Classics, Judaism & Israel

Worlds, not Authors: JK Rowling, the Documentary Hypothesis, and Conversation About Authorship

Note: This blog post was partly inspired by this blog post from sententiaantiquae

If you have been on the internet at all in the past week, you may have seen that JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books tweeted some pretty transphobic things in the last week. Also, a large part of my undergraduate thesis was about the idea of authorship and making the point that we can get a lot out of a work without agreeing with or supporting the author of something (or even knowing who the author is, but we will get there in a minute).

Harry Potter got me through some of the worst times in my life. The books made me feel less alone at a time when I didn’t have anyone in real life to talk to. They taught me the power of love and they helped me to put my mental illness into words. The boggart helped me to deal with my anxiety and the dementor my depression. And most of all, this series brought me closer to my friends. From second grade to my first week of rabbinical school, I have made friends based on shared understanding of Harry Potter references, and that (along with the work of the HPA) is really what I am proud of. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about JK Rowling. Once she put her writing into the world, it is ours. It’s real for us.

I’ve worked hard to detach the author from the work when it comes to Harry Potter. After all, I still consider myself a classicist, and so much of classical text (including Homeric text) is without author and can still guide us, much in the same way that the bible guides others. Narrative doesn’t need a source to be powerful. In fact, assigning authorship (or too closely connecting a work with its author) can actually pose problems because it limits the interpretation, and beauty only arises when we don’t do that.

So what does any of this have to do with the documentary hypothesis? For those of you who aren’t completely saturated in the Jewish studies world, the documentary hypothesis is a theory of the origin of the first five books of the Bible. It argues that there were originally four separate texts that were then synthesized to create the Hebrew Bible. When I bring up this theory, some Jews like to argue that if one looks at the Bible in this historical-critical way, it loses it’s meaning but, this is not true. Looking at the Bible through how it has been passed down through religious people from generation to generation is beautiful. Examining how it reflects the ideas of the time that it was composed in is fascinating. Watching how various people interpreted the original text is mesmerizing. The narrative means something. It is alive, just like Harry Potter is.

We don’t have to care about authorship in order to value the communities that these books have created for us. The work that the Religious Action Center and the Harry Potter Alliance do is not negated by conflicts over biblical authorship or the insensitivity of a British billionaire. It’s still a part of who we are, and we can still take values and lessons from these texts.

Journaling, Judaism & Israel, Personal

Gratitude, Mindfulness, and Holiness: How the Talmudic Morning Ritual Can Help Us Wake Up

How do we assuage our anxieties? How do we deal with uncertainty? What do we do when it all feels like too much? My teacher, Dr. Raba Dalia Marx provides her reader (and her students) with a framework for using the Morning Ritual from the Talmud as a way to deal with some of these anxieties. She argues that “this system [of blessings] aims to focus the Jew and gradually, through the routine actions of the morning, transfers him from a passive, primal space to an active, cognitive one”(Marx 125). This framework, this narrative, these blessings can help us through the days on which it’s hard to get out of bed and face the day. Whether this is because of a breakup, a chronic illness, or just the general state of the news, I believe that these blessings (with the correct mindset) can help.

So what is the take away from this? How can this framework help us? I have pulled a lesson out of each of the four sections that Dr. Marx notes in her article.

Section 1: Human Actions and Generic blessing

From the very beginning of these blessings, we are forced to be mindful of the physical actions that we do on autopilot early in the morning.

Our first breath. How often do we just roll out of bed and get halfway through our morning routines without stopping to think about what we are doing or to be grateful for the ability to do these things. According to Jewish tradition, God recreates the world anew every single day and returns our souls to our bodies when we take our first breath in the morning. Just take the first breath. That’s all we have to do. Don’t worry about the homework that needs to get done or anything else. Just breathe.

Following the blessing over the soul, the breath (the words are very connected liturgically), we begin to be mindful of the physical actions that we take every single day but don’t necessarily think about: opening our eyes, clothing ourselves (we are thanking God for allowing us to do these things.

This framework helps me to be grateful not just for big things, but for the smallest of things. For being able to take a step, for everything that we have whether that be physical items, abilities, or experiences. Even if I am in pain, it is a great gift to be able to sit up, to be able to breathe in the air around me. Bad days happen, and it can often be difficult to find the bright spots, but this narrative (and maybe even the ritual of the blessings every morning) helps us to find those things to be grateful for.

