My Mother’s Choice

It was Shabbos, and I was about four years old. I sat in the back room at Shul with the other children and the new childcare leader, who I remember as a smiling woman with long black hair. We sang “modeh ani” and the Shabbos dinosaur song, and played red rover. Most weeks, I tried to sneak out at some point to find my mom in the women’s section. This week was no exception. When the childcare leader’s back was turned, I reached above my head and pressed down on the heavy metal door handle. 

“Baila!” she said. I jumped. “You can’t go out there and bother the adults.” 

“You can’t tell me what to do,” I said. “You’re not Jewish!”

I don’t remember how I found out that she was in the process of converting – I must have heard my parents or some other members of the congregation talking about it. But I do remember quite clearly the feeling that Jews were better than other people, that we had the moral upper ground. I was certain that the reason she was stuck in the back with the kids was because she wasn’t a real adult, she was some in-between being that was out of place and certainly had no authority over me. 

My parents gave me a talking-to afterwards. Like most of the rebukes that followed my frequent outbursts of childhood honesty, this one focused on what we are supposed to say and what we are not supposed to say in front of other people. If my parents took a moment to tell me that the sentiment behind my words was wrong, I don’t remember it.

* * *

I don’t know when I found out that my mother was a convert. At a young age, I knew. I started reading books at age seven, and I used to lie in bed and imagine myself as the main character in an epic story. I would read and reread On a Golden Chain, a novel about a woman who finds out that she is secretly Jewish (and has a surprise ultra-Orthodox identical twin). I knew that a good story had to start with some kind of grand upheaval in my life. In between daydreams of finding out that I was secretly adopted and gaining the ability to fly, I would imagine that my mother’s conversion was invalid and that one day Rabbi Bukiet would knock on our door and tell me, “I’m sorry, but you’re not Jewish.” My family was Chabad, a picture of the Rebbe looming on the wall. A revelation like that would certainly be dramatic enough for a good story.

My mom frequently told me and my brothers, “We don’t tell people that I’m a convert when we first meet them. We only tell good friends. Some people can be judgmental.” I took her words to heart, and still do. Only my good friends know. 

* * *

Once, when I was visiting my friend Amital at Princeton, we got into a conversation with a guy who identified as a cultural Jew. 

“I don’t believe in converts,” he said. “Judaism isn’t a religion, really. It’s a culture. You can’t convert into a culture, that’s like cultural appropriation.” 

Amital looked at me and said in Hebrew, “Should I tell him?”

“No, please don’t,” I answered.

“What did you say?” he asked. He looked at me. “Are you a convert?”

“No,” I said, and Amital and I both giggled. “Just something private. But anyway, even if you see Judaism as completely cultural today, you have to admit that it was mainly a religion for millenia. Judaism has had converts since Biblical times. Many of your ancestors converted, I’m sure. Why do you think you’re white?”

We continued the conversation like that – abstractly, academically, as though it didn’t have any real bearing on any of us. 

* * *

In college, I met a convert my age for the first time. Her name was Angela, but within a few months she started going by Ayelet. She was a year above me and I wasn’t close with her, but every now and then we ate lunch together with a group of other observant Jews in the Kosher part of the cafeteria.

Why in the world does she want to convert? I found myself thinking. Judaism was such a hassle. It was logically inconsistent and logistically complicated. She chose to take time off for the holidays in the middle of finals? She chose to stand on the women’s side of the mechitza, the side that isn’t allowed to lead davening? She chose to believe in a deity that issued confusing orders left and right and then disappeared, never to be heard from again? 

I know why I continue to practice Judaism into adulthood. I find spiritual meaning and intellectual engagement in the texts and rituals. But I don’t believe strongly in a Jewish God or in the aging legal system. If I were born Christian, I would have found the same meaning and engagement in that religion as I do in Judaism. In an alternate universe, if I were born into a different religion, there is no chance I would have chosen to convert to Judaism.

After eating lunch with Ayelet one day, I called my mom and asked her the question I’ve asked a thousand times: “Mom, why did you convert?” I used to ask this question to hear a familiar childhood story, an important part of my family history. This time I asked in genuine confusion.

She paused as if to think, then gave me the same answer she always did. “Well, when I was in Sunday school, they used to teach us lines from the Bible. I went home and looked up the quotes that my teacher brought from the text, and I saw that he was quoting them out of context and making the Bible say something that it didn’t really say. When I tried to ask about it in class, I was told not to ask questions. Judaism let me ask questions.” 

For the first time, I pressed her. “But don’t you think that Judaism has a lot of unanswered questions, too?”

“I guess so,” she said. “But we’re allowed to ask. It’s a religion in search of truth.”

* * *

The story of Rut and Naomi is held up by our sages as the original conversion story. Moabite Rut follows her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to an unknown land where she is sure to face poverty and xenophobia. ‘Wherever you go, I will go,’ Rut says to Naomi. ‘Wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.’ In my life, the roles are reversed: my mother, the convert, is Naomi, confidently leading me to God’s promised land. And I am the foreign daughter, uncertain in the truth but following because of my loyalty to her. “Your God is my God.” Not a declaration of logical faith, but rather a declaration of love and commitment to my mother’s choice. 

* * *

I was homeschooled until I was seven years old. My mother was my teacher. She taught me to read in Hebrew and English. She taught me math and davening. She taught me to bake bread and take challah. She taught me how to be a good person: visit the sick, keep shabbos, give tzedakah, be kind, make a bracha before eating, say thank you, wear a long skirt outside. Jewish and secular morals were intermingled to the point where even now, well into my adult life, I am unable to extract them from each other. To be a good person is to be a Jew. That is what my mother taught me.

