Tag : Liz Lawler

Live from the Lilith Blog

August 2, 2011 by

Mourning Leiby Kletzky

I found out about Leiby Kletzky’s death when I was settling into a yoga class. The instructor dedicated the class to him, adding that he had been found, and that he was not alive. She cried a little, and moved along.  I didn’t know I was holding my breath about this case until I heard that and exhaled. I live just miles from where this happened, so had seen the missing-child signs go up.

Something strange happens when you juxtapose grief with an intense physical experience. The mind can hollow you out with “what ifs.” So the body becomes a space of refuge. If you just follow your breath inward, you connect to a place where you can iron anguish out of your joints and sinews. Vinyasa flow classes are tough under the best of circumstances.  Even for those of us who have put our time in on the mat. But try holding a five minute headstand with tears running across your forehead. That will teach you about equanimity in inversion, about using healthy fear to counterbalance an aching heart. The need to physicalize grief is powerful. As Jews we have K’riah, a small act of material destruction to speed catharsis. It lances the grief to the extent that such a small gesture can.

My favorite class is a darker shade of yoga, all squats and crouches, deep in the hip flexors, where you have to anchor to your pelvic floor to navigate the practice with any grace. This is not delicate, violet colored yoga, by any means. It reminds me that for all of the Shakti, there is Shiva. For each small delicate life, there will be a death. And it is reflected in my body. I feel vibrant after a strong practice, but the sides of my big toes have gone numb from years of picking up and jumping back (not me in video, btw). Even with all of the awareness that I have cultivated in certain areas of my body, some are going dark. The transaction does not yield a net gain. But those losses are tangible, calculable. Those losses are safer than facing the one that Leiby’s parents now have.

The Jewish story is one of physical exertion. The texts are full of runners and fighters, soldiers and slaves, men and angels lifting boulders, crossing desserts and dancing in times of joy. Physical pain is etched deeply in the narrative structure of this people; the physical scars match the emotional ones in their breadth and depth. Yet, these are people who carry on, both biblically and historically, in spite of physical duress. Abraham supposedly went out looking for guests shortly after circumcising himself.  Job lost everything and still kept the faith. Biblical language often links emotional suffering and moral failings to specific body parts. There is talk of broken hearts, bones crushed as if by lions, etc. The body and the material world matter deeply in Judaism, they are evidence of the creative force that shapes us, and ground for discovery of self as an individual, but also in relationship to a larger communal whole. You are not just Jewish in your head and heart, but at the most basic cellular level, and then out again from that nucleus. Davening is an extension from that center, a pulsation. For it is not just a verbal recitation, it involves that rhythmic swaying and rocking. When I first saw it, to be perfectly frank, it reminded me of the self-soothing movement of autistic children, who often rock back and forth in place. But I think it just serves a similar purpose, a way to scratch a psycho-spiritual itch. My yoga practice is like that, rhythmic action, sometimes rote, sometimes frantic and breathless, but always an attempt to integrate body and spirit into some kind of vibrational whole.  In spite of my sloppy spirituality, and semi-latent agnosticism, these stories still resonate with me. I feel sadness in the back of my throat and hovering around my temples.

This horrible thing happened in my town, and I imagine, horribly, my own child, disoriented and vulnerable, humbling himself to ask a stranger for help. I can catch the faintest aura of what Leiby’s family is experiencing, and it is blinding. So when I walked out of yoga, I had to wonder why no one else seemed upset. The city felt heartless and cold, and I felt alone. Then, a woman saw me crying on the F train, and, without a word of question, handed me a tissue. May we be able to extend that same compassion, many times over, to the family mauled by this murder.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

May 31, 2011 by

Chop Me Up For Spare Parts

So, here is a pop quiz: are Jews allowed to donate organs? Yes.

