It is the eighth day following the birth of my baby. I sit upstairs in my home nursing my child in preparation for the vigors of the ceremony that welcomes newborns into the covenant of Israel. A few minutes later, I gently hand the baby to my father and join my mother and my husband, Dan, at the back of the living room downstairs. The baby emerges in my father’s arms to the sound of our guests greeting the child with the traditional Hebrew welcome. My father sits in the specially designated chair of Elijah, the prophet known for defending the covenant and protecting children.
Two years out of college, I was on my third office job, in the fundraising department at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
I was the only religious girl there, the one with the long sleeves and calf-length skirts, the one who mumbled blessings under her breath, the girl who didn’t flirt with anyone. Not that anyone tried to flirt with me. The Israelis had written me off as Other — that religious American who’d moved to Israel a few years ago. Anyway, the secretaries had little status in the hospital hierarchy. People’s eyes glazed over me.
Thanksgiving Day always brings Bibi to mind. Bibi, which in Farsi means Grandma, was what my children and all her other grandchildren called my mother. She would buy the very largest turkey she could find, tightly stuff it with saffroned Persian rice, bake endless apple pies and always made sure there were grilled corn-on-the cob, bountiful bowls of jumbo sweet potatoes and even cranberry sauce, which was placed smack in the center of the table. Cranberry sauce was totally unappealing to our Persian palettes and every year was left untouched.
By any reasonable criterion, our sukkah is problematic. It’s weird looking, for one thing. A pre-fab thingamabobby of aluminum tubes, bungee cords and army-green canvas, it couldn’t be more unlike its surroundings, which are some lovely old cottages in the woods. It looks like Buckminster Fuller went to work on an architectural experiment in the middle of an English forest, then wandered off before he was done.
I never remember the names of the patients into whose rooms I step to blow the shofar every Rosh HaShanah in Lutheran Medical Center, an unpretentious hospital in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s working-class neighborhood that borders on the Gowanus Canal. I routinely introduce myself to the patient, the surrounding kin or friends, the attending physicians or nurses, the infirm in the next bed; I simply say I am here to blow the shofar for the New Year, ask if they would like to hear it, quickly put the ram’s horn to my lips.
One of the primary areas in daily life where I strive for piety is in my eating choices. Jewish tradition is rich with wisdom pertinent to our greatest moral problems related to food consumption today: hunger, just labor practices, treatment of animals, fair trade, environmental impact, and access to healthy food options. I have become more interested in exploring the degree to which the lifestyles advised in Chassidic thought can assist the moral life choices of one seeking to eat and consume more justly.
When I agreed to teach Jewish law at Humboldt University in Berlin — the only European law school to offer such a course — I assumed I could be reasonable and objective about Germany. I was naïve. No American, certainly no Jew, comes to Germany clean. There are too many memories, too many inherited cultural images and prejudices.
Recently, my 20-month-old son asked for cookies for breakfast. “No,” I said, “it’s not time for cookies.” “Yeah,” he agreed. “It’s Shabbat.” (It was in fact, a Tuesday). How had he concluded — already (!!!) — that Shabbat was a day of no? I had felt relatively comfortable that Shabbat in our house was more a day of togetherness and play. But once again, he knew better.