.
Speaking of the recaito, it made its debut at the HIR Friday night meal at Sarah and Abraham’s tent. The host of this free meal at the synagogue asked me to bring it in fresh. I told him that it’s for beans but he insisted that it could be used as “Dominican pesto.” And he was right. I saw many of the 60 or so guests spreading it on challah, flavoring their chicken with it and adding it to their salad. Cultural fusion, eh?
Monday, September 15, 2008
I spent Sunday reading The Host by Stephanie Meyer. And when I say I spent Sunday reading it, I mean that I spent ALL DAY at the dining room table turning pages as I propped the book up on my stylish Book Chair. The book debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. So, it was an amazing to unearth it in the “One Week Holds” section of my local library. I had been debating purchasing it or “renting” it after noting that there were (and still are) about 400 holds for the book at the public library.
The Host has been touted as science fiction for those of us who don’t dig sci-fi is…just that. It’s not so heavy on the science fiction. Though, I wouldn’t have minded either way. After having survived Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, I have more than earned my sci-fi stripes.
The Host is really a story about the true mettle of human beings. Meyers develops rich love stories. And characters---most notably, Wanderer (“Wanda” for short), who is just one of the many alien “parasites” that have descended upon Earth and taken human bodies as "hosts." The book actually made me want to become a “pod” person.
That same Sunday night, my friend Ben was giving his first shiur (a class) on the High Holidays as part of his rabbinical internship at our local synagogue. As his time slot approached, I stared at the clock, the book and the shul (synagogue) bulletin with pained eyes. In the end, I decided to forgo the shiur. I remained chained to my seat. Until, of course, my husband dragged me out to another shiur the same night with only pages to go until the end of “The Host.” I think my hands were shaking from withdrawal throughout the entire shiur.
Sigh, priorities, sigh.
(Click here to read an excerpt from The Host. Did I mention that I liked it so much I'm STILL buying it even though I've already read it.)
A quote from a rabbi cites that hip-hop is harmful and that "music of this type will not benefit the listener spiritually." Has he heard Yitz rap? I doubt that Yitz's goal is to promote harmful music. I'm not a fan of MOST hip-hop or rap but I've found a few tunes that titillated even me. While I don't think the rabbi's racist, I wonder if such blanket statements about a musical genre has racist undertones.
But then as a teenager, I stumbled upon the Alanis Morrisette of the Latino set while flipping through the channels on our little TV set. She had dark, unruly curly black hair that blew wild around her as she rocked her head to the music. She wore tight-fitting, rocker girl clothes that wore more “punk” than “sex vixen.” She spun her Spanish phrases so fast that they left me dizzy. Her name? Shakira. This was Shakira before she shimmed her hips into the American market with a little belly dancing and blond locks. I started searching for her music on the radio. I found her and played her over and over and over again as I did Nirvana and No Doubt tunes.
Shakira was gateway drug, a doorway into my education in the ways of Latino music. From there, I went on to discover Marc Antony, Enrique Iglesias, Luis Miguel, Juanes and (since I had grown up under a rock) Santana. Thanks to Shakira (and okay, a little help from my Latino lovin’ Russian friend, Igor), I found myself rocking out in the mother tongue. But since my education is nowhere near complete and I still have a ways to go, I’ll take recommendations for downloads to my Ipod.
Friday, September 12, 2008
"Many transracial adoptees say they struggle to fit in among their own family members. Shannon Gibney, 33, a writer in Minneapolis who describes herself as biracial, was adopted by a white couple who tried their best by providing things like books by black authors.
“But having books and other things about blacks is no substitute for actual experience,” Ms. Gibney said. “When I had questions about even little things like how to wear my hair, there was no one around to help me with my questions.”
Gibney's comments reminded me of Brad Pitt's much publicized quote in a 2006 issue of Esquire where he discussed how he deals with the hair of his (African) daughter's Zahara: "For white people who might be having a little trouble with black- person hair, Carol's Daughter is a fantastic hair product. We got it for Z. Now her hair has this beautiful luster. And it smells nice, too."
