He is tall and slender with a crooked nose, big eyes, full lips, a steady professional job, and a neatly button-down shirt. His ordinariness is so extradinary it makes my heart ache. He belly laughs at my goofy, well-timed joke. His wedding ring laughs at me when it bumps against the table.
I am unsure what hurts more: the baby at the next table or him.
Both of them hold someone else's joy and on another day, in another week, in another year, neither would grab my attention with such strangling unyielding force.
And oddly, it's his force that pulls me more than the baby. Because, well, through all of this, my lack of a partner has left me emptier than I've ever known I could be. Even while pregnant, the loneliness grabbed me and pulled me down forcing the howl out of my throat.
And don't tell me about the kind of loneliness you feel when your partner isn't really your partner. I know every nook and cranny. I know every sharp edge.
But I can gather as many family and friends around me as I want. And they can give me strength, but this loss is mine and mine alone. There is no other hand to hold, no other heart that's broken, no one to even feel annoyed at because they aren't grieving the way in want them to grieve.
I don't even know how to grieve.
But I know how to want and wish. And that ordinary looks so good. It looks safe.
And I am no longer numb.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
A few months ago, my friend Jasmine posed on a question on her Facebook wall: What makes you Howl? Right now, the last thing I want to do is howl. Right now, all I want to numbness. Numbness and an empty head. This, of course, is asking a lot from me...
At the end of a long summer of unemployment and dating, I found myself still single, still unemployed, and newly pregnant. After a moment of hesitation, a scan on one internet site on the abortion pill that after ten seconds left me in tears, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was having baby number three. Unlike my other two children, this child would be mine and mine alone. While the complications of my current life would make this a challenge, my parents, sister, and close group of supportive female friends allowed me to see that this task would not be impossible. Secretly,I was delighted.
Secretly, because for the first time in my life, I was completely taken over by an unfamiliar emotion: fear of what other people would think. More specifically, fear of how my tight knit Jewish community would react. While many find me quirky and endlessly entertaining, my lack of social currency and refusal to fit in can be a hard pill to swallow. I've mostly accepted this reality.
As the weeks went on, the nausea enveloped me and the muscle memories of my other pregnancies made it hard to hide my newly pregnant belly. However, every ounce of me felt the need to hide. I stopped going to my coffee shop filled with Jews, avoided my married friend’s morning walk around the new walking loop at the JCC, and stayed away from any place I might run into people from my community. My secret happiness was overshadowed by this constant worry of their judgment. When Rosh Hashanah rolled around, I stood over the Torah to chant. All I could think, “They know I’m pregnant. They can see my belly.” So, of course, I lost my place. After attending a Jewish funeral filled with much of the community and Yom Kippur, I was convinced it must be obvious. Scenarios of shame ran through my head. Gossip. Quiet whispers. Disapproval. All things I've never cared about before filled my head and overtook my joy.
And yet, in reality, no one I actually told ever tried to take my joy. My friends and family were completely supportive and kind. They allowed me to feel happy. But the shame filled me.
Then on Monday morning, after noticing light spotting, I called the doctor. They sent me in for an ultrasound. I was sure that it was nothing. It felt like nothing. I still looked pregnant. I still wanted to throw up. I was just being overly cautious.
When the nurse rolled over my belly, she said she was having a hard time getting a good picture. She changed to a transvaginal ultrasound, kept looking, and then said, “There’s no sign of movement. No heartbeat.”
I tried to get her to try again. I asked her to get someone else to look. She measured the baby and said it must have stopped growing at 8 weeks 5 days. It had been a while.
A physician’s assistant came in and gave me the sad speech. The one that makes you want to punch people in the face. The speech that tells you that it’s not your fault and that it happens all the time. And I can try again very soon.
Try again very soon. That’s the big fat cosmic joke of it all. I’m an unemployed single mother. I have no partner or independent wealth. This was a happy accident. But, trying again soon is an impossibility. My third child will have to wait until undetermined time in the future that I cannot even fathom: a time where I either have a partner or am in a position to realistically and smartly do this alone.
And I wasted all that happiness on shame.
On Tuesday, my best friend drove me to the surgery center where I had a D and E to remove the fetus. She drove me home. Then brought me dinner. Two other friends stopped over that night to bring me movies and pumpkin pie. Then three more friends visited me the next day while I had to stay home resting. All anyone brought me was love and kindness and good words, and sympathy. No one made me feel that this wasn't a loss or it’s better this way because of the complications of my life.
And I realize now that my shame was misplaced. My fear unnecessary. I hid for nothing.