* * *

Josh was my first serious boyfriend. We were walking out of the subway on our way to a date at an artsy coffee shop he liked. He was a student at Yeshiva University and loved to talk about niche Jewish topics. 

“Yeah, a Cohen can’t marry a widow, a divorcee, or a convert, of course,” he said.

“It’s funny – you know, my dad was supposed to be a Cohen,” I said. I knew this would interest him. “But my mom is a convert.”

“Really?” he said, turning to look at me. “How?”

“Well, they made my dad’s mom testify that she wasn’t a virgin when she married my grandpa. In front of a Beis Din! They basically rescinded my dad’s Cohen status retroactively so that he could marry my mom.” 

“Interesting,” he said. “Huh.”

“Yeah could you imagine my grandma getting up before a beis din and telling them that she had sex in college? You don’t know my grandma of course, but trust me, it’s pretty funny.”

“Which Rabbi did that?” he asked.

“Uh…Rav Dovid Feinstein, I think.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” he said. “You know, you’re probably not allowed to marry a Cohen.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “You should talk to a Rabbi about it, especially now that you’re dating.”

We walked in silence for a few seconds.

“You know,” he said finally. “It doesn’t bother me. Not everyone has a conventional background. If Rav Dovid says it’s okay, that’s good enough for me.”

“Huh?” I said. “Oh. Yeah, thanks.” 

He was trying to make me feel welcome – to let me know that he saw me as just another Jew, like him. But I never felt more like an outsider in my life. My mind raced. Would some people not want to date me, because of my mother? I didn’t like that Josh saw me as someone who needed to be welcomed in. I was a Jew – that was my entire identity. I welcomed other people in. I didn’t need acceptance. I already belonged. Didn’t I?

After talking to my parents, I found Rabbi Bukiet, my parents’ Rabbi at the time that my mother converted, on Facebook. I messaged him: 

“Hi Rabbi Bukiet,

I just turned 21 and I’ve started dating recently. At this life stage, I’ve decided to look into the details of my parents’ marriage and status to see how it might affect me. My dad remembers going through Rav Dovid Feinstein to get the psak. Would there be any way for me to get in contact with him to ask for more details? Or would you know?

Thanks,
Baila”

I followed that with a second text giving him my phone number.

He called me over a month later. By that time Josh and I had broken up. 

“Hi, Baila!” he said. “It’s so nice to hear your voice. I got your message. How are you?”

“Baruch Hashem,” I said. “How are you? How’s the Rebetzin?”

We caught up for a few minutes, then turned to the topic at hand. 

“It’s probably best if you don’t date a Cohen,” he said eventually. “You’re not dating a Cohen, right?”

“No,” I said.

“Good,” he said. “Just try to avoid it if you can. If you need anything else, please let me know.”

* * *

A couple of years later, I got engaged to Louis. Louis’s family background was complicated in the same way that mine was. His dad, Ben, was supposed to be a Levi just like my father was supposed to be a Cohen. But Ben’s own father, like my grandpa, had given up his Levi status – by marrying a non-Jewish woman. Ben’s mother was not Jewish, which meant that technically Ben was not Jewish. But then he married a Jewish woman and so he gave birth to Jewish kids, including Louis. But those kids were not Levi – that status had been Halachically lost. If Louis and I have children, they will be genetically 62.5% Jewish, and 100% of those Jewish genes will be from the tribe of Levi. But Halachically – they will be 100% Jewish and 0% Levi. Complicated enough? Great. 

As we began to plan our wedding and the process of making Aliyah, we found that we had to explain both of our Halachically confusing family backgrounds over and over again. First, we had to explain to the Rabbi who was supposed to marry us, Rabbi Wieder at Yeshiva University. Before he would agree to marry us, he needed a copy of my mother’s conversion certificate. I sent it over to him. Then COVID hit and we ended up doing a two-part wedding so that our older family members wouldn’t have to travel, one part in my hometown in Florida and the other part in Louis’s hometown in California. That meant two more Rabbis! So we had to explain the situation again. Then, in the process of making Aliyah, we needed a letter from a Rabbi saying that we were Jewish. I went to my OU-JLIC Rabbi, who I had known for four years at that point. He needed my mom’s conversion certificate. No problem – it was already in my email inbox. I sent it right over. He needed to know Louis’s Jewish background. I explained it again. Then on the Nefesh b’Nefesh website itself, there was a question: “Are you Jewish through your mother? Jewish through your father?” 

Each time I had to answer these questions, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. It was the same feeling I had with Josh – I know I’m Jewish, I know my parents are Jewish, so why do I feel like an outsider? Why do I have to keep explaining myself? There were no hitches in the process – my mother was converted by an eminent Orthodox Rabbi, so there were never any more questions after I sent over the conversion certificate. But having to validate my place in the community again and again was beginning to wear on me.

At some point, my mother’s conversion stopped seeming like a cool aspect of my life with the potential to make me the protagonist in an incredible story. It started seeming like a worry. Without that conversion certificate, I couldn’t get married. Without that conversion certificate, I couldn’t go to Israel – my home. And I will continue to need that conversion certificate to be accepted into the Yishuv I want to live in, maybe even to get my kids into school. I am a woman, so my children’s Jewishness will come from me. 

My constant religious questioning also seemed suddenly illuminated in a different, more negative light: I was a Frum-from-birth woman entertaining new ideas at a secular, Ivy League college – yes, that was how I saw myself. But I was also the daughter of a convert, questioning Judaism. If I gave it up, my family would have been Jewish for only one generation. Would the community think of my leaving as a great loss to the Jewish people? Or would they say goodbye to me without a second thought? My mother’s conversion left me with a legacy of Jewish uncertainty. 