If you missed my August 12 post on racism, here is the link to the essay, "A Nation Divded: Coping with Racism in the Jewish Community" now available at Interfaithfamily.com.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
I concede that I haven’t worried too much about passing on my (new) Jewish culture to my children. With my family history, I’m more worried about giving them a loving, sane environment. I don’t worry so much about that environment being Jewish. But then again, I am spoiled. My husband is studying to be a rabbi. He gives really good public relations for Judaism. But then have you heard what they say about the rabbi’s children? Maybe I should be more worried.
I have seen others go through the painful process of watching their children become less and less religious and observant, of not wanting to be Jewish or identify as Jewish. And oy, was it painful to watch! Just thinking about it makes me feel like my heart is drying up into a little raisin-like shape. I can’t imagine how painful it is when the parents have worked their butts off to adopt Judaism as adults.
My convert friend worries that she might overwhelm her children with too much information “for fear of the children drifting from their Jewish roots.” I can see myself doing the same. Mommy will probably be too happy to help Baby learn Hebrew. (At least, until Baby’s understanding exceeds Mommy’s and then G-d willing, Daddy will take over Mommy will overdose on things like this because she didn’t get them in her childhood.) It would be heartbreaking if my children drifted and even more heartbreaking, if I could have avoided it somehow.
I like to think that if I can pass on how happy Mommy is with the culture and religion she’s adopted, that Baby will be happy, too. Because I’ve also seen what happens when the rabbi’s kid turns out great and loves Judaism with such a passion that it’s infectious. That’s the kind of passion I want to exude. That’s the kind of passion I hope my children will share. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night. Am I being passionate enough? How can I get more passionate?
And yes, I’m worried about explaining that though Auntie takes her celebration of Halloween very seriously, we’ll only be dressing up for Purim. But the craziest thing is that Auntie is pretty supportive of having Jewish nieces and nephews. She’d probably tell them Christmas wasn’t as cool as Chanukah because she’s celebrated both. And maybe, they’ll believe if it’s not coming from just me alone.
And I guess that’s just it. I have to hope. I have to hope that if I surround myself with the right people. The infectious sort. The kind that remind me why I wanted to be Jewish in the first place. That my children will make the same choice I made and they’ll want to be Jewish, too. You hear that G-d? No funny business. I don’t think my heart could take it.
The one convert that I knew was very gracious about being bombarded with all of my questions. It was interesting that she was much younger than me but she became such a source of wisdom to me during my conversion process. She had been in the process for much longer and it seemed to me like she knew everything.
Eventually, I found an online conversion group but for some reason, it didn't have the kind of tone that I had hoped. I joined it, left it, joined again and left again. Finally, when I came back a third time (where else was there to go?), they wouldn't let me back in. So, I started my own group. There's a little link to it on the right-hand side of the page but in case you missed it and you're interested, check out: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/orthodoxconversionnyc/
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
I discovered biracial dolls when I was doing some research for my application to SwirlCamp! which is a program run by Swirl. Swirl is a "national multi-ethnic organization that challenges society’s notions of race through community building, education, and action."
"Remsen" doll on Realkids.com.
Honestly, I think my children will end up looking more like the African-American/Caucasian doll, Tillary. Them curly hair genes are fierce.
“How are you, baby?” he asked in English with a languishing drawl that reminded me English was not his first language, despite the utter lack of a Spanish accent.
“How am I?” I laughed. “Dad! I’m in Israel!”
He gasped. Was he picturing me being blown to bits by mass transit? Probably. “Que?! What! What are you crazy?”
I rolled my eyes. And as I normally did, I assured him in a soothing tone that I wasn’t. I told him that I was in Israel to study Orthodox Judaism at a school for converts. He showed some uncharacteristic restraint by not telling me that that was crazy, too.
In the Old City.
The next morning, I had called my boyfriend to figure out our plans for the day. He was staying at a yeshiva on the other side of town. He was going to be my tour guide while I was in Israel. He had visited many times, even spending a year long stretch after high school.
“I can’t see you until late this afternoon,” he said in a matter of fact voice.
I was startled.
“But I don’t have any food for breakfast!” I whined slightly hysterically, a picture of myself starving and dying from thirst flashed before my eyes.
“Well, you’re just going to have to go out and buy yourself something with the money I gave you last night,” he responded in a huff.
