Monday, March 29, 2004

Torn Between Two Temples

I am having a love affair with another synagogue. I feel slightly guilty - like maybe I should put more effort into working on my relationship with my own temple instead of seeking fulfillment on the other side of the tunnel. But I just can’t resist the thrill of Beth Abraham’s Rock and Roll Shabbat, with the 10-piece band, the young Rabbi full of ideas and energy, and the hundreds of congregants clapping and singing and dancing in the aisles. I look forward to the sporadically scheduled event for months, although the 45 minutes always end all too briefly, leaving me longing for the next jolt of spiritual uplift.

It’s not that I haven’t attempted to find excitement closer to home. When our synagogue started monthly “Ruach Shabbat” services featuring music and singing, I showed up eagerly. Sure, one lady strumming on an acoustic guitar couldn’t exactly compare to Beth Abraham’s well-rehearsed band, but it was a start. Rabbi Rachel led the services with an infectious joy, and encouraged people to get up out of their seats and participate. The kids weren’t pressured to sit still, the music was nice, and we all relaxed and had a good time. But some people obviously felt the service was a little TOO relaxed. The next month, the rules had changed. The kids were told they had to stay in their seats. No talking or walking around during services. The bright green egg shakers, such a big hit at the first service, were parceled out for one song and then immediately confiscated, lest the children make unauthorized noise with them. Each subsequent service was dialed down just a little bit, until last week, when the giggling and high spirits were met with such icy glares that all of the kids retreated outside and blew bubbles with Luther the custodian until the service was over.

I tried communicating my needs, as any relationship counselor would advise. I showed up at the monthly meeting of the Religious Committee to express my desire for a real alternative to attract the many members who are uninspired by the basic, traditional weekly service. The first Ruach Shabbat was a step in the right direction, I pointed out, but instead of shying away from the music and dancing and laughing, we should be encouraging more of it. I had lots of ideas: get the fledgling Klezmer Band involved, have the Israeli dance specialist on hand to get people participating, move the service to the social hall where people will feel less inhibited (thereby leaving the sanctuary free for those who prefer the more sedate service). I was optimistic at first – the Cantor liked the idea of collaborating with the band, and even the Resident Curmudgeon was nodding her head. But things quickly derailed as a few of the more – shall we say, conservative – members expressed alarm at the idea of singing, dancing hordes rocking to godless guitars in an officially sanctioned event. In the end, they got cold feet and decided to pull the plug on the entire concept.

If the only issue was having music during prayers, well, I suppose I could learn to live without it. But from the moment I set foot in Beth Abraham, it felt more like home than the place I have attended for the past 25 years. There were a lot more people my age there, and a much wider variety of congregants in general – gay couples, young moms nursing their infants, people dressed to the nines and others wearing batik scarves and Birkenstock sandals. I even saw a few people with disabilities, including one with Down Syndrome – something I rarely see at my own temple. I glanced at the bulletin board in the lobby and marveled at the diverse array of events. There were Kindergym and Mommy & Me yoga classes, a great nursery school, and a full calendar of social action events: wetlands restoration, blood drives, tree planting, working at the soup kitchen. Maybe I am just projecting, as I tend to do when I have a crush, but I feel like Beth Abraham would be the perfect fit for me, that I’d find more like-minded friends there, that my kids would be happier and internalize the sorts of values that I want for them.

Like anyone in the midst of an affair, I sometimes fantasize about breaking off my stale relationship and making a full-time commitment to my new love. But it just isn’t possible – it’s hard enough to get motivated to go to services and events as it is, without having to drive for 45 minutes. I need a neighborhood shul, a place where I can pop by on weekends for Sunday School and Tot Shabbat, where I can go to Friday night services and still make it home for dinner. And despite everything – even though my beloved Rabbi will be stepping down soon and my close friend Rabbi Rachel will leave her post as Educational Director in a few months, leaving me with even fewer connections – I still feel a sense of fidelity to the place.

At least I am not sneaking around. I have made my love of Beth Abraham known to all my friends, and have regularly recruited large groups of people to come to Rock and Roll Shabbat with me to see what all the fuss is about. What some might see as a flagrant lack of loyalty, I see as a latch-ditch attempt to save the relationship. My hope is that when the powers that be at B’nai Shalom see that more and more of their congregants are heading three towns over to go to services instead of slogging through another bland evening at their own shul, they will be concerned enough to listen to our needs and make some real changes.

Monday, March 22, 2004

A Tale of Two Baby Namings

When I was thirteen, my social revolved around the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit. Practically every weekend found me squirming uncomfortably in a synagogue pew, watching one of my Hebrew School classmates stumble their way through a Torah service. I was typically clad in a lacy floral number from the Gunne Sax outlet, my hair painstakingly feathered and my braces gleaming, in order that I might be chosen as someone's partner for “Yesh Lanu Tayish” at the reception.

