Sunday, June 27, 2010

928. Chocolate

The other week a friend referred to chocolate as "the Great Unifier," with which I heartily agree. I would love to get the leaders of the Middle East in a room together and feed them some Ben and Jerry's; since I doubt this will happen, I guess we're stuck with diplomacy. In my own life, there is no other dessert option when feeding groups of people. (Since my invited guests generally like one another, I haven't been able to test its peace-making qualities.)

I came close to leading a life bereft of this ambrosia, however. I was allergic to chocolate as a young child. A single M&M would cause my entire body to break out in hives, followed by forced slathering-on of Calamine lotion or a soak in an Epsom salts-filled tub until I turned into a prune. It wasn't fun, but did insure that I wouldn't scratch myself to death. My mother and I fought a constant battle of wills over chocolate, a precocious stand-in for the cute but dangerous motorcycle-riding boyfriend. I knew it was bad for me, but just couldn't keep away. My mother gave up the battle after awhile, just sighed and slathered on the Calamine whenever I came home from school covered in welts. She felt my pain, even though she didn't have a sweet tooth; growing up in the bakery business with unlimited access to cake and cookies cured her of that craving. But she remembered what it felt like, and knew that I would never retreat. And she wanted more than anything else to see me smile.

So she spent countless hours in search of a loophole. To keep up with the Catholic Joneses, I'd get an Easter basket every year (sometimes smack in the middle of Passover, filled with leaven-fee sugar). My father didn't mind; if all other American kids merited egg-shaped candies, then I did as well. The search for a non-allergenic, non-chocolate bunny would begin early each spring, my mother scouring stores all over Queens and keeping me abreast of her progress. If they could send a man to the moon, then this Holy Grail of confectionery must exist somewhere.

And one year I unwrapped the basket and there it was, a red ribbon around its cellophaned neck: Peter Cottontail, big, hollow and white. I was a little afraid to tear off a chunk, but my mother was optimistic. White chocolate tastes different, she observed. So maybe you can eat this. I was bursting with anticipation; never in my life had I felt so hopeful. I swallowed a paw, and then another. Ten minutes passed--nothing. My skin remained as pale as the summer sky over Jones Beach. We were in ecstasy over our sneaky and brilliant scientific breakthrough.

Then, suddenly, big red hills and valleys began to erupt up and down my arms and legs. My mother shook her head and drew the bath water, as close to crying as I'd ever seen her. We spoke no more of white chocolate, and I finally began to ask for vanilla at birthday parties. Making my mother sad was even worse than itching.

But addiction never really goes away, and at some point in my eighth year the pull became too strong. I traded a plum for a chocolate chip cookie at lunch one day, and took a bite. I waited for the inevitable, all through recess and later that afternoon at Hebrew School. And I was fine. I casually mentioned this to my mother when I got back home, and she pretended to casually acknowledge the change. We were both afraid to get excited, in case the effect was temporary. But it lasted--it seems I had grown out of the allergy--and after that my mother never even suggested any other flavor. Cake and cookies were still carefully measured, but when they did appear were always Double Fudge Chunk or Devil's Food or whatever else marketers decided to call Death by Chocolate before Ben and Jerry's patented the name.

I still will not consider any other flavor when it comes to desserts of the non-fruit variety. What does this have to do with Judaism and the usual subjects of this blog? Maybe just a reminder that food is not religion, and a fervent wish that people everywhere could limit their disdaining to kinds of candy.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

927. Geek

I'm one of these. Typing right now on a small folding Bluetooth keyboard I bought about three years ago for my late, great Treo, now retired to whatever part of heaven is reserved for ancient technology. And the keyboard is paired with the phone that will stop traffic in about seven hours, and is right this minute responsible for a big swath of Broadway turning into a concrete campground as fellow geeks (slightly more nuts than I) salivate until the Apple Store opens at 7AM. Fate smiled on me two weeks ago via the online ordering process, so my iPhone4 came via FedEx this morning in a box tiny enough to camouflage its ability to create world peace or plug the oil spill in the Gulf, as you might assume it could do if you were from Mars and read the breathless forum posts on Mac blogs this week.

I went to the gym this evening and disguised it in my old, beaten-up 3G case lest some crazed fanboy notice and, well, salivate. But I was nervous just the same.

Postscript: Wrote this last night on the phone and am editing and posting this morning on my computer thanks to Evernote, a very cool app that can create, share, and update documents between either place. There are other ways to do this, but none so easy and seamless.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

926. Over my head

Last week I discovered a Google group:


Yes, it's all about leining (aka chanting Torah). But this time I wasn't barred for being female; times have changed. Or maybe just in this little corner of Google, where experts are humble enough to type the word with a lower-case "l". Discussions about the minutiae of trope, how exciting! So I began to read...

