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Passover

 

I feel like I want to take a pass on Passover this year. I’ve done it before. I tried to do the whole thing last year – closing up cabinets and shopping for matzo meal and gefilte fish and kosher for Passover candy. I spent an inordinate amount of time looking up articles about kitniyot (some Jews say that beans and corn and rice are fine for Passover, others say no, based on which crops used to grow next to other crops way back when). It is, of course, a fascinating debate. I made a double recipe of Sephardi Charoset (dates and figs and chestnuts and wine and on and on) and resolved to think Passover thoughts for the whole week. But, I didn’t have a Seder to go to, and I hate (really, really hate) Matzo.

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Sephardi Charoset on Matzo is much yummier than it looks (not my picture).

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Here the Charoset is shaped into balls (not my picture). I’ve even seen these covered in chocolate. Seriously.

The problem is that Passover is a family holiday; it’s not a pray-in-synagogue holiday. Everyone comes back to the synagogue the next week with stories about their uncle Zephyr, who drank all of the wine before dinner, and second cousin Zoodle who has a matzo allergy but refuses to abstain and then spends the rest of the night complaining about his belly pains. It’s a badge of honor to come back with the most unbelievable family stories, and I had none.

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“I could eat some matzo!”

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“And chopped liver?”

I used to love Passover when I was little. I loved Grandpa standing at the head of the table, reading from the Maxwell House Haggadah. I loved falling asleep in the guest room, still wearing my dressy clothes. I loved chopped liver, and Brisket and Tzimmes, and super sweet gel candies pretending to be fruit slices.

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There were things I loved about it after my grandfather died, too, just not as many, and not in the same whole sort of way. I loved learning the Yiddish versions of Hebrew songs from the Haggadah, and how the Yiddish words made me feel drunk and silly (in a good way). But I didn’t like when we had guests to our Seder who couldn’t read Hebrew, and my father still insisted on doing the whole thing in Hebrew, making them feel stupid. I hated fighting with my father, every year, because I didn’t want to drink four whole glasses of wine, and to end the argument he called me an apikores (an apostate, but in a bad way).  I remember having to carry all of the boxes of Passover dishes in from the shelves in the mudroom, because my father’s diabetic neuropathy had mostly crippled one of his arms, and I remember scrubbing out kitchen cabinets on my own, because my mother had to escape my father’s screaming abuse.

I remember the last Passover at my parents’ house, just before the divorce, when my father calmly told me that he felt better when he knew my mother was in pain. And I just stood there, frozen, with no more arguments or suggestions or strategies to make him into a real Dad.

Passover is the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery into freedom, because we need celebrations to remind us that we really did escape, and the past is over, even though, sometimes, it just doesn’t feel that way.

This year, I’m going to celebrate the exodus by trying to help people at my internship, and studying for my future, in the hopes that that’s what will make the past seem more like the past for me. I’m pretty sure that Cricket and Butterfly are willing to help me with that project, though they were really looking forward to the Brisket.

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“No Brisket? Is she kidding?”

Happy Chanukah

 

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Happy Chanukah!

 

Chanukah, from what the rabbis tell me, means Dedication, as in the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after misuse, when one night’s worth of oil lasted for eight nights. The dogs rededicated themselves by going for their pre-holiday haircuts (and kerchiefing), and Mom started a new tradition of sewing her holiday cards instead of buying or printing them. I’ve decided that I’m going to rededicate myself to joy, and love, and fun. It’s so much easier to dedicate myself to work, or exercise, or obligations, because the internal and external pressures towards those goals are enormous. But fun? The dogs think I have lost too much of my oomph in this area, and I agree.

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Cricket before her haircut,

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and after.

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Butterfly before

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and after.

 

When I was little, my mom used to make scavenger hunts for me and my brother, for each night of Chanukah, as a way to make up for how small our presents were. One night, we split a package of dimes from the bank; one night my father came home with a used VCR for the whole family that someone else was giving away; we got packages of plastic combs, and socks, and small bags of candy. But we didn’t care, because it was the time and care Mom put into those scavenger hunts that was magical to us. She’d write clues on index cards and hide them throughout the house, one card leading to the next, until we found the ultimate prize.