My jaw dropped. I didn’t know anything about Israel. I didn’t know the name of the street where I was staying. I didn’t know how to get around. I had done absolutely no research, assuming that my boyfriend would be my walking, talking guidebook.
And that’s how I had ended up, chesting heaving, standing in front of the ugly, limestone building where I was staying. All the buildings on the block looked exactly the same, short, wide and composed entirely of limestone bricks.
“Okay, you can do this,” I said loudly. But I didn’t believe it. I was the kind of girl who could get lost using a map and often did.
I looked left and right. An art gallery. A Judaica store. And right in front of me, traffic on an asphalt road that was at a standstill.
But past the traffic, there was hope. A street lined with cafes, little bistro tables littering the pavement.
I power-walked down the block, headed for the nearest crosswalk, worming my way past snails, er, people, after reminding myself that jaywalking wouldn’t fly in Israel.
Waiting at the crosswalk, I looked up at the clear skies above. I could feel the sweat bead on my scalp, under the swirling cloud of my curly afro as the sun beat down mercilessly overhead. The dry heat was a blessed change from the humidity of a New York summer.
Once across, I paced in front of the restaurants apprehensively. All signs on the store windows were in a language I couldn’t read. And the restaurants looked fancier, reminding me of the expensive cafes at every other corner of Midtown Manhattan East.
Familiarity drew me to the café with a large deli counter that took up most of the room. A few natives milled around inside. I quickly searched the walls for a certificate that would prove the café kosher. But everywhere I was overwhelmed by Hebrew.
The tall, dark-haired tanned attendant leaning against the glass behind the counter mumbled something unintelligible in my direction. I blinked and shook my head.
“English?” I asked with a frown, straining upwards to look at him over the tall counter. His eyes strayed down to the modest long-sleeved blouse and long skirt that announced my religious affiliation: Orthodox Jew. His eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Why didn’t I speak Hebrew? With my tan skin and dark features, I certainly looked the part of an Israeli native.
“Ah, American,” he laughed, enunciating the words in a gruff Hebrew accent. He rifled through papers on the counter and rescued an English menu. “Here.”
I smiled gratefully. My stomach grumbled as I paged through the menu. I bit my lip. There wasn’t any pork on the menu so maybe it was kosher. I mean, I was in Israel, right?
With a shrug, I ordered a wrap that included a litany of ingredients I couldn’t identify. Desperation was my middle name. The savage beast that was my stomach was a rough rumble and tumble of acidity. I rubbed it soothingly.
When he announced the price in Hebrew, I presented him with a fistful of Israeli money. He laughed again, repeating the price in English. I paid him quickly, rushing out with the white bag he had handed me.
Back on the pavement, I took a deep breath and peeked inside. It smelled…foreign but not offensive. I was hopeful. I pulled the wrap out with one hand, offered a little before-the-meal prayer and opened my mouth to take a bite. My phone started vibrating in my fannypack.
I sighed. Stuffing the wrap back in the bag, I pulled out the phone.
“Yes?” I said with sharp annoyance. Only my boyfriend had the number.
“You know that not every restaurant in Israel is kosher, right?” he said.
“I got a wrap at the deli/café across the street,” I said with exasperation.
“Did you check for kosher certification?” he asked.
“Everything was in Hebrew!” I whined.
“Hmm,” he offered back. “Well, maybe it’s kosher. I mean you’re not Jewish yet so it’s not really a big deal.”
I gasped. I hadn’t had a piece of unkosher food for months!
“No, honey, I mean….”
“I know what you meant.” With a click of a button I hung up and paced down the block.
At the trash can, I sighed and threw the little white bag in.
“G-d, I’m so hungry,” I whispered aloud, pausing in front of another restaurant. And just then, a man in a black suit, white shirt and tall black hat sauntered into the restaurant in front of me. My eyes widened. Jew! I squealed in my head. I had just figured out my way around my limited Hebrew.
At some tourist site in Northern Israel.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
The class was being held in the home of another synagogue member and I arrived with just a minute to spare. I asked the doorman which side of the building the apartment would be on and I headed in the direction he pointed out. But as I walked away, I heard him call out to me, “Oh, look, she’s over there!”
