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The halachic male gaze and body weight vs. body feel

Moxie wrote a post to use as a forum for discussing the "public and societal expectations of marriage, of feminine beauty and masculine strength. And then there are the ways in which we negotiate and subvert and conform to and ignore these expectations in our own relationships." This is her final post on the issue of "false advertising." (See #4 here for my links to the original relevant posts.)

I am interested in gendered societal expectations and how both men and women conform to and subvert them. Gendered societal expectations apply not only to the topics of marriage, beauty, and strength but also, more generally, to how we behave in this world and how others expect us to behave. However, the specific issues of weight and appearance that flared in this "false advertising" debate caught my attention for two reasons. I'm about to leap off into two points that are not really related to the "false advertising" thing at all, so bear with me.

One is that since my sophomore Women's Studies tutorial in college, I have been interested in this issue of the "male gaze" and how women feel when they are subjected to it. (This term was coined by Laura Mulvey in the context of women and film studies, but has been more broadly applied to other areas of culture and society.)1

At one of the JOFA or Edah conferences circa 2003 or 2004, someone spoke about the way that tsniut (often translated as "modesty," for better or for worse) is taught at day schools, and what does that does to girls' self-perceptions of their bodies.2 I had never thought about tsniut in this way before, but it rings true. What does it do to a girl to constantly hear, from third grade onward, that men are looking at her skirt and judging her moral and religious worth based on its length? What does it do to hear admonishments about sleeve length? Is this fetishization of girls knees, upper arms, and breasts a good thing? This obsession, in halacha or at least in the current Orthodox world, with the bodies of girls and women as sexual objects is very disturbing and is, at least in my mind, a direct outcome of a halachic system entirely conceived of and codified only by men, or if you want to be very frum about it, filtered through the minds of men. The idea of covering yourself up to prevent a man from thinking certain thoughts about you (as opposed to for your own internal reasons) is about as abominable to me as the thought of losing weight to convince a man to think about you a certain way (as opposed to for your own internal reasons). Which brings me to my second point...

The second reason that I am interested in this topic is because of my own weight fluctuation and personal feelings about weight. Without going into the specific details of my various weight fluctuations from the ages of seven through twenty-something (booooooooring), let me just say that it's been up and down and up and down. This was not due to any attempts on my part to control my weight (never dieted, please God never will), and are mostly because of how fast I was growing at various times (an inch a year for the four years of high school), how much exercise I was getting, and how busy I was (being busy either meant I ate less or I ate more junk instead of meals). Most of it just happened as I was going about living my life. It wasn't helped by the fact that I used/abused sugar for energy and motivation before I learned to like coffee, nor by the fact that the activities that I enjoy the most are sedentary (reading, writing, talking).

In the winter and spring of 2005, I was happier than usual, which meant that I was more physically active than usual and more busy than usual, which gave me less time to buy and eat junk food, which meant that I lost a lot of weight rather quickly. Note that I was happy and more confident and subsequently lost weight, not the other way around. I later gained some of it back, but since that time, I have been treated differently on the street than I have ever been treated before. Mostly, I started getting comments (and attempts at getting my name and/or phone number) from unknown men. It was downright weird and a little bit confusing, and somewhat irritating. When I was heavier, I was able to go through life more "under the radar," which I appreciated in a lot of ways. I didn't think as much about how I looked, because clearly nobody else really cared or noticed how I looked.

Being skinnier again felt good for a few reasons, but I'm not at all willing to make a concerted effort to become skinnier for the sake of weighing x pounds or fitting into a specific clothing size. In the end, I am far more concerned with how my body and my mind feel to me than with what the scale says. There is a correlation between body weight and what I call "body feel," but it's less direct than I would have expected. I'm fairly sure that body feel has a much greater impact on how I look, than whatever the scale says, even 15+ pounds in either direction. When I feel good about my body, my mind, and myself, I dress better and am more confident. I have also noticed that people tell me that I look good when I am happy and relaxed, which is also the time when I feel most at home in my body, regardless of what the scale says.

