To India (and others) with love

How did I end up on WordPress?

The Times of Israel website is an international news portal, read by millions of people around the world every month, and, of course, the percentage of its readership that is Jewish is particularly high, as one would probably expect.

Given this, I naturally decided to publish my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series there following my father’s death. The decision was an instinctive one.

Later, after I’d completed my year of reciting kaddish, I eventually decided to transfer the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ to this personal WordPress blog, primarily so that I, my family, and our friends could more readily browse and navigate my yearlong kaddish journey in honor of Papa.


The WordPress that readers do not see

WordPress, WordPress, WordPress.

I suppose I should have expected nothing less in 2020.

In a world of soundbites, Tweets and Instagram posts, I rejected those limited mediums in favor of substance. I’ve always been a writer at heart; blogging came naturally to me. But- inescapably- today’s WordPress is just another node on the social network.

Those of you who don’t blog on WordPress wouldn’t know that WordPress encourages its bloggers to create Facebook and Twitter accounts for their blogs, as well as to monetize our blogs in various ways. It also goes a step further – the website provides us with readership statistics. Look how many people have viewed your blog today! Look how many people have commented! Look have many people have ‘liked’ one of your posts! Look! Look! Look!

Look to see what countries most of your views are coming from! Look! Look! Look!

In any case, I don’t quite understand it, but it seems that most of my views are coming from India and surrounding countries.


Would you like to understand me?

And, so, I find myself in an unexpected position, as everything I write is from a distinctly Jewish perspective. I don’t have any personal connection to India (although I ❤️ Indian food), but apparently many residents of India, among others throughout Asia, find my content intriguing.

On the one hand, some ideas and values are universal, and I relish discussions on culture, religion, and politics across international borders. On the other hand, being committedly Jewish is a very particular experience in some very fundamental ways, and I’d like to expound upon some of these for my new readers. Based upon our interactions, it would seem that you’d like to know more about where I’m coming from.

Below are some preliminary personal reflections on how I relate to being a Jew.


Judaism: not a “religion”

Much of this feels odd for me to write because it’s all so ingrained in me, but, still, let’s lay out some basics.

The first thing that I would like to make clear is that Judaism is unlike every other “religion” that I am aware of in one very specific way (feel free to challenge me with contradictory evidence). The reason I put the word “religion” in quotes is – Judaism is not really a religion. Or, rather, if you want to insist that it is a “religion” (as some do), then you must make a distinction between “Judaism” and “Jewishness”.

In Russian, for example (but not in colloquial American English), there rightly exist two separate terms: 1) Yevrei (A Hebrew; a Jew by nationality) and 2) Iudei (A person of the Jewish faith). A Yevrei is analogous to an Indian, and a Iudei is akin to a person of the Hindu faith.

For the vast majority of Jewish history, no such distinction existed because, as I’ve written, previous to the Jewish Emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries:

… one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion.

The more curious among you may be interested to know that a Jew by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677, Dutch Republic) was the first Jew to publicly challenge the basic tenets of Jewish faith, including the core doctrine that the Torah is of Divine origin. Spinoza was an Enlightenment philosopher and the Jewish community expelled him for his iconoclastic views. In those times, a Jew could not declare his rejection of the Jewish faith and expect to remain in the Jewish fold.

In the modern day, this is no longer an issue outside of the most traditional circles. Many Jews comfortably identify as agnostics or atheists, while maintaining their cultural Jewish identities and even affiliating with Jewish religious communities. In many conversations of mine with religious people of other faith traditions, I have found that this concept is very challenging for them. Can there be such a thing as an atheist Christian or Muslim?


Peoplehood: a primary facet of Jewish identity

Personally, I have always felt very comfortable in my skin as a Jew, and I was always proud of my ethnic identity even as a child, long, long before I decided that it bore deep exploration.

As I have explored the many facets of Jewish identity over the years, as well as my respective degrees of attachment to them, my thinking has gradually evolved, and ultimately, I’ve come to some fairly straightforward understandings of myself.


An understanding of peoplehood as extended family

I had a wonderful conversation not so long ago with somebody who had converted to Judaism through an Orthodox conversion process. Of all the Jewish denominations, Orthodoxy (in all its variants) is the most legalistic. It is the most committed to the observance of halakhah, which is Jewish religious law.

