Finding myself in the Middle East

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

When I Grow Up

I just sent Princess off to gan in tears. Her, not me. Well, me too. Because when she is not in a good mood, I know that I had something to do with it, that I was less than ideal, and that stings.

It wasn't really my fault this morning. Coco-pop, who wakes up before the sun, woke her up this morning, and she woke up grumpy, raring for a fight. I sang to her, let her play the game which is the bane of my existance--Shoe Store, in which every show in the house is layed out on the couch, and then paired up and sold and placed into bags and delivered (for free!) all over the apartment.

I wrote her a mitzvah note, and didn't make a big deal over her half-finished yogurt. I let her play (i.e. torture) the baby and all was well--until the teeny tiny incident that happened as we were leaving. It ended in her calling me "an icky Ima" and me, tight-lipped, sending her off without a kiss.

I'm still wondering what went wrong. I guess I just never became the ideal me, the perfect me, the one I thought I would effortlessly turn into when I got older.

The ideal me is slightly taller, much narrower, a little thinner. She is sweeter, kinder, more patient, and a better, and published, writer. Her singing voice is stronger, and her acting more polished. Her kids obey every word she utters and with a smile, too, since she is always fair and phrases things perfectly. Her house is neat, her dinners delicious and perfectly balanced nutritionaly. She keeps in touch with all of her friends and family, and sews, too.

She sounds like Mother Teresa, but looks like Barbie.

Upon further reflection, I'm not sure if I want to become her...

or kill her.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Right Place, Right Time

I was late for class, but it was a beatiful day. I stopped for a minute halfway to the main building, and took in the flowers, the blue sky, the white stone buildings. Neve's campus was always nice, but even more so on this near perfect spring day.I was 20 years old, it was 75 degrees, I was in Jersalem, and if I stepped on it, I would only be five minutes late to my favorite class.

I was about to hurry on when someone tapped me on the shoulder. Startled, I spun around. A girl--a woman? --maybe five years older than me stood there. She smiled and blinked and seemed a little uncomfortable. "Are you D?" her voice was quiet, refined.

"Yeah, can I help you with something?" she did look vaguely familiar, but that's how I am with faces. Vague.

"Hi. Um. You probably don't remember me. Do you remember me?"

"Uh, no. But that doesn't mean anything. I'm totally hopeless at remembering anyone...sorry."

"That's okay. I just need to tell you something."

I nodded encouragingly and made what I hoped was an interested face, not one that told her that I was going to be even later for class. "Go ahead. Do you want to sit down?"

"No, that okay. I'm late for class."


"I just wanted to tell you that I am here because of you."

Interest no longer feigned, I looked at her more closely. She had beautiful eyes. I had no idea who she was.

"I arrived here, on the campus, around 6 weeks ago. I'm in the building next door to yours. I was feeling kind of down when I got here because of things at home, and things that I was going through, and there are so many people here. I was totally lost. I had no idea why I had even come here. I wanted to learn about Judaism, I guess, but this was so overwhleming. I felt unwanted."

She paused. A butterfly flew by.

"I decided to leave. I didn't need this. I would spend the rest of my trip at a friend's apartment in Tel Aviv and then go home. Then I saw you. You walked out of your dorm and towards the main building. You must have seen me coming out of my building at the corner of your eye, because you turned. And I decided to stay. And here I am."

"I...I'm really glad? That you stayed? But I don't get it, I'm sorry. What did I do? Why did you stay?"

She was quiet for a minute, fidgeting with her necklace. Then she looked at me and shrugged. "I'm not really sure, actually. You introduced yourself. You asked me my name. You asked me how long I was here for. You asked me if I needed any help with anything. And you smiled. And I guess I just needed to see a friendly face because then I thought, I can do this. I can stay. And I did."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Wonderful Life

It was a shmiras halashon group thing, organized by her gan, and Princess was really excited to be doing such a big girl thing. It was Friday night, and I had just lit the candles. Her hair was long and damp and smelled like strawberries and she was wearing her purple head band with the bow. Her dress had a waist and she held her head high when I dropped her off. An hour later, salads made, table set, food warm on the hotplate, I was a little worried. My husband walked in from shul with 84,000 guests, and she still wasn't back. "Are you sure they said that they would drop her off?" he asked me over the clamour of everyone finding seats to their liking and the baby discovering his vocal cords.

"That's what the note said. But it was in hebrew, so I might have made that up. I'm gonna go. Start shalom aleichem, and I'll be back as soon as I find her."

I left the gate swinging open as I ran out into the street. It was dark, and getting chilly.

It only took a couple of minutes. She was walking towards me. Her hair was dry. She had lost her headband.

"Ima, it was so fun. We sang and sang and then I said we could have it next week at our house and they gave me a wafer but it's a little melted so I have to change."

"Sweety, where are you walking from?"

"They walked me to the top of the street."

The top of the street. We are at the bottom of the hill.

You weren't sc--you were okay? You walked back by yourself?"