I guessed that he meant the teacher was walking behind me but that didn’t make sense. Wouldn’t she be upstairs waiting for her students? I thought for a second about the jokes my rabbi used to make about Jewish Standard time and I quickly turned around.
And there she was, just as the doorman had yelled, the teacher giving me a big smile. “Aliza!” she called out to me. And that’s when I looked down. At the medium sized dog that looked like it should be pulling sleds in Alaska rather than women in Riverdale.
I never got to attend the class. I am disastrously allergic to dogs. Actually, I’m pretty much allergic to everything. I’m the kind of girl who sees her allergist once a week to make sure I stay breathing.
So, honestly, what is G-d trying to tell me about my Jewish learning?
Friday, September 5, 2008
“So, are you pregnant?” a friend asked bouncing over to me enthusiastically.
I rolled my eyes and exhaled sharply.
“What? What did I say?”
Motherhood is hard. And I don’t just mean raising the babies. I mean having them. I mean trying to have them. And yes, raising them after all that is hard, too.
After finishing up a recent Shabbat meal, my pregnant friend Rivkah* began to vent her frustrations with pregnancy and motherhood. All the women gathered to listen on the couch. And after we’d all done the requisite “oohhing” and “ahhing” and thanking G-d for everything, we all began to discuss the anxieties that can come with impending motherhood.
Rivkah’s fidgeted restlessly as she talked about feeling nauseous all the time and losing weight from being unable to keep anything down. She had fears for the pregnancy, fears for the birth, fears and more fears. She was speaking to a captive audience who understood her fears. The other women, who rounded out the conversation, included Michal*, a recent mother and Esther*, who had recently endured a miscarriage.
I mostly listened thinking that it was refreshing to hear the women talk about their anxiety openly, while reflecting on 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. No one ever seems to discuss those issues. They worry that talking about any negative aspects will “jinx” their current or future pregnancies. Or more likely 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.
And 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 constantly whether or not I was trying to get pregnant or already pregnant. And if the answer was “no” and “no,” people hummed around me with sympathy and well wishes for a baby.
I have startled more than one Shabbat guest with the pronouncement that my husband and I were putting off having children in the near future.
Looks of dismay ensued.
“But, of course, you want to have a baby!” the guests would insist.
Of course, no one bothered to ask why were putting it off. And I worried that if I told them that they would walk away from our conversation thinking that it had been okay to bring up the subject of pregnancy.
After all, didn’t I want to be part of the box they wanted me to fit into, the box they thought I should fit in? Now that I’d finally checked off the married box, didn’t I want to work on putting a checkmark next to “married with children”? But things aren’t that simple. Not for me and not for many women out there.
When I ask other Jewish women if they feel pressured, their eyes grow wide before it all pours out. They’re under constant interrogation from the community, having heard “Are you pregnant?” often from close relatives and relative strangers. They talk about money trouble, finishing their Master’s degrees (sometimes, Bachelor’s degrees) or establishing their careers, and the constant fear that they won’t be able to manage juggling anything more.
And everywhere, someone is lurking, ready to pounce on them and apply pressure.
The husbands live in a bubble.
“Honey, did anyone ask you if we were pregnant?” I asked unraveling my headscarf as my husband Yehuda locked the door behind him after we returned from a Shabbat dinner.
Yehuda wrinkled his nose in disgust as he undid his tie. “Who would ask that?”
“Oh, you know, everyone,” I exaggerated quietly. I realized I’d lost count (on both hands) of the times someone had asked me about my “status.”
No one (except for his father, J.) had asked my husband if we were trying to get pregnant. And my father-in-law didn’t really ask, he hollered.
“Get pregnant already!” J. ordered cheerfully.
Still, my husband was sure that only I was obsessed with 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 had grown up in a culture where there wasn’t too much that was considered “TMI” (too much information) but it seemed like there was an endless list of topics unacceptable for Jewish discussions. So, why wasn’t pregnancy an off-limits topic, too?
I approached my single friend Josh to talk about it.
“Look, I get people blessing me with marriage out of nowhere at Shabbat meals,” Josh instant messaged sympathetically. “I totally understand.”
