Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Going Across

In the year since I’ve started exploring Judaism, my pronouns have for the first time begun to feel complicated.

The question for me is not gender identity and whether to use ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘they,’ or another third-person pronoun.

Religious identity is the complication.

When I write about Jews, is the pronoun ‘we’ or ‘they’? 

I’m not Jewish, so you’d think the answer would be simple, 

but it doesn’t feel that way at all.  

In the Passover haggadah, when children ask the four questions, the ‘wicked child’ asks 'what does this ritual mean to you?' 

What makes him wicked is that he uses the pronoun 'you' rather than 'we,' as if he isn’t also Jewish. 

I don’t want to other the Jews. I want to be one of them. 

One of us? 

It gets particularly complicated when I’m writing about what Jews do, or what some Jews do, from my recent experience of doing the thing, 

like reciting a list of communal sins and trying to atone for them on Yom Kippur.  

It was in a blog post that related to sin and Yom Kippur traditions that I had to make a decision whether to write ‘we’ or ‘they’ to refer to Jews. 

I chose ‘we’ 

because I wanted to. 

Yes, it was in part because I didn’t want to other the Jews, 

but it was mostly because I wanted to be part of the group. 

If I had to choose—and I did, pronouns-wise—I chose the Jewish people. 

Another way to look at it is to say that I was referring not to Jews but to people who observe Yom Kippur. 

Although not yet a Jew, I had recently become a ‘person who observes Jewish holidays.’

I wanted to write 'we' to indicate that I was speaking from experience (although just one Yom Kippur’s worth, to be fair) and not writing about something other people do. 

To imply that observing the High Holy Days was something Jews did and I didn't would be inaccurate  

and would also raise the questions: Why am I talking about this, then, or how do I know this?

Writing ‘we’ also has the potential to be wicked, though, because it could give the impression that I'm Jewish, when I'm not 


I need an in-between pronoun, a pronoun for someone who isn’t Jewish but who does Jewish things. 


How about 'whey'? 

In a writing workshop, I marveled at a person who, during introductions, specified that this person’s pronoun was ‘we.’ 

Now I understand 

identifying as ‘we’ and wanting to express that. 

If I intended to do Jewish things without becoming Jewish, I suppose I could distinguish between doing and being: 

Who I am versus what I do; 

Who I am and who Jews are 

versus what some Jews and I—that is, we—do.  

But I do intend to become Jewish. I’m converting. 

Who I am is changing. 

'We' is a first-person pronoun used to refer to oneself and others in the same group. It requires knowledge of oneself and of the group. 

Am I in a group with these people?  

Answer ‘yes’ and the pronoun is ‘we.’ 

Am I separate from these people? 

Answer ‘yes’ and the pronouns are ‘you’ and ‘they.’  

But what if you answer 'sort of'?

If I ever thought there was anything simple about the pronoun ‘we,’ I renounce it.  

The question: ‘What are your pronouns?’ deals mostly with what others call you, the third person.  

But this is about the first person; this is about what I call myself.  

Comment m'appelle-je? 

What is my name? 

Others can't answer the question for me. 

But then again, they can and do. It's as simple as 'let's go!'  

It's as simple as 'and we say amen.' 

I am turning Jewish, converting.  

I’m somewhere in between, 

outside of the binary, Jew or non-Jew.  

I'm not Jewish, but… 

I'm not Jewish, yet. 

Abraham was the first Hebrew, and Hebrew, or Ivri, in Hebrew, comes from a verb that means to cross over. 

Transition comes from the Latin trans (across) and ire (to go). 

I am transitioning to a Hebrew identity 

(and by Hebrew I just mean Jewish). 

Is the act of transition inherently Jewish?  

I'd like to think so because it makes me feel as if my converting were somehow meant to be,

that I've put the etymological key in its lock and opened a door, to Judaism, that was waiting for me.

I'm not entirely sure what Abraham crossed over.

The Israelites crossed the Red Sea, and the Jordan.

I think that Abraham crossed over in a religious sense.

He rejected his father and his father’s religion, smashing the idols in his father’s shop, to follow God and God's instructions.

He also left his first home

in search of a new one.

"Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you," (Gen. 12:1) God told Abraham.

I know, or have some idea, where I’m going, 

who I’m becoming, 



I wear the star around my neck 

alongside a pendant the shape of Mount Desert Island, Maine, where I grew up. 

I was raised ‘not Christian’ by parents who rejected the religions of their childhoods.

How Jewish of them, how like Abraham, except that they also rejected the notion of God. 

My mom taught me not use 'God' as an exclamation,

but this was out of respect not for the Lord and commandments but for other people. 

We ate challah on Christmas Eve and, 

at Easter, made Ukrainian eggs (though we weren’t Ukrainian either), 

drawing designs with wax, dying the eggs, melting off the wax,  

and (of course my mom did all the hard stuff) very carefully blowing or sucking out the eggs' raw innards. 

My mom made the challah and also “Czech Christmas Bread” 

using recipes from the New York Cookbook.  

What we didn’t do was go to church. 

The time a babysitter taught me a bedtime prayer about dying, my dad was quite upset,

or so goes the story my mom tells; I was too little to remember.

After her husband died, the Bible’s Ruth had to make a choice between two religions and two groups of people because she had to decide where she was going to live: Moab, with her native people, or Bethlehem, with her mother-in-law Naomi and the Jews.