"No, Ruthie's mommy saw me and maybe she thought it was a mitzvah to walk me back, so she walked me until I saw our house and then she left and then I saw you."

"They dropped her off at the top of the street in the pitch black and left her! She's five!" I said to Outdoorsman later that night in a furious whisper.

"It's really crazy." He was quiet. Then he laughed. "It's Israel. Five year-old Israelis take their younger siblings to Misrad Hapnim and argue with the clerks over the delay in the paperwork."

"That's not funny. Okay, that is funny. Stop being funny. They dropped her off in the middle of the night five minutes away from her house! I'm moving back to America."

"Home of the Sanitized for your own Protection."

"Yes! Where five year-olds get walked to their front doors! Like they should!"

That kind of thing happens around once a month. I intend to pack a suitcase and get our passports in order. Then something else happens, like a friend will call from New York and complain about the vocabulary that her daughter is picking up from her friends with TVs in Bais Yaakov, or how her eight year old needs to wear a pencil skirt, and I know that I need to stay here, in my wonderful little apartment with my blissfully fashion-ignorant little girls who think that "shakran!" is the baddest word ever.

I remember asking my older sister, when she lived in Irael and I was still single and in America and a D-centered teenager why she lived in Irael. And I was angry. "Why do you live there? We need you. Ima needs you. Abba misses you. The boys need a role model and you get married to this great guy and then leave?"

And she explained about kedusha and about the needs of your husband and the little family that you created coming before your siblings and parents and how I would understand when I got married.

I explained myself to my mother a couple of years ago when she said, "But if Outdoorsman gets a job...that's means you're staying there. Right?"

I tried to explain how I felt about living here, but I also had so many doubts that I was pretending not to have because my sister had always sounded so sure. It came out in a jumbled mess, a tangle of words. Halfway through the ideals of lower happiness thresholds and not living in a fashion parade, I petered off. "Um, how does that sound to you, Ima?"

"Like you're a little confused." She laughed a little.

I laughed, too. "I am. A little confused."

"That's okay. You'll work it through."

And I did. And she misses me and I miss her and it's so hard, sometimes, to come back home and see my father so much worse and my siblings needing a role model, and we come for a few weeks and then flit right back out of their lives? The teenage me would have been furious at the now me.

So we spoke to Rabbi Orlofsky. Are we being selfish, living here? My brothers idolize Outdoorsman. Wouldn't we be more of a help over there?

"So you're gonna be the savior of your families?" He smiled.

No no, not so dramatic, just, you know, are we more needed there? And it is hard living here, too. Everyone is so black and white. And they drop off five year old girls in the pitch black--but the point is, Rabbi, that maybe we are supposed to be there for them, back home. Not here.

Rabbi Orlofsky was quiet for a minute, thinking. Then he said, "No. How do you know how you would be in America? Do you think that you could stay the same that you are now? You live here, in this kedusha, where people want to be and want to raise tzadikkim and it makes you into a beacon of light, into a role model, into people that they want to be like. No, I think that you do much more for them by living here then you would be able to do living there."

I'll have my ups and downs. I'll have my days where I want to go back without even packing a suitcase--they miss me, they need me, we are out of zip lock bags and deodorant and a five year old girl should not be walking home by herself--!

But for our anniversary, my mother sent a card. She sent some money, which is terrific and awesome. And she wrote, "I'm sorry that I cannot support you financially, but I want you to know that I'm so so proud of you. You're living the life that I would love to live."

Thursday, November 11, 2010


“These people know how to live. Look at this blueprint. They want to combine these three apartments, and make half of one into a dressing room.”
“That requires a lot of clothing.”
“I think they might just have a lot of clothing.”

“Ima, let’s dance!”
“First you dance with me myself, then with Coco-pop herself, then we all dance together, then I dance with Coco-pop. Then we all dance together. Then we hop, then we jump, then we spin in circles. Then—“
“Sweetheart. How about less rules, more dancing?”
“Mm. M’kay. So the rule is, we just dance.”

Shabbas (over a five minute span)
“Can we have shabbas party now?”
“How about now?”
“Is now time for shabbas party?”
“What are we going to have for shabbas party? And can it be now?”
“I hope we have those cookies. Do we have those cookies? With the cream? Because I like them. Can we have two? For shabbas party? And can we have it now?”
“Can I—“
“Yes! Yes, you can have shabbas party now. It’s time for shabbas party.”
“Oh, okay, good. But can I first ask my question? Because I was going to ask if I can wear your ring.”

“Dinner time!”
“What’s for dinner?”
“Chicken with potatoes and carrots.”
“I’m too tired for chicken. Can we have chocolate chip pancakes instead?”

“Hi, Princess!”
“Ima! Don’t be here yet!”
“But it’s time to go home. How was your day?”
“You always pick me up first! I don’t want to go first! I want to hang out with my friends!”