I ask, because it turns out that many people are wrong on this count. Enough Jews are wrong about it, that Israel has been fighting off a bad reputation in the organ donor community. Frankly, it is simple playground etiquette—unless you are willing to share what is yours, do not expect to play with anyone else’s toys. It seems that even those Jews who refuse to donate their own organs, are willing to accept donations from others. Israel accepts far, far more organs than it donates, and the lack of reciprocity is leading to unpleasant consequences.

This came up when I first entered the conversion process. I guess because we were discussing death rituals and life cycles, and the treatment of a Jewish death. How does one die Jewishly? Timing matters–most Jewish leaders agree that the moment of death is when your brain stem stops functioning. Were you to be kept alive, it would be in a purely vegetative state. Not much good to yourself or others. But there is apparently a small segment of ultra-orthodox Jews who believe that you are only dead once your heart stops beating. But there’s the rub. Organs, to be useful to anyone on this side of the fence, need to be harvested within 12-24 hours of brain death.

So, while live donations are largely un-problematic, it seems that organs harvested from the dead are a slightly stickier question. But really, only in small measure. Across the denominational spectrum, Rabbis have broadly stated that it is a mitzvah to save a life, and have encouraged their congregations to sign off on donor cards. So it is doubly infuriating to come up against this tiny little segment of the religious population that seems to hold such sway in the Jewish imagination. Since when do we allow a small faction of zealots to tell us how to die and how to apportion our bodies once we do? As a woman, I bristle at any man who tells me what to do with my body, even in death.

There is a controversial bit of legislation that has been bouncing around Israeli parliament for while. The law would allow those Jews who sign an organ donor card to move up the list if they are waiting for an organ. It has met some resistance, but seems pretty equitable. The law’s stated intent is to prevent “free riders,” those who take more than they give. I think of this refusal as a kind of hoarding, and of this hoarding as a defense mechanism, a response to a history of desecrated burial grounds and inhuman mass graves. But it is a truncated and two-dimensional approach to the questions of life, death and the significance of human remains. These are the people who hide behind talk of “bodily desecration,” rather than take a more nuanced view of the donation process. It boggles my mind to think that you, a Jew, might not want to save another person’s life. Aren’t you commanded to do so? This is the BIG one, the overriding commandment, the one for which you can break all of the others. And for all of our history of violence, mayhem, and the scabs and wounds that we still nurse after the last century, those rules are what keep us human, and keep us bound as a group.

At the end of the day, I think that we all have an instinctive urge to say no. I just renewed my driver’s license. And that little box really gave me pause—“check yes or no if you want to be an organ donor.” My immediate response was, “what….? I’m not going to die…. Who have you been talking to??” It took a couple of breaths to face the question and remember that these organs are borrowed elements. No amount of clinging will allow me to hold on to this heart, these lungs, or these kidneys. So line up, hopefully it will be a while, but you can have them when I am done taking my turn.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

May 3, 2011 by

The Passover Purge

Are you gonna finish that? If you do, are you going to keep it down?

The Passover Purge has me thinking about bulimia and Jews. I hear the word “purge” and I go straight there. Koshering your kitchen for Passover is hard and thorough work. Under normal circumstances, this just marks a heightening of Jewish food awareness. It is a week of tip-toeing through grocery stores and restaurants, scanning ingredient lists for yeasty offenders. All of which is juxtaposed with the frantic Spring cleaning (the other day, my cleaning lady got three panicked phone calls in the span of two hours, from people trying to corner some help). At any rate, my train of thought went something like this: Passover, Jews, food, purging, neurosis, barfing = Jeworexia?

