Sunday, September 30, 2012

Confrontations With Kohelet

I'd like to preface this by stating that I should be writing a twelve-page paper on Jewish superstition during the medieval period right now. But I woke up with a head-and-throat ache and until the meds kick in, that paper's going nowhere anyway.

I have a complicated relationship with Megillat Kohelet. I always have. 

Sure, it's a book of wisdom, and one from several thousand years ago, so it's bound to have a few things I disagree with. But it's also well-respected and frequently quoted by philosophers and sixties rock bands. 

Recently, alongside Ezra, Nehemiah, Rambam, The Jews of Modern France, and Maccabees I & II, I was assigned Kohelet as reading for school. Plus, hey, Sukkot is here. Look at me, I'm so timely and topical!!! So I was compelled to read it again. In detail. 

I read it, taking a break every chapter to cheer myself up with a rereading of Harry Potter. What an interesting philosophical team in my head. 

In all seriousness, though, I'm very surprised by what this rereading of Kohelet has brought out in me. 

I mean, sure, it took me triple the time it should have to make it through the first two chapters, what with all the "vanity of vanities, life is nothing but vanity and chasing after the wind" and such. But as I read, I found myself strangely invested. I used to have so many serious discussions about the nature of life and faith with people who held this book in the highest esteem. And here I had to opportunity to have the discussion with the source itself.  It was a test! How could I defend my own worldview against my own brain and this book?

I must admit here, for the sake of honesty and clarity, that when I began this reread, I had no memory of the later chapters of Kohelet. All I remembered is that he says life is pointless, there is a time for everything (turn, turn, turn), women are evil, and that you should serve G-d. 

Kohelet describes throwing himself into pleasure to find meaning, and then into work, and then into wisdom. And I started having a discussion. I found myself writing short notes to Kohelet, asking him questions. Specifically, when I was told to try to picture Kohelet in the way the Rabbis of the Talmud did: as Shlomo HaMelech, as the same guy who wrote my very favorite Megillah, Shir HaShirim. 

That pretty much did it for me. Now, I was angry. I pictured myself raging at the Wise King. 

"What happened to you? Did you forget the words you wrote? Weren't you ever happy enough to freaking WRITE Shir HaShirim??"

I asked a friend of mine, "Do you ever think Kohelet took the time to just sit down and smell a rose?" To which he smirked and replied, "I think his problem is that he smelled a few too many roses, if you know what I mean." 

This just made me angrier. But I kept reading, feeling horribly negative about the whole thing, writing my notes to the King. I even started a new art project, a massive one, one that will occupy my free moments for months to come (hopefully). 

But then a funny thing happened. I reached the part in Harry Potter with the Horcruxes, where Dumbledore explains that the wicked Voldemort's actions are driven not by hatred or even ambition nearly as much as they are by his extreme fear of death. 

In other words, Voldemort was convinced that if he didn't live forever, he might as well not have lived at all, and he was willing to do anything it took to make sure that he'd never die. And since (spoilers!) the only thing he could do to ensure immortality was to actually split his own soul by murdering others and wrapping the severed pieces of his spirit in physical objects, he made the choice to live forever by becoming the face of evil. 

I started thinking about that. Someone so scared of being forgotten they cease to care about others at all, and literally attach themselves to physical objects. Voldemort is described as having followers, but no friends. As having started out handsome and whole, but turning into some kind of creature who is more serpent than human. And I thought, Voldemort is a fool. 

Kohelet doesn't suffer fools. He describes a phase of deciding to be a fool, and finding it almost better than being wise, since wisdom brings with it the pain and sadness of experience. In other words, the more you know, the more you realize you don't know. The more you feel the desire to rage against the things that will outlive you. 

But that's the part of the process where someone like Voldemort stops searching. Kohelet would shake his head and say, "Voldy, you stopped at chapter three! There's nine more to go!" (And this is where I started to shock myself. I was starting to SEE. KOHELET'S. POINT.)

Then, for some strange reason, that metaphor with smelling the roses hit me. 

Of course, when you look at a wall of climbing flowers, you generalize them. From that distance, of course, they all look like they're one and the same (and pointless). And they've got these thorns that keep you from getting close. 

I started to get it, but I didn't feel any wiser. I felt stupider. Why am I trying to find meaning at all, I wondered, when someone so much smarter than me has concluded that everything is vanity?

And then, when I was on my lunch break at work and reading chapter nine, I turned a corner. The quote goes:

The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing at all...they will never again have a share in their labor under the sun. Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a glad heart...let your garments always be white, and your head never lack oil. Enjoy life with a wife you love through all the days of your vanity that He has granted you under the sun, for that is your compensation in life and that is your job which you labor for under the sun. Whatever you have strength to do, do it, for there is neither doing nor reckoning nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave where you are going. 