Section 2. Human Action and Particularist Blessing

The framework helps us to be grateful for the communities that we are a part of
The second part of Marx’s framework for the morning ritual addresses human actions and particularist blessings. For example, “who girds Israel with strength.” or “crowns Israel with glory.” At the time of the Talmud, these blessings were correlated with the tightening of one’s belt and the donning of one’s headscarf. At this point in the narrative, our bodies are awake, and we are established as individuals, but now we must transition into being a part of a collective. We are all part of communities whether that be a university, fan group, religion, or family, but due to the constant busyness of life, we don’t often take a few minutes to thank God (or whatever power you believe in) for bringing us into these communities and making them fit for us.

Section 3: Jewish Actions and Particularist Action

Helping us to make the “secular” sacred.
In Birchot haShachar, there are four blessings over Jewish commandments, but you could apply this to any part of your morning routine that has meaning but you do on autopilot. I have made an effort to apply this to taking my pills in the morning, something that I have done for as long as I can remember. I now try to sanctify the placing of the pills in my mouth, the sipping of the gatorade that lives on the nightstand next to my bed, my feet on the floor. There is nothing inherently sacred about simultaneously swallowing 7 pills, but there can be holiness added.

Section 4: Conclusion and Preparation to leave the house

Grounding us for our day.
This section includes both the blessing over “removing sleep from the eyes,” and the distinguishing blessings (which have been edited in modern Reform and Conservative prayerbooks). Once God has removed all of the sleep from us, we are able to remember who we are and prepare ourselves for whatever the day will bring us. At this point, we are ready in a state of gratitude to enter the public sphere.

Whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you are Jewish, this structure could be applied to any person with any sort of identity. This structure helps us through the liminal space that lies between certainty and uncertainty, between sleeping and waking, by guiding us slowly though the process of becoming bodies and spirits for a new day.

If you would like to read Dr. Dalia Marx’s entire article, it can be found here. I write this blog post with tremendous gratitude to Dr. Marx for her brilliance and ingenuity.

Disability and Chronic Illness

Doctors of Deception: When Medical Professionals Don’t Tell You About Your Own Body

Note: This blog post is a continuation of this blog post about the full-time job of being a person with a chronic illness.

This morning I woke up to some test results I had been begging two doctors offices in two different countries for only to find that one of my levels is extremely (maybe even dangerously) low, and nobody told me for the last two months. While I recognize that I live in a foreign country, it’s 2019. There is no reason that I should not be informed (I had to ask to actually get those results). Here are a couple of reasons that this experience is frustrating, although extremely not uncommon (you may also be another chronically ill person looking for commiseration, you’ll find this here as well).

  1. We can’t take care of ourselves if we don’t know what’s going on.
    I am often told by the people who care about me to make sure that I am taking care of myself (eating, sleeping, going to therapy, etc), but occasionally, those things aren’t enough. It’s been difficult for me to sleep for the last month or two. Now this could be because I am a chronic insomniac or it could be because of this test result. It would be really nice to have known that before I got lectures about sleep hygiene from lots of well-meaning people.

    As medical professionals, you should want us to take care of ourselves as much as possible. We don’t have to be on the phone with you if we can solve our own problems.
  2. The helplessness of chronic illness
    There’s a common tweet around the community that says “side effect, new symptom, or anomaly?” This short phrase encompasses the struggle of feeling something new in a chronically ill body. I know my body pretty well seeing as I’ve been living in it for 22 years. This being said, sometimes there is a quite simple, objective reason for an issue, but our doctors aren’t telling us.

    Our bodies are already unpredictable and often difficult to deal with. Please, for the love of all that is holy in this world, don’t make this harder for us.
  3. Gaslighting
    I am a young, small woman who “doesn’t look sick.” Because of this, one of the most common things that medical professionals say when they meet me is something along the lines of “you don’t look as sick as your file.” Also, I smile in the States and cry in Israel which prompts people not to take me seriously. Medical professionals really like to tell me that I’m a mystery or that there isn’t anything wrong with me. Not providing me with a test result is essentially telling me that nothing is wrong (which is factually inaccurate in this and many other cases).

    You don’t get to judge the state of my body from the outside. Please believe me when I say that something is wrong.