I think that all of this ties back into the "false advertising" issue in multiple ways. For one thing, a man saying that his wife has gained weight after marriage and that that's not fair seems about as "male gaze"-ish as it gets. It sounds like a statement about his wife as an object, not as a subject.

For another, is it really about the weight gain, or is it about (a) what caused the weight gain or (b) how one feels about one's body as a result of the weight gain? Weight gain doesn't happen in a vacuum (that's not a statement about physics, it's a statement about the way we live our lives--maybe it's true in physics?), so something else is going on in these people's lives (depression, stress, over-commitment, avoiding emotional intimacy, compulsion, just being too damned busy to take care of oneself, not feeling worthy of taking care of oneself) and in their relationship (your guess is as good as mine). Maybe that's the issue. Because if he loved her when they got married, and he loved her body when they got married, and she liked her body and his body when they got married, I would hope that a few extra pounds wouldn't change that, all other things going well in the relationship. I really don't think it's about the pounds as much as it is about mental state. Maybe I'm crazy--it's been suggested--or maybe it's because I'm blessedly single and can gain and lose weight whenever I damn well please, but it seems nuts to reject your spouse because she gains weight. And if he gains weight? What then?

Anyway, this was all just some food for thought. (Hah!) I'm willing to be convinced that I'm wrong about most or all of this stuff.

1. See Laura Mulvey's Visual and Other Pleasures; John Berger's Ways of Seeing; Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.

2. This is one of several reasons why I would hesitate before sending my future potential children to an Orthodox day school. I went to a fairly progressive one, as these things go, and I still got all of these messages loud and clear. Luckily, I got other messages from other places to counter-balance those.

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Blog love, or all I ever wanted was to be tagged

There are two unimportant things that I really want in life. (There are many, many more important things that I want in life, but that's for another post.)

One is for someone to throw me a surprise birthday party. I organized one for my older sister when I was 14 and she turned 16, and I sort of expected her to do the same for me when I turned 16, but she did not. She was 18 and I guess she had better things to do. (She was long ago forgiven for the oversight, but that doesn't mean that I don't still want my surprise party. This is also not to denigrate in any way the lovely not-surprise gatherings that friends have organized for my birthday, most notably, my party in the park last summer and my 22nd birthday dinner in Peabody Terrace.)

The second is for someone to tag me to do a meme. This terminology is so new in its application that I'm not sure I'm using it right, so please correct me if I am not.

Happily for me, StepIma tagged me to complete this meme, or replicate it, or whatever the correct verb is! (Now that this desire has been satisfied, no need to keep tagging me with memes. I would also be happy to only have one surprise birthday party in my life.) Now I am feeling the blog love, and that makes me very happy. StepIma also has a great blog, and you should read it if you don't already. I am basically in seventh heaven now. The only problem is that now people besides my parents, siblings, and aunts might start reading my blog, and then I will have to write better things. The pressure to be funny! Witty! Smart! Oh, well. Small price to pay for mass adoration, no?

Anyway, here goes. I hope I don't disappoint the masses. Because I believe in the flexibility of a transmitted tradition, I will take the liberty of changing the questions as I see fit.

Accent: I would say "none" but that doesn't make sense, so I will say "Northeastern American, light on the New Yorkiness." My father is from New York and my mother is from Northern California, so there were often disputes in my house over the correct pronounciation of "walk," "talk," and especially "orange." I think I pronounce "orange" differently depending on with whom I am speaking.

Booze: Just white wine, usually only on Shabbat. I would say that I like "girly drinks," but that term bothers me a smidge from a feminist perspective. I do like a nice mudslide (first drink I had after I turned 21), though it's harder to get one now that Kahlua is no longer considered kosher. I don't like beer, but can tolerate hard cider. Basically, unless it's white wine, it has to taste like something else for me to like it (mocha, apple juice, lemonade).

Chores I Hate: Washing the kitchen and bathroom floors. It's a lot of work, it smells, and it's never as clean as I want it to be. Ditto to cleaning out the bathtub or cleaning the grouting in the bathroom.