You can ask my coworkers. I suddenly started to smile like an idiot. 

I thought about Kohelet and Harry Potter and my own place in life. I realized, life isn't pointless, as long as you make it count. Sure, maybe no one will remember you, Voldemort, but it isn't your place to be remembered forever. You're a person. Your time here is limited, and that's why it counts

You have a job to do. You're not here to be a fool and squander your days doing stupid things you find no meaning in, fighting with people, accruing physical objects to wrap your soul around... all of this is vanity and chasing after the wind. That isn't your job.

Your job is to ensure your life has meaning. Your job is to find the things that give it meaning. Appreciate and enjoy the small things like bread and wine, but make sure your conscience is clear. But also don't forget what's important in life: to find meaning in your deeds, your work, and your relationships. 

You don't see much when you look at a wall of roses. But when you stop to look at one, and take in its scent, there's perfume, and soft petals, and beautiful color.

By being careful, you even learn to navigate around the thorns. But you also can't stand around all day with your nose in a rose. You've got some wisdom to accrue.

In the very big picture of the history of the universe, your everyday actions are nothing but vanity. But here's the point you CAN have. Live well, and live ethically and morally. You won't have regrets for being a good person (unless you're royally messed up, Voldy). 

After the fifth book, even Harry Potter starts getting less angsty and angry and starts thinking before he acts (sure, he has to suffer some horrifying losses first, but still!). After chapter eight, Kohelet starts seeing some meaning. And what did I take from this?

The same thing I talked about in my last post. Of course I won't find meaning in my life if all I'm doing is living to get by. My studies are my top priority now. They're something I need to get through, and I need to do them well. But I've also got to keep on searching for meaning beyond them. Right now, I find meaning in my art and in my friendships. So when the dry documents and horrifying accounts of genocide in my history books become too much, I've got to take a break, and work on my Kohelet art project. 

I can't throw myself into only food and drink, or only labor, or only wisdom. I've got to enjoy these things and find meaning in them. All of them. That's my job under the sun. 

Kohelet and Harry Potter told me so. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Make Good Art

Yesterday, I finally had a moment of sheer clarity, the first in well over a month. And it was brought on, oddly enough, by a dead laptop battery and Neil Gaiman.

I was in class on a Friday, not the usual schedule, but this is what having every Tuesday for the next month impeded by Holidays does. Schedules get mixed up, things get moved around, and before you know it, there's no routine, and the world becomes a confusing place, and if you're already in a dark place, this can drag you down. That's the place I was in when I stumbled into my Judaic Studies class on Friday morning with a mostly-empty laptop battery and enormous bags under my eyes from the night not slept. I started listening to the professor, and typing notes.

Checking Facebook, wondering what the people I knew were doing, typing notes.

Checking Gmail, answering email, wondering why I was doing this, typing notes.

And I'd get distracted by things like the social life I was missing. I tried to take the advice so many people have been giving me lately: Live in the present. Don't think about the future. Don't worry. Don't plan. Focus on you. Focus on your work.

Sounds like great advice. And I've been endeavoring to take it. Work, my grandfather used to say, is the best narcotic. And I focused on work... until I finished my homework, my eyes burning from staring at a screen, and realized I was now too exhausted to eat and talk and needed to go straight to sleep before I thought too much, so I could be awake to work more tomorrow.

And every day, I got more depressed until I figured there would be no point to life until I graduate. I tried to think only about the present, and I spent that time wallowing in the fact that the present sucks.

And then a wonderful thing happened. My laptop battery died. Right there in the middle of class. There was no outlet on my side of the room, and no more on-screen distractions. So, being a super antsy person who can't just listen without moving, I took out a sheet of paper and started doing things the way I used to. I took notes by hand. And within two minutes, I had taken out another paper, and abandoned the notes. I started doodling.

All my life I've been a doodler. I used to get in SO MUCH TROUBLE for it in school. I've had more notebooks and sketchbooks taken away from me by angry teachers than I can count. I was so reprimanded for it that when several years ago CNN released a study from some big fancy university that proved doodlers tend to take better notes and participate better than other students, but ONLY when they're allowed to doodle, I stood up, shouted "HA!!!!", and wished I was obnoxious enough to email the study to my elementary school principal.

So Friday in class, I started doodling, for the first time I think since about July.