“Hi, this is ___ calling from ____ Seminary. Is this D?”
“Yes. Can I help you?”
“You taught a workshop here last year, and the girls loved it. Can you do it again this year?”
“Sure, I’d love to!”
“So I’ll get back to you on dates, and we’ll work something out.”
“Okay, good. Um. But while I have you on the line, I sort of, well, I kind of didn’t get, um paid. Yet. For the workshop. Last year.”
“Oh. Really?”
“Yeah, really.”
“Okay, I’ll check the records for how much you’re owed and get back to you.”
“Thanks. That would be great.”

“Your baby is in the 97th percentile for weight and height.”
“Yeah, he’s a big boy. Aren’t you my big boy? You’re just the cutest, biggest boy. Yes you are.”
“You must be feeding him too much.”
“Yes, I do not think that he needs to be this big.”
“But I’m tall and broad. My husband is taller and broader. And my other kids—“
“How many ounces do you give him?”
“Five. Or four. Or whatever he wants. He’s still an infant, so—“
“He is very high above the average line. You see, this is the average line and this is your baby. He is too big, I think.”
“But you see, um, Nurit? Not everyone can be average. Or is supposed to be average. That’s why there is a chart, you see.”
“So maybe feed him a little less.”

Friday, November 5, 2010

Save the Last Dance for Me

The batter for cake was half mixed on the counter, the dishes half done in the sink. The kids were half dressed and the baby had a wet diaper. There was sand on the floor from your shoes which I forgot to empty yesterday at the park, and scraps of neon pink and yellow paper glued to the table.

But today, I did it. Today, I took time to dance.

I turned on the music to wake myself up as I packed your bags for gan and took out a fresh diaper for the baby. And then you asked me, with your shirt and tights on and your skirt still on the couch, to dance. I looked at the cake batter, at the dishes at the pink and yellow papers. I opened my mouth. The words in a minute were about to slide off my tongue, like snake oil. I looked at you. You were smiling, tentative. You knew it was a long shot.

And I closed my eyes on all of it except you, and we twirled around on the floor, spreading the sand around. You fell, I fell, we got up. We danced and danced and danced. Your laughter drowned out the lyrics.

We walked to gan a few minutes later, after you put on your skirt and I made your hair in a jaunty ponytail. The baby was in a fresh diaper, but I had left the apartment a mess, something that I never do.

I helped you across the street and blew a kiss. "Have a great day, Princess," I called. I turned to go, to take Coco-pop to her gan. Then there was lots to do before pickup, baby allowing of course.

"Wait, Ima. Cross me back." I turned back to you.

"But why--"

You ran back across by yourself, which you are not allowed to do. A warning rose to my lips, but then suddenly you wrapped your arms around my waist, which is a high as you can reach, and gave me a kiss. "I forgot to give you a kiss and a hug,Ima," you said. Your eyes were as bright as the little pink and yellow papers still stuck to the table.

I'm so glad we took the time to dance.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Earliest Memory: Heartsong

I can't really say, now, what was so frightening about that song. But then when I was little, there were so many things that frightened me. The world was so big and I was so small. I slept with the light on at night, blankets pulled up to my chin. I taught myself how to read when I was three, perhaps hoping to fight the dark with information. The world wouldn't be so scary if I can label everything.

So, the song. It was a silly little song about a boy getting lost in his messy room, but I guess my five year-old brain pictured him suffocating, petrified, as I would be. Music was always playing in my house when I was growing up, and when the tape with that song would begin, I would go up to my room and bury myself in a favorite book.

I can't recall exactly why I didn't leave the living room that day, when the tape was playing. Maybe because we were all there, hanging out, and it was so cozy to have everyone around me, my mother sitting at the table doing some quiet work, my siblings sprawled on the couch, and my father resting in his armchair.

So I was there when song went on.

"Please, turn it off." My voice was so small. No one responded because no one heard me. No one ever heard me.

"Please, please turn it off." Does no one see how my body is shaking?

"Turn it…" I lost my breath. I got up on trembling legs and tried to make for the door. Faintly, through the pulse pounding in my ears, I heard laughter. They were laughing at me. My body turned to liquid, and I was a puddle on the floor.

Then there were soft footsteps on the carpeted floor. I looked up, vision blurred from my tears. It was my father. He lifted me up, carried me back into the room. He sat back down in his armchair, holding me against his chest, and I couldn't hear the song anymore. All I heard was the strong, steady beating of his heart. And I was filled with the knowledge that as long as he held me so close, nothing in the whole big scary world could hurt me. Everything would be all right.

When my father got sick, he could no longer hold me in his big strong arms, and nothing was all right anymore. I had been right all along to fear the dark, the unknown.

I’m 6,000 miles away from him now, and since he can no longer speak, I send him my love via my mother.

“Tell him I love him and miss him and think about him all the time.”

There’s some murmuring, and I picture my mother smoothing back his hair, fixing his yarmulke while she gives over my message.

“I told him, and he’s smiling,” she reports back.

Someone recently said how much heart is in my father’s beautiful smile. I clutch the phone to my ear, close my eyes, and imagine that smile, the one that he put on just for me, and I can almost hear it again. His heartbeat. Strong and steady, reminding me that no matter what, everything is going to be all right.


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