He’d learned his lesson after a fight with a Kollel wife left him assured that blessing couples with babies was a “no-no.” As he told me his side of the story, I wondered about the Kollel wife’s reasons for giving him this sage advice.
At the pool at my local gym, my Aqua Fitness instructor Arelis, a feisty mocha-skinned Dominican woman, wanted to discuss my career goals.
“Why don’t you have a baby?” she asked raising her hands over her head in a stretch.
“Um, because I’m recovering from an illness,” I replied furrowing my eyebrows.
“Yes, but you could have a baby in the meantime,” she enthused.
I stalked home afterwards to type my fury out on my computer.
“Don’t ask me about my uterus…please” shouted the title of my latest blog.
Disabled? Unemployed? Well, why aren’t you working on getting pregnant?! Oh, yes, 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!
The keys clicked and clacked furiously as I wrote in exclamations, “Did you hear that, people? It's my uterus and it's VIP! You're not invited!”
And then I was blindsided by an angel of hope.
At another Shabbat meal, a married woman whispered conspiratorially in my ear that people would stop asking about my womb once my husband and I survived our first anniversary.
“Why?” I asked in confusion.
“Because they’ll think you’re having problems,” she whispered back.
“Problems?” I murmured mystified.
And she was right.
After our first anniversary, 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 at my stomach and cock their heads to the side inquisitively.
With an exasperated shake of the head, I would mutter: “No. I’m not pregnant!”
Now and then, a sad look would overtake my interrogators and they would sigh sympathetically about how hard it was to “get pregnant.” Without any coercion on my part, people started to believe we were “having trouble.” And though I wasn’t, I was suddenly aware that I was surrounded by a world of women who were.
When my best friend Esther told me recently that someone asked if she had “a bun in the oven,” I cringed. My beautiful best friend is one of those women who has been having trouble. Esther has had three consecutive miscarriages. She tells me that she hates the assumptions people make.
“After one year of marriage, you must be pregnant. But no one assumes that there are miscarriages. That there are those of us struggling to afford to eat, much less bring children in the world to struggle with us,” Esther said, her voice heady with emotion.
I tell her that people associate pregnancy with happiness.
She replies, “I associate pregnancy with fear. I am scared to death of it.”
I tell her that I feel the same way.
I cannot think of pregnancy without remembering my mentally ill mother who beat me with belts, shoes, telephone cords and metal poles.
I cannot think of pregnancy without imagining myself writhing in pain from the chronic pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia and depression. I would be forced to forgo medications that ward off mental and physical agony in an effort to put the baby’s needs before my own. But really, are my fears, my status, anybody’s business at the Shabbos table?
One out of four women miscarries, I learned, after another whisper told me that a woman in the community had delivered a stillborn baby. Suddenly, there were whispers everywhere about previously private miscarriages. Behind closed doors, women began sharing stories about “trying for months” and falling into deep depressive episodes. I had never imagined that so many women could be suffering silently.
The idea that any of these could be asked “Are you pregnant?” in the midst of their suffering became a horror that overwhelmed me.
And the suffering was everywhere. A New York Times feature on women who had battled infertility and lost only compounded my horror further. People were still asking them questions, too. “When are you going to adopt?” It was too much. I found myself wincing as I paged through an article in a women’s magazine where a father 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 impending pregnancy became no more socially incongruous than asking what someone does for a living (a subject now surely imperiled by the economy). This social norm probably isn’t deterred any by the latest newsstand feature that details the every lump and bump of Hollywood So-and-So’s pregnancy and then Hollywood So-and-So, Jr.’s first days.
But it’s not a safe subject. Not when more and more couples everywhere are struggling with the subject. Not when we realize that often questions born out of natural curiosity can be hurtful and even traumatic.
So I’m waving a “PRIVATE” sign around my uterus for myself and for anyone who’s with me. I offer that it’s time we make asking about pregnancy and talking about having children inappropriate for 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 it’s time to start asking again about the weather.
*Names have been changed.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
At my fifth birthday party surrounded by cousins.
A pale little princess in a shimmery yellow dress of polyester and tulle falling from the spaghetti straps that hang off my shoulders. A Burger King golden crown sits high atop my head on the blur of my straightened, puffy brown hair tucked haphazardly underneath.