Orthodoxy (and Conservative Judaism as well) maintains the traditional legal definition of ‘Who is a Jew’, which is as follows: one must either 1) be born to a Jewish mother, or 2) convert to Judaism before a council of 3 adult Jewish males who committedly live according to halakhah.

The Orthodox convert with whom I was conversing laid out the following train of thought for me:

  1. Halakhah is God’s Law.
  2. God’s Law defines who is a Jew, including the setting of the standards for conversion to Judaism.
  3. Conversions to Judaism performed according to halakhah are legitimate, and conversions conducted by other standards are illegitimate. (Reform Judaism, for example, does not consider halakhah binding.)
  4. Any understanding of Jewish group identity not based upon God’s Law is inherently unreliable and based upon human, limited biases.
  5. These limited human biases regarding the matter of “Who is a Jew” ultimately have no bearing upon “true reality” (which is entirely defined by God’s will) and boil down to nothing more than mere human racism.

In the interest of dialogue, I responded as follows:

  1. It is natural to love one’s family, including family members who may have different ethnic identities than one has him/herself.
  2. According to Jewish tradition and religious doctrine, the Jewish people are the descendants of our forefather Abraham and foremother Sarah, and this, according to our tradition, includes all converts throughout the centuries.
  3. It is therefore no more racist for a Jew to have a special love for his/her people than it would be for someone to love their extended family, and neither halakhah nor God need enter into this equation.

That’s how I see it. The Jewish people are an extended family.

By the way, there is another simple reason why my love of the Jewish people is not racist: conversion. Simple put, the Jews have never been an exclusive club. While we are, indeed, a people, any human being on earth can join our tribe.


An understanding of peoplehood as another step beyond the monkeysphere

Are you familiar with Dunbar’s number? It’s a very important concept, otherwise known as the monkeysphere. I’ll quote Wikipedia:

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person… Humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships…

150 stable relationships is the average limit for us humans, but that’s not to say that all of those relationships are equally meaningful to us. Within our respective monkeyspheres, we usually care most about our nuclear family members, then our friends, and then our communities, right?

Of course, we humans are also naturally concerned with other human beings far beyond our monkeyspheres. For example, we are likely to be concerned with the well-being of other people in the cities and countries where we reside. Many of us are even concerned with all of humanity’s well-being – otherwise why would one be concerned about global pollution and carbon emissions?

There is clearly a spectrum for every one of us, ranging from the most particular to the most universal relationships, and one of my rabbis once made a beautiful point to me in this vein, regarding the concept of Jewish peoplehood.

Essentially, he explained, our universal concern for others throughout the world is grounded in our ability to empathize with and appreciate the worth of every individual human being. We are capable of relating to the humanity of those whom we will never meet because we intimately recognize the humanity of those who are within our monkeyspheres, and we intuitively understand that all humans have close, stable relationships with other humans – just as we do ourselves.

If we take this a step farther, we can make the following argument: our relationships with our nuclear families inform our relationships with our circles of friends, which in turn inform our relationships with our communities, which in turn inform our relationships with those who live in our cities, etc., etc.

Essentially, each of our spheres of concern allow our limited human minds to grasp the concept of the next larger sphere beyond it. One cannot truly be universally concerned for all of humanity if one does not first understand the experiences of being human and of maintaining close human relationships.

My relationship to my people is one of my many spheres of concern. Because of this relationship, I am better able to value your humanity, dear Reader, even if we’ll never meet.

By the way, the fact that my people live throughout the world in different countries and cultures makes it all the easier for me to relate to people who may have very different life experiences than my own.


Carrying my people with me everywhere

At its core, the Torah has always been a legal system. Regardless of whether it is of Divine origin or not, it is the Law that we have lived by since first becoming an independent nation. Of course, we became a nation some three millennia ago – at a time when all nations were known by their gods; and the One God, the Creator of the Universe, was, for the ancient Israelites, their Monarch.

There was a time when I had convinced myself of the Torah’s Divine origin. I believed that, ultimately, all of halakhic practice came from God, and that I was obligated by God to adhere to it.