When I was converting, Jews kept telling me how every holiday is “ALL ABOUT FOOD, YAY!! You’ll love it, there’s food, there’s wine, and there are endless evenings around the table.” So: a mix of booze, food, ritual observance and family… Religious and familial drama unfolding in a place connected to nourishment–how can there not be a disproportionate number of Jewish women gagging up their food?  (more…)

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March 22, 2011 by

Horton Hatches Her Own Egg: Yes, I had My Own Baby

My child was intended. Meaning—I intended his life, and intended to parent him. There was a decisive moment when we entered into “the process” so to speak. So I remember what it feels like to gaze wistfully at other people’s children, what it feels like to think, “yikes, what if it doesn’t happen for us?” The question was settled blessedly early. Getting and staying pregnant (at least this time around) was no problem. But certainly, I know how overwhelming that impulse is. I understand really wanting a kid.

I wonder, in hindsight, what lengths I might have gone to in order to get one. IVF? Maybe. Adoption? Sure. Surrogacy…..? That one gives me pause. Could I really ask another woman to go through this (NSFW!) for me? I outsource many essential functions in my life: I have a hair stylist, a cleaning lady, a plumber. But is this really a task that I want to delegate? For one thing, cutting my hair and scrubbing my toilet don’t require the maid or my stylist to strip mine their own bodies.

Elton John got me pondering this. I don’t normally spend much time on Sir Elton, but this caught my eye. He and his partner just welcomed a son, via surrogate. They had been denied an adoption due to Elton’s age and sexuality. So, surrogacy was the next step.  The sexuality thing complicates the issue, this isn’t just about women’s or children’s rights; there is a civil rights angle to consider. Adoption is heavily and often arbitrarily policed, really the only realm of child-bearing/procurement that is. It is, sadly, easier to buy a kidney than it is to adopt a child. (more…)

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January 3, 2011 by

No, This Isn’t PMS: You Are Just Really Annoying

I did an about face this month. I decided to stop believing in PMS.

It’s kind of pathetic, but I hadn’t even considered the culturally fabricated origins of this bio-myth until stumbling across this debate, in a blog that I sometimes read. It was kind of like finding out that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist—obvious in hindsight, but earth shattering in the moment.

Because let me be clear: I have blamed my hormones for a LOT.

Allow me to back up and clarify: hormones matter.  In the months after weaning my son and moving from hormonal birth control to a barrier method, there was an, ahem, “adjustment period.” It was palpably related to my cycle, though my frustrations with early parenthood and the NY real estate market were also clear contributors (I mean really, who hasn’t wanted to kill their partner over a condo purchase?). The depression and anger came in waves that I could just glimpse before they engulfed me. But the dust has settled. I am also prone to, when surrounded by breastfeeding women, spring a leak, so to speak. The physical responses to hormonal changes are undeniable–cramps, bloating, fatigue, etc. (and might reasonably induce crankiness). But a dip in estrogen cannot be certifiably, medically equated with a loss of common sense, emotional balance, composure. Seriously, look it up. (more…)

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December 22, 2010 by

Strangled by a Pink Ribbon Or: Breast Reconstruction Surgery 101

I do not have cancer. Or if I do, it’s still worming its weaselly way to the surface of my life. Like most people, I have relatives who have had various incarnations of the disease, some who have died of it. I was recently counseled by my doctor that given my family history, I should be tested for the BRCA1 and 2 genes. It has been on the back burner for several months now, a chore I know needs tending to, but one I’m loath to address. Because knowing that I am a carrier would leave me with the awful question of: what now? If I test positive, the good news is that my insurance will pay for a prophylactic mastectomy. And then, I’m entitled to a brand-new pair.

I am not particularly attached (other than at the literal, fleshy level) to these pointy little orbs on my chest. I am a scant A-cup. I really only wear a bra because of nipple decorum. I don’t “need the support” like some women, my pecs hold them up just fine. And though they fed my son, and still nourish my sexuality, I don’t think I would miss them terribly if they fell off altogether in the shower one day. This is how I feel today, on the front end of my childbearing years. But my maternal grandmother was diagnosed in her late thirties; do I really have the time to put this off? Do I have the luxury of being flippant? And as Jewish women, do you? If you carry the gene, you have an 85% chance of developing breast cancer and 60% of developing ovarian cancer by 70. A 2009 study noted that Ashkenazi women are 20 times more likely to be carriers of the gene than the non-Jewish population.  There is some concern about genetic counseling being used to stigmatize Jews, but most simply take the statistic as strong caution to be vigilant. I might set aside my concerns over racial profiling if it could keep me alive (but I digress).