Dogs/Cats: Allergic to cats, so I guess dogs, although I'm not much of a pet person. I could see growing to adore the right dog, though.

Essential Electronics: Too dependent on. Cell phone. Palm TX. iPod Mini. iBook. In that order. Plus, my God, how could I forget washing machine and dryer?

Favorite City:

Gold/Silver: Silver.

Hometown: Small town, Massachusetts. One of the best places in the world to grow up. Great parks, libraries, community feeling, public transportation, sense of history, and, until recently, independent retailers. Within walking distance of Boston proper. Great schools, but I went to private schools so didn't really benefit from them.

Insomnia: Are you kidding? Rarely.

Job Title: Head List-maker and Chief Excel/Word Document Formatter.

Kids: None that I own, a few whom I adore, and one for whom I sometimes babysit.

Living Arrangements: Beautiful but somewhat run-down apartment with sometimes "funny" plumbing, shared with two and a half unrelated people (best roommates evah!), absurdly overpriced rent, great location.

Most Admired Trait: I don't know. You tell me!

Number of books owned: Several hundred. It surprises me every time I move. I had at least 20 boxes of books the last time I moved, and I'm sure I have more now.

Overnight Hospital Stays: None, thank God. I've had three trips to emergency rooms/clinics (two in Israel), and several outpatient procedures or tests, but am remarkably healthy.

Phobia: I used to be scared of everything (dogs, cats, the dark, water, insects, being kidnapped). My only remaining phobia is towards bodies of water larger than a bathtub. I never really learned to swim because of it (years and years of parental-required lessons notwithstanding). When I tried to go into a pool as an adult, I had a panic attack and couldn't breath. I don't mind being on boats (I wear a life jacket), but I don't like being in the water at all. I also have an extreme dislike of spiders and other insects, but I'm not sure that's a phobia and I certainly don't make any "Eeek!" noises when I see them. I have one particular quirk regarding food textures, but I don't think that's a phobia either. There are a lot of things that I'm strongly opposed to (people drinking and driving, cheating on taxes, making fun of other people, patriarchy), but those aren't phobias at all.

"The great essentials for happiness in this life are something to do,
something to love, and something to hope for."
--Joseph Addison, English poet and writer (1672-1719)
I would change "something to love" to "someone to love," but the basic idea of love stands.

Also, recently shared with me by my father:
"He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise."
--William Blake, No. 1 from "Several Questions Answered," Poems from Blake's Notebook
I also really like:
"Of all the needs (there are none imaginary) a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaken need for an unshakable God."
--Maya Angelou
Religion: Jewish, and since we're doing quotes now, I'll share one of the reasons that I'm glad that I'm Jewish:
"Blessed are You, Lord, our God, king of the world...who in wisdom opens gates...creates day and night, rolls light before darkness and darkness before light, passes day and brings night, and divides between day and night."
--blessing from the Arvit prayer
I love that Judaism makes a special point of acknowledging and thanking God for the darkness and well as the light. It's one of the reasons that I agree with my friend SDO, who says, "Judaism is the best religion for mental health." That is not to say that all Jewish practices are good for one's mental health, or that all Jews are mentally healthy (hah! that one is definitely not true!), only that the system as a whole is conducive to mental health, should that be your priority.

Siblings: Yes, and being grownups with them is one of the best things in my life. They give me the best advice in the world whether I want it or not, and they're usually nice to me even when it feels like no one else is. They know me as nobody else does. And who knew that all those years of petty squabbling could turn into something beautiful--witty squabbling as adults! But it's so much more fun when they are no longer years ahead of you or below you in school, and everyone knows words like "epidermis." It's equal-footed squabbling, which is the best kind.

Time I usually wake up: When my alarm clock goes off or anyone's guess.

Unusual Talent: I can write very quickly sometimes (I also type quickly, but that's another story). I didn't think that this was unusual, but it turns out that it is. I think I honed this talent through years of procrastination. Plus, I've always written copious amounts, and I think writing, like other things, becomes easier the more you do it. I can also wiggle my ears and make the edge of my tongue wavy.