She couldn’t be between the groups. 

As was the case for Abraham, the question of which religion to follow was tied up with that of parents and whether or not to leave them.

"Turn back, each of you to her mother's house" (Ruth 1:8) Naomi said to Ruth and to Ruth's sister-in-law. 

Indeed the sister-in-law went back "to her people and her gods" (Ruth 1:15).

But Ruth continued on to Bethlehem and in so doing chose the Jews.

Instead of going back, she went across, geographically and spiritually.

Her story became a Biblical example of conversion to Judaism.

Becoming Jewish won’t change (New York!) where I live,

but in Judaism I will have a new 'spiritual home,' as the phrase goes, or maybe just new places for my spirit to venture. 

I'll also get a new name, a Hebrew one.

In it, I’ll be identified as the daughter of Abraham and Sarah, as opposed to the daughter of my own parents. 

How will I call myself? Ashley, daughter of Ben and Sandi 

or Ruth bat Abraham v'Sarah? 

It will be both. 

With two names, I'll be a ‘we’ all on my own.  

But I’m not

on my own.

This year, during my first breadless Passover,

at my parents' house,

I assembled Seder plates and my mom made macaroons dipped in dark chocolate

—my dad is certainly pro-macaroon—

which we all ate.

Note: This piece records how I felt as early as June, 2021, when I first submitted the piece for discussion in my writing group. As time has passed, I've felt more and more like part of the group at my synagogue and beyond. I wouldn't have sat down and written this piece today because I no longer feel like an outsider hoping to be let in. Wait another week and I'll have to change 'one Yom Kippur's worth' to 'two' because I will have observed the High Holy Days for another year. So this piece is a time capsule from mid-conversion. Many pieces of writing are time capsules by the time they are published. It's quite likely that the next time I publish anything else about religion, I will be Jewish.

Friday, May 14, 2021

On Paths


Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Every morning I get up and meditate. 

(Or most mornings, as of last August.)

A rabbi at my synagogue leads a daily meditation on Facebook live. 

Recently, the meditation focused on discipline and limit-setting within humility.

Have the humility to know that you can’t do everything, the rabbi said. 

We often consider limit-setting from the perspective of the actor, the one building the fence or saying no.

Was this the humility to know that life also sets limits on you?

There, meditating, I returned to my lifelong dilemma: How to pursue multiple disciplines, with discipline.

Would a humble perspective say this is impossible? 

Violin, dance, writing, languages, science, running, now Judaism—

Practices all, each with its rituals. 

Perhaps having a practice has become a ritual. 

Now I’m going to services, making challah, reading the Torah portion (usually). 

There was a time when I got up, went to ballet class, went to work, went to bed, and did it all again.

In the dressing room, in my late twenties, I asserted to the ladies changing from leotards into regular clothes that I would one day be one of the old people in ballet class, one of the retirees who dances every day. 

I imagined myself on a decades-long path. Instead, it lasted about a year. 

At a meeting for young members of the synagogue, when asked what I hoped to get out of being a member 

I found myself saying that I hoped in thirty years, when I was an old woman, I would have a community of people I knew and who knew me 

because I’d been there ‘forever.’

I do hope that, but you have to understand, I joined the synagogue two months ago.

The idea that they could continue forever is something I like about rituals. 

My mind flits around the question of how to get my tombstone inscribed with the letters of a Hebrew name 

I haven’t yet chosen. 

I’m early in the process of conversion, and adopting a name is one of the later steps. 

I’m also, I hope, relatively early in the process of living.

I’m on the path to becoming Jewish. I’m studying Judaism. 

I’m also making Jewish practices part of my routine, treading a path that isn’t just on the way to Jewish; it is Jewish.

For a young person, studying ballet is called ‘training.’ 

As a runner trains for a marathon, so a ballerina trains to be a swan, all thirty-two fouettés.

But dance training isn’t just about endurance.

It’s teaching a young body to develop a certain way, like a plant growing along a trellis. 

It’s encouraging and developing turnout, teaching those knees and hips to point sideways. 

It’s making ballet ‘second nature.’

Like a bean that’s climbed a string, the dancer and her training are inseparable. 

Even if the bean could just walk away, if the trellis were removed, the plant would bear its shape.

Training distinguishes someone who studied ballet as a child from one who took it up as an adult

and any dancer from everyone else.

In the dressing room after class, amateur adult dancers transform into gorgeous long-necked people, regal in their clogs.

Just walking down the street, a dancer moves differently 

than someone without that training. 

Why are trains called trains? Is it because they follow tracks? 

They are well trained. 

Being derailed is disaster for a train. 

The train follows tracks—but does it also leave them?

The word for Jewish law is ‘halakha,’ which means ‘the way’ or ‘the path.’ 

The word reminds me of “L’Chah Dodi,” one of the Friday night Shabbat prayers, and with good reason. 

Both “L’Chah Dodi’ and ‘halakha’ relate to a Hebrew verb that means ‘to walk’ or ‘to go.’

When I’m Jewish, will I walk the walk?

Will I follow the paths left by Jewish people over the course of 2,000 years?

(‘Course’ being another movement-path metaphor.)

Halakha is not just a metaphor; it’s a real thing. It can provide guidance to those who seek it.

Likewise, for some people, violating Jewish law is a serious matter.

For me, now, though, halakha is mostly an idea. 