My brother was convinced that the size of our presents meant that we were poor, even thought we had a nice house, and two family cars, and we both went to private school (on scholarships). But really, Mom was so careful with money, because our father was profligate. He put a lot away for retirement, and bought himself presents, and liked to give gifts to other people. He didn’t understand why I would need regular shoes and sneakers. He was especially angry when my feet grew so fast that I needed a second pair of shoes in less than a year.

My brother chose to ignore the profligacy, and focus on the poverty, and aimed for a good upper middle class career in his adult life. I focused on the unfairness, and the confusion, and ended up as a writer and a fledgling social worker.

But both of us love the play time of Chanukah, and being able to remind ourselves of the joy of running through the house looking for those hidden index cards in Mom’s handwriting, letting us know that we were the most important people in the world to her.

The dogs like to think of every day as a scavenger hunt for treats that will magically fall from the sky just for them. They’re pretty sure that every day should be a holiday, full of treats, and love and joy.

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“The treats are coming! The treats are coming!”

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“The treats are hiding under the snow, Mommy.”

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“Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!”

 

 

The Purpose of the Sukkah

 

I don’t have a Sukkah at my apartment building; not only because the co-op board would frown on it, but because I really don’t want to. I have a lot of grumpy “I refuse” moments when it comes to religious practices. I don’t want to bow or bend during services. I don’t want to kiss the Torah scroll when it is carried past me at synagogue. I don’t want to wear a Tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, even though many liberal Jewish women now wear them, and there are beautiful ones to choose from. And I don’t want to build a Sukkah and eat and pray in it for seven or eight days.

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This is a drawing of a Sukkah that I found on google images.

I didn’t roll my eyes or make snotty comments in the Sukkah at my synagogue during services for the first day of Sukkot. I sat amidst the greenery and decorations and prayed with everyone else. But I refused to borrow the Rabbis Lulav and Etrog (palm frond and other species, plus a large citron) to say the prayer and shake the Palm frond in every direction, like the Jewish version of a rain dance. I didn’t have a good intellectually-driven reason for skipping the ritual. My internal monologue sounded something like, “I don’t wanna! You can’t make me!” One woman suggested that I didn’t want to do it because it was a man’s ritual. (There’s something to be said for that, but not in the way she thought. The lulav has a phallic quality to it, especially with the Etrog – only one bulbous shape rather than two, but still – right next to it.) Someone else said that maybe I didn’t like the magical thinking of it (eh, I tend to be a fan of magical thinking).

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Not my Lulav and Etrog.

I’m not an expert on the religious significance of Sukkot – the seven or eight days when Jews are supposed to eat and pray in a hut-like temporary shelter, with greenery overhead, instead of a roof, so that you can see the sky and the stars. There are various points of view to choose from. There’s the historical significance: to remember when we were nomads in the desert. There’s a social action interpretation: sit in the temporary shelter and think about what life is like for those without a secure home. There’s a self-awareness angle: to force us to think about the ways that we are too protected in our daily lives, and separated from nature and the world around us. It goes on and on. Just ask your nearest rabbi, who has to come up with new sermons about the holiday every year.

I remember putting together our Sukkah as a child, with my father and brother, and getting my fingers stuck between two of the flattened pipes that my father used as the frame for the temporary building. I remember having to carry full dishes of food, to and from the house late at night, while my father sat at the table in the Sukkah on our front lawn, like a king.

There is so much baggage left in my Judaism; personal, crummy, anecdotal baggage that I don’t want to have to relive constantly. It’s a funny mix. I love going to shul. I love singing the prayers, and being with my community, and studying. I love just looking at the Hebrew letters in my prayer book, as if they are my old friends returning to me. But then I hit these bumps, like the Sukkah, or candle lighting, or kissing the Torah, and I trip over the invisible rubble in my mind.

I’ve been told that, next year, our synagogue will be inviting animals into the Sukkah for a visiting day, as they’ve done in the past. There will be dogs, of course, but also snakes and gerbils and parrots and on and on. Maybe, when I can bring Cricket and Butterfly with me, I won’t find the Sukkah quite as intimidating. Or maybe Cricket will think the plastic fruit on the walls were put there just for her delectation, and I’ll have a whole new set of horrible memories of Sukkot to carry with me in the future.