* * *

For as long as I can remember, my mother was more religious than my father. When I was little, I would see her davening from her leather-bound Chabad Siddur every morning, while my Abba got ready for work. She went to Shul every Shabbos without fail, while my Abba eventually settled into a routine of staying home on the couch. 

“What are you doing?” she shouted at him. “You need to take the kids to Shul. How else will they learn to be Jewish?”

But he would sit on the couch and complain that his head hurt, that he didn’t feel like seeing people, that he didn’t feel like davening. So she walked to Shul with me and my three younger brothers in tow, and gently shoved them through the door into the men’s section before bringing me with her to the women’s section. The boys didn’t have an adult to sit with. They would wander around awkwardly, visiting the candy man, before sneaking out the back to hang out with their friends in the hall. My mom and I stayed and davened. 

According to a survey sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, this is a common phenomenon. The survey found that “more than 68 percent of converts, compared to 34.8 percent of non-converts, described themselves as ‘very’ or ‘moderately’ religious.” Similarly, “84 percent of converts and 44.8 percent of non-converts thought it was ‘important to have a religious identity’ and  “73.8 percent of the converts and 59.5 percent of non-converts felt a ‘personal need to pray.’” 

For this reason, when I had to answer the Nefesh b’Nefesh question about my Jewish parentage, I put down, “Jewish through my mother.” 

I also follow my mother’s minhagim. While my family gradually drifted into Modern Orthodoxy, my mother continued to keep some Chabad practices. When I light candles, I say the bracha, “Lehadlik ner shel shabbos kodesh,” not “Lehadlik ner shel shabbat” – because that’s what my mother says. I only hard boil eggs in odd numbers – 3, 5, 7, etc. – because that’s what my mother does. When I got married, I decided to cover my hair the same way my mother does. My mother is a convert, but she is also the strongest link to Judaism in my ancestral chain.

* * *

My mom looks like a Jew. And not just any Jew – one Jew in particular. Her name is Batsheva, and she lives in Beit Shemesh. She is my mother’s doppelganger. Over the years, my mother has been approached by countless people. “Batsheva!” they say, “I didn’t know you were here in the States!” Once, at a pizza shop in Boca Raton, she even met Batsheva’s parents-in-law. They walked up to her and told her, “You look just like our daughter-in-law!” My mom said, “Oh – Batsheva?”

Whenever my mom goes to the doctor, she is told that she should be tested for certain cancer genes, as an Ashkenazi Jew. She explains that she converted. But they keep asking anyway, year after year.

I have a good friend that I’ve known since we were born. His name is Ari. Like me, his mother converted. But she is Asian-American. Even though he was born an Ashkenazi Jew, Ari looks very different. He’s married now to an Orthodox Israeli woman, and has a baby of his own. But it hasn’t been easy for him. When we were in high school, he had a sweater custom-made with a huge “made in China” label on the front (even though he’s never been to China). He was always quick to joke about his Asian features, before anyone else could. More than once, I’ve had the thought – I’m glad my mom “looks Jewish.” I’m glad I “look Jewish.” It’s an incredibly unfair situation for converts-of-color and their children. I think it’s an indignity that must change. But I’m also glad it’s not me.

* * *

Twice a year, my mom packed me, my brothers, and at least four Kosher pizza pies into our minivan and drove us three and a half hours north to Arcadia, Florida. Population: 7,637 – significantly more people than when my mother was growing up there. We drove to my Papa’s house, which was hidden at the back of a grove of orange trees outside of town. Garbage trucks didn’t drive all the way out there, so he burnt his own trash – recycling was, of course, out of the question.

Like all of my mom’s relatives, Papa had a thick southern accent. My mom used to speak just like the rest of them, but deliberately picked up a city accent around the time she converted and moved to Boca. Whenever she spoke to her family, though, the Southern accent returned. We could always tell she was on the phone with someone from Arcadia when we heard her Southern twang come through.

Papa used to play hide-and-seek-tag with us in the orange grove. My eight cousins, my brothers, and I ran squealing away from the menacing figure of his shadow, an outline of a man with a broad-brimmed hat. It was the most thrilling and fun game I can remember. Afterwards, we would gather for a large family dinner on Papa’s front porch: them with Pizza Hut pizza; us with our Kosher pizza, which had to be double-wrapped in tinfoil before it could be reheated in the oven.

My cousins were a diverse group. Uncle Gene married a Burmese woman, so his three children were Asian-American. Aunt Donna married a professor of Christian Bible studies, so her three children were religious church-goers who grew up knowing as much about the Bible as I did. Uncle Jeffery married a woman who was even more authentically Southern than the rest of the family, so his two children grew up hunting alligators (and eating them) and showing their hogs at the local hog fair. Then there was us – the Jewish cousins. One day, Papa remarked, “I never imagined I’d have some grandchildren who were half-Asian and some who were half-Jewish!”

Sometimes, Papa would have surprises waiting for us when we arrived at his house. More than once, a wooden cross larger than I was casually rested against the closet door in the bedroom I stayed in. Once, he quoted something and told me it was from the book of John. 

“I haven’t read that,” I said politely. 

“A girl your age should know the book of John,” he said. 

My mother glared at him from the corner, and he didn’t say anything else on the subject. In my mother’s words: “he knows that if he pushes the point, I won’t bring you here anymore.” But these incidents were few and far between. Our small Jewish enclave made its way through Christian family gatherings with joy and love, and mostly without trouble.