When I got into grad school, I was warned that I wouldn't have time for art anymore. I'd have to put that aside and work. It's true. I really don't have the time for my usual big projects and bedroom floor strewn with paper scraps and glue. So I stashed away all my art supplies.

I guess I must be a little strange, because it turns out I can't function by living in the present, focusing on my work and myself right now. I'm an artist. My mind is constantly whirring, thinking, planning, making lists, coming up with projects that most likely won't happen, writing stories, and creating. If you're an art person, you know what I mean. I'm not a RIGHT NOW thinker. I'm a future thinker. True, this does mean I have a penchant for worrying, but I've found in the past month that I worry most when I'm specifically trying not to.

And really, as I doodled more intricately, I started coming up with the first art project I've thought of since July. And I sketched, and the more I sketched, the more I actually heard the professor talk. And I found I had comments to make, so I raised my hand. It was the first time I participated in that class. And I continued to sketch, and continued to participate, until by the time class ended, I had been involved in a philosophical discussion (also my first in over a month) with the professor and had a full-page sketch for a brand new piece of art.

I was blown away. I felt, for the first time since early August, like myself again. I was letting my mind wander instead of rooting it in the papers I had to write and the sources I had to research. And a comic I'd seen on Zen Pencils (which I highly recommend!) popped into my head, a quote by author Neil Gaiman in his commencement address at the University of the Arts in May:

"Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong. In life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all other ways that life can go wrong.

And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art.

Husband runs off with a politician, make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor: make good art. IRS on your trail, make good art. Cat exploded, make good art. Someone on the internet thinks what you're doing is stupid or evil or it's all been done before, make good art. Do what only you can do best. Make good art."

I found the comic where I'd first read this and followed its link to the speech itself. If you're an artist, or even if you aren't, I highly recommend it. Here's the link.

I'm not a fan of commencement speeches, but this was one of the most inspirational things I've ever heard. Maybe that's just because I'm an art person, but it felt very, deeply personal to me. As an artist, I can't function if I can't express myself. And when I'm feeling down or stupid or betrayed, all of those feelings are going to come out in one way or another. And they can either come in the form of tears that keep me up for hours, or they can become a cartoon, or a paper-cut, or a painting. I really think I like the latter option. If work is a narcotic, then art is a caffeinated megaphone, energizing me while I enthusiastically assault other people's senses.

A solid month of trying every piece of advice to be myself again, and it was doodling in class and a Neil Gaiman speech that finally did the trick. Right now, I'm typing this up when I should be composing my ten-page paper on Jewish superstition in the Middle Ages. But you know what?

In the two days since I started letting myself get distracted by art and let my mind wander into that toxic world of the future, I've researched and gathered all my sources for my paper on Neolog Judaism, read the whole book for my superstition paper, written the outline for that paper, emailed my professor, had a visit with some old friends, read a few chapters of a book FOR FUN (!), sang some Zemirot, studied Shir HaShirim, and planned my next paper-cut project. That is more than I've accomplished in the three weeks I've been in grad school combined, when I was focusing on my work and only my work.

And yes, the dark moments still come and go. I still sometimes feel like if I wanted to, I could curl up and cry about the things that have gone wrong in the present. But I don't really have the time. I'm too busy getting distracted by all those things I was told would keep me from my work.

I'm going to make good art.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

5 AM, Months Later

Life isn't letting me run.

As I'm tossing and turning in bed, kept awake by stress so needless as to almost be funny, I decided to delete my Facebook account. Not permanently, just for a month or so until my brain gets back to normal.

People joke about Facebook being 'stalker feed', our tool for keeping tabs on each other without knowing who is keeping tabs on us. I'm starting to get sick of logging on, checking up, wondering what's going on in the world while I'm exhausted and stressed. So, I thought, my account begone. If anyone actually wants to stay in touch with me, there's a million other ways.

But then I realized, I need Facebook for work. It's actually my job to be active on social media. I need to update campus pages. I need to be logged on for several hours in the middle of the day.

So much for that.

Why, you might be wondering, did I title this post '5 AM, Months Later?' Less than a year ago, I posted on Arbitribe a post about loyalty. I was caught between two friends at the time. One, who I had known for a long time, had been badly badmouthing the other, whom I hadn't known as long, but decided at the time was worth getting to know. The old friend had warned me against certain aspects of the new friend's personality, and told me repeatedly that giving them the benefit of the doubt would come back to haunt me. Honestly, I feel like I could copy that post verbatim right now. So here's the link.

In the end, I told the old friend to kindly mind their business and let me handle mine. The new friend had as of yet done nothing to hurt me, so I couldn't see why I should reject their friendship based on hearsay. But I would strive to be cautious.

