HaShem, or: Elohim

She deserves a poem true 
Her faithfulness confuses
me
    Just yesterday after pre-
school
I'd picked her 
up 
    -my pup- 
    she spoke with such indignity
about a friend -a six-year-
old- who wrote God's name 
and 
    "put an 'X'"
"Do you mean she crossed it out?"
"Yes and said her fam-
ily
    does not believe, nor she
    but that's not why she doesn't"
"Which name did she 
write? was it 'HaShem'?" "No
    she crossed out 'Elohim'
    and showed her friends"
"So what do you think about that?"
"How can she-
    we must respect-
    our teachers and our parents 
are
    in charge
but God is the most 
powerful he's in charge 
    of every-
thing"
Why is my child 
    so...
Where does she get...
"Yes, that is what some 
    people 
think" "Well 
our teacher says that we should 
believe in God" At a 
    state-secular 
pre-
school! And -then- today 
before pre-
school: "If God can speak to any-
    one, that means He can speak
    all languages!"
"Well, yes..."
Perhaps this is a poem, 
for-
    perhaps it's faith 
that's
    po-
  et-
  ry-

Today, for d’Verse’s “Open Link Night”, I’d like to share a poem that I wrote last June, a couple of months after creating this blog.

I decided to share this poem because recently I’ve been writing a lot about my daughter on this blog. She is now 6-years-old. When this was written, she was 5⅓-years-old… and to this day, she maintains her fascination with the concept of God and insists that she believes everything that is written in the Torah. Suffice it to say that she doesn’t get such ideas from me.

Six-year-old burgeoning poet

A couple of days ago, you provided me with an outpouring of wonderful advice, as to how I might nurture and develop my six-year-old daughter’s poetry talents. Truly, the many suggestions for approaches, games, techniques… were simply amazing. Thank you so very much.

By coincidence, the very following day my six-year-old told me that she wanted to write a free verse poem with me (“a poem that doesn’t rhyme,” she said). I explained to her that poetry doesn’t have to follow the rules of grammar and that lines can break wherever the poet so choses. Also, I emphasized that poetry is intended to express feelings ~ that the most important thing is to feel the words.

Shortly after completing our first collaborative free verse poem (which she deliberately wrote in a silly way), she asked me if she could try to construct a poem with me online on MagneticPoetry, as she had seen me do several times myself. To be honest, I was somewhat hesitant about this because I thought that the aspect of playing with the magnets would distract her from attempting to construct a poem, but many of you (and my mother) had suggested than I just let her play and learn by doing… so I agreed.

Below are our latest pieces, both free verse:


Two poems, a collaboration

by David (41) and Liorah (6)

1.

The car found a cat
The bar found
a bat
The bat was hanging
The cat was
banging
The bat said “can you stop that?”
The cat said
as he walked
on the bar to the car, “I
don’t want to!”
“Why?
Are you not going to stop that?”
Atop the car, beside
the bar, the cat
stared at the bat
from afar
He said to the bat, “I do not want to
because I like it.”
He banged on the bar; it
made the bat cry.
“I am so 
sorry!”
For the cat was now
worried about 
what he did.
The 
bat 
said, 
“Why 
did 
you 
do
that?”
The cat sat
then lay flat
on a mat
near the bat;
put on his hat
and said to the bat,
“Sometimes
it’s hard to control
myself, you see.”
The bat
said, “Yes
I do see.”

NOTES:

I was not the one who began this poem ~ she deliberately wrote something silly about a car finding a cat because she liked the concept and because the two words sound similar. Following her lead, I wrote: “The bar found a bat.” After all, fair is fair – am I right? 😉

Liorah and I took turns with this piece, and upon writing the ending, she asked me, “Do you like my ending?” I smiled. “Very much,” I said and hugged her.

2.

Liorah’s first Magnetic Poem (Feb. 16, 2021)
bluest sky the girl sees
spring goddess in diamond red
gown let storm beauty soar
sweeter and music mist spray
on those forest lake winds

NOTES:

I had to teach her about the magnets with word endings like ‘est’, ‘s’, and ‘er’, as well as how to manipulate the mouse to drag the virtual magnets to the left side of the screen.

Also, when it was my turn to add some words to the poem, she became a bit impatient as I scrolled through all of the available words looking for some that spoke to me. I had to explain to her that this is how I personally write Magnetic Poetry, but she remained rather irked with me. I guess I’m just an old fuddy duddy.