As I grew older, I came to be grateful for the fact that I knew non-Jewish people. Thanks to my Orthodox upbringing, my mother’s family members were the only non-Jewish people that I knew. Most of my friends had never met non-Jews, outside of interactions with gas station clerks and mailmen. It added an awareness to my life that would later develop my understanding of what America looks like, and would help me understand and accept different cultures more easily.

* * *

Before moving to Israel, Louis and I were regular attendees of the Beis, a Shul in Washington Heights. One Shabbos, there was a special kiddush in honor of a couple that had just gotten married that week. During davening, the Rabbi called the groom up to the Torah for an Aliyah. 

“Perry…do you have a Hebrew name?” the Rabbi said.

“Pinchas,” the man answered.

“Pinchas ben Avraham, shlishi!” the Rabbi said. 

From that interaction alone – the “do you have a Hebrew name?” and the automatic “ben Avraham” – I immediately understood that the man was a convert. I was surprised when Louis told me later that he hadn’t noticed. 

At the Kiddush, the Rabbi gave a speech. He said how happy he was for the new couple and wished them a happy life together. He also congratulated Perry on his first ever Aliyah, and welcomed him as a convert into the community. Perry stood awkwardly with his wife, smiling, but not mingling with the other community members.

Did the Rabbi ask Perry’s permission before announcing to everyone that he was a convert? I wondered. My mom would have been really bothered by that. The Rabbi didn’t mean anything by it, of course. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Rabbi’s flippancy towards conversion reflected well on him – he didn’t think conversion was a big deal or a reason to ostracize people. He thought it was worth congratulating, just like a marriage. He didn’t imagine that his words would have any negative effects for the convert, because it didn’t occur to him that negativity was possible. In an open, welcoming community like the Beis, he may very well be right. 

Will Perry raise his children to avoid telling others about their father’s conversion? Or will he approve and echo the Rabbi’s openness? Will his children have doubts about their own place in the Jewish community? Or will they be able to accept their place without thinking twice? Will they spend their summers with people of different faiths, who live very different lives? Will they keep those magical family summers secret, or will they tell their friends about their family’s traditions? How will they feel? How will they live?

Less than minimum wage to label cats in videos: The dark truth behind the data labeling industry and what it means for AI’s future

In the burgeoning field of AI, data labeling is an essential service. The concept is simple: AI learns just like a human mind does. In order to learn, AI requires teaching material, or in other words, data – lots and lots of data. Let’s say you want your AI to be able to identify a cat in pictures (Google Photos can do this). First you have to show the AI hundreds and hundreds of pictures in which the cats are clearly labeled, to teach it what a cat looks like. After awhile, the AI catches on and learns to identify cats itself.

That’s where data labeling comes in. Someone – or quite a few someones – must sit at a computer screen for hours on end, carefully labeling cats in pictures that will then be used to teach AI.

A sample of data labeling from the Amazon Mechanical Turk task page.

Like most mind-numbing, repetitive labor, data labeling for U.S.-based companies is often outsourced to third world countries such as India, Romania, and the Philippines. One of the first results in a Google search for “data labeling jobs” is Shadow Solutions, a service in the Philippines. The website boasts that “Outsourcing to the Philippines will cost you significantly less than hiring local staff.” How much money do these laborers receive for their efforts? According to the site, “Prices can start from as little as US$6.90 per hour.” Amidst U.S. arguments about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, data labeling seems like yet another example of the American habit of outsourcing wages that would be unacceptable for workers in our own country.

However, this labor is not always outsourced – and American companies offer even shakier wages than foreign companies. By dubbing their workers “independent contractors” rather than “employees,” American companies can get away with paying wages that would otherwise be illegal. 

For example, Amazon (yes, that Amazon) Sagemaker is a top data labeling service. While some of the solutions sold through Sagemaker draw from prelabeled data sets, a large number are created through the Amazon Mechanical Turk workforce – a group of workers who are paid to label specific images in pictures. Rather than setting a price, Amazon allows customers to choose how much money they want to pay for the service. According to Amazon Mechanical Turk’s pricing page, the minimum fee is $0.01 per assignment or bonus payment. In spite of blogs urging customers to pay minimum wage, most people pay less. According to a Cornell research paper published in 2017, Amazon Mechanical Turk workers earn a median hourly wage of $2 per hour. Needless to say, these workers do not receive healthcare or other benefits.

Screenshot from the Amazon Mechanical Turk task page – the customer decides.

Of course, Amazon’s system isn’t all bad. Like Uber and Lyft, Amazon Mechanical Turk allows workers to set their own hours, choose how many jobs to work, and decide when to work. Many times, Amazon Mechanical Turk is a supplemental job for desperate people. At the end of the day, though, there is simply no excuse for that blank box next to the dollar sign. Amazon has a moral responsibility to do better.

As disturbing as this issue is, it will soon become a moot point. The data labeling field is rapidly shifting towards automation; AI is well on the way to learning how to teach itself. One well-established data labeling company, Scale AI, has begun to use AI tools for some of its labeling processes, although it continues to rely on humans to double-check the results for accuracy. In early 2020, two other major data labeling players, LabelBox and IBM, announced that they would soon release completely automated data labeling tools. Automated data labeling is the future of the industry. 

The increase in automated data labeling – in other words, AI creating more AI, and displacing human jobs in the process – sounds like a scary science fiction episode. But the reality is more complicated. Some jobs are not worth preserving, and underpaid data labeling may very well be one of them. Additionally, automated data labeling actually creates more jobs: Scale AI, Labelbox, and IBM employ thousands of people, and AI is a large part of what’s helping these companies thrive. I, for one, will not be sorry to see the industry of human data labeling fade into oblivion. 