... and understood about 1/10th of what they were talking about. No, that's generous. Perhaps 1/100th. Who knew there could be such minutiae about munachs, and I do own the Jacobson book; this group leaves it in the dust. All participants (just men so far, because few women have yet been able to spend lifetimes amassing this kind of knowledge) seem to have favorite rabbis or sages who know the definitive way to sing a pazer and everything else. It's fascinating, and kind of exciting to be in over my head, and I will continue to read in hopes that 1/10th, or even 1/100th of the information shared will seep into some small corner of my brain.

925. Names

Once again, a phone call in the middle of the day as I sit at my desk. I recognize the number; my stomach drops. This can't be good. Two weeks ago, unable to wait a second longer for an update, I emailed the donor center. "We have no news about a delay in collection," they answered. So I began to count down the days, imagining what DVDs I'd watch during those hours when I wouldn't have use of my hands, and who could sub at my networking group. I began to smile all the time. Suddenly it didn't matter what else happened in the world; life was certifiably good.

I pick up the phone: a familiar neutral but cheery voice. "I'm so sorry, but your recipient had a relapse." Catch-22: the illness has to be grave enough to require a transplant, but not so bad that the process will kill her. It's not cancelled, however, just postponed to some unknown time. Am I still interested in donating? Of course. Thank you, we'll keep you posted.

I knew this might happen—the possibility was mentioned on every sheet of donor literature I received—but I still feel horrible. I want her to be OK. I want to fix her. I have no idea who or where this woman is, whether she has a family, kids, is nice or mean, hopeful or desperate. All I do know is that God is being very annoying. I have something she needs—but now, all of a sudden, she can't receive it. I guess life often works this way; we love someone but they're not ready to reciprocate, or we possess talent but not means. But in most cases we can find tools to help us change and discover how to accept those gifts. In this instance, the recipient and I are both powerless. All we can do—all I can do—is be grateful that science and circumstance brought us this far, and that the story is not yet over.

When I first matched, I wondered what I might learn from the experience. It's been a lot, so far: that it's not about me, and humility is a virtue I need to work on. Patience, too; things progress in due time according to a hidden schedule, and there's no point in delaying life until we figure it out. (I had been afraid to make vacation plans, just in case—what if something bad happened before I could donate? But something bad could happen while crossing the street. I now have plans, and know that my stem cells will be happier as a result.) The most unexpected thing I've learned, however, is about names. I wanted to include this unknown woman in my prayers, yet was uncomfortable doing so. I didn't want to feel too attached, and set myself up for unnecessary pain—what if she died? Or survived, but never wanted to meet?

But I couldn't remain detached. Like it or not, we're connected; I can't pretend otherwise. But just as I had been unable to articulate my awe and joy at the start of this process and lacked a "container" for the experience, I also was unable to formulate a prayer on her behalf. Here was my chance to escape from powerlessness, but each sentence I tried to whisper seemed to lose its glue and scatter into random words.

Friday night in the middle of services, I suddenly knew what was missing: a name. I might never learn it, but she has one, and it's hers alone. It gives her dignity, and proves that she's a person and not just a collection of symptoms. I understand why, for legal and psychological reasons, the bone marrow people can't tell me what it is, but I can no more ignore its existence than the profound connection we already have.

Names in Judaism are mystical and powerful, and many people assume a new one one during illness in order to trick the Angel of Death. They're like scaffolding to support and identify our uniqueness to the rest of the world. Praying for this woman without using her name felt like trying to grow ivy without the wall, nowhere solid for the the leaves to climb.

It came to me a little later in the service: Bracha (blessing) bat (daughter of) Sarah. That's all I need God to hear: please send blessings. Also, a reminder of the blessings that her existence has already brought me. "bat Sarah" because I assume she's Jewish, since we share ancestors somewhere down the line. If not, I trust that God will insert the proper appellation. I guess it's pretty chutzpadik for me to name a total stranger, but we all have alternates for different situations: nicknames, "mom," "dad." This one is for talking about her to God, nothing else.

The moment I discovered this name, I felt like a physical weight had been lifted from my chest. I can focus once again, after two days of sadness and a whole month of being self-absorbed. Her name will remind me that everything good, bad, and ordinary, is also a miracle. Until the good part of that miracle takes place, please include Bracha bat Sarah, whomever she may be, in your prayers for healing.