Sitting atop a table in the middle of our living room, I smile and fake a curtsey next to the cake. I’m surrounded on all sides: by my cousins, my friends and decorations that scream “Happy Birthday” in the ugliest shades of yellow, green, red and even glittery pink. I am five years old.
My mother has spent hours preparing for my birthday party. Wiping. Scrubbing. Blowing air into balloons. Cutting the ribbon that special way that made it curl as she let it loose. Positioning the dolls in their frilly dresses around the room, the dolls that set the theme for the party. Every party I would ever have would forever have its own special theme.
But the smile is fake and no one notices. No one knows that only minutes ago my mother was beating me across the expanse of the pink and white flowery bedspread on the king-sized bed in her room. My crime? Bashfulness. I was shy about everything: taking photographs, talking to the guests, walking out from behind my mother’s long legs in my too-big party dress.
My birthday wish: That I could die and disappear so that my mother would never punch me again with her fist or slap me again with the back of her hand.
Please check out Sarah Shapiro's "All The Way Home". It puts a positive spin on the difficulties and joys of honoring parents and becoming an observant Jew.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
This is the final draft of an essay I wrote for a contest that asked "What is the Most Important Day of Your Life?" I previously posted the first draft on the blog.
Come Back For Us
She stood in the doorframe in a faded nightgown though it was mid-afternoon. Her thin penciled-in eyebrows became two menacing arches. She threw the thick metal cup in her hand at my head.
I don’t remember what I did. What I said. What I said or did never mattered. It was never right. It was always wrong. And I always paid for it.
Anticipating the blow, I wrapped my arms around my head. A shield. But I was wearing a flimsy tank top. The cup connected hard against my exposed right elbow and rolled across the floor.
There was a pause where her brown eyes strayed to my arm. I felt some flesh protrude from my elbow but I saw her horror first. I looked down at my arm with wide eyes and I began to scream.
One of her brown, moist hands pressed over my mouth to muffle my screams. The other applied pressure to the new bruise her rage had wrought just above my elbow. She struggled to push the battered mass back into my arm.
“Don’t you dare leave this room! Do you hear me? Don’t you dare!” she whispered in my ear, the full weight of her corpulent body pressed against my chest.
Then my mother thundered out of the room, the door slamming behind her.
Strewn about my dark, mahogany daybed like a broken doll, I lay writhing from the pain. Seventeen years old. Blackened, dirty feet poked out of my jeans and hung from the bed. Sunlight streamed from the windows onto my face.
My two younger sisters, fourteen-year-old B. and ten-year-old A. entered the room on tiptoe, looking skittishly towards my mother’s room next door.
“You have to leave,” B. said breaking the silence. Her unruly black hair was still wild and patchy from when my mother had attacked the knots in B.’s hair with scissors.
Thin, fragile A. began to sob.
I shook my head. Crying. “I can’t leave. I can’t leave you.”
But we had been whispering about it ever since my mother’s youngest sister had finally offered me a way out.
“If she hurts you again, you’ll come live with us. Don’t worry about my mother. I’ll take care of it. Just come,” she had wrapped her arms around me. My tears lost in her lengthy, smooth auburn hair.
“Pack,” B. said, her steely eyes surveying the room. Her decisiveness made me feel like the younger sister.
B. left and returned with large, blue trash bags. Little sobs escaped from A. who stood in the corner, shaking and covering her mouth.
The next morning, uncharacteristically, they woke themselves up without my help. I awoke to find them all in my bedroom. Our sweet-smelling two-year-old baby sister’s soft arms encircled my neck.
“K.,” I said whispering her name. She giggled, flashing her toothy smile mischievously.
“She’s still sleeping,” B. said stoically. “We’ll help you sneak the bags downstairs.”
She pushed A. towards the garbage bags we had hidden in my closet. On the phone the night before, my maternal grandmother had warned us not to call friends or write letters. “She listens to your calls. She goes through your things at night. Looking for things.”
A.’s long, spindly arms wove around me tightly. Her long black, braided pigtails scratched against my face. Quiet tears streamed down her face.