Now I find myself caught between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It's a time when Jews are asking forgiveness and striving to be better people. Only I find now that, having been doing this for a month and having just discovered some new lessons about loyalty, I can't ask for forgiveness anymore. I've been doing it for so long. I feel, maybe, I've actually earned it, and there comes a point where the only person left who's being hurt is me.

And just a few days ago, I was challenged in loyalty again, in a major, major way. Only this time, it wasn't against someone who had done me no wrong. And it was uncomfortable. But I stood up for the person anyway, because, I figured, that was the right thing to do. It was a sour feeling and humiliating. I knew I was being walked all over. But, I figured, at least my conscience would be clear. It's last year's cartoon all over again. So here it is again, from Arbitribe:

I've been tossing and turning all night. But it's not guilt that's keeping me awake this time, it's anger. I know myself. I've been told that I need to learn to be more patient. I won't bring up that which is bothering me. I'll let it fester until it goes away. Maybe that's not healthy, but I just don't have the energy to fight anymore. I've decided to just plain old let. it. go.

What, might you ask, have I learned about loyalty?

I've learned that being loyal when things are good is easy. I've also learned, though, that loyalty is something that must be earned. Where does this put me in terms of Yom Kippur? How can I go into this DAY while holding active rage? I don't think I've ever done that before. Do I bury it? Do I shout it out? Do I ask G-d to excuse me, I'm having a bad day? I've never heard of that working. Maybe the anger will fry itself out so I can at least get to sleep tomorrow night. And, as a wonderful friend told me, I have to just focus on what makes me happy now. That'll have to do until I can actually take a hiatus from all things social media.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Nina Simone and Muse

It's a new day, it's a new year, it's quite literally a new life for me.

In my last post, I spoke of my apprehension going into Rosh Hashanah, about signs from G-d, and about how hard I've been praying lately. I spoke about feeling guilty.

It's amazing what 48 hours of praying and eating and praying and walking and reading and praying some more will do. Also, it's amazing what some freaky coincidences will do.

Without going into too much detail, I've got to say that if I thought hives and guilt were Divine messages, my mind is blown by the ones I've gotten over Erev-actual Rosh Hashanah. Again, I feel I should stress that I'm not at all sure what my thoughts on individual Divine messages are, whether or not I believe in them, or even if I do, whether I'm worthy to receive one, but let's just say it's been a weird three days.

It's been a situation of I forgot to turn off my phone five minutes ago, let me do it now, and then it ringing with a very strange and unexpected message on the other end. Or one of if something doesn't happen right now to interrupt me, I'm going to walk right up to this place and - then a big branch falls on my head. There are others, but they verge on the too personal and freaky to actually write about. I'm not sure what they mean, if they mean anything at all, but most of them seem to be pointing toward something positive, or the very least, hopeful. And if I can take the negative, accusatory signs, then I can definitely accept the hopeful ones too.

Anyway, this morning, I woke up not feeling that great. It was back to the grind, more school, more work, not another day to meditate on life until Yom Kippur next week. No freaky coincidences were waiting for me today. I wondered whether all my praying had, maybe, not changed anything? But as I got up and got myself ready for the day, I started slowly feeling like a certain weight had been lifted off me. Not all the weight, not nearly so, but something was definitely gone that had been weighing unpleasantly before. Suddenly, I could hear a voice telling me, you're being too hard on yourself. You've definitely got what to work on, but you're doing all you can with the hand you've been dealt right now. So just keep working on it. And feel a little good.

The truth is, I do feel better. Maybe not shout-it-from-the-rooftops good, but there's some definite improvement. And the improvement was shot home for me when I went on Facebook and saw that a friend had posted a video of that girl from X-Factor auditioning with one of my two favorite songs, the happy one, Nina Simone's Feeling Good. I listened to it on repeat, loving every verse and wondering how I went over a month without listening to this wonderful tune.

Feel good, I told myself. If Nina Simone could feel that good, so can you.

But then I thought, nah, most of the weight's still there. Rosh Hashanah's past, but Yom Kippur's still to come. You've still got a lot of things to work on. So I do feel better, but it's an apprehensive positivity, with a dash of blues and maybe even a pinch of rage thrown in. So it's not like Nina Simone's original, but more like the Muse cover of the song. Because I feel good and free in a way, but I wouldn't mind punching something while I'm humming along. Angry/scared/happy? Does that even make sense?

So I've got a new wish for the new year. May I, and all others who feel this way, go from Muse Feeling Good to a genuine Nina Simone Feeling Good before the year is out, and be able to truly enjoy it when they do.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rosh HaShanah: Prayer of the Uncertain

This has, without a doubt, been the weirdest, most Elul-ish Elul I've ever lived.