Friday, June 04, 2010

924. Z'chut

Last week I heard someone use the word "z'chut" in a context I didn't quite understand. I had thought it meant "merit," as in something one deserves based upon an earned right. But it's really closer to privilege, an honor not necessarily predicated on action or position. In that sense it seems a word particularly suited to the Jewish experience. Do we merit survival, despite the odds, because of good deeds? Or are we still here thanks to divine intervention, or just luck? Google isn't the best place for answers to major existential questions, but it did lead me to this observation on the Chabad site:

There is a common misconception that life is about being in the right place at the right time. In truth, how you experience life has more to do with what is happening inside you as with what is happening outside.

Like riding a roller coaster without being prepared, if you are not well-tuned to the channel of life, a symphony of miracles could come across as cacophony from the boiler room.

This is what the sages call z'chut--sometimes translated as merit. It means a refinement of the soul, so that it will be precisely on the right frequency and static-clean.

So maybe the answer is: it doesn't matter why we've triumphed or suffered. What counts is being open to learn from these experiences; therein lies the honor, the z'chut.

923. Rest

A few weeks ago at Friday night services, the rabbi considered the meaning of Shabbat rest. On Shabbat we refrain from creation, enjoying the gift of living in the present for a day. We prepare eagerly for a taste of eternity, cooking, cleaning, inviting friends to join us--and suddenly it's sunset.

That's when we have to lay aside our expectations. Because if we enter Friday evening still anticipating what those 25 hours might bring, we're not truly observing Shabbat. We need to let go of our hopes and wishes, whether for the quality of the soup we just made, the aliyah we're been practicing over and over again, or of our lives in coming weeks, and simply be with what we have, what we and God have made in partnership. There are six other days in the week to fix what is not yet perfect. Shabbat is for sitting back and reminding ourselves that what already does exist, flaws and all, is pretty amazing.

It's not easy. (For adults, anyway; I think back to when I was a kid, and finishing my homework meant perfect freedom. Then one day when I was about ten, I had a flash of insight—I remember the exact moment, sitting at the kitchen table eating a peanut butter sandwich—when I realized that growing up meant reaching a tipping point where responsibilities could never be put aside. There would always be something, someone, latched on and wanting more. I couldn't decide if I liked or feared this fate, but knew I had to continue having fun and acting like a child until its inevitable descent.) We drive ourselves crazy trying to reclaim a time before the noise began. It's a paradox of being Jewish; we're people of action. Study isn't complete until we put knowledge into use and help make the world a better place. But one day a week we're directed to refrain from the most important part of our jobs as human beings and act like we're boss, resting in the image of God and allowing what has already been created to flow like a stream over and within us.

A child might walk around in her father's big shoes and imagine what it it's like to be all grown up. Shabbat is for the first part of that experience only; the imagining follows later on. Shabbat is for the senses, so that during the week we can filter those tastes, sounds, and images into imagination and, ultimately, action.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

922. Shavuot morning

Imagine a sapphire, bluer than the sea and clear as a loving gaze, mixed with milk, simple and opaque, mirror-smooth, and the color that might result. This was the sky on Shavuot morning as we stumbled upstairs after a night of learning. Sleeping cars parked on Broadway looked more deeply rooted than the skinny Manhattan sidewalk trees between them. I didn't want to go back inside; I wasn't sure my brain would function well enough to chant four aliyot. And I also wanted to watch the sun continue to seep into a flat and flowing sky.

But eventually we had to start the morning service. I made it through the reading just fine although shaking a bit, partly in anticipation of the text, and also because I forgot to take a nap the afternoon before and was dizzy with exhaustion. I did stumble once, on a passage I knew perfectly:

Vayomer Moshe el-ha'am al-tira'u ki leva'avur nasot etchem ba ha'Elohim uva'avur tiheyeh yir'ato al-pneychem levilti techeta'u.

"'Do not be afraid,' replied Moses to the people. 'God only came to raise you up. His fear will then be on your faces, and you will not sin.'"

—Exodus 20:17 (or 20:16, in some tikkunim)

Where I got confused: "al-tira'u," "do not be afraid." I made the same mistake last year, as well, and I think on at least one other occasion. The trope is similar, but not identical, to the melody a few lines later. I knew it might trip me up; I practiced it over and over beforehand, but it got the best of me once again. So I listed to the gabbai's correction, took a deep breath and went back a few words, and did it right. We can't help being afraid, but will always be OK once we remember that we're never alone.