It’s the idea of a path that’s comforting,

and the consequences of straying from a metaphorical path are for me to imagine. 

Nobody is going to cast me out from my kin—an oft-mentioned biblical threat—for breaking a rule.

I don’t believe a Big Bad Wolf is there waiting for me to stray. 

But I may want to follow the path. 

It’s nice to have a path, a well-trodden, clear path, especially when you feel lost 

and every step, every decision, every minute lived feels like hacking through brambles or blazing a trail. 

When life feels like that, there’s something appealing about a trellis. 

And when you’re scared, you’ll try anything to protect yourself, and your loved ones, from wolves.

“Little Red Riding Hood” is a story parents tell their children to teach them, literally, to stay on the path in order to protect them from the dangers of the woods. 

To stay on the path, in the Red Riding Hood story, is to obey your mother, first because the mother told Little Red Riding Hood to stay on the path 

and also because parents’ instructions are the life paths they offer their children, a kind of halakha. 

The Big Bad Wolf, embodiment of parental fear, is at once overblown and tame.

Getting eaten by a wolf on the way to Grandma’s house is pretty unlikely,

but the idea that threats are Obvious, Predictable, and Avoidable isn’t realistic either. 

In the story, the Big Bad Wolf hangs out near the path and targets disobedient children. 

In the wilderness outside the story, all sorts of dangers—cancer, terrorism, coronavirus, rape—threaten people all the time, and doing what’s recommended, while it may reduce your risk, doesn’t guarantee safety.

It may comfort some Jews to believe that being righteous and following the rules will protect them the way that obeying God protected the characters in the Torah, the ancestors, literal or figurative, of the Jewish people. 

I don’t think it will, necessarily. Protection is never guaranteed.

But trying to live a good life is, if nothing else, a way to live a good life.

It’s also an alternative to nihilism and fear.

Hungry animals and people with guns and lethal contagions and genocide will be out there whether or not you’re afraid. Maybe the idea of a safe path offers emotional protection. 

The actual work of following the rules could also serve as distraction from fear and despair, as something to do when you’re not sure what to do. 

I know that’s not the most resounding endorsement.

The Torah cycle is another kind of path. I’ve written before about scrolls and the motion of scrolling, 

on a phone or at the bimah. 

A metaphor that occurs to me now is Torah as treadmill. 

The Torah cycle moves forward through the ages, curling up at one end and unrolling at the other. 

Also like a treadmill, it never stops. It’s easy to fall behind.

I wanted to say that it’s always moving forward, but that’s not exactly true. 

Once a year, during the same service when you read the end of the Torah, you also go back to Genesis, in some cases literally rewinding the entire Torah to get back to the Beginning.

Moses dies, leads the Israelites out of Egypt, waits in a basket; Jacob wrestles with God; Abraham doesn’t kill Isaac, leaves his father’s house; there’s a flood; Adam and Eve eat the apple; and then the apple is whole; and the earth is “unformed and void.”

Jews get to return to the beginning of time and start again, through the Torah reading, every year. 

This is wonderfully appealing

because a metaphorical path requires a metaphorical destination.

Where does the halakha lead? 

When I think about the destination of my life, I think about death. 

My dad once told me that he used to think about time as a conveyor belt carrying him closer and closer to his death.

Life as treadmill, moving one direction only. 

Or does it move in a circle, like a model train, like the hands on a clock?

Judaism likes to talk about birth and death as ‘life cycle events.’

Although the idea of life as a cycle isn’t unique to Judaism. Biology is full of circular diagrams in which egg leads to offspring leads to egg leads to offspring. 

I personally haven’t done what it takes for life to feel cyclical. I haven’t had a child, ensuring that some part of me will start again from the beginning and, hopefully, live on after I die. 

I haven’t transformed from child into mother, passing on the wisdom my mother gave me about wolves and manners and responsibility and love. Nor do I teach kids or young adults. 

It would be nice if future generations read and learned from my writing, but I’d rather the meaning of my actions didn’t hinge on something so grandiose 

and out of my control. 

Though there are things within my control that affect future generations. 

There’s something to be said for not littering on the path, even if you don’t set a little one down at beginning of it. 

You could say that my interests take me from one path to another,

In ninth grade, I cut down on my dancing in hopes of getting further along on the violin.

Rather than taking two paths at once, I thought I’d travel twice as fast along one.

But I didn’t become a professional violinist, nor did I try to when the time came:

I studied biology in college.

You could say that I never get very far along any path because I keep switching.

You could say that if I’m trying to get somewhere, I should go straight, make a beeline. 

But you could also say that I’m making my own path through life

And that because my journey defines the path, of course I’m on it.

(‘Of course.’)

As for going straight and “getting somewhere,” well,

If death is the destination, I’m in no hurry to arrive.   

And yet death preoccupies me.

as does old age. What will I be doing in my sixties?

Will I be dancing? Will I be writing books? Will I be able to retire, if I want?

Or will I be struggling to pay rent writing articles for fees whose value decreases with the passage of time?

Will I feel part of a community? Will I be Jewish? Will I have a partner? 

When I die, will someone be there to witness it? To write the obituary and order the tombstone?

There’s a fear of being found dead, days later.

When I die, will anyone care? Will the people who care know?

I hope these questions communicate something.

It may be all well and good to make your own path, 

but that doesn’t mean ‘everything will be okay.’