After a year of studying Torah in Jerusalem, I traveled to Russia for a summer to work at a JAFI children’s camp. There, I was one of only two observant people on staff (the other was my not-yet-wife). We two were the only ones limiting ourselves to kosher food, and I was the only one who prayed three times a day, donning phylacteries and prayer shawl every morning.

Even back then, believing as I did that I was following God’s will, the experience of committedly adhering to the traditional Jewish way of life in the diaspora left me with an unexpected insight, which had nothing to do with the spiritual or the supernatural.

In a substantive way, our lives in our respective countries are defined by local legal systems, languages, and popular cultures. Humans are of particular nationalities while they live in their home countries, but once they emigrate, how many future generations maintain the nationalities of their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents? Let’s say a couple moves from India to the USA. How strongly will their American-born children identify as Indian? What about their American-born grandchildren?

Every summer that I traveled to work in Russia, the traditions of the Jewish people surrounded me like a bubble, reinforcing my national identity. One who follows the traditions of the Torah can never fully assimilate into another culture; (s)he can never cease identifying as a member of the Jewish people, even as (s)he may very strongly identify with the country in which (s)he resides.

As a Jew who finds tremendous personal meaning in his ties to the Jewish people, the calculus is quite simple.

A father’s legacy

During my year of kaddish, as I wrote and prayed, I came upon the blog of a retired professor and rabbi on the Times of Israel. Rabbi Prof. Esor Ben-Sorek remains a prolific blogger on the TOI, and he has continued writing in memory of his beloved Rahel who encouraged him. It so happens that he and I agree on nearly everything related to American and Israeli politics, and I’ve very much enjoyed reading his writing over the last years. Still, the blog posts that most draw me are those in which he expresses his grief at losing his lifemate of fifty-six years.

Rabbi Ben-Sorek and I have corresponded and found a common language, sharing our writings and reflections with one another. I feel lucky to have met him, albeit only virtually.

Just today, unexpectedly to me, he wrote a moving piece about my ‘Kaddish Blog’ (the project that eventually seeded this website), in which I journaled my reflections about the experience of daily reciting the mourner’s kaddish for a year following Papa’s death. I am profoundly touched. Shabbat shalom to you, Rabbi.

Below is the text of his post in full:

* * *

‘A father’s legacy’
by Rabbi Prof. Esor Ben-Sorek

Rabbi Prof. Esor Ben-Sorek

Many of us often give thought how to best preserve the memory of a departed loved one.

My simple way is to fulfill my wife’s dying words to me “do not stop your writing. It will be good therapy for you”. I have continued my writing but I cannot recognize any therapy. My grieving continues after four years since her death.

I am inspired by the brilliant writing of one of our TOI bloggers, David Bogomolny in Jerusalem.

He set a goal for himself to preserve and to share with us treasured memories of his beloved father, Papa Alexander.

In fiction or in poetry he has brought his dear father to life and through David’s loving and sentimental words all of us who have read his legacy can feel that we too once knew him.

Some time ago I had been in correspondence with David and at one time I suggested that he compile his separate stories into a book to be submitted for publication. It would be remarkable reading for all of us, especially for those of us who have lost a dear one in our immediate family.

Precious words create precious memories and with those memories kept alive our departed loved ones continue to live on within us and can be passed along to our children as part of their very own legacy.

I have tried over the past four years to compile a book based upon the 103 love-letters that Rahel and I exchanged with one another prior to our marriage in Tel-Aviv in 1960. But as I re-read many of them I decided that they were too personal to be shared with strangers. Only one of my three children has read some of them and she too has found them filled with loving words, emotional words, which bring tears to the eyes.

I know that feeling only too well. I don’t have to re-read the letters to recall the memories. Each room in our home is filled with Rahel’s photos, some standing on tables, some hung on the walls. I have created, in my daughter’s words, “a shrine for Ima”.

A shrine, for me, represents a place for religious devotion. Her “shrine” is rather a place of constant memory which can be seen as I enter any and every room. I see her smiling at me and I try hard to smile back at her but the tears overflow and my eyes grow dim.