In other words, this has been the only time I have spent the solid month leading up to Rosh HaShanah/Yom Kippur actually praying fervently, reviewing my own mistakes, and bouncing ideas off G-d of ways I might be able to fix them. It's a pretty ironic thing considering that I went into Elul actually convinced that, for once, I had lived a year the right way.

Looking back on 5772, I cannot think of a single year (with the possible exception of the year I lived in Israel) where I grew and changed so drastically.  I was living away from my family, in an apartment I was paying for myself. I was far more surrounded by people my age than by family members, and for once, there was no set dinner time or school meal plan to rely on. I was on my own, for real.

And I tried my darndest to make the most of it. I cooked meals, not only for myself but for the purpose of hosting others. I held Friday night dinners with an average of fourteen guests per hosting. I baked pies. Some of my best friends and I planned one heck of a Thanksgiving dinner, complete with 16-pound turkey and 20+ people in attendance.

I spent my weekends and evenings after work with friends, getting closer and closer to them until almost everyone admitted we were much more like family than mere like-minded jokers. We made plans together, future plans. We talked about being old and having our grandkids play side by side (or in some cases not be allowed near each other). And over the course of the year, I grew, and I changed.

I had always been open to religious/philosophical discussions, but this past year taught me how to have those discussions in depth. I became much more open-minded, while at the same time learning how secure I am in my beliefs. I learned to laugh at immature as well as intellectual humor. In other words: I know who I am much more than I ever did, and I'm much more secure with the way I live my life.

So I went into Elul thinking, I'm no better or worse than anyone else! I was certain and secure of three things: I had amazing friends, I had gotten into grad school, and I (for once) was as secure in my body image as a self-doubting female can be. I'd never felt better.

Elul arrived, and almost immediately, everything I had been so certain about seemed to fall apart. I had friends move away or drop off the radar. I began grad school, and became not at all sure I could compete with the people who cared so much about giving the most academic-sounding answer (which I maintain makes them sound more like inflated blowhards than scholars). And in response to my social stress and workload, I didn't have time to cook. I forgot meals entirely. I slept less. I broke out in hives.

The hives, especially got me thinking. As I gazed in the mirror and wondered how much longer it was going to look like I'd stepped into a bugs' nest, I started thinking about messages from G-d, something I hadn't really thought about in a very long time. I've never been sure how much I believe in individual Divine messages, but for some reason now I felt I was standing in judgment and isolation, having received a very weird form of modern-day Tzara'at.

Let me be clear here, I do not think I have Tzara'at, and I'm not claiming they were a message from G-d. I'm saying they got me thinking about my actions. Here I was, so certain one day and so utterly bogged down the next, and I began to wonder why I felt this way. I reflected on the past year, and looked ahead to the New Year, even though looking ahead has become increasingly difficult for me to do (constant work will do that to you). And I've been able, I think, to identify the things I did right, those I did wrong, for which I need to ask forgiveness, and my challenges for the upcoming year, the most scary of which is uncertainty itself.

And Rosh HaShanah begins tonight. The overwhelming gut feeling I got is like I've received a court summons, or been called to the principal's office. And I'm not even sure whether I'm the accuser or the accused. Because there's plenty of things I've done right, but plenty I've messed up on, too. Some of these are easy fixes, but others are, and here's that word again, uncertain.

I've sent out my apologies to the people I feel I've wronged. I've been assured of their forgiveness, and I've forgiven them too. Interestingly, I've even managed to patch up relations with the one or two people I've held grudges with for years. That's a nice feeling.

But now, it's just me and G-d. And like I said, this is the first time I'm going into the High Holidays, literally trembling. Mostly because of that principal's-office feeling I described, but also because I realize I still also have to get over the guilt myself.

So to all of you, especially those who sat through this thing, I wish a Shana Tovah, a wonderful and happy, productive, smile-filled new year, and bless us all to be able to leave our hang-ups and bang-ups behind, enjoy where we are, but not lose sight of the big picture, and the knowledge that after this year is over, there's another one lined up right behind it. May we merit to reach it in good health and clear conscience, and may this year be one of fulfillment, happiness and peace.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Master's of the Arts

Written on the Subway, en route to class. To the tune of "Master of the House" from Les Miserables. Those who don't know the tune, find it here.

As for your old college degree,
Forget all you know,
Just wait and see!

Seldom will you find training for your mind
Where you'll feel you belong and yet be so confined.