It might be. It could be.


If it’s any consolation, if and when I’m in my sixties, it will be the present tense, a continuation of now, 

And I have agency, now. I can walk, ‘take steps,’ as they say 

(though I remember a friend praising me for ‘taking steps’ to reduce my stress by stopping violin lessons, and I’m not so sure those were the right steps to have taken)

to try to answer my questions for myself, the way I’d like them answered. 

Time does pass. The earth does convey us, round and round. But we aren’t passive, not just passengers.

A path is something you can follow or that you can make. But for the path to be worn, for it to look like a path, it has to be walked more than once, likely by multiple creatures. Merriam-Webster’s defines path as “a trodden way.” 

It’s not one or the other, leaving or following. 

A person on a path isn’t alone 

even if, at a given moment, there is nobody beside them.

They are likely following in someone’s footsteps, and they are definitely leaving footsteps behind.  

I’m bad at physics, but I remember that 

an object moving in a circle, orbiting, isn’t moving in a circular direction. 

The direction is always an arrow, straight ahead, it’s just that the force at the center of the orbit 


constantly changes the object’s direction so that a series of straight paths becomes a circle. 

Maybe we living things are not trying to move in circles, or go straight, necessarily; we’re just moving forward

and at the same time life pulls on us

and we go where we go.

There’s humility in that.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

On Names and Shame

Black-and-white drawing an altar where a sacrificed goat is billowing smoke. A man in a turban stands in front.
Illustrator of Henry Davenport Northrop's "Treasures of the Bible," 1894, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


In the Torah portion Vayikra, God is telling the Israelites that if they do something wrong, they should make a guilt offering called an 'asham' (‪אָשָׁם). This involves sacrificing a goat andif the asham is similar to other offerings describedburning its fat in the temple. According to God's instructions, if someone inadvertently breaks one of the 613 rules described in the Torah, once they discover their mistake or 'realize their guilt,' they should make a guilt offering. The word 'asham' is used for both guilt and guilt offering. Once that happens, God says, the guilty party "shall be forgiven" (Leviticus 5:18).

The verb to forgive, 'slicha' (סָלַח) is related to the modern Hebrew way of saying "excuse me" or "I'm sorry." If only life were that simple.  

In the liturgy of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 'ashamnu,' meaning we have trespassed or we are guilty, is first on the long list of wrongs to which everyone in the synagogue confesses, aloud, together, and for which we ask forgiveness. The list itself is called the Ashamnu. In preparation for Yom Kippur, people traditionally apologize to others we've wronged. Also traditionally, though I doubt that people's emotions follow traditions or rules, if a person apologizes sincerely three times, you have to forgive them; otherwise, the sin, whatever it was, that they committed against you becomes yours. After taking those measures, hopefully, we're forgiven and can try again. 


It's no surprise that a word for guilt caught my attention in the Torah. I often feel guilty and wonder if I am guilty. In particular, I worry about cases where I might have done something wrong without meaning to. This is actually the sort of sin this portion is talking about. The language gets quite convoluted describing unwitting sins. For example, "Or when a person utters an oath [. . .] and, though he has known it, the fact has escaped him, but later he realizes his guilt in any of these matters—" (Leviticus 5:4) A person makes a mistake and has known it and it escapes him and he realizes it again . . .  The portion also talks about cases where people don't necessarily "realize their guilt" but "the sin of which [they are] guilty is brought to [their] knowledge" (Leviticus 4:23). This part sticks out to me because it brings another person into the matter of sin identification. 

What really gets me is when I hurt someone unintentionally and they think I did it on purpose. For example, last summer, my therapist thought I said something intended to "poke them," to rub salt in a wound of theirs, and so reacted with a flash of anger. But I hadn't been trying to hurt them. If I poked the therapist, it was inadvertent, more like bumping into someone. I was sorry that I'd hurt this person, and I apologized. I did what I could to make amends, yet I still felt ashamed, guilty. What if, as the therapist suggested, I was at some level being aggressive but couldn't acknowledge it or even consider the possibility? Was the therapist then bringing the sin to my knowledge? Who do you trust—yourself to 'realize your guilt' or someone else to bring it to your attention?

That this was a therapist-patient situation makes it complicated. But I can't think of an uncomplicated situation. 

It's so clear, like on TV, that people often do things to hurt others. Yet they insist that their intentions are good. In the Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere," a main character, Elena, leaves her husband and children during a difficult time to drive to New York and dig up dirt about Mia, the woman to whom she's renting a house and whom she's hired to cook dinner for her daily. Also in New York, she has dinner with an old lover and invites him to her hotel room. Elena's husband has repeatedly told her that if she has a problem with Mia, she should just cut ties. But Elena prefers to get in closer to Mia because she's obsessed and curious. The more embroiled with Mia she gets, and her family gets by extension, the more reasons she has to justify the satisfaction of her personal curiosity. Elena claims that she's investigating Mia for the good of her family.

To the viewer, Elena's motives are obvious. She is doing what she wants to do because she wants to do it, not acting out of obligation. Yet Elena is blind to that, or chooses to be. More generally, to people outside a situation, the motives of the guilty party are often obvious. But I'm not 'the viewer' in my life; I'm me. I might miss something. I suppose the therapist whose feelings I hurt isn't 'the viewer' either.