Teaching poetry to children? Help!

Despite have been born in and growing up in Israel, my six-year-old speaks, reads, and writes English better than she does Hebrew. In fact, I think she also writes and reads (and maybe speaks) better Russian than Hebrew, thanks to her mother’s efforts.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned in passing, our little girl is well aware that I write poems for this blog of mine; and she’s taken to rhyming words all day long herself. Sometimes she’ll unintentionally make off-rhymes, pause thoughtfully, sound them out to herself aloud, and then say, “well, that’s just an off-rhyme, but we could still use it in a poem.”

Now, I have done all sorts of fun writing exercises with her in English, and my mother in America has also taken to writing snippets of short stories back-and-forth with her on Facebook Messenger. Her grammar and punctuation aren’t perfect, but she’s learning very quickly. Just recently, for example, she asked me to show her how to write lowercase letters by hand because she knows that her penmanship needs work too.

Several days ago, out of the blue, she asked to write some poems with me on my computer (we used Microsoft Word) and was very intent about having me share them on my blog. She even asked me, “So what tags are you going to assign them? When will you decide? When will other people read them?”

Our three poems are below, in case you’re curious; but I am actually drafting this blog post primarily because I want your feedback: how do I teach her to write poetry?

Here’s where she’s at right now:

  • As I mentioned above, she is very comfortable with rhyme
    • For example, for one of the poems below, she suggested the word ‘coffee’ instead of ‘tea’ because she realized that the second syllable of ‘coffee’ rhymes with ‘tea’, and we had already used the word ‘tea’ in the previous poem.
  • She is less comfortable with rhythm and counting syllables per line, although I tried demonstrating those concepts to her while we were writing the short poems below. This is something that I don’t quite know how to get across to her.
    • I tried explaining these concepts by counting the syllables aloud with her and tapping my fingers on the table, while saying, “bum, bum, bum-bum, bum.”
    • Still, she tends to write lines of inconsistent lengths and rhythms if left to her own devices, as long as they include (and especially end with) rhyming words.
  • Also, I am having difficulty with teaching her about creative imagery and devices like alliteration, assonance, etc. She’s very bright so when I manage to explain things well, she usually gets them, but it’s not so easy for me to convert and upload my thoughts into her child brain.
    • To her credit, she was able to understand what I meant by ‘metaphor’ when I explained my last nature haiku to her and pointed out that the language of the poem was making a comparison between plants and poetry with its use of the word ‘seeding’.
  • Lastly, since she’s so focused on rhyming, she doesn’t quite understand how to write non-rhyming poetry. She has finally accepted that such a concept exists, but it remains fairly hard for her to grasp. How would she go about writing a non-rhyming poem, she wonders?

Three poems, a collaboration

by David (41) and Liorah (6)

1.

The dog found a log 
that fell from a tree 

She sat on the log, 
happy as can be 

Then there was a fog 
‘twas too hard to see 

She sobbed in the fog, 
wishing she could flee 

She got off the log, 
squinting hopefully 

Wind blew away the fog; 
dog whistled happily

2.

Then there was a squirrel, 
sipping a cup of tea 

Squirrel saw a girl 
swimming in the sea 

Then the waters whirled 
very dangerously 

Quickly, ran the squirrel, 
reaching desperately 

Stretched out her hand, 
poor girl, begging – please save me! 

They ate ice cream swirls 
once he pulled her free

3.

The cat found a hat 
and thought, “This is for me!” 

Then came out a bat 
and offered her coffee 

On her head she sat 
stirring daintily 

Then came out a rat 
Sniffing greedily 

They said, “GET AWAY, RAT!” 
and he cried tearfully 

When they noticed that, 
they felt so, so sorry!

The best hamburger of my lifetime

Hamburgers with Papa

One of my fondest recollections of Papa is his love of unhealthy food. This was one of the perks of having Papa pick me up from various afterschool activities and friends’ houses – one could never know if he might be in the mood for hamburgers. Come to think of it, Papa was much like Winnie the Pooh in this regard, sometimes struck by an entirely unexpected ‘rumbly in his tumbly’.

We certainly did not eat at McDonalds regularly or often; but we had hamburgers there often enough for me to remember this small pleasure; and it was also rare enough for me to develop a special appreciation for it.