My son is a doctor and on more than one occasion he has suggested that I consult with a psychiatrist to overcome my depression which, in my son’s words, has lasted far too long. As a doctor he has dealt with death many times. But the death of his mother, my wife, he has learned to overcome with emotion and great love and respect for her. He makes a point of visiting her grave at the cemetery from time to time.

In the first year of her death I made a practice at first of visiting her grave once every week and then it became once a month and after four years of grieving and mourning the visits take place only before all Jewish holidays.

My legacy for her remains glued to my heart and cannot be separated from my body.

I envy David Bogomolny who is able so beautifully to remember his father and to transfer his grief and emotions into fitting words of a son’s eternal love.

You are able to read his love for his Papa and to share his emotions while my pain and repressed words remain more private and unknown to most of my readers.

I write what I can in fulfillment of the promise I made to Rahel. And I read aloud to her smiling portrait every article that is published. I wait for her response, her critique, her opinion. But there is only silence! I can expect no more.

But her legacy continues to inspire me with each word I put down on paper.

If you happen to read the work of David Bogomolny I hope you will find it inspirational as a son’s eternal legacy to his beloved father. Yehi zichro baruch. May his memory be a blessing.

Insane antisemitism

I shouldn’t.

* * *

There are lots of things I enjoy writing about, and antisemitism isn’t one of them… not only because it’s offensive to me, but also because it’s been so foolishly baseless and unchanging at its core throughout the centuries. I find it inane and insulting to my intelligence, but its existence informs my identity; there will always be a risk for me in being true to myself in a public forum.

Actually, I’ve experienced very little antisemitism in my personal life (although it did, of course, color the lives of my parents and grandparents in the USSR).

When I was in fourth or fifth grade, a Turkish boy who had moved to my hometown in central NJ from New Orleans expressed surprise upon learning that I, his new friend, was a Jew. “Where are your horns?” he asked innocently. I was shocked and quite amused, but I wasn’t at all offended, particularly because it was such an absurd idea. Besides, we were living in a region of the United States with a very large Jewish population. The two of us remained friends, and I made fun of him over this incident for years afterwards.

Once, when I was in… eighth or ninth grade, perhaps, a boy of Italian descent standing in front of me in the dessert line at the cafeteria sneered at me, “You’re a Jew, right?” I could tell that his tone was hostile, but he was utterly irrelevant to me and not somebody that I had any regular interaction with (we took different levels of classes). “Yes, I am,” I replied simply, looking him directly in the eyes. The boy smirked rudely and turned away from me – and that was the extent of our exchange.

The last time I can recall possibly having faced mild antisemitism was at a convenience store in Cleveland, OH. A burly African American walked in after me, and, as I was leaving, called out loudly, “Shalom!” Now, this could have been nothing more than an overly familiar form of well-intentioned friendliness, but given his volume and swagger, his abrupt exclamation felt off-putting. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I responded gently, “Shalom to you too,” as I walked out the door.

As a college student, I also recall a couple of instances in which Christians approached me, intending to convert me, but I don’t consider such efforts to be antisemitic.

* * *

I don’t think about antisemitism on a daily or weekly basis, but it does become relevant whenever I make plans to travel outside of Israel because I look very much like a stereotypical Jew with my beard and large yarmulke. I am very proudly Jewish, and I deliberately look the part because looking otherwise feels fake, as if I am attempting to blend in with gentiles. This is how I’ve felt ever since my university years.

A few years ago, we traveled to Switzerland with our daughter, and that was the first time that I ever hesitated upon considering my appearance in a foreign country. Usually, there’s no calculus for me; I’m deliberately visibly Jewish wherever I happen to be, regardless of how others may feel about it. However, traveling to Europe with our then two-year-old, I worried that she could be adversely affected by antisemitism, should it be directed at me. On that particular occasion, I ultimately decided not to hide my identity, even in the company of our toddler, but I may yet decide differently on future family vacations.

Regardless of my decision, I was quite aware of the many looks I got during our stay in Switzerland. People would notice my headpiece and then their gazes would slide down to my face before traveling over to my wife and daughter, neither of whom looked identifiably Jewish. The great majority of such looks were curious, but some were distinctly awkward, and some were distrustful or even unfriendly.