These days, my dance card is equally full – this time with Brit Millah ceremonies, baby showers, baby namings, and other assorted pre- and post-birth celebrations. This past weekend I was invited to two. On Saturday Abigail, an old friend of mine from the Bar Mitzvah days was coming to town from her home in Strasbourg, France, with her husband and 6-month-old daughter in tow, to have a Simchat Bat performed by our hometown Rabbi. Abigail and I were never the closest of friends – we didn’t do birthday parties or sleepovers – but we ran in the same crowd at religious school and youth group from fourth grade to graduation. Even though I hadn’t seen her in almost two decades, I looked forward to reconnecting with her as an adult, and thought she’d be tickled to see a friendly face from her past at the service.

I was not anticipating Sunday’s event nearly as much – a formal brunch in honor of the aforementioned Cidelle (see entry from Friday, March 5) and her two month old baby girl. Given the state of relations between the two of us, I was not even expecting to be invited, and was actually aghast when I received the invitation in the mail and realized that I had no choice but to attend or look small, bitter, and mean-spirited. I knew it wouldn’t be *horrible* - Cidelle has impeccable manners and was sure to be courteous, despite her personal feelings – but I was not exactly thrilled with the prospect of exchanging a few frostily cordial words with her while making sure my kids did not cause a scene or inflict major property damage to the house.

Well, anyone familiar with the concept of irony can predict what happened. Abigail seemed neither surprised nor particularly excited to see me. She acknowledged my presence with a brief smile when I walked in, gave me a quick hug and made the requisite “It’s been a long time, what nice kids you have,” comments after the service, and – that was it. As I complained to J. later that day, after 20 years I should have at least warranted a moderately enthusiastic “Wow, it is SO great to see you, thanks for coming,” at the very minimum!

Sunday, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. As soon as I arrived I decided to get the awkwardness out of the way, and immediately marched upstairs to the spare room to say hello to Cidelle, who was nursing her baby on the sofa. She seemed genuinely warm, even happy to see me, and was definitely sincere in her admiration of Baby Bee (who was ADORABLE in her pretty pink party dress and matching hair bow). Because the house was so crowded with people balancing plates of quiche and hot cups of coffee, I decided it was best to hang out in the front yard where the kids could run around more freely. After a few minutes, Cidelle and her husband came outside with the baby to get some fresh air.

What followed was – while not an emotional, tear-inducing epiphany – easily the friendliest conversation we have had in10 years. It wasn’t anything major; she asked me lots of questions about when Bee first started crawling and walking, how long I nursed both the kids, and at what age the kids slept through the night (I had to fudge that one so as not to completely depress her)! We commiserated over the insanity of real estate in both NYC and the Bay Area, and the nagging fear that the neighbors will hear your shrieking infant and conclude that you are the local child abuser. It felt so good to have an easy, natural conversation that consisted of more than dutiful politeness or stale rehashings of our distant past.

There were a couple of minor awkward moments, like when I mentioned that Chef was, well, a chef, to which she expressed great surprise. “How long has he been doing that? I had no idea! What about the stained glass?” “Oh, for awhile now,” I mumbled, not wanting to state the obvious, which was “Yes, well, a lot has happened in the 10 years since we stopped speaking.” But we got through those okay. And after years of feeling like we were living on different planets, parenthood has given us something in common again. We may lead completely different lives on opposite coasts, but our concerns are the same: helping our kids grow and develop, providing a roof over their heads, bringing them up to love our Jewish tradition.

I don’t expect things to change too much; we’re not going to start writing letters every week or anything. But I do think that we took a step forward in re-establishing friendly relations - and possibly left the door open for something more. So maybe, God willing, our daughters will meet again on the Bat Mitzvah circuit.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Saturday In The Park

I was at a friend’s housewarming party earlier this year when I found myself cornered by C., a woman I barely knew from synagogue.

C: You know, I just dropped my sister off at the nursing home.
Me: Okay. . .
C: Yup, she has a pretty advanced case of Alzheimer’s now.
Me: Ummmm . . . I am sorry to hear that.
C: Of course, my mom raised her with no support from anyone.
Me: Gee, that’s a shame.
C: You’re very lucky – they have a lot more programs nowadays.
Me: They, uh . . . they sure do?

As this inscrutable conversation progressed, I slowly caught on to C’s point – that she grew up with a sister who had Down Syndrome. Once that finally dawned on me, we had an interesting conversation about her mother, who bucked traditional wisdom by refusing to institutionalize her daughter and instead taught her to read and write and sew and play music. I enjoyed hearing about her, but I wondered why C. couldn’t have simply come up to me and said “My sister has Down Syndrome” instead of speaking in barely penetrable code.

