Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Yehuda ben Nachman, z"l

Leiby, Leiby, Leiby! Please intercede for us. It has been a week since God’s will has been done, and I am still deeply affected by all the events. It was with tremendous sadness that I had to change my supplications for Yehuda ben Ita Esther to prayers for Yehuda ben Nachman z”l. Barach Dayan Haemes. I have to repeat it to myself frequently because nothing makes sense to me, and it never will.

I have gone through a myriad of emotions, particularly Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grief:

I first I was in DENIAL. I could not believe something like this could happen in Boro Park to an innocent child, to a mother who wanted to give her child independence, to a community that prides itself on its safe streets.

I moved on to ANGER. How could this happen? Why aren’t the mentally ill given proper care? How crazy is this world that a boy cannot walk home in his neighborhood?

I think I passed BARGAINING. As I waited anxiously and the story unfolded, I wrote a check to a charity, I prayed fervently, I was exacting as I made blessings, and I hoped beyond hope for a happy outcome.

I then moved on to DEPRESSION. How can I live in a world like this? What is the point if things like this can happen?

It’s taken me a while to get to ACCEPTANCE. I guess the hardest thing is accepting God’s will and accepting that I can never understand God’s will. I am a mere mortal, and it will never make sense to me. For a while I could accept that God needed Leiby’s precious neshama with Him. I could accept that everything is predetermined, but that people are given free will. The hardest thing for me was accepting that Leiby’s mother would be in pain for so long, that she was so careful for his safety, planning the route to walk, practicing, meeting him halfway between camp and home, and facing the nightmare of all mothers: her son was not where they were supposed to meet.

I accept that the situation gave many people the opportunity to do their best – those who prayed, those who searched, those who comfort the family, those who did a Kiddush Hashem by showing non-Jews how the community united during a crisis, and the NYPD and other city agencies who did their utmost.
As your passing still haunts me, I know that the events have brought up a lot of fear for me. Am I afraid of losing something? Well, I’ve lost my innocence about the world; I’ve lost the idea that an Orthodox Jews could not commit a heinous crime. I’m also afraid for my nine-year-old son, who loves to ride his bicycle and revels in his independence to visit his friends in the neighborhood. How do I protect him without stifling his natural ebullience?

Am I afraid of not getting what I want? I was hoping the world was a nice place, so it scares me that things are not the way I would like them to be, and that I have no control to make them that way.

Am I afraid of being found out? I think every mother worries about her children in many ways and wonders if they are “good enough.” I let my son go out thinking I am helping him to grow, but what if I am leaving him vulnerable? It’s a very hard balance.

As the media crawls all over this, suggestions are made to give kids special cell phones to call their parents, to mount surveillance cameras all over the city, to give kids tracking chips so parents so where they are.

But no one is talking about improving the mental health system. No one is talking about reporting bizarre behavior immediately or at least talking to clergy about the situation. No one is mentioning how to get people the care and medication they need, or breaking the stigma involved in using these resources.

As we enter the three weeks, I naturally feel sad for what we have lost – the Beis Hamikdash, the Biblical land of Israel, the unity of the Jewish people. I feel sadder that the consequences of these losses are so evident today. So Yehuda ben Nachman, please intercede for those who have to live in a world without you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Being Mirka

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword is the 2011 Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Older Readers. Barry Deutsch’s graphic novel is the first book in this genre to win the award. What is it about? “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl. “ Mirka Hirschberg is constantly bombarded with other people’s expectations. Her stepmother, Fruma, insists that she learn how to knit. Her sisters chide her that she will never learn to be a wife and mother. But Mirka has big dreams: she wants to fight dragons. I will not spoil the ending of this great story, but let’s just say Mirka has become one of my role models. I’ve commented before about how much I love this book and how it is an example of “Toras Imecha”—the influence a mother has on her household in both obvious and subtle ways. So while Mirka was learning how to knit, she was also learning other valuable skills.
As an Orthodox Jewish woman, I’ve been presented with role models like the Biblical matriarchs and prophetesses. Every Friday night the “woman of valor” is praised for her qualities, most of which relate to her husband, family, and running the household. And we are constantly reminded to adhere to the attribute of tzinus – modesty in dress, speech, and action. “But the king’s daughter is all glorious within” (Psalm 45, verse 14) is the constant refrain, encouraging Jewish girls and women to look within, both themselves and their households to find fulfillment.
Without giving a dvar Torah, I find the concept of temimus more compelling. This is drawn from a shiur entitled “Aishes Chayil” that was given by Rav Moshe Weinberger, Morah D’Asrah of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York. He talks about Sarah Imeinu, the matriarch of the Jewish people, who is known for the quality of temimus. It can be defined as wholeness, perfection, completeness, innocence, being unblemished, but Rav Weinberger draws out that Sarah had conquered the struggle of Jewish women: to be able to be in the world at large and never lose the connection to her inner self. This, too, is Mirka’s struggle. While those around her encourage her to be quiet, to master domestic skills, to stay inside and knit, she wants to go out and conquer the world. So while in the “real world,” it is unlikely an Orthodox girl would want a sword, in the world of graphic novels, it translates to struggles and metaphors on many levels.