Anyway, that’s life. Antisemitism exists, and it isn’t going anywhere.

As I said, I don’t think too much about it, unless I happen unexpectedly upon it.

* * *

Since launching my blog on WordPress, I’ve searched for likeminded bloggers. I’m interested in poetry, creative writing, humor, parenting, and Jewishly themed websites. It’s been very enjoyable to connect with other writers from around the world.

The other day, I was browsing for Jewishly themed blogs, and I came across a blog, entirely dedicated to antisemitism. Normally, I would simply ignore such a thing, but the author’s delusions drew me in. I couldn’t tear myself away from it.

Firstly, the blog is well written, and it’s clearly written by a very articulate person. After some Internet searching, I also uncovered the author’s corresponding YouTube channel and found a well researched and well formatted video, highlighting many old news accounts, which suggest that Adolf Hitler was a Jew. I also found comments of his on other websites, clearly stating the Jews should be exterminated.

Secondly, the blog is extensive – both in the amount of content and in the insanity of its claims. This is why I am so disturbed. How obsessed must somebody be to write so much about nothing but hatred of others? As a writer, I know it takes effort to produce readable, appealing content… and I can only imagine how many hours of thinking and writing that went into this antisemitism project.

The author, according to his introductory blog post, was banned from Blogger, after a year of activity. He moved his blog over to WordPress, just recently, in mid-September. His explanation:

My previous blog had been active for little more than a year when the Jews deleted it. I didn’t expect it to go down so quickly, but was also not very surprised when it did. The Jews are definitely scared of something, and my blog’s removal is another sign that my writing was doing the right thing.

Then he goes on:

As this site’s description states, this blog was “Created by contempt and intolerance for Jewish corruption. All instances of poverty, language debasement, licentiousness, self-interestedness, dysgenics, drugs, diseases, atheism (in the popular sense), hero-worshiping, fratricide, polygamy, prostitution, incest, homosexuality, sodomy, bestiality, miscegenation, circumcision, criminality, usury, idleness, dishonesty, arrogance, stupidity, rebelliousness, and all other forms of degeneration and corruption can be traced back to the Jews.”

And:

All positions of power and influence in the planet are controlled by Jews. Even if they were smart, no one has been able to refute the claim that the vilest, most morally dearth people in the world belong to the Jewish tribe, and that is most likely the only claim to superiority the Jews can truthfully make. The Jews are continually bragging of their success to the masses, and the truth is for you to see.

And:

Not one Jew on Earth can be trusted. If you do trust even one out of the millions that infest the Earth, you will necessarily suffer the direst of consequences. For those who still believe there are “Good” Jews on this planet, being a Jew means…

That you are okay with stealing, cheating, lying, subverting, manipulating, looting, extorting, and all other negative terms along these subjects.

Being a Jew means you are okay with lying to the public, extortion, committing fraud, blackmail, acts of usury, letting acts of terrorism slide, and corrupting the planet.

Being a Jew means being a supremacist, a parasite, and a deviant lunatic.

The best of mankind want to preserve order and morality in society, to protect the natural order. Lying and deception are the Jews’ primary methods of survival. A Jew can never be reasoned with for that reason!

* * *

The Jewish Problem will only be solved through either the removal of every Jew and every follower and supporter of Jewish ideologies, doctrines, and ideas, or the complete elimination of the upstanding of non-Jews from the Earth… To make things clear, I consider a Jew to be anyone with even the smallest detectable amount of Jewish blood; and a Judeophile to be anyone who is by nature a delinquent, a defective, or a degenerate, or an open supporter or sympathizer of any Jew.