I had a similar experience this past weekend. It was the first warm, sunny day we have had in weeks, and as soon as the kids were dressed I took them out to the park to play. I noticed a woman eyeing us, and after a while she came over and said “Hi Bug, how are you doing?” “Oh, do you know Bug?” I asked, thinking maybe she worked at his school. “No,” she replied. “I have Sara.” “Sara? Oh, where is she?” I wondered, looking around the playground. “In Beirut,” she answered. I waited for further explanation, but there was none.

Okay then. I continued chasing after the kids, made sure Bee didn’t swallow too much sand and mediated disputes over the various pails and shovels strewn around the sandbox. Soon the woman came over again. “Sara goes to a public school run by UNICEF. She speaks English and French.” “Wow – what a smart girl,” I commented as I ran off to prevent Bug from breaking his neck on the big slide. When he reached the bottom, she reappeared at my side. “When Sara was little, we used to hold her by her legs and have her walk on her hands. Now her hands are very strong and she can write well.”

After 20 minutes of this, I finally grasped what she could have told me from the start, if only there wasn’t some strange stigma about using the actual term Down Syndrome. Did she think I would find it offensive if she mentioned it by name?

Interestingly, as the morning wore on I DID become offended, or at least highly irritated, by her general attitude. She was extremely educated and has served on Down Syndrome committees in the many countries she has lived during her husband’s tenure with the U.N. That was part of the problem. She began giving me well-meaning advice about Bug, recommending some techniques to help him learn to read and advising me on what to look for in a public school inclusion program. All that was appreciated, but dozens of suggestions later I started to get annoyed by the implication that I am completely uneducated and uninformed about Bug and how to help him. “You should remind him to close his mouth - even use a pin to poke his tongue,” she would say (AS IF!!!), or “Don’t let him jump on trampolines, his neck could be very fragile.” Worse, she kept following up her ideas by saying “And that’s why you should join the local Down Syndrome group – so you can learn all of these things!” While I nodded politely, I fought to subdue the urge to scream “What in the world makes you think I have no idea how to parent my own child?”

What bothered me even more, though, was the way she kept looking at Bug and commenting on everything he did, all viewed through the filter of his disability. “Oh, see, he is trying to jump – he probably won’t be able to do that for another year at least,” she’d observe, or “Good, he is running across the wobbly bridge – that is great therapy, it helps their balance.” Even though she was a special needs mom just like me, she did the same thing I accuse others of, seeing only his syndrome and not the whole individual. When I mentioned how much he loves to dance, she commented “Oh, they just love music.” Hearing that he enjoys playing golf with Chef, she replied “Yes, they are great imitators.”

Why can’t Bug be an ordinary little boy who loves music and dancing and playing with his daddy instead of a stereotypical cliché? I brought Bug and his sister to the playground so they could romp and play and get dirty and enjoy the fresh air, not for Bug to be scrutinized like a specimen on a slide. Fortunately the kids were so active that, by frantically running around in pursuit of them I was finally able to shake the woman.

The next person I sat next to was a grandmotherly type who was there with a sweet two year old in a frilly sundress. She smiled warmly while she gestured helplessly. “No English . . . Romanian.”

“Ahhhhhhhh,” I sighed happily – and there I stayed.

Friday, March 05, 2004

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Ahh, a Friday Five focused on nostalgic navel-gazing - now that is something I can sink my teeth into!

What was...

1. ...your first grade teacher's name? She had the most colorful name of any teacher I have ever had . . . the late (I assume) Mrs. Genevieve Parrott of Commodore Sloat Elementary School.

2. ...your favorite Saturday morning cartoon? I must have been a very strange kid, because I really cannot recall even one cartoon that I watched regularly. I mean, I watched Underdog here and there, and I saw a lot of Superfriends but that was mainly because my little brother was obsessed with it for a time. I have much stronger memories of watching hours and hours of game shows - $20, 000 Pyramid, The Match Game, Family Feud, The Price is Right, and this bizarre one called "Almost Anything Goes," a sort of "Double Dare" for adults involving a lot of pie-throwing and swimming in pools of whipped cream.

Now that I think of it, there is one cartoon I was way into for awhile, and - okay, this is really embarassing - it was "The Brady Kids." The worst thing is that I really did not watch it for the plot, which involved the six characters, along with a talking Mynah bird and twin pet pandas, forming a rock band. No, what I loved most were the musical performances at the end, featuring cartoon versions of the Brady Bunch singing hideously catchy bubblegum pop tunes. Some of them - sadly - I still remember to this day. "Ain't it crazy . . . you've got me lovin' you now . . . "

I wonder if I could possibly find that on Kazaa?