I had attended the New York Comic Con in October of 2010. I had thought I was a pretty big nerd, until I went there. So many people were dressed as their favorite characters, and the fans of comic books, graphic novels and science fiction are hard core.

I decided Mirka would be the perfect costume for Purim, although my family does not like me to leave the house in costume. I had a black jumper, and I was able to get a black braided wig online. I picked up my sword at Dollar Tree.
When the Association of Jewish Libraries convention rolled around in June, and I heard Barry Deutsch would be presenting, I thought it was time for Mirka to make her appearance. The one thing missing was that I did not know how to knit. In this endeavor, I had a “Mirka-esque” victory. I am left-handed. Growing up, my mother could not figure out how to switch hands, nor did she have the patience to teach me. I figured I would never learn. Then I saw some knitting books in the craft store. I tried to teach myself left-handed knitting, but it didn’t work. I was determined. I found another book, which had a tip for left-handed knitters: the needles and stitching are going to be awkward at first anyway, so just learn how to knit right-handed (Did Mirka write these instructions?). So, I started, and with a little help from super-librarian and expert knitter Sherry Wasserman, I was able to start a scarf and keep going.
What was it like to be Mirka? I was a little nervous. I walked into Barry Deutsch’s session, and I sat next to Barbara Krasner, who had graciously saved me a seat. After I sat down, the lady on the other side of me got up and starting taking pictures. I wondered why she was doing this, because I had no idea who she was. I later met a friend. She told me she was in the back of the room and did not recognize me. She thought I was Barry Deutsch’s sister because of the black hair and the fact that I was sitting next to his MOTHER. So, I’m kind of glad Mrs. Deutsch took my picture. I later sat next to Barry as he was signing autographs, and it was really fun.
Later that night at the awards banquet, I was seated next to Barry and his mom. I walked in late, and they were wondering whether I would be me or Mirka. If I knew I was going to be sitting with them, I might have come as Mirka.
The feedback from my colleagues was positive (I guess those with negative feedback kept it to themselves). They saw a different side of me. Even one who did not like the book thought it was a great idea and is hoping for more cosplay at the AJL convention, possibly a session or meal where everyone dresses as their favorite character from a Jewish book (Tanach included!).

While Mirka knits, she dreams of a sword. While I do the laundry, I dream of the bigdei Kahuna. While I cook for Shabbat, I invoke “L’chvod Shabbos Kodesh (in honor of the holy Sabbath)” to give the food an extra special taste. When I am kind to strangers, I’m hoping I’ve met Elijah the Prophet, who heralds the coming of the Messiah. And when I knit, I think of Mirka. I wish every girl in Bais Yaacov could read this book. It's not about being an Orthodox girl. It's about an Orthodox girl who is brave, who balances family life and traditions with her personal aspirations, and who dreams big.

So I am grateful to Barry Deutsch and Mirka for showing me that an orthodox girl can be smart, funny, resourceful, a good knitter, and a troll fighter!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Loud and Quiet

When I saw The Quiet Book, I loved it immediately. I thought the metaphors were pitch perfect, and I felt like I knew exactly what author Deborah Underwood was trying to convey with different kinds of quiet like "lollipop quiet" and "first snowfall quiet." I thought this would make a great book for storytime with younger kids and would work for language arts as older kids thought of different types of quiet.

Then I saw The Loud Book. Renata Liwska's illustrations of animals are absolutely adorable, and they enhance and amplify the text. This one is also great for storytime, either at the beginning to get kids enthused, or near the end to reignite the energy. It would also work for language arts and finding different kinds of loud. As I sit here on the Fourth of July, I can appreciate "fireworks loud," but I'm not sure younger readers will fully appreciate "alarm clock loud." "Good crash loud" in bowling is juxtaposed with "Bad crash loud" coming from the kitchen, followed by "Deafening silence loud." This one may have to be explained.

I thought of what to say about these books, and it seemed that The Quiet Book was so much better than The Loud Book. As I sat comparing and contrasting, it dawned on me how brilliant both books are. I am a quiet person. I revel in the quiet. I notice the nuances of quiet and appreciate them. Loud to me is just loud. It is so discordant that I do not hear anything but loud. When I got to the last page of The Loud Book - "Crickets loud," I had the "Aha Moment." Yes, when I am trying to sleep crickets sound awfully loud because they are disturbing the quiet of the night.

So now I see there are many more situations to use these books, either alone or together. What do kids prefer and why? It seems sometimes loud can be embarrassing or disruptive, but there are times, like a parade or bowling, when it's fun and exciting.

And the Jewish mother in me recalls the stories of the rabbis: A husband would come home at night and complain to his wife that the house was a mess, the kids were noisy, etc. They went to speak to their rabbi, who told the husband: "Do you know how many people are praying to have a messy, noisy house like you have? Be grateful you have lively, healthy children."

So thank you, I've learned the value of both quiet and loud.