I looked at B.. “Come back for us,” she whispered huskily. “Come back for us.”
“I promise,” I nodded. Tears interrupted my farewell.
We hugged in a tight circle, broken only to force K. into it.
“Why is everyone crying?” K. asked loudly. “Why you crying?”
I remember reaching the doorframe and turning back to look at all three of them. Three tiny girls. I wondered who would protect them.
It was the last day of my senior year of high school. That morning, I walked up the stairs at the entrance of the school slowly. My knees bore the weight of the backpack and the plastic bags I had crammed with my clothes, journals and sketches. I walked straight towards my English teacher’s office on the first floor.
Mr. Mason looked up. Pushed his glasses up his nose. He gripped his morning coffee in one hand.
“Can I leave my stuff here?” I asked. And then in one breath: “I ran away from home today. My mother was beating me.”
He said nothing. But I told myself I knew what he was thinking.
He was thinking of the short story I had handed in last week. In it, a boy, Mike, contemplated suicide because he was being abused by his mentally ill father and could think of no other way to escape.
“Do you know someone like this?” he had asked, making me stay after class. “Because if you know someone like this, if you tell me, I can help. I’ll do everything I can to help them.”
I had shaken my head. “No,” I said. But I had refused to look him in the eye then. Had never taken my eyes off my sneakers.
All Mr. Mason offered now was a quiet nod. And I dropped my bags in a corner by his desk, eager to escape his office.
Between classes, I collapsed on the concrete floor of the girl’s bathroom.
“What if I never see them again! Oh G-d, what have I done! Oh G-d, help me,” I shrieked.
My friends huddled with me on the floor, patting my bushy, curly hair. They were a terrified group of almost women. They had all been praying for my freedom but none of us had imagined the day would come soon.
My friend Marisol, who had a crush on Mr. Mason, had threatened to tell someone the year before. She thought my family secret too terrible to keep, she wrote in a letter. The letter had disappeared from my backpack. For days, terrified, I searched for it in my room.
“I want you to stop being friends with Marisol,” my mother announced one day while standing over the stove. “She doesn’t seem like a good influence.”
I froze. It was several minutes before I nodded. I cowered, waiting for the blows that always came. I waited for the punches. For the knives she liked to throw. But they never came.
“I had it much worst when I was your age,” she said instead. Bursting into tears. Picking up her shirt to unveil scars.
I went to school the following day and told Marisol I would lie if she told anyone. I told her the things my mother said would happen if I ever told anyone our secret. That my sisters and I would be torn apart and put in foster care. That in foster care, crazy people would rape and beat us. That my mother said she would kill herself and kill me before any of that could happen.
Now a year later, it was the night I ran away from home.
My grandmother called my mother to tell her I would not be coming home. I could hear my mother’s cries from the handset. She threatened to find me at school and kill me. She screamed and screamed into the phone on the other end.
That night, I had no trouble sleeping. I stumbled into the cot my eighteen-year-old aunt had opened up for me in her bedroom. I fell asleep gasping for air between tears. And for the first time, in a long time, I had nightmares. For months, I dreamt only of my mother.
I dreamt my mother was chasing me. A monster. Strangling me. I dreamt that I was dying. But the dreams faded.
With time, more family secrets were exposed. Rape. Abuse. Abandonment. Betrayal. My mother became a wounded figure. Tragic and terrible. Broken by the past. Broken by unchecked illness. A fracture that poisoned and shattered her family.
Ten years later, I ask my husband what he thinks is the most important day of his life. Without missing a beat, he responds: “Marrying you!” And he showers me with wet kisses.
Later, I email my sister, A., to ask her for help figuring out what my most important day has been. “What should I write about?” I query. There have been so many special days in the last ten years. But she can think of only one.
“The day you ran away from home. Because it’s the day your life began. At least, that’s the way I feel about the day I ran away.”
The day I ran away from home, I ended a cycle of abuse and began a future that is nothing like I ever imagined. I had never dreamt so far. I was so certain that I wouldn’t make it past my eighteenth birthday. But I can never forget where I came from. And so, while sitting at my computer and thinking about my husband’s response and my sister’s, I realize that none of their important days could have happened without mine.