I think it's important to be able to judge oneself. Given that different people have different opinions based on different experiences, relying on outside opinions to determine when you've done wrong is likely to trigger flip-flopping emotions and a constant need for feedback. Plus, it's far too easy to solicit opinions until you find the one that matches your own, then claim that you've been absolved by a wonderfully objective outside party. That's the worst of both worlds. 

Yet when others doubt me, or refuse to affirm my view, it's hard to bear. No, I didn't mean to poke my therapist, as far as I know. But what if I don't know? What if I did mean to? What if I am guilty? The whole thought process produces a feeling of shame.

And the Torah hasn't even gotten to intentional wrongdoing (or I haven't gotten there in it). 


A Google search for 'asham' pulls up this definition of guilt: "Feeling responsible or regretful for a perceived offense, real or imaginary." Real or imaginary. Maybe that explains why I feel bad even though I don't know exactly what category of wrongdoing—intentional or accidental—I've committed. Maybe I'd even feel guilty about an imaginary sin. According to this definition, that's possible.  


On Yom Kippur, everybody confesses to everything in the first person plural according to the notion that because we are all part of the same society our sins are communal. What one person has done, we have done. After consulting the High Holy Days prayer book my synagogue used this year, I see that the Ashamnu is a short version of the confession. The longer version has a different name, Al Chet, and includes the line translated as "We have sinned against you on purpose and by mistake." The word for 'by mistake' is 'shegagah' (‪‫שְׁגָגָה‬‬), a word for inadvertent sin that I recognize from Parashat Vayikra. ‬‬As for 'on purpose,' the Hebrew seems to be "בּזדונ." The "בּ" part means "by" or "through" or "with." Oh here we go: "זָדוֹן" (zadon) is a word meaning "pride, insolence, arrogance."  We have sinned against you inadvertently or arrogantly, I guess. Shamelessly.


No etymological reference I've found connects the English word 'ashamed' to 'asham' and 'ashamnu.' The actual etymology of ashamed is not enlightening. 

In a different Torah portion, I learn that a word that looks like ash (אֵשׁ) means fire in Hebrew. (It's pronounced 'aysh,' according to the Blue Letter Bible.) Most if not all of the offerings described in this part of the Torah, guilt offering included, are 'by fire.' Perhaps that is the root of asham, then? That doesn't really make sense, given that not all burnt offerings relate to sin. And it turns out that the Hebrew words 'ash,' and 'asham' aren't related. But in English 'ash' is the remains of a fire. Could Hebrew fire be its origin?

The question of what 'ash' might mean in Hebrew interests me because of my name. I'll never forget the time a teacher made a dance out of our names and decided to represent me by the tapping of an imaginary cigarette. I hate that smoking is what my name evokes. Fire, on the other hand—that's sexy. 

But the English word ash does not relate to Hebrew according to etymological sources. Nor is the ash tree one of the first to emerge after a fire, like a phoenix. I wish it were that, but it's not. 

Ashley, according to Wikipedia, is "an English unisex given name, originally a place name and surname. It is derived from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) words æsc (ash) and lēah (meadow, forest clearing)." Though in Hebrew, the Biblical name Leah means 'weary' or maybe also 'cow.' As someone posted on a word forum with regard to the name Leah, "If you don't like the meaning 'weary,' you can always go with 'meadow.'" 

"If you don't like the meaning […] you can always go with 'meadow.'" It has an aphoristic ring to it. When considering words, I certainly have a tendency to go with meanings and word histories that appeal to me in some way. An elaborate etymology, confirmed by multiple sources, that relates to nothing in my mental web just isn't very meaningful to me, with my particular language background and interests. On the other hand, word associations that have no basis in etymology, like that between 'ashamed' and 'asham,' fascinate me. If someone were paying me to investigate etymology, I'd have to be more disciplined. But I don't do this for money, and I'm not really investigating etymology, anyway. I'm looking for personal meaning, connection, between words and my life. I sometimes find that sense of connection in etymology or in what I'm reading, which at the moment happens to be the Torah.  


The question of what a name means, especially when the literal meanings are unappealing, is not unrelated to self-esteem or shame. I don't want to be a cigarette or a weary tree lacking phoenix potential. I don't want to be an ash meadow, either, or Ashley Wilkes, or a soap opera character named Ashley. I'd rather be me. 

And of course that is who I am, like it or not. When a person dies, what remains of them is their name. Not the literal name but what that name means to those who remember a person. That's something I think about when I hear the names of people who've died, recently or during that week in a year past, read aloud at the end of a Jewish service. The name is all that's said, not anything else about the person. What follows is the Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer that praises God and says nothing about death or those who've died. People say Kaddish 'for' those they remember, and I think, though I don't speak from my own experience on this, that saying Kaddish for someone can connect a mourner to God and to the loved one they're remembering. Yet the prayer is not 'about' the person who died. That person is represented by the few syllables of their name. What that name means is a question answered in the minds of those who hear it.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

On Tsuris: A Rock Or a Hard Place?

This summer, interested in Judaism but not quite sure where to go for information, I read Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish (1968), a paperback I'd long admired in my parents' glass-fronted bookcase. There I encountered the word 'tsuris,' which means "troubles, woes, worries, suffering," according to Rosten. 'Having tsuris' is something to be avoided or bemoaned. The word 'tsuris' comes from the Hebrew 'tsarah,' (feminine), which means trouble, Rosten wrote. Perhaps the old paperback predicted the etymological predicaments I would later throw myself into, where sense and relatedness appealed but irony was what fascinated. Or not.