Vegetable I refuse to eat: Brussel sprouts. Avocados. Tomatoes.

Worst Habit: Oh, that's easy! Procrastination, without a doubt. Also, being late and being a compulsive perfectionist in almost all things.

X-Rays: Once, in Israel, when I fractured my thumb.

Yummy Foods I make: Enormous, colorful vegetable salads, most famously. Not much else. I like to make things that require minimal or no cooking or bowls/pots/pans besides what the food ends up in. These include veggie burgers in the microwave, brown rice, hard-boiled eggs, and peanut butter sandwiches. I can make other things, like chicken or salmon or lasagna, but usually only under duress. I used to eat a lot of veggie stir fry with tofu or other plant-based protein, but got sick of it after awhile.

Zodiac Sign: Are you kidding? Does anyone reasonable actually believe in this stuff?

Hmmm... I would tag BZ over at Mah Rabu, but I think he doesn't do memes. If Ruby K, General Anna, or Shamir Power do memes, they are also hereby tagged.

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Exhibit of Freud's drawings

There was an interesting article about Freud's drawings in yesterday's New York Times. The article is based on a exhibit at the New York Academy of Medicine that's opening in May. (Here it says May 11, here it says May 6. Take your pick.)

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Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Day of Remembrance, is drawing to a close as I listen to the horns blaring along 5th Avenue.

I'm sorry that I'm feeling so jaded about it this year. At first I felt that I used to care more. I don't think it's that I don't care anymore as much as that there is so much else going on in my life, so many other things to think about, and I'm not sure how long you contemplate the horror of genocide for, before you stop and ask yourself, "What's the point?" I, personally, will never forget the Holocaust, nor will any of the Jews attending various ceremonies last night and this evening. What does that mean, anyway, not forgetting something that you didn't live through? I also don't think that anyone who grew up in the relative safety and security of late-20th century America can ever really understand the grisly horror of the Holocaust, so I'm feeling somewhat averse to rushing about to hear yet another person speak about it. Had I had more time or energy last night, I would have liked to go listen to a public reading of the names of Holocaust victims, since that, at least, is a way of honoring individual dead people. That has some meaning for me. I will assuage my guilt over not "doing" anything special this Yom HaShoah (for the first time since 1988, probably) by trying to do something to stop another genocide this Sunday, at the Darfur rally.

This is something that I wrote in 1994, when I was still able to become very distraught on Yom HaShoah. I remember the feelings that I described in this essay very well. It reads as overly dramatic now, but that's how I was when I was 14. Sometimes I wonder where that fire and brimstone dissipated to over the past twelve years. Anyway, here it is:

Men, Women, And Children Of All Ages

None of my great-grandparents were in Europe at the time of the Holocaust. Every year, on Yom Ha'Shoah, my school holds a special assembly. Yom Ha'Shoah is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Part of the assembly consists of reading the names of relatives who perished in the Holocaust. A few weeks before, we all receive pieces of paper on which to write the names, ages, and places of death of our relatives. I never even brought the list home. I didn't think that I had anyone to remember.

That all changed this year when I gave this to my father, who is our family genealogist in his spare time. The next morning, the list was at my place on the kitchen table. I looked at it in surprise. The whole front of the page was filled with names. I turned it over. The whole back was filled also. I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. Later, I counted the names. There were 74. Seventy-four of my relatives died in the Holocaust. Seventy-four of my relatives were killed by the Nazis.

My first response was that some of the names would probably overlap with those of my classmates. With six million Jews dead, we all could have different names. We all had our own names to remember. In fact, it would take 80,000 people, with 75 different relatives each to account for all of those who died.