Encounter Without End (פגישה לאין קץ)

By Natan Alterman
Translated by Baila Eisen Teitelbaum

Because you came upon me like a storm, I will strum you forever
In vain will I build a wall to keep you out, in vain will I place doors!
My desire is for you and your garden is for me.
And for me – my body has become dizzy, my hands are lost!

In the Books only you are the sin and the judge.
Sudden, forever; my eyes are struck by you,
Time battles in the streets, bleeding raspberry sunsets.
Bind me into silent sheaves.

Don’t implore to those who retreat from coming close.
I will be alone, a wanderer in your lands.
My prayer doesn’t ask for a thing;
I have one prayer, and it says: Here – for you!

Until the ends of sorrow, until the staring fountains of night,
In the iron streets, empty and long,
My God commanded me to carry for your children –
From my immense destitution – sweet almonds and raisins.

It is good that our heart is still entrapped by your hands,
Don’t have pity on it, don’t let it flee in its exhaustion.
Don’t put it down to rest, to fall dark like a room
Where the stars remain outside.

There the moon is burning like the kiss of a slaughteress,
There a damp firmament thunders its cough,
There a sycamore will drop me a leaf like a handkerchief,
And I will bow and lift it up.

And I know that to the voice of the drum,
In merchant cities deafened and pained,
One day I will fall again with a wounded head to pluck
This smile of ours from between the chariot wheels.

“When a Nation is Occupied, Resistance is Justified!”: Justice and the Free Palestine Movement

The following is a picture that was recently posted on the Israel Defense Forces Facebook page.

TW: Blood, death

palestine 1.png

This picture shows, on the one hand, the bloody scene of a Jewish home in the West Bank where 3 Israelis were killed last Friday. It also shows several Palestinians celebrating that death.

While this picture raises a lot of questions, I think that some of the comments on the picture are even more interesting than the image itself. I would like to focus on two of these comments:

palestine 2.png

These commentators argue that because Israel is oppressing Palestine, any bloodshed that goes the other way is, as Feehily puts it, “resistance.” It is a justified, noble fight against the oppressors, and should be encouraged. Like the Gazans in the picture, Feehily celebrates the actions of the killer, who is fighting the good fight for freedom.

This is a common argument presented by pro-Palestinians, and can be summed up in one sentence that is often chanted at pro-Palestinian rallies in America: “When a nation is occupied, resistance is justified!” This sentence, when thoroughly taken apart, means the following: “Because Palestinians are oppressed by Israel, they should kill Israelis whenever possible.”

A lot of the liberal Americans that I know buy into this argument. In fact, the first time I heard this chant was at a rally protesting an Israeli speaker at Columbia University.

Because people I know and relate to take this argument seriously, I would like to address it seriously. This summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the conflict. Here are some thoughts that I’ve been considering, that maybe you haven’t been.

I want to start with Donald Trump.

Let’s say our lovely new president really went out and built that wall he keeps talking about.

Let’s say he kicked out all of the Mexican-Americans currently living in the United States of America.

And let’s say – it wouldn’t be so difficult to picture, would it? – that a small group of Mexican-Americans started fighting back. That they snuck into the country every chance they got, with one purpose: to kill Americans.

Let’s say they killed a pregnant woman and her two-year-old child.

Let’s say they killed a young man a month after his wedding.

Let’s say they killed any American they could find – black, white, anyone.

Let’s say they even killed a French tourist who was visiting the country for a week.

Let’s say they even, accidentally, killed an old Mexican-American man without realizing that he was one of their own.

Let’s say they killed you. Yes, you, reading this. You, the liberal. You, who cried when Trump was elected, real tears of fear and shame. They killed you, because you were living in America. Dead. No more life. The end.

Yesterday, in a city near Tel Aviv, a Muslim man was killed by a Muslim terrorist. The two were in a restaurant in a mixed Jewish-Muslim area, and the terrorist assumed that the man was a Jew. This is not the first time this has occurred.

Last year, in the West Bank, an American tourist was shot by a terrorist as he drove to do community service in Alon Shvut. He did not have Israeli citizenship. He was just visiting.

And often, constantly, the victims of terrorism are young childrenparents, and  grandparents.

One of the main tenements of democracy is a fair trial.

The problem with terrorism is that there is no trial. No judge approves terror victims before they are killed. No judge says, “This is a right-wing Israeli who believes in the occupation.”

There is no justice in terrorism.

Instead, people are killed randomly. No child chose to be born into an Israeli family. But children are killed. No Muslim man supports oppression. But Muslim men are killed.

Terrorism is senseless. It is random. It takes innocent lives. And, at the end of the day, it achieves nothing.

שפיל פורים

(הפעולות כתובות בסוגריים)

אסתר: שלום, זה התחרות יופי? החיילים שחטפו אותי מהבית של בן דוד שלי הכריחו אותי לבוא לפה.
כרוז: אה…זה תחרות, כן. לא תחרות יופי, אבל לא משנה. בואי תצרפי עם כולן.
אסתר: אוקי.
כרוז: ששש
בנות: ששש
אסתר: אבל למה התחרו-
כולם: ש-ש-ש-ש-ש!
כרוז: שלום בנות, וברוכות הבאות לתחרות. יש לכם 12 חודשים עד למפגש עם הרבנית. בששה החודשים הראשונים, תוכלו להשתמש בכל הספרים שאתן צריכות. בששה האחרונים, יהיה לכן הזדמנות ללמוד מהמורים הכי טובים בעולם. טוב, נראה לי שזה הכל. באו לקחת ספרים.
(כל אחת עולה לשולחן ולוקחת הרבה ספרים, אז יוצאת. אסתר לוקחת ספר אחד – הספר של הרב סולובייציק).
כרוז: מה אסתר, רק ספר אחד?
אסתר: אני לא צריכה יותר מזה.
(אסתר יוצאת. אסתי באה לבמה ויושבת על כיסא בצד).
כרוז: אוקי בנות, היום הגדול הגיעה! הבת הראשונה נא הגיעה לבמה.