The workload is immense
Classmates are intense
And all the time your waiting for your recompense!

Think that you can write a paper?
How about eleven more?
Already you're a-flailin' about failin' and you're barely in the door.

Master's of the Arts
Think it might be wise
To make a decent schedule
And categorize
Tuesdays ten to five
Wednesdays nine to one
Couple hours' reading and you think you're done
Sit down to finish your homework,
All of this just goes to show:

Did you get some sleep?
Hope that you did,
or what you'll see will make you flip your lid.
Here, there is no rest, every path's been tried,
And they'll keep charging fees until your brain is fried.

Charge you first for class, insurance isn't last,
Some copies and some textbooks to make sure you pass.
Better not be late, write papers on time,
If you want the prof to grade it, better get in line,
Remember, once you get a failure,
There's just no way to delete,
Ever since they passed the landing on banning the incomplete!

Master's of the Arts
That's your new degree,
An exercise in patience and in sanity,
Workload is immense, classmates are intense
All the while you're hoping it'll all make sense,
Won't matter if you got your bachelor's
In education or pre-med,
Soon enough you're gonna look like you're one of the living dead.

Master's of the Arts is eating up my life
No matter how I plan it my schedule's just strife.
I go to bed on time, never waste an hour
Still I forget to eat and to turn off the shower
As for keeping this blog going,
How, you ask, d'you got the time?
It's cheaper than a prescription
And my description is it's keeping me in line!

Master's of the Arts,
Think it might be wise
To make a decent schedule and prioritize!
Tuesdays ten to five
Wednesdays nine to one
Do all of your homework til (you pray) you're done!

All these faces look depressed, no one's cleaning up this mess!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


It's been eleven years since September 11, 2001. It doesn't feel like so long ago, and yet last year, we had to explain to my students what had happened, that there had ever been twin towers, and a time when people feared flying more because of turbulence than terrorists. I forget that anyone below the age of fifteen isn't likely to remember. That's why we've got to teach.

Let's not forget this happened, even as the new World Trade Center is built. Let's not forget the people who had their lives stolen from them, and those who gave theirs to save others.

The video belongs to Storycorps, which I recommend everyone check out (I will discuss Storycorps and the effect it has had on my life at a later, more solemn date. For now, I think the video speaks louder than I do).

Friday, September 7, 2012


I'm covered in bruises.

I've gathered them, like souvenirs, from various places and activities in the past few weeks: moving furniture, carrying a too-heavy bag, walking into a door, etc.

Point is, for someone who doesn't spend so much time on physical activity, I've been remarkably, well, marked, and I guess I'm just lucky I keep Tzniut, or people would take one look at my upper arms and assume they've got to rescue me.

But why do I bring this up?

Since I've become aware of my every movement through sore muscles and painful bangs, I've become more aware of my body in general. Like I said, I'm not the type of person who spends a lot of time on physical activity. Sure, I walk everywhere, and (mostly) watch what I eat, but when it comes to the shell that holds my soul I suppose it just comes in second place to those parts of me I usually concentrate on: my brain (grad school, work, art) and my soul (Rosh Hashanah's coming up, right?). So it's been kind of weird for me to be spending as much time as I have this week thinking about my body.

And before anyone starts this discussion, let's get this out of the way. Yes, I am a girl, so I naturally have plenty of body image issues. No, I do not think I'm fat. Yes, I think my physique could be improved upon, but so could most people's. Happy now?

How do I broach this topic without talking about staring at myself in the mirror self-loathingly or going into details about parts some people would blush to think about? Well, I'll give it my best shot.

My friend and I were looking at a magazine last Shabbat and discussing the ultra-photoshopped models in the ads.

She's a fashion person, so her point of view of the ad-filled issue is perhaps different from other people's. But as we looked at a glossy, computer-enhanced photo of a sculpturesque model with frighteningly sharp cheekbones, she said to me:

"People complain about models being skinny, too polished, not looking like real people. I like it this way. If they were real people this would be like looking at someone's family album."

In other words, to her, models weren't what the rest of us should aspire to be. They were, quite simply, human coatracks, with physiques quite similar to your traditional coatrack.

"And lots of people don't find models attractive at all," she continued, "Some people do, but then others prefer a bigger woman with a full figure."(As if to confirm this, a male friend of ours later picked up the same magazine and expressed his own distaste for the model body type.)

Naturally, later on in the day, as I was getting dressed to go out after Shabbat and I got a glimpse of some of my then-fresh bruises, I thought about my own body.