I looked down the list. The oldest person who died, Boruch Szprecher, was 84. My father told me that he was my great-great grandfather. There was one eighteen-year-old girl who was killed, named Etty Barshap. There are many children on the list also. The youngest (whose age is known) is a three-year-old girl. We do not know her name, only that she was the daughter of Dvora and Shulem Klein, and that she had a six-year-old sister who also died. One couple had six children who died. We don't know their names or ages. Gone from the face of the earth, without a trace. Because they were Jewish, and the Germans believed that Jews had tainted blood, Jews had bad genes, they claimed. Jews were the cause of all of Germany's problems. I counted the children. There were 29. Forty percent of my dead relatives were children. Altogether, almost one and half million children died in the Holocaust.

Later, I asked my father how these people died. Were they gassed in concentration camps? Did they starve to death? He told me none died in concentration camps. All were rounded up and shot in the towns where they lived. They died in Krzerneniec, Szumsk, Odessa, Derechin, and other places. All innocent people. The places where they died sound unfamiliar, but their names and ages don't. Many of their first names are the names of my Jewish friends. Their ages sound like the ages of my siblings, my parents, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents. Imagine how many more relatives I would have had if those 74 had survived. It is too late to help them. But it is not too late to help others who are being killed because of their religion. Elie Wiesel, author and survivor of the Holocaust, compared the situation in Bosnia today to the Holocaust 50 years ago.

Fifty years from now, do we want to be shaking our heads and wondering why no one did anything? No! Fifty years from now, do you want to be reading an article like this, by a young girl who discovered that many of her relatives were killed? No! We must do something!

But it is not enough to stop the killing in Bosnia. We must also remember the killing in Germany, Poland and Austria. We must make their memories live on. One way is by reading the names of our dead relatives to an auditorium full of high school students.

When you hear Nechama Azoff, child, Derechin, remember that horrors can occur in a "civilized world." Horrors can occur in the middle of a prosperous country where art and music flourish. Horrors can occur in the middle of a city that hosted the Olympics ten years ago.

When you hear Sarah Duchovny, 39, Szumsk, remember that there are those who attempt to rewrite history and say that the Holocaust never occurred. If they say this while there are living, breathing, survivors, imagine what they might say when everyone is gone. Some claim that they were "moved" (how do you hide six million people?), others simply claim that these six million never existed (how can you deny the existence of six million people?). These people have the right to free speech, but you do also.

When you hear Shmuel Bitansky, 30's, his wife and two sons, remember that while this small family died, there are those who lived. They have stories to tell. Listen to these stories, record them, and tell them to others. Remember these stories for future generations.

When you hear Tamar Barshap, 23, Krzemeniec, remember to go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Go see the barracks that people slept in, and the shoes that they wore.

When you hear Nechama, Gitel, Pearl, Avramel, Chaim, and Zvia Azoff, all children, all died in Derechin, remember the words of the philosopher George Santayana. "Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it."

I will never think of the Holocaust the same way. I always felt sad, as a Jew, that so many had to die. But now, knowing that they killed my great-great grandfather, I feel differently.

This is in memory of the 20 dead that I mentioned in this article, the 54 others who were also relatives, and the millions and millions of others who were killed because they were Jewish.

It was published in The 21st Century, a monthly, regional, teen newspaper that I contributed to regularly for close to six years (1991-1997). It's now called Teen Ink and has an online presence. If you search the website for my first name, you can find everything that I ever published there. Some of the pieces are better than others. I might post some of the better ones here someday, so you can see how my writing career began.

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A fourth reason to leave New York City

Scary. I knew that air quality was bad, but I didn't know that the dirt was dangerous, although it makes sense.

Alternatives to leaving New York City include finding a career in which I earned enough money to hire someone to mop and wipe down all surfaces in my home weekly or making the time to do it myself.

It just doesn't stop, does it? First three reasons summarized here for those who have lost track.

In lighter news... Suri is not an unheard-of traditional Ashkenazi Jewish name in the United States, but I find the "Israeli reaction" to be hilarious.

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Secret to living a good life

Here is one secret, as shared by Raul Gutierrez. I thought this post was beautiful and provided much food for thought. (Hat tip to the Patriarch.) I described something related, only much less eloquent, here. Maybe a good way to describe the relationship between his beautiful post and my exhilarated declaration is that Raul described the phenomenon and I gave an example of it.



blogs to check out

Hello beloved fans,

Please check out two new blogs from my blogroll (bottom right). Both are written by people of the highest quality whom I have known for the past twelve and ten years, respectively.