In any case, fast forward a few months and I was sounding out Psalm 95 on  

לְ֭כוּ נְרַנְּנָ֣ה לַיהוָ֑ה נָ֝רִ֗יעָה לְצ֣וּר יִשְׁעֵֽנוּ

"L'chu n'ran'na, Adonai, nariah l'tzur yisheinu," went the transliteration [boldface my own]. "Raise a shout . . . Adonai . . . trouble . . ." I thought. "Wait, trouble?" But no, according to the translation, it's "raise a shout for our rock and deliverer." It's just that the 'rock and deliverer' part,' 'l'tzur yisheinu' (לְצ֣וּר יִשְׁעֵֽנוּ), sounded (or looked, since I was reading) like 'tsuris.' It turns out that 'tsur' or 'tzur' (צ֣וּר) is a masculine Hebrew noun meaning 'rock or cliff,' according to Strong's Concordance. Rock means support, here. Nothing to do with trouble; nothing to see.

Some days later, though, I learned that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim (מִצְרַ֖יִם), can mean 'straits,' or 'narrow place' and also, figuratively, troubles. Which makes sense, given that according to the story of Exodus, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. I can't let go of my feeling that there has to be a connection between 'tsur' as rock on one hand and 'tsuris,' straits, and 'Mitzrayim' on the other and that this line of thinking is going to cause, well—  

It makes a kind of sense. When I imagine a strait, I see a person in a boat between two rock faces, trying or hoping not to bash into either one. I think of being 'between a rock and a hard place.' Maybe God is the rock and straits are the hard place. Or is one rock support while two are 'tsuris'?

There's an easy way to explain that God is not trouble, etymologically speaking. 'Tsarah,' the Hebrew root of 'tsuris,' is a feminine noun derived from the adjective 'tsar.' The Hebrew word for rock or cliff, on the other hand, is masculine. So they aren't the same. As for whether they could still be somehow related, that's beyond me. (Let's not even get started on the idea that trouble is female.) But what interests me are the implications of the idea that the words for 'rock,' referring to God, and 'troubles' are alike in some way, even if it only seems like that.

I thought the psalm was calling God trouble when in fact it praises God for supporting people and delivering them from their troubles (chief among them enslavement in Egypt). The mistake asks, "Could God be both trouble and the one who gets you out of it?" The question points to theodicy, or efforts to reconcile the terrible things that happen in the world with the idea that God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good. 

I like that there's a word for it, theodicy, a word that manages to encompass the problem of evil and efforts to solve it. It's much easier to dismiss religion when you think religious people just don't notice contradictions like the idea of an all-powerful God presiding over a world where horrible things happen. The fact that there's a term for the problem suggests that it has not been ignored as indeed it hasn't. As part of the process of converting to Judaism, I recently read a book (Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme, Finding God: Selected Responses, 2002 edition) that presents diverse Jewish perspectives on God from thinkers like Maimonides, Spinoza, and Mordecai Kaplan, and every single one addresses the problem of evil. These Jewish thinkers have obviously given the issue more consideration than I did, growing up in an atheist family where not believing, and not thinking about it, was the de facto solution.

I think 'tsuris' could be just another 'word for it.' It's a term that embodies a contradiction, a rock and a hard place, support and trouble, a narrows and also a way out.

From Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish

Monday, March 15, 2021

Etymological Adventures: On Talent

"Free art talent test" ad
"Art Talent Test" by Howdy, I'm H. Michael Karshis is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Talent is, arguably, a valuable thing. I say arguably because I feel that talent often stands in opposition to skill. People tend to be called 'talented' when they show promise but are not yet accomplished. I remember as a beginning violin student talent being measured in terms of Suzuki books per year, age versus skill, or how long you'd been taking private lessons relative to how well you played. Things that in hindsight are not important. "Do you like playing?" is more important. Talent is valuable, but it's not everything. It can also go to waste; it can go undeveloped. It doesn't necessarily do a person or the world any good, but it represents the potential for future skill and creativity. That potential certainly is valuable. 

So I was delighted but not surprised to learn in last week's Torah portion that talent actually is a measure of value: It's a particular weight of gold (or silver or copper). The Israelites, who have left Egypt and received the commandments, are constructing a sanctuary. For this purpose, a man named Bezalel makes a lamp stand "out of a talent of pure gold" (Exodus 37:24). Talent, here, seems to be a unit of measure. Highlight the Hebrew word on Sefaria and it will tell you that it means "a round weight, talent (of gold, silver, bronze, iron)." Yet it could be a double entendre. God has, according to Moses, "endowed [Bezalel] with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft" (Exodus 35:31). The man had talent, and it went into the menorah along with the gold. 

According to Chambers Etymological Dictionary, the literal meaning of talent as money came first. Talent as "special natural ability, aptitude" arose in the 15th century, a figurative use of the original term "taken from the parable of the talents in the Bible (Matthew 25:14-30)," according to Chambers. No mention of Bezalel, alas. 

In the story, a 'lord' gives out several bags of gold to three of his servants. Two of the servants take their literal talents, invest them, and wind up twice as rich as they began. But the servant who receives only one bag of gold digs a hole and buries it, earning nothing but disapproval from the lord, who had hoped to profit from his servants' investments. I suppose the story shows that you should develop your talent. On the other hand, the lord disbursing gold in this story doesn't seem like such a great guy. He's described as someone who harvests where he hasn't sown. Maybe I, too, would want to bury his money.  