3. ...the name of your very first best friend? Oh Cidelle, Cidelle, what happened to us? Cidelle is not actually her real name, but my grandma used to always call her that. I thought it was very odd until years later, long after my grandma died, when I went to a family wedding and met a long-lost cousin named . . . Cidelle! I was very excited and eagerly tried to explain the significance to the real Cidelle, who politely listened and pretended to understand my ramblings, bless her heart.

So anyway, Cidelle was my best friend so early on that I clearly remember how thrilled we were to be in the same nursery school class. Our parents met at synagogue when we were babies, so she has been a part of my life from the start. We dressed alike, went to camp and elementary school and Sunday School together, spent every weekend playing and cried when we had to seperate. Even after we moved to the suburbs, I cannot think of any major event - getting Bat Mitzvahed, going to sleepaway camp, going on my first date, going away to college - in which Cidelle did not figure prominently.

Our paths started to diverge in college. She went straight to a top university, pledged an exclusive sorority, and graduated in 3 years with honors. I dropped out of one school, meandered around junior college for awhile, and finally ended up shacking up with Chef in very unfashionable Humboldt County, where I took my own sweet time finishing up my degree. She moved to NYC and got a job with a prestigious publishing house, while I hung out in the country, working a few minimum wage jobs in between hanging out at the beach, getting high, playing cards with my brother, and generally avoiding adulthood.

I'd like to blame our rift on her scarcely-hidden snobbery and disapproval about my lifestyle, not to mention the fact that she strongly and vocally disagreed with my decision to marry the broke and non-Jewish Chef - but I must admit that I played a big part in it too. Despite whatever feelings she had about it, she did fly across the country to be at my wedding, and that's where I really blew it between us. I was so disorganized and so overwhelmed that I didn't make enough time to spend with her and include her in the festivities even though she was actually a member of my wedding party. Then I made matters worse by neglecting to write her a thank-you note for the gift she bought me, a beautiful pitcher from the Museum of Modern Art, which I still cannot look at to this day without feeling guilty.

After that we didn't speak for several years, because I was too embarassed and she was (I assume) too irate. She didn't acknowledge the birth of my kids or invite me to her wedding. I did show up at her shower, with much trepidation as I had no idea how she'd react to seeing me after 5 years. She was very gracious, cooed over Baby Bug and told the other guests a few funny stories about our escapades in nursery school. It was all very fake; I felt like a divorced couple putting on an act for the kids. I bought her a modern art mezuzah which I somehow knew was absolutely wrong the moment she opened it (though she was very polite). On the surface it went fine - but I left knowing the friendship was over.

A few years went by and I found out she was pregnant. I thought I would give things one more try, and sent her a long chatty email congratulating her, expressing my best wishes, updating her a little about my kids, and offering to loan or send her anything she might need in the way of books or supplies. I also threw in a comment about how we were trying to convince our shul's gift shop to carry her newly-published Yiddish translation of Cat in the Hat. Her response (which I can recite by heart):

Thanks for your note. Keep spreading the word about Der Kats de Payats!

After that heartfelt reply, and a consultation with J (who had a run-in with Cidelle in college and found her to be extraordinarily cold and unfriendly), I decided not to invest one more moment of my time and energy into what was clearly a dead issue. Of course as soon as I saw the picture of her sweet baby girl, born just a few weeks ago, I immediately broke down and sent her a gift.

Chef thinks I am crazy, and so would J if she found out. But as estranged as we are, and as hopeless as the situation seems, I never want to keep the door completely closed.

Strangely enough, the day after I wrote this entry I received a note from her mom, inviting me to a brunch in the baby's honor, to be held when Cidelle and her family come to town in two weeks. I had to laugh, because I was all ready to be VERY insulted at not being invited - and now that I am I really have no choice but to do the right thing and attend, which is much, much worse!

4. ...your favorite breakfast cereal? Many of my friends had moms who forbid sugary cereals in the house in favor of wholesome organic grains. Thank goodness my mom was not among those! My favorite childhood cereal is the same cereal I prefer as an adult who does my own grocery shopping and has the freedom to eat it in the mornings, as an afternoon snack, or a dinner substitute. Thanks heavens for sugar-infused, marshmallow filled, Magically Delicious (TM) Lucky Charms!

5. ...your favorite thing to do after school? Depending on what age I was, either:

1) Eat a bowl of Lucky Charms, crash on the couch and watch "The Brady Bunch," or

2) Go to my friend Barbara's house and play Space Invaders on her brother's new Atari.