Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Fantasy of Revelation

Shavuot is a funny holiday. You would think since it “commemorates the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai” it should be the biggest bash of the year, but somehow it gets second billing to other headliners in the Jewish calendar. Passover is a great action narrative, celebrating the New Year is a no-brainer, but Revelation—the idea of a cataclysmic experience of Truth—is a hard thing to get our heads around.

We tell our kids about Moses and the Ten Commandments; we stay up all night studying Torah to show our appreciation for its gifts; we eat cheesecake; but the whole concept of “commemoration” suggests that Revelation is something that happened back then. Long ago. We acknowledge that the Torah came down to us through the generations one way or another, so this is the origin story, stuck in the mists of time—not something pressing into the contemporary dimensions of our lives.

Yet there is another traditional strain of our theology that runs counter to this idea of “pastness.” It says that the soul of every Jew—past, present, and future through all time—was there at Sinai for that moment when all was revealed. This transhistorical notion is compelling to me as a metaphor, but taking it seriously requires a mysticism that I can’t say I possess.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lost and Found

"Straight from the fear of loss I plunged into the fear of being lost.
I couldn't stay long enough between them
in the sweet little no man's land of my everlasting
passing days. My hands are the hands of search and test,
hands of hope, hands of gloom,
always fumbling among papers on tables
or in drawers, in closets and in  my clothes
which have seen their share of loss.
With hands that search for what is already lost, I caress your face, 
and with hands afraid of loss I hold you close
and like a blind man feel my way around your eyes, your mouth,
wandering, wondering, wandering, wondering.
Because hands afraid of loss are the only hands for love."

--Yehuda Amichai, from the poem "I Foretell the Days of Yore," in Open Closed Open.

Cancer is a story of many losses. Some are swift: after the fog of anethesia parts, a part of you is missing. Others are gradual: losing hair, dimming sensation, ebbing vitality. "Straight from the fear of loss I plunged into the fear of being lost," writes Amichai; his poem hits me viscerally. Right after diagnosis, there is the blunt fear of losing discrete parts, but over time, this long haul of treatment, you plunge into this more all-encompassing fear: of losing yourself, your orientation, your sense of your place in the world, or being in the world quite simply at all. It slips so quickly from one to the other, the small losses chipping away at the more core parts of yourself you relied on to tether you to the here and now. The in-between time he mentions I recognize, the "sweet little no man's land" that is denial--the way you tell yourself you'll get through it and get back to the way things were. But there's never any going back, in the long litany of these "everlasting passing days." Time pushes you along, and you realize you are in a foreign place, in a foreign body, overcome by the fear and alienation of being lost, unrecognized, irretrievable.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


A couple of weeks ago I received a letter from California Pacific Medical Center reminding me that as my 40th birthday was approaching, I should schedule a routine mammogram. Sometimes irony is so exquisite, isn’t it? At least, I could remind myself that one of the sole benefits of having had a double mastectomy is never having to have a mammogram again.

Before I had ever actually had one, I sat squeamishly through the opening montage of the film Please Give (2010)—a sequence of mammograms being given to an array of breasts, large and small. The effect was comedic, but also discomfiting, and even my husband had to exclaim, as many women have said over time, “That test must have been invented by a man!”

In fact, it was. By a German-Jewish doctor and researcher named Albert Salomon. In 1913! Salomon pioneered mammography by using X-rays to image several thousand cancerous breasts that had been removed by mastectomy; this way he came to recognize and classify the signs and stigmata of tumors and differentiate them in these images from normal tissue. Salomon was never able to apply his technique clinically as a screening tool, for his career in Berlin was cut off when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Salomon survived the war in hiding in Holland, but his daughter, the artist Charlotte Salomon (whose work was featured in an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum just last year) died in Auschwitz.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Foreign Bodies

Our bodies are so foreign to us. We implicitly assume we are in control, yet behind the curtain of our skin, we have no idea what’s going on backstage. Blood circulates, the heart beats, the pancreas excretes, all without our conscious input. There is a wonderful morning prayer, one of the few really focused on the body, which speaks to me when I marvel at these inner workings:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Cosmic Maker who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are You, Adonai, healer of all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.

This prayer is often said over going to the bathroom—that the openings should be open and the closings closed—which of course elicits a chuckle but is no doubt apt! Micah wanted once to use this as a study text with families of young children to talk about the subject of potty training, which is all about gaining that awareness of the closings and the openings.

But I think this prayer gets massively short shrift, as does attention to the body in general in Judaism in many ways. I appropriated it when I was preparing for childbirth, after I was shocked to discover that there are no traditional prayers or blessings for the act of childbirth itself. “There’s a blessing for sitting on the can and no blessing for giving birth?!” I asked mentor and friend, Rabbi Eddie Feinstein, and his first reply was “Yeah, the rabbis were scared to death of female generative power and they stayed as far away from it as they could!” On further reflection, though, he had this to offer: many Hebrew blessings remind us to see everyday appearances and actions through the lens of the holy: a blessing on seeing a rainbow, or a tree in bloom, blessings to set the Sabbath apart from the other days of the week. But childbirth is so cataclysmic, so flush with creation and the fear of mortality, so extreme, that it need no blessing to have one recognize the uniqueness of the experience.