Because miscarriage is so common, we are all told to keep this secret until everything is safe. But the thing is, nothing is actually ever really safe, When you are walking through life without a partner, doing something that usually requires a partner, it’s very lonely.
So now, for the moment, while I understand that my usual self would howl and scream and cry uncontrollably, I sit on a plane on the way home to the safely of my parents and my childhood friends. I
cannot howl. I am numb and I pray that I can sit inside this numbness until I am ready.
cannot howl. I am numb and I pray that I can sit inside this numbness until I am ready.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Last January, my friend Galit Breen published an article on Jews and Tattoos. I was lucky enough to be a part of it. Today, I've added more ink to my body. Like everything I do, my ink has everything to do with my Jewishness...
I am a tattooed Jew. Most of my tattoos define my Judaism. I reject the prohibition against tattoos. I am not committing idolatry nor am I debasing my body by making it more beautiful. I am a Reform Jew. I am the mother of two children whose father is not a Jew. I am a Queer Jew. I am a Jew who loves, honors, respects, intellectualizes and questions my people and my religion every second of every day. My Jewishness is at the core of my very being, and my tattoos reflect my identity. The tattoo on my leg is Eve, naked in front of a tree, holding an apple with a Torah scroll wrapped around her body. The words- Etz Chaim- tree of life are above her head. Frankly, it’s a lot of information to unpack. For me, Eve is the most important character in the entire Torah. She represents what it means to be human at our very core- and by eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, she gave us our own humanity. While we’d love to see the world wrapped in goodness- it simply is not all good. The world is a complicated place. We are complicated creatures. We were never meant to stay in that metaphorical garden of perfection. The Torah scroll is wrapped around Eve’s body because it is a book filled with complicated creatures: imperfect heroes, confusing villains, authentic parents, arrogant children, selfless friends, loving leaders, lecherous lovers, upright kings, and wavering prophets. We are all these things. God is all these things. My tattoo reminds me of the beauty of this humanity every day. And when people see it, I get to talk about my Judaism. I get to tell the world that I am a Jew, which leads to the tattoo on my right wrist- it is the Hebrew words: Hineni—here I am.
Hineni is mentioned in the Torah many times- the first in the Akedah when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. It’s another one of those complicated stories that speaks to the very core of our humanity. In it, God calls out to Abraham and Abraham answers, “Hineni!” Here I am. It is the start of a test, a downward spiral, the breaking up of a family, a lesson in morality, a lesson in parenting, a physical walk up a hill that leads to the most horrific moments in Isaac’s life. And yet, Isaac does not die—He lives. Here I am: three words that remind us that there is life underneath it all. That despite pain- we live.
Today, I found myself again, sitting in a chair with a needle coloring my arm. I sat in that chair from a place of great privilege: the privilege of being an American Jew in the comfort of my small East Coast city with a strong Jewish community and, frankly, rather apathetic citizens. I am safe. I am not questioned. I am not harassed. From a great distance, I watch from friends and family run to bomb shelters to protect themselves from Hamas' twisted revenge fantasy. I pour over articles explaining over and over that Israel has every right to defend itself. I am stunned by the acts of Antisemitism spreading like black plague through Europe. I am saddened by the far left's inability to see the truth. But, most of all, I am helpless.
When people ask where my name comes from, I don’t tell them it’s Hebrew or even Jewish, it’s Israeli. My name is a challenge. Inside of shying away, it announces who I am—even more, who my people are. But, I don’t walk around with a name tag. As Eitan Chitayat, so brilliantly wrote in his article in the Times of Israel “Down with the Yellow Star,” while we no longer walk around with Yellow Jewish Stars, there is something empowering about taking their power back:
“I want to wear a yellow star above my left breast where each and every Holocaust victim was forced to don one. I want to walk around with a yellow star on every solitary piece of clothing I own. On my American Apparel V-neck, my Nike sweatshirt, Ralph Lauren sweater, my Champion hoodie, my Diesel button-down, H&M jacket, Adidas jersey and Gap blazer. I’ll wear it at the beach on my bare chest if I have to.
I want to walk down the streets of Paris and confront people like this. Outside the White house near these friendly haters confronting an ex-marine. In Brussels, the Netherlands, the mosques of Berlin, in streets of Canada – and England especially – to meet this idiot. I’d like to go to campuses in the States, like this one at the University of California, San Diego to talk to this girl here – I’ll be wearing my yellow star."