I hope that you found this interesting (or cathartic). I would love to hear your thoughts. I deeply apologize for the lack of blog posts over the last few weeks, school has gotten the best of me.


The Rollercoaster of Jewish Time: Spending the High Holidays in Israel

We are finally to “aharei haChagim,” so I am able to catch my breath a bit and reflect on my experience of spending the last two months here. This year I spent the High Holidays in Israel (with the exception of part of Sukkot, but I’ll get there) rather than at Brandeis as I have the previous four years or at Beth Emet like I did for so many years before that. In the construction of this blog post, I have attempted to pull out some highlights to reflect on my experience over the past couple of weeks.

  1. Slichot (The beginning of the period in which we ask for forgiveness)
    Anyone who had to deal with me in Hillel while I was at Brandeis can tell you how viscerally I despise services in which women are separated from men, but I chose to go to Slichot services at the Great Synagogue, one of the most traditional synagogues in Jerusalem in which the women sat on the balcony. Was the experience frustrating because I was barely able to hear or see? Absolutely. Did it motivate me towards egalitarian Judaism and make me want to thank all of my strong female clergy/lay mentors for paving my way? Also yes. Overall, I’m glad I went, but I will not be returning there.
  2. Rosh Hashanah
    I had the opportunity to pray in three different places–HUC (obviously), Kol HaNeshama, and Nava Tehila. Each offered beautiful experiences, some more familiar than others, and made much more meaningful by the community that I got to spend time with: My dinner plans for Erev RH canceled at the last minute, so I was adopted by some friends, and it ended up being a lovely dinner full of laughter and plenty of food. Many of the meals I went to over the course of the two day holiday were ones that we organized as a class (there are 26 of us), and the fact that we put so much work into making these meals happen made the wine even sweeter and the food more filling.
  3. Yom Kippur
    I didn’t stay through a Yom Kippur service until I was leading one in college, so my journey with this holiday is a long and complicated one, however, it was probably the most meaningful day I’ve spent in Israel.

    For the first time, I got to sit and listen to a cantor sing Kol Nidrei, and I felt myself viscerally respond to the words and the emotion that was contained in her voice. Being in choir and part of such a close-knit institution, it was truly amazing to know every single person who got up to sing or lead every single prayer. The transition through Mincha (during which I read Torah) to Yizkor to Neilah was profound for me this year–the tension that builds as we wait for the gates to close and then the relief that washes over the room when we get to Havdallah. By the end, so many of us had laughed and cried that it truly felt like we went through something together. While YK is still a very complicated day for me, I will never forget this one.
  4. Sukkot (will write a blog post about my trip)
  5. Hoshana Raba/Sh’mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah
    These are technically three different holidays, but because they are so close together, I have chosen to lump them into one bullet point.

    Hoshana Raba is a day of transition. It is the last day before we begin to pray for rain on Sh’mini Atzeret, and it involves the final releasing of sins. I wouldn’t normally participate in the Hoshana Raba ceremony–it’s not one that most Reform communities do, but it was my friend’s son’s brit milah, and the joy that filled that room was a perfect way for me to end Sukkot.

    Simchat Torah was also a new experience. It was a good workout, that’s for sure. But dancing to celebrate our love of Torah and to celebrate no more chagim certainly was fun.
Classics, Disability and Chronic Illness

So You Want to Write A Thesis and Have a Disability: What I learned

Many people, throughout the process of me writing my senior thesis and afterwards asked me if I was happy with my decision to write a thesis. Others asked how I managed to write a 70 page paper with three different languages and lots of other things on my plate including my disability. These tips may not only apply to those with a chronic illness or disability. So. How do you write a thesis with a chronic illness? Obviously, not all of these tips can be followed at once, but I included all of them so that you can take your pick!

  1. Find an advisor who is flexible about your disability and supportive of you
    For me, this made ALL of the difference. Over the course of my senior year, I became more and more grateful for the time that I was allotted and support that I got from my advisor (Dr. Joel Christensen at Brandeis). We began meeting every week from the beginning of the year, and I am so proud to call him a mentor now.