I recently took a teacher training program to learn to teach yoga to cancer survivors (if you are so inclined, this is the one to take, IMHO). Tari devoted a large portion of the program to the challenges posed by the “reconstructive surgery” process. It turns out that, in an effort to return women to “femininity” and “normalcy” (not my words), we end up limiting their range of motion.

So how do you rebuild a breast? (more…)

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November 1, 2010 by

Practice Makes Jewish

KraussLet me round out this story in a last navel-gazing post. In the aftermath of my conversion, I felt a big, “now what?” There is a sense that this is a pivotal moment; you have the opportunity and the burden to make good on all of these promises, these openings in yourself and your life. But I was in the odd position of having to define the notion of “secular conversion” for myself and for the little family that I had very recently created. No one bats an eyelash when a born Jew refers to him/her self as a “secular Jew.”  But for me to say that… Well, this gives pause. And why the difference?

This gets us into uncomfortable territory. Because to talk about this, you also have to acknowledge that we (sometimes) still revert to thinking of Jews as a race, an ethnicity, a group of people defined not just by faith, but by some particular coding in their DNA. I can’t be a secular Jew because, well, I am not made up of the right genetic stuff. I don’t look Jewish enough to be a Jewish Atheist. (Are you wretchedly uncomfortable yet? Offended? Should we even be talking about this?) It’s nonsense, of course. Or, at the very least, it is problematic. The fact is, there are Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Ethiopian Jews, etc. Sometimes we sanitize the language by referring to Jews as a “nation.” But nations, by definition, have geographic borders, and in spite of Israel’s existence, Jews are still a diasporic people. Finding a coherent definition of “Jewishness” is a quixotic and nuanced process.   (more…)

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October 21, 2010 by

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: A Two-Act Conversion Story

So where did we leave off? Was I up to my waist in the mikvah? Yes. But let me back-track to the conversion process itself.
Krauss
I chose the “easy” way in, so to speak. Faced with the multiple schools of Judaism, I panicked and went with the one that seemed the least dogmatic. I chose a Reform rabbi to initiate me. But while it was non-threatening in many ways, it also left me with the anguish of choice and agency. It gave me the responsibility of co-creating my own sense of Jewishness. My rabbi never claimed to have any definitive answers, refused to impose too many rules. There was a decent amount of structure: I got the usual crash course in Jewish literacy, took a class called Judaism 101. And, at the rabbi’s insistence, this started out as a joint-process. My then fiancé had to attend the classes, and private sessions with the rabbi. We also went to services semi-faithfully. Ostensibly, this was so that we would be on the same religious page, as a family. But really, I felt like it was only fair, that he should have to sit through these interminable services with me. He could barely disguise his boredom. As for me, it was overwhelming, all of this Hebrew, the up and down, the repetition and the singing. So there we were: side by side, both of us terribly awkward about the whole thing, but for different reasons.   (more…)

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October 13, 2010 by

A Wildly (Maybe Not) Un-Feminist Choice

I chose my mid 20s to make a wildly un-feminist choice. I converted to Judaism. For a man.

Krauss

I got a good liberal arts education, and took all of the appropriate feminist theory courses. Luce Irigaray could do no wrong, as far as I was concerned. So you can imagine what went through my head when I found myself, 8 months pregnant, wading into a mikvah like a dirigible. The woman running the show pretty much had to hold me under with a paddle, the bubble of my enormous body kept trying to surface. The idea of submersion took on a bit of a double meaning, if you catch my drift.

I’d like to pretend that I “always felt Jewish” or that discovering Judaism felt like coming home. But no such luck.  (more…)

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