Monday, July 9, 2012
I'm staring at the coffin, plain, wood, filled, when she walks into the sanctuary. I can feel her as her heels pad softly against the flat brown carpet. The weight of the air shifts. Particles gather around me, closing my throat. All I can smell is my wife on her clothes. It's as if their pheromones mixed together just to taunt me. My body heaves forward. I try in vain to blow out stale fearful air, but her presence suffocates me. The word lover whispers in my ear from some unknown voice as I tightly close my eyes. I'm sure the congregation thinks I'm holding back tears for her. I am. I'm not. I don't know. I've never felt jealous in my whole life. I've never understood the nights my wife would cry in our bed or on the floor because she felt I was keeping some dark secret. For her, jealousy lived just under the surface, a constant threat to our marriage. Her crying pissed me off so much; I fantasized about hitting her, just to shut her up. Every time I thought we we're okay, she'd start to question me. We were trapped in a constant cycle.
Yet somehow, we had an open marriage. Well, open for her. Women came and went from her life. I had one rule: she had to tell me. Sometimes, we'd be driving in the car or sitting in bed, and she'd ask, "Don't you worry?"
"These women? Don't you worry I'll fall in love?"
"Fall in love?" I found this question laughable. "I'm confident in us. You won't fall in love." I never believed for one minute that she'd fall in love with these women. Why would she? Women were her friends. She could easily fuck them and keep that friendship. It never crossed my mind she'd fall in love.
I open my eyes and tilt my head back to look over my shoulder. She's taking a seat in the pew a few rows back. I see a tear running down her cheek. "Why are you crying?" I want to scream. "You can't cry. She's my wife. My wife! This is my grief. Why are you here?"
My heart beats faster and faster. I know why she's here. I know that it's her grief too, and I hate it. I hate that I let this happen. I hate that I have to share. I hate that I can't fucking breath. I hate that she had to die for me to feel this.
I look at the coffin. I look back at her. She cocks her head to the side and gives me a sad smile. My heart speeds up more. I blow out air. I stand up.
Everything goes black.
Monday, June 25, 2012
This story was part of a writing challenge proposed by my American Jewish Lit professor in grad school. After reading Bernard Malamud's short story from 1955, "The Angel Levine," about a Jewish black angel who saves an old Jewish tailor in order to get his wings. The story looks deeply at Jewish identity, posing the question: what makes a Jew?
In turn, my professor asked, "where did this angel come from? What was his life when he was alive? Was he born Jewish?"
I grew up during the Harlem Renaissance, the son of an entrepreneur who made his money opening speakeasies in Jungle alley. Jazz musicians, homosexuals, bohemians, and upper class whites flocked to his establishments. In 1926, when I was four-years-old, we moved to a Hamilton Heights brownstone. At the time (although much has changed) Hamilton heights was a desirable neighborhood for affluent whites, and my father’s success with his speakeasies sprinkled throughout Harlem allowed us to live among whites. I remember the whiteness of my neighbor’s skin was odd to me. It’s not that I’d never seen white folks; I just always assumed they were curious creatures with stringy hair and colorless faces. Our first week in our house, I watched the boy next door kick his pale legs against the steps. I’d never seen a white boy with shorts on before.
“Mama! Mama!” I screamed out into our shiny new kitchen.
She came running into the living room. “What Levi?”
“Look Mama. Look at that boy. What’s wrong with him?”
“What do you mean, what’s wrong with him? He’s sitting on the steps. Whew, boy. You scared me.”
“But, Mama. His legs…he got white leg disease.” My mother just stared at me trying not to laugh.
“Child, that boy is not diseased. Look at his face. What color is his face?”
I paused and studied his light brown hair and pale pale skin. “White.”
“ So, if his face is white, what color are his legs?”
“Brown.” I answered confidently.
She cocked her head to the side and let out a laugh. “Why would a white boy have brown legs?”
“Cuz everyone’s got brown legs Mama. Everyone.” I replied stubbornly folding my arms around my body.
“You think Miss Wineblatt’s got brown legs?”
“Yes.” I answered defiantly, now secretly embarrassed by my fears. I suppose my mother’s employer, a wealthy Jewish society lady, did not have brown legs.
Despite my father’s success, Mama insisted on working. My mother, a proponent of Prohibition, found the speakeasies distasteful, so even after my father provided a comfortable home for us, she stayed attached to an old Jewish spinster on the Upper West Side. Mama worked for crumbling Miss Wineblatt for as long as I can recall. She cleaned her apartment, did her cooking, and helped her shop. I was never sure who needed the other one more. My father begged Mama to act like a respectable lady and stop living at the beck and call of some old Jew. However, Mama refused. Miss Wineblatt was getting on in age, and Mama couldn’t bear the thought of Miss Wineblatt stumbling though her vast apartment alone. Plus, she didn’t need no women of ill-repute, who hung around Pop’s lap-joints, ruining her days. At least, Miss Wineblatt had some class.
