Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jumping In

Friday was the great Puddle Jump at Bates College, and that night in the cafeteria things were rowdy and ecstatic.

I watched the students, their hair still wet from jumping into the hole that maintenance jackhammered into the frozen Maine pond—the ice over a foot thick.

Some wore full-body giraffe or bunny costumes, many had been seriously drinking, maybe illegally, but they all had that elated, leonine roll to their walk—young superheroes whose bodies could do anything.

When I was 22, I puddle jumped too. I was already out of college; in fact I was on my honeymoon.

I jumped for God. And for sex.

Observant Jewish women cannot have sex when they are menstruating—can’t have sex when they are bleeding at all for any reason, like, say, just having given up your virginity on your wedding night, and can’t have sex for seven days thereafter.

That brought me to the eighth day of my marriage, and we were in London.

It was Friday and we were due to spend Shabbos at Oxford University with my oldest friend who was “taking a letter” with William Wordsworth’s great great great something grandson.

We were planning to stop by the London mikveh, or ritual bath, on the way to Oxford, so I could dunk, say the blessing, and be happily, carnally consecrated to my husband that very night.

I still remember the roundabout that we rounded and rounded and rounded in our rented black Mercedes, trying to find the damned mikveh as the sun got ever lower in the sky.

I was out of my mind. If I couldn’t get to the mikveh, I couldn’t have sex, and we were leaving already on Sunday, and I would be the only bride in the entire universe who did not have sex on her honeymoon.

I also still remember the decision we made that we would try one more round—mikvehs are supposed to be discreetly located—and if we couldn’t find it we would just go to Oxford. And we didn’t find it.

It was inconceivable (ha!) that my new husband would have unkosher sex. I think now about how important the mikveh was in our marriage, and how important it was to my newly married friends.

We new brides would meet sometimes regularly on Saturday nights at the Forest Hills mikveh—our Pill schedules in synch. The mikveh lady there was so holy—a very young and beautiful Lubavitcher woman who would piously check my toenails for polish and carefully, prayerfully, pull off a stray eyelash that had fallen onto my scrubbed shoulders.  There could be no barrier between my body and the waters.              

I loved the way she would say “Ka-SHER!” as I emerged from the second dunk, the one you do after saying the blessing that was hanging, laminated, over the beautifully modern tile bath, as I modestly covered my breasts, walked up the stairs, and accepted the fluffy white robe she held high so as not to see me naked.

She didn’t have any children of her own for the longest time and I always wondered who her mikveh lady was. Later, many years later, I went back to visit her and found her with six children. All girls. Oh well.

When I lived in Scarsdale I was special friends with all the women who mikvehed.  We laughed about it, we winked about it, but we loved being in the club. It was a godly club, the best kind of club that combined abstinence and discipline with… hoo-ha!

The mikveh lady there was also my son Aaron’s nursery school teacher. She was chatty and matter of fact—perfect for her after-school job. Sometimes we would hang out with her for a few minutes before heading home; she was a widow, and I guess we felt guilty knowing what we had waiting for us, and what she didn’t.

I have a different feeling about mikveh now, of course. Intellectually it feels like a woman’s natural, crucial functions are placed in a category less important, less seemly than a man’s. Emotionally, like a part of you must be hidden and despised for uncleanliness. And practically, it was a drag, going out in the cold, at night, getting wet, and (hey, this was Scarsdale!) timing your manicures and pedicures to get the most out of them.

But sex after the mikveh was hot. I have to admit that waiting two weeks (hey, we were young here!) made it more special, and you didn’t plan anything else for the night.

And this, my honeymoon, was supposed to be my first married mikveh.

My old friend took one look at my face when we got to Oxford and felt my pain. He and I grew up together, our birthdays one day apart and our parents used to come up to Camp Moshava on visiting day and sing “Happy Birthday Lisa and Doooooo-----ooooov” over our shared cake. I think they all secretly hoped we would marry but it was never like that between us.

Dov took us on a tour of the University. We sat where Churchill sat. We met an organist at one of the churches. We met the Hillel students at Balliol College and were invited to shaleshudes, the final Sabbath meal the next day. And then we passed the Cherwell River. The Crew team was out, and looking fine. The Cherwell River. A natural body of water.  And any natural body of water can be—a mikveh.

Dov looked at me and I looked at Dov. I don’t remember my new husband even being part of the plot.

We had shaleshudes at Balliol and sang some songs while we waited for it to get dark. Sabbath over, we heated up the Mercedes and drove to the riverbank.