Hamburgers & keeping kosher

As a college student, I gradually became religiously observant and eventually stopped eating non-kosher meat. Now, most Jews do not keep kosher, but for those of us who accept this dietary restriction upon ourselves, kosher hamburgers are quite a treat; and kosher hamburgers are abundant in Israel, especially in cities with large religious populations like Jerusalem.

I must add that Jerusalem’s burger joints range widely in quality. We have McDonalds and several other chains, but we also have very high end burger restaurants and everything in between. Even the midrange burger places have better quality patties than McDonalds – and the prices, of course, reflect this.

By the way, burger joints aside, the endless availability of kosher food is one of the reasons that living in Israel is appealing to Jewish people who keep kosher. Living a traditionally religious Jewish life is simply easiest in Israel for many practical reasons; perhaps this too would be worth writing about…


My Babushka’s advice to me

My Babushka (my Mama’s mother) and I would speak by phone almost every single day in the final years of her life before she died nearly three months after my Papa, and, as you might imagine, one of our favorite subjects of conversation was my daughter. Babushka’s love for our baby girl was not theoretical – she deeply adored her and always looked forward to our family visits when her great-granddaughter would climb up onto her couch to give her a kiss.

Our daughter is our first child and so I’ve been discovering child development by observing her as she grows up. Therefore, I’ve never quite known what to expect at any given age, nor what is considered ‘normal’; but my Babushka, who raised three daughters and then some of her granddaughters, had a very good sense of what behaviors and milestones were age appropriate for little children.

Often, we would discuss what foods our child was eating, and I loved to joke with Babushka about my “dream” of going out for burgers with my daughter. Of course, I was making this joke back when she was only three-years-old, which was clearly absurd, and Babushka thought the notion very amusing. “You’ll have to wait until she’s five-years-old for that,” she would tell me.


Five… no… Six-years-old

Regardless of her age, it has always been difficult to convince our daughter to eat any foods beyond the ones she is already familiar with and fond of. In fact, the older she gets, the more this seems to be a losing battle; and there are even some foods she once enjoyed, which she is no longer willing to put in her mouth. We have learned the hard way not to push anything new on her, and we wait for those rare moments when she asks to try something new of her own volition.

Of course, telling her that I like hamburgers is entirely reasonable, right? I’m not suggesting that she should, God forbid, try them; I’m just saying that they’re amazing. So over time, I have adopted the strategy of dripping water upon the rock, as suggested to me by the Bible (Job 14:19):

אֲבָנִים, שָׁחֲקוּ מַיִם The waters wear the stones

Finally, several months ago, she told me that she’d eaten a hamburger at preschool and she’d liked it! I tried hard to contain myself, and I may have even succeeded. “Well,” I said very, very casually, “if you’d like to get a hamburger with me some time, just let me know.” She responded affirmatively, and let me know that she only likes plain hamburgers – no ketchup, no vegetables, nothing. “Sure, sure, no problem. Whatever you’d like,” I responded hopefully. Then, wisely, I dropped the subject entirely.


Thank you, COVID-19

I will forever be thankful to the global pandemic for the event that took place on Thursday, February 4th, 2021, the week before our daughter officially turned six-years-old.

Here in Israel, we have been in lock-down, on-and-off, for months. Honestly, I’ve lost track of time spent at home because the days and weeks and months all blur together in my memory, as I assume they do for our daughter as well. She’s returned to preschool several times, only to return back home for another month or more. Of course, she’d be the first to tell you that she prefers being at home with us, but she does still miss her friends from preschool.

Anyway, there are only several dishes that she requests for lunch at home, and, as I’ve mentioned, we don’t push our luck in trying to recommend new foods to her because that always backfires. Now, under normal circumstances, it’s reasonable for a child to have a very limited amount of lunch options at home because under normal circumstances a child eats lunch at preschool on most days… but last week, finally, the endless sameness of her lock-down era home lunches finally got to her, and she unexpectedly turned to me and said, “Maybe we could get hamburgers this week. But remember – I just want a plain hamburger – no ketchup, no vegetables, nothing.”


And so it was ~

And so, last Thursday, February 4th, 2021, my daughter and I ordered hamburgers from the local joint and brought them home for ourselves (eating out is illegal during the lock-down). She had a plain 80g burger, and I had the standard 250g patty with all of the toppings. And the best part of the whole experience is how much she loved her hamburger!

I literally cannot recall the last time that I’d heard her expressing so much enthusiasm and appreciation for a particular meal – the entire time that she was eating her little hamburger, she kept on repeating, “Wow, I really, really like this. It’s delicious!” and smacking her lips. I think, hands down, it was the most enjoyable meal that I can ever recall having, and, quite certainly, it was the most delicious hamburger of my entire lifetime.

