Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Simchat Bat

I was not at my best Sunday for Esther's naming that took place at my parents' house.

When I talked about this with Jacob yesterday, he reminded me that the outcome of the day was a success and I guess that counts for something but when you lose, they always say that if you did your best, that's all that matters. Shouldn't the reverse also be true?

Luckily, I wasn't my worst, either. I was just unfocused and unhelpful, even though it was a party for my daughter. I left my purse at home and some crucial props for the ceremony. I wasn't really spiritually present so, even though I had given some thought awhile ago to my parts of the ceremony, I couldn't communicate clearly with our gathered community and was surprised by my own blubbering. (Usually, I'm prepared and stay functional while experiencing intense emotions in settings like this.) I participated in gossip and shouted at both my mom and my husband. I was one of those moms I swore I'd never be by taking Esther out of Jacob's arms when she wouldn't stop crying during the ceremony. I would have preferred to publicly demonstrated the fact that I know he is good at parenting her.

However, I had foreseen forgetting the nipple shield that I use to help feed my daughter and had a back-up in the car and I was able to connect well with many of my friends despite my overall inability to attend to the event. Also, I didn't freak out when the entire exhaust system fell out of my car three blocks before we arrived. Those can be seen as successes of a sort. I certainly believe that working within our inevitable human failures to find joy is a success, even if most folks (and a nagging voice in my gut) would say that I shouldn't have made the mistakes in the first place.

And I suppose those successes are the take-away for the day. Those and the fact that now my daughter has been blessed, welcomed and named by her community in a lovely event with amazing food. My own experience is secondary to the gift of the experience that my daughter received.

I suppose that last sentence is a microcosm for parenthood, eh?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


When Esther was four weeks old, she and I got on a plane for four hours to San Francisco, then in a car for a five hour trip over the mountain to an old hippie commune turned retreat center with 20+ strangers so that we could get to know one another at the beginning of a two year cohort experience. All of us care passionately about community development to the point of being young (25-40) leaders in the field.

As usual, I feared being an outsider. In fact, I had billed myself as one in my application to look attractive for the diversity I'd bring. (haha, funny joke in an organization that is proactive about racial reconciliation) Most folks in the organization that sponsored the cohort are evangelical and do direct service work with under-resourced people. However, I am mainline Protestant -emergent, no less - and try to work at a systemic level to effect change. These differences had the potential to drastically deforest our common ground both culturally and personally.

For instance, a week before the retreat, the organizer sent out an email to group, telling us we were responsible for our own praise and worship time. He pointed out that previous cohorts had contained members who were active in their music programs at church so if those folks in this group would bring their instruments, we would be able to put something together ad hoc.

Although I have some worship team experience, it was mostly when I was a much younger Christian and my repertoire consists mostly of late 90s Christian camp songs and "contemporary" hymns.

Mot of my spiritual communities since then have been more traditionally liturgical or contemplative in nature and haven't kept up with the latest praise music.

As a result, when the annual conference for this organization is always dominated evangelical worship teams, I often feel left out because I don't know the songs and, generally, the songs I do know don't particularly inspire worship in me.  So, I had a sinking feeling that the same thing would happen on this retreat.

As it turned out, no one in our cohort had the requisite "spiritual gifts" to lead that type of experience.  What we did have were a couple of people who work in a camp ministry and regularly lead young children and teenagers in easy to learn music.

I loved it.

I'm generally quite reserved when it comes to music and worship.  I don't dance when our crazy rabbi leads our minyan and I'm somewhat inhibited when it comes to clapping and such in other services. I just don't tend to feel the spirit that way and so have no reason to overcome my default staidness.

However, with this group of strangers I decided to just have fun, you know?

I don't often have fun.  I enjoy myself and I experience satisfaction, contentment and happiness.  However, grinning and giggling in fun are less frequent.

Still, with a brand-new babe sleeping in her Moby wrap and the sense of freedom brought on by successfully navigating our travel, I figured whatthehell.

So, each session, I danced as I peeled bananas with hand motions and laughed as I shouted, "Go Bananas! Go, go bananas!"

And I grinned as I looked around at all these other adults - working so hard to extend the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of God, with all of the seriousness that requires - spinning with their arms flailing like peels.  I could be like them if I gave myself over to it.  If I let God in enough to remind me that I have never been an outsider to her.

And then we sang, "As a deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after thee," and I could hear my junior high youth director sing in my head, "Bom, bom" in a rising third like he always did in those days when fun and the awakenings of spirituality were so inextricably bound together.