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Cricket is ready to go!

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She’s training herself, to see how much she can fit into her mouth at one time.

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Butterfly is practicing her facial expressions, for after Cricket misbehaves in public.

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This is her “I’m the cute one” face.

Sacred Space

 

The Cantor at my synagogue has taken up a new topic to study this year: the technology of prayer. I can’t say that I understand what he means by that yet, but the first lesson was about sacred space, and how we arrange it. Butterfly is very often in sacred space, because she listens to the sounds around her and stands still and lets them encompass her. Cricket prefers hidey-holes as her sacred spaces. She feels safe and solemn in those small, enclosed spaces, and it allows her to rest and reemerge more whole.

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“You can’t see me!”

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“I hear everything, Mommy.”

But, I am not good at interior design. When I decorate, I basically put things where they’ll fit, no Feng Shui or harmony involved, so the idea of contemplating the use of space made me whimper with anticipated boredom. The cantor talked about how most sanctuaries, Jewish and Christian at least, are set up with the congregation in rows of seats, all facing one way, with the clergy up on a riser, and the congregation a step down, like an audience watching actors on a stage. Then he showed us pictures of Jewish synagogues that were set up differently, with the congregation on two opposing sides, or even three sides of the sanctuary, and the clergy in the middle. The idea being to focus attention on the community, rather than on the clergy, who are there to lead the congregation, rather than to be the show itself.

The Cantor’s class on sacred space happened the night before Slichot, which is a service that takes place a week before the Jewish New Year, late at night. It is a preview of all of the themes of the high holidays, with all of the atonement, forgiveness, and cleaning of old forgotten laundry intended for this time of year. But for this one service of the year, the clergy members placed themselves with us in the congregation, and some of the ideas from the previous night’s class must have stuck with me, because as soon as the Cantor began to sing from his seat among us, I felt the change in the shape of the space. I got it. He became one of us instead of separate, and he became a voice only, rather than a performer to be watched. It was a small group the night of Slichot (not a lot of people come out a week before the high holidays, at ten o’clock on a Saturday night, to pray), which meant that the Cantor didn’t need a microphone to be heard, so that his unamplified voice, so intertwined with our own, made him seem even more a part of us.

Over the summers, at our synagogue, we move from the formal sanctuary to the small sanctuary for Friday night services. It saves on electricity, especially for the air-conditioning of the sanctuary and the social hall, and it saves us from seeing all of the empty seats from the families who go away on vacation, or just don’t feel especially religious in the heat. But the side effect of moving to the smaller, less formal room, is that our whole tone changes. The clergy stands at our level, and not above. We sit closer together, instead of spread out across the room. We can hear each other sing, and breathe. The space itself, usually just an ordinary room, becomes sacred space because of how we live within it.

Maybe sacred space actually changes from person to person and moment to moment. A lot of the time, I think a space feels sacred because of the people who are in it with you. That’s why I wish that the dogs could join me at synagogue, especially when we are at our most informal and communal. Cricket could sit in my lap, or hide under my chair, and Butterfly could wander around the room and listen to all of the voices around her. That would be my ideal of a sacred space.

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That’s Cricket’s foot.

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Cricket in her sacred space.

 

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Butterfly’s not allowed in, but she makes do.

A Prayer for Healing

 

I have been very anxious lately, about the start of my social work internship and my research class, both of which I’ve been dreading since before I applied to graduate school. I haven’t found much that helps with the anxiety. Anti-anxiety meds like Xanax and Valium just wipe me out, meditation makes me more anxious, exercise is good, but leaves me exhausted. I’ve gotten better at asking for help from the people around me, but there’s just so much they can do. When you have no control, what can you do but pray?

Part of me really does believe that prayers sent out to God do reach some energy in the universe. It’s an imperfect system, like tweeting out to the world at large and hoping that the right person, who may not even be on twitter, hears you. But there’s a chance, and it’s better than not sending the message at all. I don’t believe that God puts my request on a list and then decides whether or not I deserve the help I want. I believe that somehow my message ping pongs around the universe, and if I’m lucky, it snowballs and connects with other energies and comes back to me in some form, hopefully something helpful.