I could never be a model. Way too short. But then I don't think anyone could call me fat. I suppose in body type, I'm petite, but not particularly toned... or toned at all. I've got some assets others would like to have, but then I'm severely lacking in some areas others take pride in. Average, I guess. But not bad. Which is, I suppose, a victory in today's image-pressure society.

On Arbitribe, I spoke at length about the body image issues of Jewish girls, so I won't be repeating here what was said there, except to bring up another discussion I had with a different friend this week.

"There's a guy I know," she said, "Who asked me if I'd ever heard of Bar Rafaeli. 'Did you know she's Jewish?' he asked me. 'I didn't know Jews could look like that!'"

Eye roll. I'm not even going into that one.

But beyond even appearances, bodies have been on my mind. (WARNING: Mature discussion to follow. Those who would blush, shout, or snigger are kindly asked to direct their attention to photos of internet cats somewhere else. The following discussion is clean, respectful, and honest. I ask you to be, too.)

I'm a Modern Orthodox Jew, so for me certain aspects of bodily function don't enter my usage resumé until I'm married. That's not to say I don't think about them, they just aren't really a part of my physical activities or current existence.

Sometimes I forget how unusual that is in modern society, but it was made quite clear to me a few weeks ago, when I found myself at a lounge in San Francisco with a group of much less observant, or completely unaffiliated Jews. We had just finished a weeklong, intensive fellowship for a Jewish educational organization, but other than all being North American and genetically Jewish, we didn't have all that much in common. I was one of the very, very few Orthodox Jews involved with this program, and at some point during the "we're done with work" lauding, one of the fellows spoke up.

"Can I ask you some uncomfortable questions about being Orthodox?"

I'm used to the general ones about faith in G-d and Halacha, so I told them to ask away. And boy, oh boy, ask they did. We covered topics from interpretation of Tanakh to women's rights to stereotypes to politics (wow, did that one get heated). The conversation lasted over three hours and so late into the night I thought for sure we were on Tokyo time. Maybe in another post, I'll discuss this event at length. But one of the questions to come seemingly out of nowhere during the night was this. 

Please man, don't hold back.

The sheer reaction to this statement from all, what, six people involved took me rather by surprise. They went on to pity me for my repression (I don't know, I don't consider myself all that repressed. It's not like I don't know how it works), encourage me to get drunk and crazy one night (this came from one who was, ironically enough, rather drunk and crazy themselves), and wonder aloud how a modern, educated woman like myself, who wasn't blushing and crawling under the table from the mere mention of the activity, could not give it a try when there were clear ways to be smart about it.

To all of which I shrugged and said, "This is the life I've chosen to follow. I don't care or comment on anyone else's life choices as long as they leave mine alone."

That's what I said, though with Rosh Hashanah coming up, I feel compelled to admit that it's not entirely true. I don't care or comment on the life choices of people I don't care that much about. I tend to get worried about those who matter most to me. But that's neither here nor there.

This topic, and body issues in general, have been weighing on my mind heavily since. Not just in the areas of lifestyle, image, and sexuality, but also in the terms of awareness. I say Asher Yatzar in the morning, thanking G-d for all of my orifices and for, specifically, my ability to use them. It's, to me, one of the most meaningful prayers in the book.

But then again, I hear horrible stories all the time about Orthodox men and women who do unfortunately stupid things with their bodies, because they've been so closed off from discussion they simply don't understand how they work (I am not getting into THAT now, but maybe some other time), or because they're afraid to speak up when someone is doing something terrible.

Now I've been thinking so much more about the aspects of my body beyond effective function.

Is this a good body? If I were on display in a museum, would the critics call it proportionate? Beautiful? Ugly? Would they wonder about the skill of its sculptor?

Would anyone choose this body over another, if they were given such a choice? Would anyone choose to look at it, even if it wasn't theirs, over another on display on an adjacent pedestal?

If it belonged to someone else, how would they be treating it? Would they exercise more than I am, filling out its potential with muscle and energy? Would they be making poor choices? Overeating? Never moving? Would it be disease-ridden or lice-infested? Am I taking good care of it?

Above all, am I proud of the way I treat it, and the ways I choose to make use of it?

I care a lot about things like posture (bad backs run in my family) and hygiene. I don't drink all that often, and I wash my face in the vain hope that my zits will disappear. I brush my teeth but forget to brush my tongue. I clean my ears but forget to drink enough water. Hey, we've all got areas that need improving.

Perhaps this post qualifies as one of the most narcissistic things I've ever written. I don't know, I hope that's not how it comes across. I don't mean to go on and on about my body, but it's the only body I have the right to comment on. My above questions apply to every body, but since mine is the only one I have any control over, I have to ask myself these questions before I shoot them off onto anyone else.

