#tbt: Tznius Mindset

This photo was a joke – we pretended to make these women tzniusdig (modest) by using our scarves to cover their exposed necklines. We were being silly, though I don’t know if we were mocking the idea of tznius in general, the school’s policing of our clothing, or our own sensibilities.

It’s still funny. It’s also a little sad for me to look back at my senior trip to Washington and realize how badly we behaved in some places (there’s a pretty bad picture at Arlington that I will not share because it’s so disrespectful. There’s also one that a friend shared on Facebook and tagged me in, a tag I refuse to remove despite my shame at the pose we struck, because it is in fact a part of my past).

Our behavior was probably not that different than most high school groups. But it stings when I look back and realize that if I had been in a high school which didn’t see American history and government as “them,” not “us” and therefore not really important at all, I may have behaved differently.

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#tbt: Shedding and Assuming Personas

Summer of 2015: A friend visited and I spent the week being a tourist in my own city during the hot summer. Except for Saturday night, when shabbos was over, and I went to my parents’ house to celebrate my sister’s high school graduation. My friend  watched me get dressed and ready to go into Boro Park, and she commented on how strange it was to watch the transformation. It felt just as strange, believe me, to be switching from comfortable pants and tshirts to tights, a calf-length skirt, and a shell under my blouse.

 

(Postscript: By this time, I had begun to deal with PTSD from memories of being abused by my oldest brother as a child. I was still trying to honor my parents’ wishes and shield my siblings from the fallout, not being strong enough yet to realize that my parents should have been shielding me from the “fallout.” So when I wound up standing right next to my abuser in this photo, I said nothing. What you can’t see is me clutching my younger sister’s hand, my amazing sister who knew nothing about the truth but still knew I needed her and gave me her hand.)

#tbt: Klapping Shanos

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Dear little me:

You never will stop having fun on Hoshana Rabba when you klapp shanos, even when you grow up and so many minhagim and rituals which once seemed so magical lose their shine and glamour.

When you’re fifteen, when you’re nineteen, when you’re twenty-five – you’ll still feel that rush of joy when Mommy interrupts the frantic pre-second-days cooking and baking to ask “did you klapp shanos yet?” You’ll still feel that excitement when you leave the dishes in the kitchen, when you pluck the bundle of leaf-filled willow branches from the cut-glass vase on the dining room table where Tatty set it up in the morning. You’ll still feel victorious satisfaction as you go out onto the back porch and smack the leaves against the concrete five times.

You’ll still sneak a few more smacks in above the mandated five, because not all the leaves are off the branches yet, and because what the heck, it feels good. You’ll still try to hold the ends of the branches, just above the rubber band holding them together, in precisely the right way so that the bundle flies high as you pitch it onto the s’cach over the sukkah. (Despite your constant failures to land it any farther than the edge of the roof, don’t give up – it’s still so much fun.)

You never will actually understand why we do this, what the meaning of this practice is. And it’s not the kind of thing you learn in school – the end of Succos is too far away in the days when teachers are rushing to cram in information about Yom Kippur, after all. Over the years, you’ll come to associate it with tashlich (stripping yourself of aveiros as the branches become stripped of leaves), with vidui (klapping your guilt), with leaving the bad gezeiros behind…

Mommy will explain it to you a few times, but you’ll never quite get it. Something about the multiplicity of “shanos,” those tefilos for god to save us… But still, why the leaves? Why the smacking? Why throw the stripped branches on top of the sukkah? Whywhywhy?

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter what explanation anyone may give for this minhag. In a world and a life that will become increasingly stifling and suffocating and joyless, you will continue to take joy in the simple activity of smacking willow branches against concrete and watching the drab grayness become covered in dark green leaves.

Dear little me:

That matters too. That matters more.

…א גוטן קוויטל

#tbt: Lulav and Esrog

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Dear little me:

Right now, you trust Tatty and feel safe in his arms as he teaches you. Soon, you’ll feel smothered by his embrace and his lessons.

Shaking the lulav and esrog, you were told, is a representation of gathering all kinds of Jews from all corners of the earth in service of god. It’s a celebration of all the many different kinds of ways to serve god, a reminder that god appreciates all kinds of devotion, and a representation that when held together, these different people and methods and lives create a beautiful whole.