Miss Wineblatt’s class, in my young mind, was questionable. Her clothes never seemed to fit and I swear I’d see her drool into her lunch as I watched her eat. Plus, Mama and Miss Wineblatt fought constantly. “Oh Mother Wineblatt” she’d scream, “You gotta listen to me when I talk!” She’d scream in a bellowing voice when Miss Wineblatt insisted on doing anything independently of Mama. “You can’t be wondering around this apartment, half-dressed, someone might see you. “
“I do whatever I want to do Ella.” Miss Wineblatt would scream back. “You’re always pushing. I maybe be old, but I’m not dead yet. You should be so lucky that I die.”
Then she’d look over at me with her wrinkly face, and place her tiny vein-filled hand on my cheek. “Look at this boy. Levi, such a boy. With a good Jewish name. You should be home with him, not pushing me around.”
I winced when she said my name. Even at four, my name got strange looks. Levi did sound like a Jewish boy and not a black boy from Harlem. However, after years of working for Miss Wineblatt, Mrs. Ella Anderson grew to love the foreign sounding names the Jewish community bestowed upon their children. She thought Levi was lovely and respectable, so that‘s what she named me. Pop might have argued, but he’d found if he let Mama make her own decisions, she’d stop making decisions for him.
Read on next week for Part 2.
Monday, June 11, 2012
For years, I taught Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir, Night, in my community college classroom. Night is the story of Elie and his father's life inside the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps during the Holocaust. It is spare, heart-wrenching, and honest. He tells the tale of a people moved from humanity to degradation and the unraveling of relationships caused by such inhumanity. Many times, broken relationships were that of fathers and sons, but they were also broken relationships with G-d. Elie struggles to hold onto his relationship with his own father while, at the same time, despairs over the violent breakdown of his relationship with G-d.
While teaching, my students and I found ourselves stopping at the same passage:
A young boy is arrested and hanged by the Nazis for not giving up his superior who was planning a revolt. The entire camp stood helplessly by as they watched this young boy die slowly. While death surrounds them everyday, the boy's death beats them down. His hanging even shakes the guards.
Beyond my classroom, this passage propelled me into my graduate research. However, the one piece missing from the conversation was the perspective of this Jewish boy slowly dying as his Jewish community powerlessly watches.
So, I wrote what I imagined his was thinking:
Swinging from nowhere
Swinging from nowhere
Darkness engulfs me.
They are forced to watch me
I listen to their cries below me.
“Where is God?” an old man screams
Their empty eyes stare at me
Looking to me for answers
To their ancient riddle
Their timeless prayer
“Where is God?”
Is he inside our dying bodies?
Is he in our enemy’s large, animal hands?
Is he in the men watching their sons
Turn into monsters?
Is he in the elderly languishing
Back into children?
A teenager’s eyes meet mine: my tongue hanging from my mouth.
My lungs silently gasping for breath
He is skin and bones and hope and horror
He is change and sorrow and fear and life
He is my future, my past
He is my language, my story, my epitaph
He is my God; He is my people
He is my reason for hanging
“Where is God?” they shriek
Watching me hang here
My people ache
“Where is God?”
“God is here
Hanging from the Gallows.”
Friday, May 25, 2012
The other night, I was putting the Great Rabbi to bed. He's a bit fearful of the dark, so I've put a rooster nightlight in his room. As he was climbing under the covers, he said that he wanted to talk about the Guardian rooster. So, I told him to tell me about it:
They guide me through almost every single thing in life.
The rooster guides me through the dark shadows of the wicked.
" Huh?" I thought. Did he really just say that. So, I asked him if he wanted me to write down what he had to say about his Animal Guardians.
He asked me to share it on my blog. So, here it is word for word. It is unedited. I did not change any words. I did not write any of it. All I did was transcribe his words:
My Dear Animal Guardian
By The Great Rabbi
The Rooster guides me through the dark shadows of the wicked.
The Lion guards me from the medieval
The mighty Whale will guide me through my dreams
And my destiny.
And the Dog will guide me through the cities,
And the religions
And the Mankind will guide me through my life.
And G-d will guide me through my world
And my universe.
The brave Penguin will guide me through the Greek snow,
Ice, water, earth and metal gods.
And Myself will guide me through my home
Through my hope
Through my friends
Through my love
Through my school
And again, through myself.
The Gorilla will guide me through venom, bad feelings and any bad chances of life.
And I forgot, what about the books?