Maybe when it comes to this topic, I'm giving it too much thought. Maybe others will scoff and say, who cares what you do with your body as long as you're smart about it? Don't drink every night! Don't throw yourself down a flight of stairs! Check out the health of your partners, if you've got them. Why make an ethical/philosophical discussion out of this?

I don't know. Maybe it's just that time of year. Or maybe because I'm a female with a foot in two societies: one that thinks and talks waaaaaaay too much about the physical, and one that perhaps should think and talk a little more.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My Legally Blonde Moment

Those of you who only read this for the cartoons might want to look away.

So yesterday was my first day of grad school. It was the day I had been looking forward to since I received my acceptance email back in April and danced around my sister's kitchen like a lunatic, proclaiming that I had a future after all.

Even within the difficulties of the last few weeks, starting grad school has been a bright spot in the schedule of my upcoming year. I shivered with antici...pation. It would be challenging. I would be bogged down with hours of reading. I would be sharing Starbucks tables with 50-year-old classmates and hipsters with nowhere more ironic to go.

I would say good-bye, effectively, to my active social life of last year and hello to busy, busy, caffeine, busy.

And so yesterday, I stepped into my first class, nervous and excited and wondering who I was going to meet on this program. In the movie version of my grad school career, I would have been wearing a new outfit and have a fresh, monogrammed notebook.

So it may not come as a shock that my introduction proceeded very much like a career-school movie first class. What comes to mind specifically is this scene from Legally Blonde:

Except that I HAD done the reading, wasn't wearing anything that made me stand out from the others, and hadn't answered any question ridiculously wrong or gotten kicked out of class. Also, I didn't have an awesomely awkward David character in my class.

So, actually, not at all like Legally Blonde. But I was fresh-faced, so to speak, and assumed that my classmates would be my new friends.

The professor went around the room, asking everyone their names, undergraduate major and school, and Master's programs. As the names progressed, there were more and more answers along the lines of:

"My name's Melissa Goldenfarber. I have a Bachelor's in Talmudic Studies from JTS, and one in Political Science from Columbia. I'm in my second year here, and going for a double masters in Hebrew Studies and Public Policy. I plan to work with Russian-Jewish immigrants for such-and-such company."

(Note: This is no one specific. I have no clue whether JTS even has a Talmudic Studies major. I'm going for tone here.)

It became clear after quite a few people that not only was I one of only two first-years in the room, but I was also one of the only two who wasn't pursuing a double-masters. And the other one already had a PhD in Biblical Studies or something like that, and spoke like she'd swallowed a thesaurus.

"It is my presumption that the academic realm of Hebraic studies expounds the theory of academia put forth by Immanuel Kant that blahblahblahdiblahdi phhhbbbbbbbtttttttttt......"

It immediately became clear to me that I was in over my head here. The people here all knew exactly what they were talking about and what they wanted to do with their degrees. So I imagine it must have seemed pathetic when the turn came for me to speak:

"Um... Hi! I'm Aliza, and I have a Bachelor's in... Art... from um.... it's my first day here. I'm going for my Master's in Judaic Studies..."

Professor: "Just Judaic Studies?"

"Um... yes. I-I'm considering the PhD."

"And what do you plan to do with your degree?"

"I-I'm not sure yet. I've thought of a few possibilities, but it's only my first day, so I'm still...considering...a few options."

The professor moved on to the next student without a blink, and as I decompressed, I heard the girl in the row behind me "whisper" to her friend.

"Only ONE Master's program? What's she gonna do for a living? Chew on her diploma?"

I pretended not to hear it, but immediately the above movie scene flashed through my mind. That and the question, what is this, middle school? 

Needless to say, I was in a rather bad state of mind when I walked into my next class. I hadn't understood a word of the previous lecture, other than a question of whether Talmud study was an academic or purely religious pursuit, and it seemed to me like everyone knew something I didn't.

Thank G-d I'd done the reading. My next class was Modern Jewish History. It took me several hours of lecture and some actual class participation on my part for me to calm down, but eventually, calm down I did. And as my new professor discussed the meaning of modernity in a historical sense and cracked a few jokes about generals crossing rivers, I actually started to enjoy the class.

So I'm not an idiot after all. I'm just not a big fish. I'm a little fish swimming with the rest of them, and it's going to take some work for me to keep up and maybe even push ahead of the pack. Today is day two, and I've got two more classes to try, and 115 pages to read (so far). But I'm in a frame of mind where I find the events of yesterday funny rather than intimidating. I feel better than I have in days.