I had my bathing suit on under my clothes. The plan was for me to jump in the river, take off my bathing suit, throw it on the bank, dunk completely, say the blessing, put the bathing suit back on under the water and come out. Ka-SHER!

And I wouldn’t be naked in front of Dov.

But it was late October. The Cherwell flows 40 miles before it meets with the Thames at Oxford. Flowing rivers are cold. Very, very cold.

I jumped in the dark into that black river with all the courage and arrogance I have ever had, then and now.

And froze. My bones cramped up instantly; I couldn’t move. I gulped for air and came up shrieking silently, my mouth and nose full of water, my eyes bulging, my entire body shaking, shaking.

I was pulled out of the river. And then, ladies and gentlemen, I growled “NO!” and tore off my bathing suit. And jumped back into the river.

I said that blessing.

And when I was pulled out the second time, I didn’t give a damn if William Wordsworth himself saw me.

I had mikvehed. I was kosher. I was going to have sex.

I also had blisters from the cold running up and down my arms, like burns. The men wrapped me with yellow blankets they had taken from the dorms.  They threw me into the back of the warm car.

We went out to dinner, the three of us, beaming. I remember a place with lots of plants. I was elated, a superhero who could do anything. And what a great story!

All this going through my mind as I watch the college students with their hair still wet.

A twenty-one year marriage that brought me to an age, when it was over, where I had been married as long as I hadn’t been married.

Where, in youthful impatience, I had placed importance on the wrong things and not enough on the right things like respect, friendship and actually being able to talk to each other.

Where maybe had I left my little world and gone to a different college, like this one, I would have learned the thing, whatever it was, that would have not made me need to marry so young, need to marry for sex.

Here I sit, in the cafeteria, my leonine days behind me.

Thinking about the many directions in which I could have, should have, jumped.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Rebbetzin's First Christmas

Except for one little flub, I think I did ok.

First, I wore a hat. That wasn’t the flub. A little black oval, a cross (ha!) between a pillbox and a fascinator.

The Christmas Candlelight service was at 4PM. That’s evening for Maine.

East Auburn Baptist was packed with about four hundred people—that’s a mega-church for Maine.

Light bridges, the kind DJ’s use, formed a red and green skyline on the stage, and there were big bowls of electric flowers, an empty manger, and of course, an enormous, pinewood (did I mention we were in Maine?) cross.

A woman with huge hair and a huge, heartfelt voice opened with Hark the Herald Angels Sing—the words bright on the giant screens flanking the stage.

That was my first test. "The Everlasting Lord." Mumble? Or sing normally? I decided to sing normally. There were too many pious folks watching.

I held the unlit candles—they were going to be lit for the last song-- and tried to keep my five year old boy/girl twins quiet. My little daughter craned her neck. “Where’s KATELYN?" I couldn’t make out her “bestie” either, which was, frankly, the reason we were here. Every time I rose from my seat this smiley usher rushed over to find out if I was ok. Maybe it was the hat.

Meantime, there seemed to be a variety show going on. A trio of young people singing. A singing musical family. An interpretive dance. Another singer with a canned country music. Finally, Pastor Roger came out to welcome everyone.

He was youngish, with rolled up sleeves and a lean-in manner. He is very well liked by the entire congregation; when do you hear THAT in a shul? He was in full pacing and performance mode, since, as my husband-the-rabbi later pointed out ,(I couldn’t find him in the crowd either, turns out he was sitting with Katelyn and her family; that’ll teach me to let him drop me off while he parks the car) this service is the pastor’s  Kol Nidre.

Pastor Roger strode the stage, exhorted the crowd to sing, and sang along loudly into his mic, louder than the four hundred of us together.

He worried aloud that we would just sing the words, and that we wouldn’t feel what was being said. It reminded me so much of my eight grade Hebrew teacher—you are not FEELING the DAVENIN!, she would moan, adjusting her bright blonde wig. He showed a video that had a choir singing gibberish syllables to Joy to the World. Do you get it? Do you get it? 

He then brought out one of the church elders who brought the manger prop center stage. The elder described how 2000 years ago, Bethlehem was considered “on the other side of the tracks,” yet another symbol of the humble beginnings of the Savior. The shepherds had to find the manger that held the lambs that were being groomed for sacrifice. “How ironic,” the elder said,” how ironic,” his voice rising, “that this little babe, started out in a manger…” Groomed for sacrifice. I got it. I got it.