One is Hannah in Africa, about Hannah's upcoming volunteer trip to Africa to work with people who have HIV or AIDS in Tanzania. She needs to raise money for her trip, so if you are feeling especially (or even a little bit) altruistic, please check out her blog.

The other is Live the Questions, by my good friend General Anna.




A third reason to leave New York City

Part of a continuing series.

1. "My Daddy owns more buildings than your Daddy!" (Abacaxi Mamao, 12/19/05 )

2. mongrammed spit-up cloths (Abacaxi Mamao, 2/9/06)

and now

3. higher incidence of depression and general mental distress (New York Times, 4/10/06)

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Eating disorders among religious girls and women

Article here. (It's very short.) Main point:

The more religious a Jewish girl is, the less likely she is to suffer from poor self-image and eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, according to a new University of Haifa study.

The more religious the girl, the less her drive for thinness, the higher her perceived self-esteem, the more satisfied she is with her body and the less her concern with food and weight. Prof. Yael Letzer of the university's School of Social Work, working with Shira Gefen and Prof. Ora Gilber, based her findings on interviews with 320 religiously observant Jewish girls in ninth through 12th grades in state-religious schools for girls.

[Hat tip to Chana of The Curious Jew.]

It's interesting to compare this article to this, which has been on my reading list (that is, my "to read" list) for awhile.

This may be the first of a series of short blog posts, as I attempt to pare down my collection of copious drafted-but-never-posted blog posts.



Darfur Rally--sign up for a bus today!

At the JCC of Manhattan website, you can get a subsidized bus to and from Washington DC on April 30, the day of the rally. It's $30 round trip.

Information about rally here.

Image (above) created here.


Happy Passover! Chag Kasher v'Sameyach!

To learn something new about slavery and freedom, liberation, bravery, and courage, please read this. I think it might be Cecily's best post ever, and it exemplifies why I continue to read her blog.

It also exemplifies something that I feel is at the core of my understanding both of why people suffer and why Passover is so important to me and to the Jewish people. Indulge in a bit of text study with me, if you would:

יט ואהבתם, את-הגר: כי-גרים הייתם, בארץ מצרים.
19 You shall love therefore the stranger; because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)

Who among us has not been a "stranger in the land of Egypt"?

Who among us has not felt enslaved, trapped, abused, despondent, neglected, stuck, addicted, depressed, or bereft?

I can't really even pretend to know the answer to why we suffer, and maybe the answer is simply that for some reason, life would be intolerable if nothing bad ever happened. I am more interested in answering the question of, "Given that we do suffer, what do we do with the experience?"

An essential aspect of Passover is that each of us must feel as if we were slaves in Egypt and then experience, through the Passover seder, the moment of liberation. After liberation, in the Sinai desert, the Jewish people received the command to "love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt." If we had not been "strangers in the land of Egypt," we could not truly know the plight of the strangers who move among us and we could not be obligated to love them. It is probably impossible to love the unknowable and God does not command us to do the impossible.

Our intimate, personal knowledge of suffering from Egypt requires us to care not only for the stranger, but also for the fatherless and the widow:

יח וזכרת, כי עבד היית במצרים, ויפדך יקוק אלקיך, משם; על-כן אנכי מצוך, לעשות, את-הדבר, הזה. 18 But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you then; therefore I command thee to do this thing. יט כי תקצר קצירך בשדך ושכחת עמר בשדה, לא תשוב לקחתו--לגר ליתום ולאלמנה, יהיה: למען יברכך יקוק אלהיך, בכל מעשה ידיך. 19 When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deuteronomy 24:18-19)

We who have suffered ourselves, and who have, through the strength given to us by God (or the power inherent in our beings--as you wish), been freed from any kind of slavery or suffering, truly know how the other half lives and suffers and only we can truly help them. I don't want to say that we suffer in order to help others. Who would volunteer for that thankless task? I would be justifiably outraged if someone said that to me. However, once we see and know that suffering is for some unfathomable reason necessary in this world, we have no choice but to use our own personal suffering, and our own redemption, to help others.