The lord gave the third servant a talent of gold. I'm not sure how much that's worth, but a talent of silver is equivalent to three thousand shekels, according to the website Learn Religions. In biblical times, a shekel was a day's wage. The same website says that a talent was something like 20 years' earnings for a laborer. This doesn't quite compute (3,000 shekels per talent/365 shekels per year=about 8 years per talent), but suffice it to say that talent is precious and not easily earned.

I don't actually think it's possible to earn talent. A musician of moderate ability who works all her life may never play as well as an eight-year-old prodigy, for example. And even if, technically, a person reaches a certain level, will they have 'it,' the je ne sais quois? I'm skeptical.  

I do, however, believe that talent demands work and that work picks up where talent leaves off. If you truly bury your talent, that is, don't even pursue the area in which you are gifted, you can't possibly succeed in that area. Not only that but you may miss out on experiences that would be valuable to you, regardless of how others might judge them. On the other hand, someone with less talent and a lot of dedication may fare quite well. 

What does it mean to "fare well" or "succeed"? These matters are subjective, and what matters most is probably personal satisfaction. Hopefully the person who buries their talent doesn't simultaneously use it to measure their self-worth (though I think if it can be done, people do it). 

I had some talent as a violinist, but I put it down in college and focused on something else. I still play the fiddle sometimes, less on my own and more when it's a way to get together with a group of people. My ability to learn tunes by ear serves me well. I also go for long periods without playing. 

A biblical talent weighed something like 75 pounds. I can understand someone wanting to put it down. The feeling that you have all this potential (and I think it's easy to overestimate your own talent) and that turning out to be anything less than extraordinary will be a disappointment is emotionally heavy. Yet when I pick up the violin now, I'm not re-shouldering a burden, or I try not to make it about that. It's about enjoying music.

Skill comes from both talent and experience, yet I don't want to seek an exchange rate between the two. It certainly does take time and work, maybe even a Gladwellian 10,000 hours, maybe even 8 or 20 years, to really develop a skill, no matter how talented you are. A more talented person might achieve a given level slightly faster, or not. But at a certain point, when the answer to "how long have you played the violin?" is 30 years and it no longer relates to how well you play but to the length of your life, it no longer matters exactly how fast you progressed through the Suzuki books in elementary school. As for Bezalel's menorah, what matters is not how quickly he made it, how many years he'd studied as a goldsmith before making it, how old he was when God chose him to make it, whether or not other more experienced goldsmiths were passed over for the job, none of which the Torah tells us, but the fact that he made it and that it served a purpose. As they say, talent's overrated.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Etymological Adventures: On Lots and Happenstance

2 Purim baskets
Yoninah, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

"Happy Purim!" Jews and non-Jew celebrants, like myself, greeted each other last week. We might as well have been saying "happy lots," "happy fate," or "lucky fate." A religious holiday run through with the language of chance, Purim, the Festival of Lots, made me consider how we think about luck in our lives. Is chance unfeeling math at work? Or a manifestation of the divine? What is the source of a 'happy lot'? Wherever it comes from, chance, as a concept, is ubiquitous.

In biblical times, people engaged with chance and probability by 'casting lots.' The practice may have involved drawing stones—like straws—to decide who would do something or throwing down stones and interpreting how they fell to reach a conclusion. Casting lots is similar to gambling, hence the related word, lottery. In the Purim story, the evil Haman cast lots, called purim in Hebrew, to decide on which day to kill all the Jews in Shushan. On that very date, as it turned out in the story, the Jews prevailed, making Purim a happy holiday.  

Happy comes from the English 'hap,' which means "chance, fortune, luck." The verb happen has the same root.

Purim, the Hebrew word for lots, can also mean 'portions.' It so happens that 'sending portions,' or 'mishloach manot,' is a Purim tradition; people give each other baskets of hamantaschen and other delectables. 'Manot' (singular: mana) means portions. Unlike purim, though, manot does not also means lots.

Casting lots is a matter of probability and statistics, random chance. How distant that feels from the idea, which I think of as being at the heart of religion, that things happen for a reason. 

I do think of chance as controlling what happens, to an extent. Yet things do not happen quite as statistics predict. Random number generators produce strings of repeats; flipped coins repeatedly land on their heads. In the long run, the textbooks say, reality operates closer to statistical prediction, but no run is infinite. In what happens—and whom it happens to—there's always an element of luck. 

Statistics tell you what the distribution is: that there is a bell curve and that average values occur more often than extremes. But what controls an individual's position on the curve? Who is the distributor? In this human drama, who is in charge of casting?

Some people believe the answer is God. In the Bible, people cast lots not as a way of letting chance decide but in order to determine God's will. (That said, God is not mentioned in the Purim story; it's said that God is masked within it.) 

For me, the idea that statistics could be God-given raises the question of whether God is actually up there flipping coins. In Judaism, there's much talk of God 'dealing fairly' with people. One interpretation of that phrase is that God is giving every individual attention and consideration. But another take on it is that God is the dealer in the sky, distributing fates with a certain cold objectivity. The latter doesn’t strike me as a metaphor of fairness. Or is it the ultimate fairness, as long as God shuffles the cards?