    More importantly, we set flexible deadlines and moved them if we needed to. One Monday morning before I intended to send the first chapter of my thesis to my advisor to read, I dislocated my shoulder making me unable to really move or, more importantly in that moment, type. My advisor did not make it a big deal, and eventually the paper got done (if it hadn’t, I probably would not be writing this blog post).
  2. Make sure that you have a support system
    There will be stressful days in this process. It’s inevitable. It’s really important to have friends, mentors, a therapist, and/or clergy who can listen to you vent, tell you when it’s time to stop working, and sit beside you and force you to get work done.

    On a personal note, my friend Helen became one of my best friends as we were writing our theses because we would calm eachother down, give eachother advice (I also decoded my advisor’s handwriting for her), and make sure that both of us were fed. Brandeis Hillel made me take time away from my thesis and continue my religious practice even when it was hard, and I don’t know if I would have emotionally survived without that whole community.
    I am terrible at resting and stopping working, however, continuing to work through pain or brain fog just results in me having to redo all of the bad work I did. I loved my thesis topic which meant that I wanted to be sitting in my room (or Hillel Lounge) researching, reading, translating, and writing, all of the time. This does not work with my disability. Luckily, Judaism had the answer for me here: I took Shabbat off from work on my thesis. This was extremely hard at the beginning, but it was really helpful to me maintaining my mental and physical health through the process

    Setting aside time to spend with friends or on other activities was also really important for me. As a chronically ill person, I only have so many functional hours in the day, and my inclination is to spend every moment on work, but that is not sustainable.
  4. Time-Based Work
    This is actually something I got directly for my advisor, but it has proven to be useful as I’ve started grad school as well: I would set aside two hours each day to work on my thesis, divided up into 30 minute chunks, and I would get as much done as I could in that time, keeping track of what I spent each block of time on. By structuring my schedule this way, I was able to assuage my anxiety about not producing enough “output.” Additionally, if I was in pain and struggling to sit upright, I would set the timer for 20 minutes and only commit myself to that.
  5. Your body is more important than your productivity.
    If there’s a day when you just can’t get into your research or your symptoms are not treating you well, set the paper aside. Let it breathe. Trust that you will get it done in the end, and that it will be okay.

    Eat. Sleep. Go for a walk. Shower. Drink some water. You can’t focus on the complex thought needed to work on a large project like a thesis if you aren’t taking care of yourself first.

I hope that some of these tips were helpful to you in some way. If you have any questions (or want more specific advice) please feel free to reach out.

Disability and Chronic Illness, Divrei Torah, Judaism & Israel

Unpredictability and Kohelet: What Ecclesiastes and Diagnosis Have to Do with One Another

This piece was originally written for a class.

During my high school years, YOLO became really popular. The idea of “You Only Live Once” is a common one while you’re young with few obligations. But we didn’t actually practice what we preached. We planned for college and the future as we were encouraged to. And we never really thought about what YOLO meant. Everything changed for me in this regard in November of 2015 during my first semester of college when I was diagnosed with my chronic autoimmune condition. Suddenly, life became divided into “before” and “after.” 

I never know what my health is going to look like in a year, a month, or even tomorrow, so I try to focus on enjoying the time I have when I feel healthy. And this brings me to my love of Kohelet, known to the gentile world as Ecclesiastes: Many people will argue that Kohelet is one of the most depressing books of the Tanakh. It talks a lot about death and the futility of all that we will do on earth. But Kohelet is actually incredibly encouraging to me in three ways: 

First, in recognizing the limited time that we have “under the sun,” Kohelet encourages us as the audience to take our moments of enjoyment into our own hands and treat them as a gift from God. 

Second, Kohelet states that we cannot change the world in any substantial way. “One generation comes, another generation goes, but the earth remains the same into eternity.” We cannot make all that much of a difference in our world. In a positive direction, this may seem discouraging, but in terms of mistakes or choices that we make, we can also be sure that those mistakes will be forgotten and lost to time shortly after we make them. This gives us permission to make mistakes, to live our lives without constantly being obsessed with the legacy that we are leaving behind. 

Lastly, and most importantly in my story, Kohelet, unlike some of the religious dogma that one may see in the internet these days, recognizes that it is impossible to be happy all the time or for all moments to be good. Verses 3:1-3:7 begin with: “A season is set for everything, a time for everything under the heavens,” and the following verses lay out a list of things that there is a season set for. These include slaying, healing, weeping, laughing, seeking, losing, and a few others. 