I pray for my dogs all the time. I used to pray for Cricket to find comfort and calm. I would put my prayers into her scratching sessions, hoping that the practical behaviors I could do for her would be transformed into something more. And I am always praying for Butterfly – that she will have a good life, that her heart will last a bit longer – and I believe that my prayers work for her. Butterfly is a very good vessel for prayer, because she absorbs energy into her body and spirit without much of a defense system, whereas Cricket is more circumspect and “rational.” It is harder for Cricket to hear the prayers said for her, and to absorb the love sent her way, because there is so much interference – so much static in her system. But she still needs the good energy to be sent her way, even if only one prayer out of a thousand gets through her tough hide.

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“Do prayers come with chicken treats?”

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“I refuse to be healed. Deal with it.”

The cantor at my synagogue was ill this summer (don’t worry, he’s better now) and had to take months off from work. He spent a great deal of time alone, but, he said, because of all of the people in the congregation who reached out to him, and all of the people he knew were thinking of him and praying for him, he never felt like he was alone. This is what prayer can do. Just knowing that someone is praying for you on a regular basis can be healing, and make you feel cared for and safe.

And reaching out to God ourselves can make us feel less alone, even when we are physically alone. It reminds us of the human beings who wrote the prayers, of the people who taught us those prayers, of the times we have prayed together, and of all of the people who may be saying those same prayers at the same time all around the world. There’s a humility to prayer, a recognition that we can’t solve everything on our own, and are not expected to. Reminding ourselves of that on a regular basis can be healing in itself.

I think dogs pray too. First they ask directly for what they want: a walk, a treat, attention. But when the request is denied, or when they are left alone – when they feel powerless – I think they must pray the way we do. Like Butterfly picking up one of my socks when I was a way at the hospital, and carrying it in her mouth. The sock could be seen as a transitional object, as a way for her to hold onto me and feel close to me – or it could be seen as a prayer, that she would soon see me again.

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“Where’s Mommy?”

Cricket talks to God all the time with her barking. She isn’t so much telling me, or Mom, that danger is at the door, she is calling on God to protect her family. And most of the time, God seems to come through for her, so, it works!

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“Of course God listens to me. I am Cricket, and I am always right.”

Music is the best delivery system for prayer, because it reaches our hearts so much more quickly than words alone. It works especially well when we pray in groups, because it brings all of those heartbeats into the same rhythm, the same space, so that not only can you hear the words being spoken to you, you can feel everyone in the room coming together.

Ever since the cantor’s illness this summer, and the string of national and international disasters that have been overwhelming everyone, my synagogue has returned to the practice of singing a healing prayer at the end of Friday night services. People have found great comfort in singing it together, and saying the names of loved ones in need of healing, out loud or silently. I want it to work for me, but it doesn’t. Maybe the problem is that I don’t believe that my anxiety is worthy of a healing prayer, or maybe my hide is just as tough as Cricket’s and it will take a lot more prayer to get through. We are related, after all.

 

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“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”

Yoga Shabbat

 

The junior Rabbi at my synagogue has been developing a yoga class for Saturday (Shabbat) mornings. She did her yoga teacher training last summer, and started the monthly classes last October. I was curious about what the class would be like, because I’d always been bothered by the feeling that, even in the most secular versions of yoga, there are remnants of the religious culture it comes from. The history of Jews being forced to convert or conform to the dominant religion of given societies is a big part of my discomfort. I see a lot to like in every other religion I’ve ever come across, but participating in another religion is a completely different thing. It feels like a co-opting of my Jewish soul, but more than that it feels disloyal, like you would feel if you were in love with one man and yet kissed someone else. Prayer, and yoga poses, are not just thoughts or feelings, they are actions, and they count.

My hope was that the rabbi had found a way to make yoga feel a little bit more at home with Judaism, or at least less at odds with it. But I put off going all year long. I told myself that the classes were too early in the morning, or that I would have to rush to get to therapy afterwards, or I just had too much school work to do. But really, the idea of sweating and stretching into strange positions in front of my fellow congregants brought up a lot of old fears. When I finally decided, no excuses, that I would go to the last session of the year, I spent the two days leading up to the class flooded with awful memories of gym class in elementary school, and ballet classes, in my ill-fitting gym clothes or mismatched leotard and tights.