The lessons you were taught in kindergarten about this inclusivity won’t always match up with what you see happening around you, with the rifts between and among various groups of Jews. And soon, you’ll start to wonder why only Jews are included in this symbolic ritual, why non-Jews are excluded from the narrative about different kinds of people forming a beautiful whole.

Dear little me:

I wish I could go back and tell you it’s okay to hear the things your parents and teachers wanted you to believe, and think they’re wrong. I wish I could tell you you’re not a bad person for questioning the exclusion embedded in declarations of inclusion. I wish I could show you how to shake the lulav without that look of intense, serious concentration, with excitement and joy instead. 

I wish I could look into your four-year-old eyes and tell you all of this.

I wish I could give you the strength to deal with what’s coming, and I’m so sorry that I can’t.

#tbt Losses and Gains

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My first Rosh Hashanah “out,” I felt utterly lost. It was the first yom tov I wasn’t celebrating with my family – I had been still pretending to be frum on Pesach, I had been attempting to soften the blow on Shavuos, but for Rosh Hashanah I wanted to stay away.

I was supposed to be free. And yet, as the sun set on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I felt – lost. Adrift. I could have gone home, to my apartment. But I knew I would feel alone and closed in there.

So I sat in Union Square and watched the crowds, watched from my own little bubble. I texted a school friend, who commiserated with my plight though he couldn’t understand it.

And then the ball from a nearby ballgame landed right at my feet, and I picked it up and made eye contact with the boys whose ball it was, and they smiled at me and laughed and motioned for me to throw it to them, and I lobbed it softly back at them – all while sitting with my back uncomfortably against the stone wall and my legs stretched out in front of me.

Suddenly I wasn’t alone, suddenly I wasn’t closed in. I was still lost and adrift, but there were others who smiled at me, who cared about this stranger, even when they couldn’t know my struggle and couldn’t help me with it in any case.

I’ve come a long way since then. It’s only been three years, but this past Rosh Hashanah wasn’t full of angst and longing and imagining each part of the day and what my family was doing and how I wasn’t there.

It wasn’t full of some inexplicable feeling of guilt that I wasn’t observing the minhagim, it wasn’t full of some inexplicable pull to mark the day somehow, whether in compliance or defiance of my family’s traditions.

This year, I was finally free.

#tbt Rosh Hashanah

Tishrei / September-October 1994, Israel, Saba and Savta’s apartment in Giv’at Shaul

To all of you, including Tatty the photographer (with an extra special wish for my two baby sisters who hadn’t been born yet): l’shana tovah tikaseivu v’saichaseimu l’alter l’chaim tovim u’l’shalom.

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Reflection: The Hebrew phrase above flowed easily through my mind as I thought about how to caption this photo, and I wondered why – I usually resist using phrases and blessings I grew up with. I realized that this phrase has no mention of God – it simply means “May you be written and sealed for a good year, quickly, for good life, and for peace.” The writing and sealing implies God, of course, but I wondered – is the subjunctive wish without invoking God what makes me okay with this?

So I experimented. I centered myself, keeping a small part of my mind separate so I can observe myself, my reactions and my thoughts. I let the words flow through my mind again, and felt relaxed and at peace. Then I thought, “May God grant you a good year.” I immediately felt the difference.

When I invoked God, my mind connected to the world in terms of drawing down, drawing inward – God’s grace is out there, and my blessing draws it in for my loved ones. I felt contained. I saw myself connected to others only through God, the lines of my energy and good wishes passing through him before going on to the people I wished well.

When I simply wished my loved ones well, I sent my own energy out. It meant I felt expansive, connected to the people I thought of. Every fiber of my being permeated the vastness of the world around me. I felt diffused. I saw myself connected to others with intimacy, the lines of my energy and good wishes drawing direct links between me and the people I wished well.

#tbt: January 2014

The first time I wore pants that weren’t pajama pants, for like a week or more I couldn’t stop admiring my butt in the mirror. Finally I just took a picture so I didn’t have to get up and walk to the mirror each time I wanted to see it. I could just pull it up on my phone and marvel at how good I looked when I stopped trying to hide the fact that I have a body.