There comes a time in most new groups when I get some sort of feedback from the other people that I am now known and, often, liked.  This time came on this trip when I was expressing my enthusiasm for the worship by saying, "This is so much better than two sensitive guys with guitars."

One of the men leaned over so he could see me, laughed and replied, "You just said that, didn't you," as disbelieving affirmation.

Yes.  Yes, I did.

Now let me see your funky chicken.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

During Esther's check-up a couple of weeks ago, the doctor asked about developmental milestones and wrote the answers in her chart.

Doctor: Is she starting to smile yet?
Me: Yes.
Doctor: Is she starting to coo at you and make other pre-verbal noises?
Me: Yes.
Doctor: How is she sleeping at night?
Me: Well.  She usually sleeps anywhere from 4 to 6 hours every night.

She looked up from the desk and said, "It's a pretty good life, isn't it?"

I smiled and agreed.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Raisins and Almonds

The unexpected result of giving birth to Esther is that I have newly intense insight into how Jewish folks engage with the world.

You see, although Esther may one day choose to be a Christian, she is already Jewish. Some denominations recognize patrilineal descent in addition to the fact that she will practice the religion with her father and I, while also being surrounded by other Jewish folks who will treat her as Jewish. Birth, practice and culture are the three legs of the Jewish identity stool.

This was brought home to me when Jacob and I went to see The Last Act of Lilka Kadison at the Lookingglass Theater last weekend. The play was lovely and powerful, illustrating the universal human need to give life meaning through telling our stories by following a dying woman and her care giver as she struggles to re-member the love affair of her youth in Poland that was ended by the beginning of WWII. As an aside,  I appreciate that our society has reached a point where the art that grows out the Holocaust no longer needs to include graphic retellings of the horrors of the camps (like Night) or to focus on the most tragic stories (like Sophie's Choice). Even simple stories of teenage romance disrupted before it could fully develop are important when never forgetting.

I had to keep myself from sobbing through much of the second half and although the play was well-written and elegantly staged, I wondered if something else was happening than just catharsis.

It turns out that I gave birth to a Jewish daughter and this affected my engagement with Jewish art.

These stories are my daughter's stories.

She belongs to the continuous line of people who have lived these experiences.

I am not like the guy on Seinfeld that converted in order to tell better jokes; I am not claiming the stories and experiences as my own. But a mother's love for her daughter is an entangling thing.

I am now entangled with the Jewish experience in a much more intense way that I was simply by marrying a Jewish man and practicing religiously with him.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with someone I love dearly about his insistence on using racial and ethnic slurs ironically and casually in conversation. His argument has always been that words themselves have no power to hurt and since his motivation is not hateful, people should back off.

He loves this clip from Louis CK (as do I) and I'll be honest, I am moved by a similar argument made by David Foster Wallace in his essay, "Authority and American Usage":
I should note here that a couple of the students I’ve said this stuff to were offended – one lodged an Official Complaint – and that I have had more than one colleague profess to find my spiel [regarding Standard Black and White English] “racially insensitive.” Perhaps you do, too. This reviewer’s own humble opinion is that some of the cultural and political realities of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever really changing them.
Since I do agree in theory with these folks, I'll tell you right out that my friend used the word, "kike," jokingly, trusting that I knew he's not actually bigoted in his choice.  And while normally I would just give him a disapproving look and move on, instead I got really upset.  When we came back to the conversation later, he made the points made above and I had two responses.

First, although I know he's not bigoted, he made the joke amongst a group of people for whom that could not be said quite so securely.  They don't actually know many (any?) Jewish folks besides Jacob and a few of them have said distressing things in the past.  Since my friend is a charismatic and influential guy, part of my upset reaction was that he was giving tacit permission to the rest of the group to also use that word.

Second, he made the joke in front of Esther.  She's tiny now but she'll get bigger and no one really knows when verbal perception begins.  Plus, it will be a long time before she really understands sarcasm and every other time she hears that word, it will be from people who don't like Jews simply because they are Jews or in the context of discussing those people.

I never want her to wonder - not even for an instant - whether this man that she loves dislikes her because she is Jewish.

On the other side of the coin, I know that we tend to believe our loved one's opinions about our identities and I don't want her to believe - not even with a tiny sliver of her mind - that being Jewish is a bad thing.

To his credit, my friend acknowledged my arguments and agreed not to use historically degrading words around my daughter.  I know this gives the words continued power in the larger culture but I want to limit the amount that I sacrifice my children's well-being for the sake of the larger culture war.  This is a battle I choose to back down from.

Monday, August 01, 2011


It's like Industrial Light and Magic designed her to be adorable enough to market action figures of her.