* * *

Upon further reviewing this blog, I found assertions that all of the following are Jews:

  • Adolph Hitler and many other Nazis
  • Joesph Stalin
  • George Orwell
  • Henry Ford
  • Hirohito
  • 22 (possibly 23) of the 45 Presidents of the United States (including the current President)
  • William Shakespeare
  • Alex Jones
  • Pat Buchanan
  • Charlie Sheen
  • David Duke
  • Edward Snowden
  • Glen Beck
  • Jesse Ventura
  • John Kerry
  • Julian Assange
  • Mel Gibson
  • Tom Cruise
  • Nick Clegg
  • Jordan Peterson
  • Marine Le Pen
  • Viktor Orban
  • Mateusz Morawiecki
  • Matteo Salvini
  • Nick Griffin
  • Nigel Farage
  • Ralph Nader
  • Ron Paul
  • Vladimir Putin
  • Richard Dawkins
  • Christopher Hitchens
  • Taylor Swift
  • Peter Stuyvesant
  • Bill Gates
  • And more

* * *

The blogger espouses conspiracy theories such as:

  • Jews Are Behind the New Eugenics Movement
  • “Empathy” is a Jewish term
  • The Single Cause of Problems in the World: Jews
  • The Origin of Trolling on the Internet: Jews
  • The Coronavirus Is a Jewish Lie
  • Russia Is Still in Jewish Control
  • Nothing Is Out of Jewish Reach
  • Most “Rape Victims” Are Jewish
  • Jews Use IQ as a Trick
  • Jews Promote English Usage
  • Jews Enforcing Individualism
  • Jews Behind Tattooism
  • Jews Behind Harry Potter
  • Jews Are Behind the Birth Control Movement
  • Jews Are Behind the Autism Trend
  • Jews – Far More Than Two Percent of the Population
  • Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc., systematically censor or hide information about the Jews’ international crime network, with Jews patrolling the Internet forums and message boards, and with the use of IP Addresses, Web Host Servers and Internet Service Providers
  • Jeffrey Epstein Did Not Commit Suicide
  • Human Selection Technology – a Jewish Scam
  • DNA Is Pseudoscience
  • College Is Jewish Indoctrination
  • Nuclear Weapons are Not Real – a Jewish Conspiracy
  • Jews are not human
  • And more

* * *

Deliberately, I am not linking publicly to this insane, degenerate blog. I don’t want to promote such content. I’ve reported this antisemitic blog to WordPress, and I hope that they act accordingly and remove it, just as Blogger (and Quora) did. If you too would like to contact WordPress in this regard, contact me with your e-mail address and I will send you the link privately (nobody else will see your e-mail address).

Keyboard Judaism

When I discovered Orthodox Judaism at the age of eighteen, I experienced it as the meaningful vision for religious Judaism that I had never thought to imagine. Through many of the years that followed, even when I wasn’t a practicing Jew, I aspired only to Orthodoxy. I judged myself and others by the standards and positions of the mainstream Orthodox community.

Although there was deep dissonance for me between the ideals of the extended Orthodox community and the modern society I inhabited, I pushed it out of my mind. The confidence in Orthodoxy’s voice lent it credibility with me, and, like most that pass through this uncertain world, I found solace in certainty.

For me today, there lies elusive but enticing comfort in the unlikely possibility that the lives of individuals have purpose, and there also exists a second, concomitant comfort for me in the existence of my people. For complicated reasons, some indiscernible even to myself, I find great meaning in being a Jew. This lends me some sense of purpose, therefore I am invested in my nation’s continuity.

Either way, I must acknowledge to myself that I am done with Orthodoxy, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

Being done with Orthodoxy in a world of limited communal options is a fairly meaningless sentiment if the remaining alternatives are lacking for me; and communities, as far as I am concerned, are the Jewish nation’s largest building blocks. With due respect to God, to the extent that I can muster it (a failing of mine), I find Judaism without community nearly meaningless.

While my thinking has evolved from Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy, and I have developed sincere respect for people’s personal agencies and choices, as well as a deep appreciation for the historical contexts and worldviews of the non-Orthodox denominations, I retain a concern about non-Orthodoxy, which hasn’t abated over the years.

Simply put, I believe that the greatest failing of non-Orthodoxy is the relative ignorance that the great majority of its adherents have of Judaism, including ignorance of Jewish history, language, theology, literature… you name it.

One need not follow Jewish religious law (halakhah) in an Orthodox way, nor follow it at all, but I cannot wrap my mind around the notion of a meaningful Jewish identity empty of Jewish substance. There is much to laud in non-Orthodoxy, and I am happy to do so, but non-Orthodoxy around the world seems to be moving increasingly towards human universalism, away from national particularism.