That is why Passover is so important and central to the story that I tell about my own life, and to the story that the Jewish people tells about it's history and raison d'etre.

This is what Cecily does and continues to do, and this is why I needed to blog about David's death. It's tragic that we can't undo what happens to us, but we can try to use that pain to make sure it isn't as bad for someone else. (Of course, if we try to help others by writing then we are also helping ourselves climb out of that pit of despair, because the act of writing is itself therapeutic.) The world being the way it is, there is suffering that we ourselves have yet to experience, and, hopefully, someday, somebody else who has trodden that path ahead of us will appear to ease our burden.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

If these words resonate with you, you should really consider going to the Darfur rally on April 30.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On a lighter note, for your viewing pleasure. Note that it comes with sound, so be careful if you're clicking at work. (Not that you would be reading my blog at work or anything.) And for your reading pleasure.

Have a happy, healthy, and liberated Pesach (Passover), everyone!

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Please read this.

I am so rarely rendered speechless that it takes something truly wonderful or truly horrendous for it to happen.

Unfortunately, something truly horrendous happened last Monday, March 27. It's so terrible that I don't even know how or if I should write about it publicly. I think that this is important enough to tell the greater world about, though, so I will try. I sincerely hope that writing about this in this forum does not increase the sadness or suffering for anyone in my family.

My cousin David, who had just celebrated his bar mitzvah, was found dead in his bedroom, apparently from self-strangulation, on Monday night, March 27. By far, the most likely cause of his death was the "choking game," wherein kids, often between the ages of 9 and 14, cut off circulation to their brains, not only with their hands (or their friends' hands) but with belts, ropes, or sheets, and when they let go and restore circulation, they get a mild high. I had never heard of this "game" before last Wednesday, when I flew out to attend David's funeral and be with my aunt, uncle, and David's younger sister, Sarah.

His death was initially thought to be a suicide, but that seems unlikely for several reasons. David was thirteen years old, so he naturally was unhappy some of the time. He was unhappy to have moved, a year and a half ago, from a large coastal city to a small midwestern one. He didn't love the school that he attended. (He was in 7th grade at a nearby public school.) He was unhappy to have to wear a suit and tie at his bar mitzvah (which I attended two days before his death). He didn't really want to do the whole bar mitzvah thing (although he did a fantastic job), although he was looking forward to all of the presents. He was unhappy that his parents wouldn't let him turn the amp for his electric guitar up to top volume. On Sunday night after the bar mitzvah, when I had dinner with him, he was unhappy that it took dinner so long to heat up (along the lines of "C'mon, Mom! Why does it take so long to get hot? I'm hungry!"). He was unhappy about normal 13-year-old boy things.

He was a joker and he loved to make people laugh. He had a funny sense of humor. He played football, basketball, and baseball, and for about a year had been playing the electric guitar. He had made a lot of good friends at Camp Moshava the previous summer, and was planning on visiting a bunch of them the weekend after his bar mitzvah. On Monday, the day he died, my aunt told me that he had called or IM-ed many of them to say how excited he was to be seeing them the coming weekend. He was excited about coming to New York in June to spend a few days with my brother and me, bumming around the city. None of these things point to a kid who was about to commit suicide.

As far as the "choking game" goes, that seems far more in character. David was a limit pusher. One day, his parents hoped, he would push limits and do great things with his life. They predicted that he would change the world (but need a woman to dress him!), and I'm sure he would have. Of that, there is no doubt in my mind. In the meantime, he loved rock music (with cursing and violence if possible), wearing black AC/DC t-shirts and sweatshirts, playing his guitar loudly, wearing his blond hair as long as he could get away with (the "floppy look," one might call it), and even setting firecrackers off from his bedroom window. He was a thirteen-year-old boy, with the judgment endowed to thirteen-year-old boys, and that's what killed him in the end.