(בת א עולה לבמה. היא ממש נלהבת וצועקת כל השיחה)
אסתי: שלום, מה שלומך?
א: מה זה משנה? לא כדאי לבזבז את הזמן עם שאלות טריוויאליות, זה ביטול תורה. לי יש שאלה יותר חשובה: למה חג פורים נקבע ביום שהיהודים נחו, אחרי שכבר נצחו את המלחמה?! והנה התשובה: זה קשור לניצחון טוטלי על עמלק! במלחמה, הרגנו את עמלק בגוף! במנוחה שלנו, באי-דאגה, אנחנו הורגים אפילו את הפחד שעמלק ער בנו! עכשיו יש לי שאלה יותר חשובה! מה הבעיה שלנו עם עמלק? מה הם עשו לנו? המם? (מחכה כמה שניות)
אסתי: אהם, למדתי מהרב עמיטל ש…
א: גם אני למדתי את זה! אני למדתי את כל התשובות! עשיתי שבוע שאלות מלא על השאלה הזאת! ואף אחת מהתשובות לא מספקת אותי! עכשיו, אני עוזבת! אני עושה עליה ברגל לספריה הקדושה, ספריית ישיבת הגוש! אני אשאר שם עד שאני מוצאת תשובה! שלום!
(היא צועדת מהבמה)
אסתי: חבל, היא הייתה טובה. שפיצית כזה.

(בת ב עולה לבמה עם כוס מים ביד, מתנהגת כמו שיכורה)
ב: שלום תתסי – אה, סתתי – אסתי! שלום אסתי! (נראה ממש גאה בעצמה שהיא זכרה את השם)
אסתי: כן, נו
ב: אוקי! הנה היא – הדבר תורה שלי! הדבר תורה טכי הובה – גיהק – הכי טובה בעולם! סבבה. אז יש לנו חיוב לשתות בפורים. אבל מה בדיוק צריכים לעשות? הרמבם כותב שחייבים לישון עד שהולכים לשתות. גיהק. השולחן ערוך חושב שחייבים לשתות עד שלא יודעים את ההבדל בין “ברוך מרדכי” ל”ארור המן”. גיהק. ואני – לי יש חידוש! ממהממ.
(היא עוצרת לדבר. אחרי כמה שניות, אסתי מדברת)
אסתי: ומה החידוש שלך?
ב: כן, החידוש! את מכירה את המשפט בגמרא שמתארת את המצוה לשתות בפורים?
אסתי: בוודאי.
ב: טוב, אני אלמד אותך. המשפט הולך ככה: (היא מרימה את הידיים בצורה דרמתית) “מיחייב איש – אישה – אינשהו – איניש – לבסומי בפור-ר-ר-רים. לא. פוריאאא. עד ללא – עד בלא – עד דלא ידע (היא עוצרת לנשום). חייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי! ולי ולדעתי – הנה החידוש – בן אדם צריך להשתכר עד שהוא לא יכול להגיד את המשפט המטומטם הזה, אפילו עם עזרה משטיינזלץ! תודה רבה! (היא משתחווה)
אסתי: אממ…תודה. נחזור אליך.
ב: אוקי, ביייי! (עוזבת בדרך שיכרותי)

(בת ג. עולה לבמה)
ג: “וישב מרדכי אל שער המלך.” חז”ל מסבירים שהמילה “שב” כוונתה היא שב בתשובה. למה חז”ל חתרו?
(הבת מתחילה להסביר במבט חולמני ובקול ישנוני ולפעמים מתרגש ככל שדבר התורה ממשיך)
לאחר שהמן לקח את מרדכי ברחבי העיר והכריז ” כך יעשה אשר המלך חפץ ביקרו” ונתן לו כבוד מלכים, הבין מרדכי לעצמיותו של הדבר העמוק באספקלריותו המאירה. בסיפור נהפוכו זה הבין מרדכי את ענייין תנועת הגלגל של מעלה-מטה מעלה-מטה במציאות של עולמנו. ובתוך זה יש גם את עניין “אין שום ייאוש בעולם כלל” – על האדם תמיד לזכור שיש באפשרותו לעלות תמיד. לצאת מהחיצוניות של המצוקה, לצאת מהשדה, לכוון את עצמו לטרנסצנדנטיות ולראות את אור האינסוף משורש נשמתו. וכך בלי פחד לבטוח בה’. שהרי כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד והעיקר לא לפחד כלל. אחרי שמרדכי הבין את כל העניין הזה עשה מרדכי תשובה בלב שלם וטהור בבוטחו בה’ שתהיה הצלה גם לכל עם ישראל ועל זה כתוב “וישב מרדכי אל שער המלך” . (הבת מחייכת חיוך חולמני, מרוצה ונראית עמוק במחשבה)
אסתי: (נראית מבולבלת) אהממ…מה?
הבת: (אומרת בביטחון) מקום שמחשבתו של אדם נמצאת, שם הוא כולו.
אסתי: סליחה?
בת: כל זמן שהנר דולק אפשר לתקן.
אסתי: אני רואה שאת ממש אוהבת חסידות.
בת: סופו להיות שמח!
אסתי: נו באמת.
בת: אופ בסדר. בקצור, כתוב שמרדכי “שב” אל שער המלך, אומר שהוא רוצה לחזור בתשובה על שהוא לא השתחווה להמן וזה יצר את כל הבלגן הזה על “להרוג ולאבד”.
אסתי: אה. באמת זה לא כל כך מרשים
בת: (יוצאת בכעס) לפחות ה’ יתברך אוהב אותי!