At some point, universalism does cease to be Judaism, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

A serious, developing problem of mine is that I am increasingly creating my own religious experience, apart from Jewish community of any sort… and the developing of one’s own, private Judaism is distinctly a heterodox undertaking.

I recently wrote, regarding my kaddish blogging following Papa’s death:

… I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience… Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.

– Me, ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, Sept. 11, 2020

Thinking on this further, I realize that I’m doing much more than ‘living off my kaddish’s fumes’. On this website, I have been, in fact, throwing endless words atop my spiritual pyre. Yes, true, I attended synagogue every single day for an entire year following Papa’s death; and, true, I recited the traditional orphan’s kaddish in his memory every day… but it was my thinking and writing, which imbued my kaddish experience with real meaning.

Now, having returned to writing some two-thirds of a year after completing my kaddish odyssey, I realize how much purpose this process continues to provide me with. While I think that Judaism without community is pointless, it would seem that the essence of my own Judaism is being actualized in the chair before my keyboard.

COVID-19 lockdowns have certainly limited my access to community during this last half year and more, but… I haven’t been desperately clawing for any opportunities for communal engagement (which yet exist), nor tearing at the gates of my synagogue to return to daily communal prayer.

Instead, I’ve been writing.

And now I wonder: is my Judaism without community any more Jewishly substantive than a Judaism without Jewish substance?

A fishy lockdown

Last night and the night before I wanted to take some time to write, but I ended up falling asleep while putting my daughter to bed each time.

For me, perhaps the most frustrating thing about Israel’s current (2nd) pandemic-related lockdown is the diminished amount of time and space that I am left with for myself, which I primarily use for writing, reading the news, and watching the occasional movie. Even under regular circumstances, most of my free time is at night when I am not working and not parenting.

My wife and I are lucky to still have our jobs during these lockdowns, rather than being furloughed, as so many Israelis have been. In fact, my wife has a very dear friend who works as a chef for a major Jerusalem hotel who is also a single mother; and her financial situation is challenging even under normal conditions. In this regard, we have humility enough to appreciate our blessings.

Still, these lockdowns are challenging for us emotionally, and, dare I say, more so for me because my more flexible work hours mean that I end up assuming the majority of parenting responsibilities for our child during such periods (one of the reasons that her English reading and writing abilities have improved over her Russian language skills).

Perhaps I would be less frustrated with this government directive, were it not for the politics of COVID-19 in Israel. Putting aside the “why” of the matter, it is simply a fact that rates of infection in our state are significantly higher in ultra-Orthodox and Arab neighborhoods. However, despite health professionals recommending that local measures be applied to those areas, the ultra-Orthodox political parties have strong-armed the government into shutting down all of society.

Still, I am trying to remain positive.

* * *

Yesterday, our daughter had a playground playdate with a friend who showed up in a cranky mood. The little boy was mourning over his inability to attend preschool during the lockdown. I tried explaining this to my daughter, and she was clearly befuddled. “Really? I like being with you and Mama’chka more than preschool!” From her perspective, you see, lockdowns are like extended vacations.

I must admit that it’s very affirming for me to hear that our child likes being at home with us. It would seem that we’re doing something right.

[In that vein, we’ve also noticed a shift in her daily discourse over the past half year. Whereas she used to constantly ask, “Do you love me?” (and she still does occasionally). She now much more often prefers to say, “I love you” and kiss us; and since we parents are also human beings, I am not too shy to admit that we like hearing this.]

* * *

One other party in our household has benefitted from the lockdown, and that is Goldie the goldfish.

In truth, we’re learning how to take care of Goldie as we go – taking fish seriously as pets is not so simple, it seems.

Several weeks ago, we decided to get an airstone and pump for Goldie, which provides better circulation and aerates the tank water. This is not an absolute necessity, but it is generally considered healthy for the fish, and increases the efficiency of the filter. All of this was new to us.