I want to take this opportunity to make sure you all know everything there is to know about the "choking game."

You must make sure that every parent knows about it and every teacher. Hell, make sure everyone knows about it and that everyone includes admonitions against its practice along with the litany of drugs, alcohol, smoking, and unprotected sex. With so much emphasis on drugs, it almost makes sense that the "choking game" would seem like a "safe" way to get high to thirteen-year-olds. It's apparently a particularly common practice among 9-14 year olds, who probably have a harder time accessing drugs and alcohol. Make sure that people know that this can kill you, whether you do this alone or in a group. (There are, unfortunately, many more links to young kids who have died this way. I just included the first four that I found. And it is easier to die doing this alone, but you can also die doing this in a group.)

. . . . .

This tragedy would be too terrible for words in any circumstances, but the juxtaposition between his bar mitzvah and his funeral--a mere four days apart--make this inconceivably tragic. Bar mitzvahs are about life, beginnings, and potential for future greatness as an adult. Bar mitzvahs are about welcoming young people into the community. Funerals are death, endings, the loss of possibility for the future, and about saying goodbye to the people we love.

I went to David's bar mitzvah and it ranked among the best family gatherings in my memory. It was on the level of my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary parties in 1994 (paternal) and 2000 (maternal), both of which also served as joyous reunions and celebrations of family lore. David, having refused to give a canned dvar Torah about the parsha, gave a speech that he had written himself, which included the lines, "I could probably think of a million things that I would rather be doing," "Would you believe that my mother wouldn't let me wear a t-shirt and baggy jeans? And I checked every store and could not find one suit that had AC/DC written on it," and "Do I look like a public speaker? I get stage fright singing in the shower, let alone speaking in front of a big crowd like this." The quote that summed up David's resolve and his underlying character was, "What made me come out and do this today? Because I learned that sometimes there are things in life that you don't want to do and you just have to do them." Where did David learn this very grown-up lesson? On the football field. He proceeded to tell us how football taught him this, and then he connected it to the double Torah portion of the week. I couldn't give a speech anywhere near this good today, never mind when I was thirteen.

On the Sunday morning following the bar mitzvah Shabbat, a new sefer Torah (Torah scroll) was dedicated in memory of my grandfather, who passed away a little over two years ago, and in honor of David's bar mitzvah. It had a bright red cover because that was my grandfather's favorite color. The ceremony (hachnasat sefer Torah), which started off with much joyous dancing in the bracing morning air, was beautiful and moving. The rabbi spoke incredibly well about what endows a sefer Torah with holiness. (It turns out that it's not the parchment, the ink, the staves, or the beautiful cover. It's the person who writes it and the person who uses it and lives a moral life according to its principles. It's not about the book, people! It's about the person. David was a kid, and my grandfather was a man, who most definitely appreciated that it was "not about the book.")

To go from that to a funeral and then a shiva house was nearly unbearable. The large poster of David that his friends and family left little notes on ("You're the man!" "Great job!" "Mazal tov!" "We're all so proud of you!") was still in the family room. We used black napkins that had "David" written on them in silver ink. (David was a big Raider's fan, so the theme for Sunday's brunch was black and silver.) All of the bar mitzvah leftovers that my aunt had efficiently frozen on Sunday night came out and were defrosted for friends and family. People were drinking bottles of spring water that had labels reading "David's Bar Mitzvah" on them, with the date of the event, March 25. And on Thursday, March 30, the shiva minyan used the sefer Torah that was dedicated the previous Sunday morning. It was its inaugural use, and it was still rolled to the very end, where the scribe had finished writing it amidst laughter and joy.

. . . . .

And with that, I'm all out of words. What else is there to say on the day that David's family got up from shiva for their son and brother?

In the words of Sarah, David's younger sister: "I'll sure miss David."

We will all miss you and we all want nothing more than to turn back the hands of time and undo this tragedy. Given that we can't, we want everyone to know what happened to you and try to make sure that it never happens again. One boy dead is one too many.

David, 1993-2006
Saturday night, March 25, 2006


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