When one is diagnosed with a rare and confusing chronic illness, the future seems uncertain and unbelievably scary. It feels like the opening of Pandora’s box with the endless amount of stress and anxiety that can come forward, and it may feel like the end of the world. So how does Kohelet help us?: First, this book reminds us that there is time for weeping and seeking and all of the complicated and contradictory feelings that one experiences throughout the process of getting a diagnosis and immediately after. Second, while sickness may remind us of our inherent mortality and humanity, this reminder allows us to enjoy every healthy and happy moment as a gift from God or the Universe depending on which one that you personally believe in. 

There is another part of the Jewish tradition that has helped me and others with being diagnosed with our illnesses or disabilities: Much of the Torah takes place in the wilderness, also called the desert depending on how you may want to translate the world “bamidbar.” As Rabbi Eliot Kukla argues in a beautiful piece about being diagnosed with a chronic illness as a rabbi, “a chronic illness journey often begins in the wilderness of grief and loss: uncomfortable, unreliable, yet as real a home as any. Only when we accept this wilderness as more than a stopover can we begin to embrace what remains.” The Israelites built a community in the wilderness and learned some very important lessons. There is so much hope left at the bottom of Pandora’s box if we only let ourselves see it and embrace what’s good in any way that we can. Yes, we may miss the days that we were “healthy” and wish that we could be more conventionally productive, but there is so much companionship, meaning, and Godliness in this wilderness. The wilderness, the chronic illness, is not the end of the world. And in many ways, it is just the beginning. 


“But it’s exhausting”: Self Advocacy When Chronically Ill

This morning, I had a conversation about a school excursion that I was worried about. I was concerned that it was going to be too much walking and that our facilitators would be hesitant to provide me with any real information or inform me of how much walking that the excursion to Tel Aviv would entail. When I said this, someone brought up the point that I am an adult and I need to be firm about what I need and that I need to take care of my body. I agreed with her, but I left the conversation with conflicting feelings.

  • Why don’t disabled adults get treated like adults?— I am 22 years old, but when I walk down the street visibly disabled, people treat me like I am much younger than I am (yes, I am quite short, but I look like a teen, not a child, at least). People look at me like I am a puppy who needs to be taken care of.

    Just because I am disabled, I am not weak. I am not powerless. In fact, I am pretty freaking strong. If I need your help, I still don’t ever want you to treat me like a child. Rather, think about how you see a pregnant woman (which in some way is a temporary disability) or a friend who has the flu. You don’t see them as any less of adults, why do you see me (or any other disabled person) as immature or young.

    If I need your help, I am a grown up and I can ask for it. When I need someone to carry something up the stairs, I ask them to do so. If I need to stop and take a breath, I will do so. I have been living with this disorder for 22 years of my life. I can assure you that I know my body better than you do (also, rule of thumb: if you can’t pronounce the name of my disorder, you have no right to define what it looks like for me)
  • Self Advocacy is freaking exhausting–Before I begin this point, I want to note that I am not arguing against self-advocacy. I helped to run a movement at Brandeis that was all about empowering people with disabilities to ask the school for what they need.

    I have made it very clear to pretty much everyone around me that I have limitations on what I can and can’t do, and when it is necessary, I have even mapped out those limitations. It is then frustrating to me when people seem to forget about those limitations or choose to ignore them entirely–noone is under an abligation to know everything I can or can’t do, but it’s lovely when people do remember (or make a note to themselves to remember).

    Asking for accomodations from a professor or institution at the beginning of a semester or year is totally acceptable, you can’t read my mind. But having to remind people over and over is exhausting and unacceptable. I have enough chronic fatigue and brain fog as is just because of my disability.

If you are an abled person reading this, you may be thinking that advocacy is not that hard. You may be thinking that these things shouldn’t be that hard for people to understand, but unfortunately, I’m not alone in having to beg over and over for accommodations that take very short periods of time.

So what can you do to help? Advocate for your disabled friends if they are okay with it–I had a close friend ask a professor if I could join a group that was doing less walking last week and I nearly cried with relief (Thanks Jamie), and I also had a friend a while back who asked about accessibility information so I didn’t have to (Thanks Rebecca). Ask some of the questions that you know your disabled friend or family member is thinking about, and when you are planning something, anticipate those questions. Also, please be kind to us; we may argue with you because the world has beat us down a bit, but we still really, truly appreciate it.