Then, at a later date, we decided to upgrade to a bigger aquarium because the smaller tank was leaking from the top. In doing so, we learned that the water level in the smaller tank had been too high – that it should have been a bit lower than the bottom of the filter. (We also received 3 free Buenos Aires tetra fish with our purchase)

During that pet shop visit, we picked up a large, plastic “rock” with “plants” on it. However, what we came to realize is that the hollow “rock” was accumulating dirty water beneath it (leaving us to wonder why hollow aquarium decorations are sold in the first place). The “rock” has since been replaced with a sunken ship of the British Empire with a solid bottom, and our daughter is has taken to using the “rock” for her Playmobil figures’ adventures (don’t worry – we washed it).

Now our current and continuing challenge has become determining just how much to feed the four fish, as tetra fish should be fed more often than goldfish. In our research, we’ve also learned that tetra fish and goldfish are not necessarily the best tank mates, and the tetras, which are tropical, are not likely do well in colder temperatures… so they may not survive the coming Jerusalem winter.

In any case, the important thing is that our daughter is very happy to have pet fish. She takes feeding them very seriously and is still trying to decide upon names for the three tetras. We’ve warned her, of course, that they may not be long for this world… but we’ll get some replacements for her if they don’t make it.

Being home every day during this lockdown is providing us with an opportunity to monitor the aquarium… so I suppose there have been some hidden benefits to the ongoing insanity…

Sirry, or: Selious

The blogger sat before his screen
        Pressing his fingers 'pon the keys
Eyes staring back towards the sheen
        Familiar stiffness in his knees

By moonless night he saw himself
        Glasses reflecting man-made light
Books stretched behind him 'pon the shelf
        Twink-twinkling stars, thin halos bright

Floating about through bits and bytes
        As neurons 'lectric pulses shot
Red sparks burst into boundless lights
        'long wires, twisting, burning hot

He could not feel his back upright
        Nor hear the beating in his chest
His wireless mind saw sight 'pon sight
        And data points did swift digest

Each word he formed drifted through space
        Networking ev'ry flitting thought
White narrow beam lit faceless face
        As curious new signals wrought

Beeps sounded from the motherboard 
        Seat empty basked in flickering gleam
Lines flowing forth would stay unheard
        For none could hear the soundless scream

‘Space’ in all dimensions

I remember Papa getting very annoyed by distractions that would take him, even briefly, away from his work. It would usually take him effort to recenter himself so he strongly preferred not to be disturbed while fleshing out his mathematics proofs or coding new math applets.

This recalls to me a particular gesture of Papa’s that I often catch myself subconsciously imitating, immediately bringing an image of him to mind ~

    Immediately after an uninvited interruption, Papa leans forward, his right elbow floating above his wooden armrest, brow furrowed. He removes his reading glasses with his left hand, holding them by the temple, then rests his forearm atop his left thigh, glasses hanging loosely. His eyes close, as he lifts his other hand to cover them, and his head dips slightly rightwards, until his upper arm rests against the right side of his chest. The tips of his fingers curl down over his left eye, and the interdigital skin fold between his thumb and index finger presses against the right. The muscles around his mouth tighten, as he concentrates.

* * *

There would also come a point in the late evening when Papa would leave his office and head to the television to watch a movie because his mind had “ceased functioning” for the day (“Мои мозги не фурычат”). Action movies, which he generally preferred, were mindlessly entertaining and didn’t require much understanding of the dialogue (he was severely hearing impaired).

I’ve been recalling this also, whenever I find myself struggling late at night to bead the threads of my sentences with words most suitable.

* * *

Last week for me was particularly busy at work, and I wrote less than usual.

Funny enough, the issue wasn’t precisely that my schedule was fuller, although it was. I could have written poetry and personal reflections at night, alone, as I do under normal circumstances. Rather, my mind was constantly preoccupied with our team’s work project, as well as with my daughter’s recent return to preschool. This left my creative mind drifting groggily through a dense fog, utterly useless.

Certainly, I’ve long recognized my need of quiet and time for creative writing, as I am otherwise unable to produce anything of quality. Anybody who takes pride in their writing, I would imagine, also requires these same basic ingredients. Broadly, this is called ‘needing space’, much like I recall Papa needing.

Last week, however, I was forced to acknowledge to myself that I also need a buffer of time between processing my daily, utilitarian thoughts, too many of which will ultimately come to absorb me, and successfully tapping into my imagination and inspiration streams.

I ‘need space’ in all dimensions – even through time.