I’m already looking forward to the next one! 🍔

Deed, not Creed?

The rhyme that stuck

Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.

When I first heard this said to me some 2½ decades ago, I had no idea what my Hebrew high school teacher Rabbi Witty meant by it, but the rhyme stuck with me.


Hebrew high school?

I attended public school throughout my childhood, and, like many of my American Jewish contemporaries, I was also enrolled in an afterschool program that met three times weekly at the synagogue. This is known as Hebrew school.

Now, most of the children who attended Hebrew school did so for one simple reason: the shul’s (synagogue’s) policy was that only those who attended Hebrew school until the date of their bar/bat mitzvahs could mark these events within the community. That’s why many Hebrew school students dropped out in the 7th grade; that’s why less than half remained for the Hebrew high school program, which began the following year.

Even in Hebrew high school, there were plenty of students attending against their wills. Their parents pressured them to go – so they went. My Papa, on the other hand, thought it was a total waste of time. “What are you learning there?” he would ask me; and my answers were always lacking. Still, I remained one of the few students who loved going to Hebrew school, and I continued attending until I left for college.

To a large extent, Papa was correct. Compared to what I would eventually learn about Judaism as an adult (once I began proactively seeking my own Jewish way), most of my takeaways from Hebrew school, even after those many years, were not much more than fluff. Upon graduation, my Hebrew was poor, and I remained incapable of navigating any of the foundational Jewish texts, such as the Torah, Mishnah, or Talmud.

Now, clearly, our Hebrew school teachers were well aware of this. They knew that the majority of their students came from fairly secular homes and were largely ignorant of Judaism. The sarcastic and dry Rabbi Witty (one of my favorite Hebrew high school teachers) understood his goal well: to plant the seeds of curiosity within his students. He knew that the substance of our Hebrew school studies left much to be desired; and he aimed, therefore, to plant germs of Jewish wisdom in our minds that would hopefully take root and sprout up at some point in the future.

“Remember, David,” said Rabbi Witty as he adjusted his belt buckle, “Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.”


Huh? Deed? Not creed?

Yep.

In fact, this saying actually encapsulates one of the major points of Christianity’s departure from Judaism, for Judaism, you see, has always been all about the Law.

[In Judaism] there are thus religious acts as well as religious knowledge. The religious acts… are disciplinary and educative. They train the soul to reverence. Religious knowledge tells us about the subject of that reverence, and inclines the mind to love. The sanctions of the law are thus for the purpose of spiritual education…

… St. Paul, too, believed that only with the coming of the Messiah will a change take place in human nature which will make the deterrent of the law superfluous, but since he believed that the Messiah has come already, that Jesus was the Messiah, the continuation of the practice of the law was regarded by him as a denial of Jesus’ messianity. It was either the law or Jesus.

Zvi Kolitz (1912-2002), ‘Survival For What?’, p. 7

In principle, you see, from the perspective of traditional Judaism, one is true to the Jewish faith if one practices Judaism. One must eat kosher food, pray thrice daily, observe the Sabbath, separate wool from linen, etc., etc., and these daily acts are the very building blocks of traditional Jewish life. In a certain sense, certainly from the perspective of Zvi Kolitz (above), traditional Judaism is designed for skeptics like me, for the law “trains the soul to reverence.”

Traditional Judaism does not assume that a human being inherently believes in God, let alone loves God. Rather, it assumes that one must be trained to do so. And – if one never comes to believe but continues adhering to the law, one remains, according to traditional Judaism, a member of the Jewish people in good standing.

Now, my own faith journey has been up, down, and all around. For some periods, I managed to convince myself that I believe in God, and at other times (like the last few years) I’ve had seemingly insurmountable difficulty believing in a supernatural force that is somehow involved in or even invested in the lives of human beings at all.

Still, in theory, if I were to somehow become convinced of a personal God’s existence again, that would be wonderful. I do remain open to that possibility, and therefore the traditional Jewish approach works well for me – I can continue practicing the law, regardless of what I happen to believe at any given moment.


The skeptic’s social problem

When it comes to my personal life, holding fast to the law, or at least holding it up as a standard to live by, works well. That’s not to say that I don’t break the law in multiple ways daily, but I am always keenly aware of it; I always think about it; I always ask myself if I couldn’t be more loyal to it. I always wish that I wanted to follow it more.