Another video showed a re-enactment of Joseph carrying the pregnant Mary and gently placing her onto a cart and then making her comfortable in the hay, since there was no room at the inn. We see a very dark and beautiful Mary and an adorable dark little baby, as the scene cuts to the shepherds being blinded by the light of the Star of Bethlehem. They hasten to the manger and gather around the baby. Fade to black. There were maybe two people in the entire audience with Mary’s skin color—Maine, again.

But the concept of a newborn in a stable of hay, the lowly made divine is very powerful, it's what we say about the relatively small Mount Sinai. And I must say, my little twins loved the Baby Jesus. I can only imagine what it must be like to grow up with this notion of an innocent babe growing up only to die for my sins. The ultimate gift from an all-loving God. I wonder if every Christian shudders when he reaches 33, the age that Jesus was martyred.

I don’t think that way about my God. Week after week He says, “Damn lucky I’m a forgiving sort, because otherwise I would not send the rains!” I used to ask that eighth grade teacher with the blonde sheitl why we have to keep saying the same prayers every day and why God needs it and why can’t I just meet you all in the caf after davening?

“He doesn’t need it,” she would whisper sadly. “YOU need it.”

Well apparently, their God doesn’t need to drag things out, either.  Unlike any shul service I have ever been to, this one was a cool hour. That’s it. Ok, no Kiddush.

At the last song, Silent Night, the ushers came down the center aisle, and lit the candle of the person on either side. The flame was shared and passed across to everyone, row by row. The whole church lit up.

I wish I could have enjoyed the spirituality more, but I was apoplectic, trying to keep my five year old boy twin (Jews would NEVER have given him his own candle!) from igniting his curly blond head. That song has many, many verses and he really, really can’t keep still, and oy, was I on shpilkes.

Afterwards though, Katelyn’s family was thrilled to see us, and very, very touched that we came. Maybe God doesn’t need it, but His flock likes to be together. Katelyn’s mom told me that they borrowed a Chanukah menorah and lit candles every night. Amazing.

And that’s the difference between me then and there, the New York City yeshiva girl, and here and now, the Maine Rebbetzin.

There, I would never have gone to a church service, even after I evolved to realize it wasn’t a sin.

Here my husband and I have gone to many interfaith events and quite a few non-Jewish people are regulars at our shul, though they do not count for minyan.

Congregants at our last shul would have been horrified; instead the congregants here were thrilled. Such a nice gesture. What a wonderful act  of respect.

When I was a little girl, my Bubby lived next door to a lady with the whitest hair I’d ever seen. Her name was Mrs. Golt and she lived with her daughter Ruthie. On Christmas Eve, the two ladies (they looked exactly the same age to me: old) came over with the most colorful and delicious cookies. I’m probably the age of Ruthie now, and I can still remember the pink and green sugar and the way the buttery cookie would clot up in my mouth, before I swallowed it.  Jews used margarine. Not the same thing.

I mention this, because my night was not over.

We got the twinkies in the car again and drove to our new friend Pastor Rick’s church. He comes to our shul especially for Torah Study.

There was a live nativity. Shepherds, kings, the first family and, to the twinkies’ delight—goats, lambs and even a little pony. He was a stand in for the donkey. Our kids were invited to join the scene and stood there, petting the lambs. I did not take a picture for my parents.

This church was not mega. It was exactly what you would expect under those picturesque steeples you see when you drive through New England. White. Spare. Lit with tiny twinkly lights.

We sat in small pews and sang along with the organ between readings from the Old and New Testaments. I preferred the quiet of this service. It seemed more real, somehow.

And afterwards there were butter cookies.

The older I get the more I realize that, margarine notwithstanding, most religions are the same.  And even more important to me right now, clergymen (and women) are even more the same.

There are way fewer people of faith out there, and pastors and rabbis are constantly reprogramming , to “khop” or corral them.

A variety show that uses members of the congregation ensures that the family of those members will also come out to see them. Live nativities bring out younger families. At our shul, we have lots of food.

I know how hard my husband and I work to make our services different, relevant, special. It was instructive to see what everyone else was doing.

And it was nice to blur the lines a little. I’m glad my kids will grow up knowing a lot more about Christianity than I ever did.
And they will be more comfortable with it, with churches and pastors and they will not stutter and flub.

When Pastor Rick came down from the bima, there was a line to greet him and wish him well.

My turn came upon me suddenly, and there he was, taking my hand in both of his, a big smile on his face.

“Oh,” I looked up earnestly. Good Yuntiff!”