(בת ד עולה לבמה)
ד: שלום! אני פה להסביר את הפסוק “שושנת יעקב צהלה ושמחה בראותם יחד תכלת מרדכי.”
אסתי: בבקשה.
ד: מהי שושנת יעקב? החברה, הבת דודה, אז השכנה שלה…זאת שנשואה ליעקב, אז היא. צהלה מלשון שיש לה קול כמו סוס.
ושמחה זה: שם- חה. כמו שכותבים בוואטסאפ: “חה חה.”
בראותם – בי ראו אותם – כלומר שני אנשים (שושנה ויעקב) ראו את מרדכי בצבע תכלת כמו שראו את אסתר בצבע ירוק… וזהו.
אסתי: זה לא אומר כלום.
ד: אני יודעת.
אסתי: זה היה בכלל דבר תורה?
ד: זה היה מספיק דבר תורה.
אסתי: מספיק למה?
ד: ביילע אמרה שהיא תיתן שוקולד לכל מי שכותבת דבר תורה להצגה. אז אני כתבתי את מה שאמרתי עכשיו, וקיבלתי שוקולד.
אסתי: אכפת לך בכלל מהתחרות?
ד: לא. להתראות (מדלגת מהבמה).
(בת ה נכנסת לבמה)
ה: שלום. פעם תהיתם לעצמכם למה מגילת אסתר נכנסה לתנ”ך? כידוע-
בת א: שם ה’ לא נמצא במגילה.
בת ג: לא כתוב על ארץ ישראל.
בת ד: אסתר התחתנה לגוי.
בת ה: או אהממ… רוצים לשמוע תשובה?
בת א: זה מראה שה’ עוזר גם למי שנמצא בגלות.
בת ב: תוכחה ליהודים לעלות לארץ.
בת ג: תיקון לאיך ששאול נכשל בלהשמיד את עמלק (בת א: “עזבו את עמלק!”).
בת ד: תיקון לעץ הדעת.
בת ה: אהמ אוקיי! רוצות לשמוע עוד תשובות?
בנות: לא!!
(ה יוצאת)

-אסתר עולה לבמה בבושה
אסתי: שלום, איך קוראים לך?
אסתר: אסתר
אסתי: איזה קטי, גם אני! אני רואה שהבאת רק ספר אחד.
אסתר: כן. זה של הרב האהוב עלי. מצאתי את הדבר תורה שלי שם.
אסתי: יפה מאוד. בבקשה תתחילי מתי שנח לך.
אסתר: אוקי (נושמת עמוק) יש לי שאלה אקסיסתינציאלית. שאלה אנטולוגית. שאלה על המצוקה המטפיסית באישיות האדם. למה השמחה שלנו בפורים היא לא כמו שמחתינו בחג קלאסי? למה הפסיכולוגיה שלנו בפורים היא תיאטרלית, כמעט אבסורדית, שבחגים האחרים כמו פסח, השמחה שלנו עמוקה ואינטנסיבית? הטקסט של המגילה מגלה פילוסופיה אנטולוגית עמוקה ביותר. בפורים, הסבל העמוק של האדם ממשיך גם אחרי הישועה. הטרגדיה האבסורדית של פורים היא גם שאחרי שה’ מציל אותנו, אנו עדיין נמצאים במצוקה אונטית ואונטולוגית. אחשוורוש עדיין שולט עלינו. הישועה הפרדקסולית הזאת גורמת להירואיזם יותר אינטנסיבי ממה שמבוקש בחגים אחרים. הפילוסופיה של פורים מבוססת על התיאוריה שאנחנו עדיין בגלות. המן חדש יכול לעלות בכל רגע. אנחנו נמצאים במצב פונדמנטלי של פחד. ולפיכך אנו משתכרים בפורים, להזכיר לעצמינו את המסר האוניברסלי ורלוונטית הזה: שאנחנו, לכל דבר ועניין, נמצאים אפילו היום מתחת לשליטת פרס – בדרך מטפורי, כמובן.
(אסתי עומדת ומחייה כפיים)
אסתי: זה הדבר תורה הכי מושלם ששמעתי כל הלילה! את בדיוק מה שחפסתי! מזל טוב, אסתר – התקבלת לשנה ב’!
(כולם מחיים כפיים)