But I fought through the anxiety, and went to the class anyway. I took a spot near the back of the room, up against a brick pillar, both to hide, if necessary, and to have a stable wall to lean against, just in case. I brought my own Pilates mat, which is a little bit more cushioned than a yoga mat, and has a few holes in it from the dogs. At home, yoga means trying to stretch while scratching Butterfly with my arm twisted behind my back, and tossing a tug toy for Cricket, while trying not to lose my balance. But at least they haven’t peed on the mat, recently.

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“This is my idea of good yoga, Mommy.”

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Cricket can’t talk here, but she agrees with Butterfly.

The rabbi started the session by summarizing the weekly Torah portion, and then she turned on her iPhone, attached it to a speaker, and played variations of the Saturday morning prayers as the background music for the class. She started us off with “Shalom breaths,” and then we did a lot of Sun Salutations and Downward Facing Dogs, with more advanced poses in the middle of each flow. I pushed myself a little too hard to keep up, because I’m not really up to an hour and fifteen minute yoga class, but I didn’t want to seem weak or lazy. I had to skip a bunch of the advanced poses, and come out of others early, and I ended up resting in child’s pose a lot of the time (though it still took me four days to recover from overdoing it). I missed having the dogs with me. Focusing on them takes some of the pressure off of the need to achieve something beyond my abilities. Having Butterfly with me, sniffing my hair or licking my arm, would have reminded me that it’s okay that I can only do what I can do.

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“Om, Om, I mean, Shalom, Shalom.”

But most importantly, the feeling that I was doing something wrong just by being in a Yoga class on Shabbat was still there. There is a school of thought among Orthodox Jews that yoga is avodah zarah, worship of foreign gods, which would be a big no-no. Some people say that if you avoid the mantras, and chanting, and skip the Sanskrit names for the poses, and maybe skip prayer pose entirely, that would make it okay. But the rabbi kept the Sanskrit names for the poses, and used prayer pose, which upset me. Child’s pose doesn’t bother me, even though it looks very much like a Muslim prayer pose, because I think of it so completely as a child’s protective pose, making myself safe like a turtle in a shell. But yoga’s prayer pose, palms together at chest level, feels so clearly like what it says it is; it forces you to breathe differently and focus your attention in a specific way and it is a very good physical representation of open-hearted supplication.

A lot of yoga is meant to put your body in a position to teach your mind something. Warrior pose is meant to activate not just physical strength, but emotional strength and resolve. Child’s pose is not only a rest from exercise, it is a self-protective break from being confident and open and visible. These emotional and physical experiences are meaningful to me and make sense to me, but I cannot find a reason other than prayerfulness and supplication for me to be in prayer pose, and that feels too much like praying to a foreign god, and being disloyal to my Jewishness.

There’s a lot of talk, both in yoga and in liberal Judaism, about “intention.” You need to be aware of your intention when you say a certain prayer, take a certain action, or do a particular pose, in order to make it meaningful. The assumption then, is that your intention is all that matters, rather than the intention of the original creators of the prayer, or pose, or series of rituals. But, if yoga is part of someone else’s religious culture, what right do I have to take it for myself and strip it of its history? Is it really okay to take yoga poses and imbue them with your own intentions, like flavoring your ice cream base with vanilla or chocolate or salted caramel? Religion, to me, is cultural history, communal ties, rituals and behaviors, and the stories of my people. If Yoga comes from Buddhism and Hinduism, is it fair to take it out of that context and try to imbue it with Jewish feeling? Is it even possible?

Maybe I should just ask Cricket and Butterfly to create some fresh poses for me, like: Begging-for-treats pose, which really strengthens your core; and Barking-at-strangers pose, which gets your anger flowing and makes you feel at least three times your original size.

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Begging-for-treats-pose.

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Barking-at-strangers pose.

That could work.

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Butterfly’s idea of a resting pose.

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Cricket’s version, on Grandma’s lap.