However, despite my earnest commitment to traditional Judaism, I have consistently found that expressing my religious skepticism regarding the possible existence of an involved, invested God in a communal setting in the Orthodox Jewish community inevitably results in awkwardness.

In private interpersonal interactions, it’s usually acceptable for me to express my beliefs honestly, in the sense that people don’t tend to take offense; but more often than not my fellow interlocutors will either attempt to convince me of their beliefs in God, or else they will suggest that I should continue along the traditional religious path and will eventually discover God for myself. In both such cases, I feel unheard and intellectually disrespected.

Online, I participate in several very respectful, intellectual, and active discussion forums for Jews who are skeptics; Jews who were once religious and left the fold; Jews who are religious both in outlook and in practice; and Jews who have come to believe in God over time. These forums are much more accepting and intellectually engaging than anything I have encountered in the real world. Through them, I have discovered some amazing Jewish bloggers who write about their struggles with faith, many of whom are anonymous for fear of being ostracized in their real lives.

For example, I came across an ultra-Orthodox blogger who calls himself ‘A Jew With Questions’ who continues to reside in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, but harbors theological doubts. He writes:

I am an American Charedi Jew living in Israel who is going through a crisis of faith. In short, I have a hard time believing in Orthodox Judaism due to the many questions that I have…

The purpose of this blog is to express these doubts and hopefully get some answers or at least conversation from commenters. One of the biggest problems that I have is that I have no one to talk to.  In many ways I am very lonely. My wife is a true believer in Hashem, and she constantly talks about emuna. My children go to Charedi schools and have been brainwashed by the Charedi educational system. My friends, chavrusas etc. are all true believers and would not listen or understand if I talked to them…

‘A Jew With Questions’, June 13, 2016

Now, I affiliate with the more religiously liberal and intellectually open end of the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, but despite the modern-mindedness of most such communities, I find serious, respectful discussions about my deep skepticism in God’s involvement not so easy to come by without uncomfortable looks and pregnant pauses.


The crux

A friend of mine has asked me on more than occasion why it matters to me what the members of my extended community believe. In part, it’s a matter of loneliness, just as it is for ‘A Jew With Questions’.

However, among other things, it’s also a matter of my deep disillusionment with traditional Judaism in lived experience. I’ve already written a blog post titled ‘Because God’, which I won’t rehash here, but it comes down to the following:

‘Because God’ is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom…

-Me, ‘Because God’, May 22, 2020

Upon reflection, I find the irony of humanity’s limitations in this context to be quite stinging.

Whereas I believe that Jewish law should be a means to “train the soul to reverence”, as Zvi Kolitz suggested (and therefore its practitioners should have no reason whatsoever to be threatened by a broad range of levels of belief within their communities), instead, most of its adherents seem to want/need to approach the system from exactly the opposite direction.

Namely: if those who follow the law cannot convince themselves that Hashem exists; that God is involved in their lives; that God wants them to observe the law… then it may turn out that they lack the motivation to follow Jewish law… and… well, frankly, I think they are afraid to face that possibility.

David, or: ben Alexander

In memory of Papa

My first ghazal

I remember his toolboxes, table vice, hand sander
Still remember foul humor, impatience, frank candor

I remember clever math tricks and right-wing politics
And sultry actresses at whom he would gander

I remember him sitting, reading, problem solving
Frustrated, resigned, when his mind would meander

I remember long summers he nannied my daughter
Love all-consuming, warmed bottles he'd hand her

I remember brilliance; I remember his strength, God
Deep in principles anchored; and not one to pander

I remember no bullshit and deep disappointments
Because and regardless no one ever stood grander

I remember young David who worshipped his Papa
None could ever replace him, not one ben Alexander

Seedling, or: Watering can

My first tanka

Sprouting eagerly;
Stretching, absorbing learning,
Seedling roots search deep
~
Humble grey watering can;
Though I get refilled daily

EIF Poetry Challenge #14: Tanka

The above poem is my entry for Ingrid’s most recent poetry challenge. She provides a very thorough explanation of tanka poems for those who are curious to know more. But ~

In short:

  • The first three lines (following the haiku format) are the ‘upper poem’ (kami-no-ku) and the final two lines are the ‘lower poem’ (shimo-no-ku);
  • To write tanka in English, we normally divide the poem into five lines with the following syllable pattern: 5/7/5/7/7.