'Bonne chance' means good luck in French. The phrase appeals to me because it expresses the idea that luck and chance are the same thing and not unqualifiedly good. Yes, lucky refers to good luck and Fortune smiles—but sometimes she frowns. 'By chance' in French is 'par hasard.' Chance, with a hint of peril.

When I write, I sometimes feel as if I'm throwing words at the page in hopes that they will land in meaningful arrangements. I think about words and their origins and hope to make sense of them. Often I can, but not always. I originally thought mana, the singular word for portion in the phrase mishloach manot, might also refer to the food that God provided the Israelites during their desert wanderings. God apportioned food, made allotments. Yet although a Purim basket might feel like a kind of manna, "a usually sudden or unexpected source of pleasure, gratification, or gain" or "food miraculously supplied," as Merriam-Webster defines it, the manna of the desert and the mana of Purim and mishloach manot are not etymologically related, as far as I can tell. The Hebrew words are different genders. Nice try, I think to myself. Better luck next time.

What is luckier, though, really—for words with common origins to sound alike and have similar meanings? Or for etymological strangers to connect? The former is about as "lucky" as learning that you resemble your great-grandmother. The latter, though—for words without a common root to not only sound alike but also relate meaningfully to each other—that's really something. I wouldn't go so far as to call it "divinely supplied spiritual nourishment." Or maybe I would. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Etymological Adventures: On Scrolls and Scrolling

Torah scroll with yad (pointer)

When you scroll on your phone, what do you imagine happens to the text—or Tweets or photos—you can’t see? I imagine the material on the screen continuing straight up, forever. But the verb ‘to scroll’ suggests something else—that our Instagram and Facebook feeds are rolling up behind the tops of our phone screens once they slip out of sight and are at the same time unrolling before our eyes from an invisible reel at the bottom. It’s as if behind-the-scenes work, akin to the little people who live inside the television, is unfolding at the edges of our phones. 

Scroll is my word for the week. It’s on my mind because the Jewish holiday of Purim is this Thursday, and it's a Purim tradition for the Scroll of Esther—a.k.a. Megillat Esther a.k.a. ‘the megillah’—to be read aloud in synagogues. The Scroll of Esther, or Book of Esther, is one of the Kethuvim (Writings) and is within the non-Torah part of the Jewish Bible. It tells the story of how Jews in Persia escaped extermination by Haman, the king’s angry advisor (and namesake of hamantaschen cookies), thanks to the titular Queen Esther. 

I am a non-Jew learning about Judaism, and this will be my first time celebrating Purim. There are lots of things I don’t know about the holiday, such as whether the megillah is actually a separate physical scroll or whether it’s connected to other writings the way the five books of the Torah are all written on one scroll. I also don’t know how long it takes to read ‘the whole megillah’ (Purim is where that expression comes from). But what I have learned and can report here is that the word megillah means scroll in Hebrew. 

The Hebrew root of megillah means ‘to roll,’ according to Wiktionary, which in turn cites the biblical lexicon Strong’s Concordance. This seems quite appropriate for a scroll, a document through which you move by rolling up the part you’ve just read and unrolling what’s to come. So it is for the English word scroll, which has ‘roll’ contained within it. The origins of the English word—from Old French escroe, “scrap, roll of parchment,” according to the Online Etymological Dictionary—are not particularly enlightening, except for this one tidbit: “Sense of ‘show a few lines at a time" (on a computer or TV screen) first recorded 1981.’” 1981!—the year the first IBM personal computer came out, according to this Live Science article, but decades before the iPhone. 

Before I ever attended a Torah service, which is something I’ve only ever done online, I imagined a scroll as something a courtly figure would unroll vertically, like a roll of toilet paper, and that if the document were too long, the end would drag on the ground. I was surprised, then, to learn that a Torah scroll has two rollers, one at each end, and that what you’re reading is between them. You don’t read down a Torah scroll the way I’d imagined a courtier reading a scroll from top to bottom (or the way you read your phone). To be more precise, you don’t read the Torah scroll in the direction of its scrolling. Instead, you read in columns across it, columns perpendicular to the way it rolls and unrolls. 

A Torah scroll with its two rollers and a yad
"Torah" by Lawrie Cate is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Like on a phone, though, the viewing area of a Torah scroll is always roughly the same size, limited, I guess, by the size of the bimah, the platform from which it is read in the synagogue. Another similarity between reading a Torah scroll and scrolling on a phone is the role of the finger. On the phone, you flick the feed along with your index finger. You keep your place on a Torah scroll with a miniature hand on a stick, called a yad, which has its own miniature pointer finger extended. 

Screenshot of a phone viewing the Book of Esther on

Of course you can read the Torah, or the Book of Esther, on your phone. In that case, then, the verb ‘scroll’ is particularly appropriate. 

A violin
"Violin" by pellaea is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It occurred to me as I searched for photos to accompany this blog post that not all scrolls have anything to do with reading, or even looking at photos. I may be learning about Judaism, but perhaps I'm forgetting about the violin, something to which I am not new at all and something that, as the Creative Commons image search tool reminded me when I typed in 'scroll', also has one. You can't roll or unroll it. It's carved in the wood. It's within the scroll, however, that the instrument's strings are wound and unwound in the process of tuning. A balance is reached between the strings; they have concordances between them. Tuning is something delicate and important, a sacred scrolling.