Talking in Circles

 

As a child, I was taught in my Jewish school that we are not allowed to write the name of God (G-d) full out, or else we are taking God’s name in vain. You can’t even spell the Hebrew version of Yahweh out loud; you have to replace some of the letters with safer letters. Often, orthodox Jews will replace any name of God with “Hashem,” which means “The Name.” It’s similar to the He-who-must-not-be-named business in the Harry Potter books, except that we were avoiding saying the name of the ultimate good rather than the ultimate evil. Part of it is an attempt to retain the power, the specialness, of the name of God. Just like in Harry Potter, the fear is that if you say the name of He-who-must-not-be-named (Voldemort, ahem) too frequently, you’ll forget to be afraid of him.

All of this makes me think about how hard it is for humans to say what we mean. In our intention to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings, or to avoid criticism, we often end up being polite, or vague, and therefore, being misunderstood. I love that dogs are direct. I may not always like what they have to say (or when they choose to say it), but at least I know what’s going on with them. Cricket is very clear when she is angry at me for withholding the extra treats she demands. Butterfly is also very direct, and never uses big words. If she barks, it either means she wants to eat what you are eating (and is convinced that Cricket, because she can jump up onto the couch, will have first dibs), or she needs to go outside. If she flattens herself on the ground, she wants to be picked up. If she smiles, it’s because she is actually happy (most likely because food is anticipated). If she licks your hand, she wants to be scratched. If she’s wary, she backs away. If she’s really scared, she shivers (at the vet’s office or during a storm, usually). She’s not vague, or blurry, or sly. And because she’s so clear, her needs are easy to meet.

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Butterfly wants scratchies!

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Cricket is grumpy.

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Those are my shoes Butterfly is sitting on. I can’t imagine what she’s trying to say.

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“Feed me!”

A lot of the time, though, people are vague because they really don’t know what they are feeling, or how to express it clearly. I find myself asking question after question of people who think they’ve been clear and clearly were not. I’m often in the position of wanting to scream, “What the @#$% are you trying to say?!” But I rein myself in. Mostly. I will try to ask a question or two, or ten, to help them get to their point. Sometimes they do not realize that they are wandering, or being unclear. Sometimes they are as frustrated as I am, and believe that I should just understand them without their help. Sometimes they know exactly what they mean, but English is their second language, behind the jargon of their profession, and we both remain un-elucidated.

My rabbi, at times, throws in a word that he assumes everyone knows, like Hapax legamenon – which means, a word that appears only once in a text, like the Bible. He momentarily forgets that we were not all in rabbinical school with him, where that word came up all the time and was so useful! I have an automatic allergy to words like that, because I hated sitting at the dinner table as a kid and being the only one who didn’t understand what was being said, especially after my brother started to study vocabulary words for the SATs. But my rabbi thinks each one of these words is like a jewel, a gift! And he tosses them into conversation with glee. I am considering preparing a glossary for new members of the synagogue with words he uses often, like: prolegomenon, apotropaic, apocopation, merism, inclusio, and, of course, hapax legamenon. He is, in most ways, exceedingly down to earth, but those particular words of his profession just make him delusionally happy.

But, some people use jargon intentionally to keep others out of the club. In certain professions (academics, medicine, and law come to mind), you spend a great deal of your time learning the language of the profession before you can ever be trusted to think your own thoughts. This bothers me. I mean, sure, it’s good to be precise, and when you go into more depth on a particular subject it helps to have vocabulary with you to light up the dark, but does it have to be so alienating to outsiders? To what end?

Cricket understands every word I say, or do not say. She has especially become a master of the ellipsis, so that I can’t even leave the important words unsaid, because she knows I was going to say them anyway. I wonder what she would do with the rabbi’s rabbinical school jargon. She probably wouldn’t let him off the hook, the way the humans do. She would have at least a few more questions for him. He says that dogs can’t come to Bible Study because some congregants may have allergies, or deep-seated fears of canines, but I wonder. Maybe he’s just afraid that Cricket will stand on the table, barking insistently, “but why?!” And he won’t have a handy dandy hapax legamenon with which to answer her.

 

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“But why?”