A Factual Account of a Recent Terror Attack in Israel

Thursday, November 19, 2015. Migdal Oz Beit Midrash for Women. Approx. 4:30 p.m.
The sirens started wailing about halfway through Rav Medan’s Tanach class. We were used to it by this point, and while a couple of girls furtively checked their phones for news of what we knew must be yet another terrorist attack in or around Alon Shvut, most of us ignored it and continued straining to hear the elderly Rav Medan’s whispery voice with all the Talmudic brilliance it could impart. After all, what is there to do but bring more Torah into the world, and try to change our lives as little as possible so that we Don’t Let the Terrorists Win?
But the sirens kept blaring, on and on and on. Five minutes…ten minutes…Rav Medan, who lives in Alon Shvut, is getting nervous. His wife is there. His students at Har Etzion, the brother yeshiva to my seminary. His grandchildren probably, and the more the sirens wail the more you have to wonder, How many people dead or injured need that many ambulances? So when his phone rings a few minutes later, none of us mind that he puts down his Tanach and answers.
“Can it wait? I’m in the middle of a Shiur,” he says bravely. Our eyes are glued to his face.
“Ten people?”
We gasp. There is a chorus of “What?!”s from around the room.
The Rav talks for awhile longer. When he hangs up we all look at him, waiting. In the expectant silence, the sirens continue, frightful and incessant.
“Ten injured, some possibly dead. No one I know. Tourists, apparently. American.”
He lowers his head and begins to murmur something, probably Tehillim. By the time I think of saying a Perek of my own, he’s gone back to teaching as abruptly as he stopped. As we plow through Bamidbar, he throws in a few extra jokes to distract us. We laugh a little. But the sirens are still wailing. The sound goes on whole fucking class, and afterwards, a half an hour into dinner, more and more sirens until the sound becomes oppressive and the learning unbearable.
I want to close my ears. I want someone to stand up and scream along. There is something gnawing at my stomach, my gut, my conscience. When I found out that three people had died during that hour of ambulances, including an American boy, Ezra Schwartz, who was in Israel on a gap year program like me and who shares four mutual friends with me on facebook (I checked), I imagine that the sirens that we heard and ignored were the wails of the dying. We did nothing…what could we do… He was friends with my friends, with Batman and Hannah Stanhill and Moshe Frier and Taco. Taco was in the car with him when they were shot at. I saw a picture in the news, of Taco, my classmate since fourth grade, with his head in his hands and his friend Ezra’s blood all over the side of his shirt. The boys in that van, Ezra Scwartz too, were real and alive and gleaming with health.
I wonder if he called his mother every day like I do. I wonder how they told his parents. Maybe they told them over the phone, or maybe someone called their Shul’s Rabbi so that he could tell them in person. I wonder how it feels to lose a son who’s all the way over the sea with his whole life stretching luxuriously before him. I wonder what it’s like to die young, suddenly, you don’t even know that it’s happening and then you are gone.
Unimaginable things happen every day.

Saturday, November 21st, 2015. Ben Gurion Airport. 8:00 p.m.
Ezra Schwartz’s coffin was being sent home. His friends and family in Israel gathered at the airport to say goodbye. I was one of the few there who didn’t personally know him; I went with Chani, who did know him but couldn’t go without me. Her mom won’t let her take buses by herself because of all the terror attacks.
Q: Why do people cry at funerals?
A: They are sad because he is gone; after death, there is nothing; therefore the fact of his life being cut short is an unspeakable tragedy.
B: They are sad because he is somewhere else, and they will miss him.
C: They are scared because they know that death, whatever it is, comes for all of us.
Everyone is un-settling. Shifting back and forth, breathing teary sighs.
Why am I even here? Good God I don’t want to stand here with my arm around Chani’s shoulder and everyone bonded by mourning and love all I want to do is go sit quietly in the corner and croquet a kippah, working my hands, pulling the thread in and out of the loops, a circular motion, like lentils, representing the cycle of life and…

Saturday, November 21st, 2015. A taxi. Approx. 10:00 p.m.
I never thought that the ambulances shrilling out the window in class one day would have such big effects. Just an hour’s worth of noise. Even more so: the sound of the bullets – rat-a-tat-tat – such a small small sound, and look what it caused. On the one hand a levaya full of crying people ushering a coffin onto an airplane, and on the other a gathering of teenagers to sing at the Kotel in his memory, and an entire family with a member ripped out, and an entire country with one more terror wound tearing its flesh, mourners all, deep emotions all stemming from the sound of nothing, the sound of a bullet piercing skin.
If a man falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear him, does he still make an impact?
The Baal Shem Tov once said that the reaction to tragic events shouldn’t be to Do What They Would Have Wanted or Don’t Let the Terrorists Win or even There’s a Lesson to Be Learned From This. Instead, he said, we should just cry. Let the tragedy fill up our souls and spill over. Cry and cry and not think.
If the Baal Shem Tov were alive now, he’d sit around crying all day.
May God comfort the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem!

Ducks

Today was June 1st, although it is now 12:02 on June 2nd. A belated Happy Birthday.

There is a time, when you are young, when you don’t believe that you can end up like your parents.

When I was little we had a lake in our backyard, just on the edge of the playground. The ducks who lived there would leave splatters of green or brown droppings that blended in with the grass, so that you’d have to look carefully before you stepped. They weren’t scared of people, and if you were walking and one of the ducks was walking and the two of you should happen to meet, you would have to get out of its way. My brothers and I used to chase them, shrieking; and they would waddle slowly away from our reaching hands, as if they couldn’t be bothered with such silly things as fear. Every year at springtime we would search the hidden places around the lake’s border for nests. When we were lucky enough to find a mother resting wary-eyed atop her hidden eggs, we would come back to visit her every day from a distance. When the ducklings hatched we followed them as they followed their mothers.

When I was seven years old I began to think about death. My great-grandmother passed away, and as I watched her being lowered into the ground I wondered. Every year on my birthday, my relatives wished me a long and prosperous life; and my great-grandmother had lived a long and prosperous one hundred and three years, and now she was dead. One day, I would be dead too. This was the only ending.

But I had never seen a dead duck. I led my brothers in a search around the lake, but in all the masses of fat, waddling, breathing creatures, there was no hint of death.

“Mommy, do ducks die?” I asked after this failed expedition.

“Yes, of course,” she said, looking down at me from her adult height. She was dressing raw chicken in preparation for dinner.

“Have you ever seen one?”

“Seen a dead duck?” She pursed her lips thoughtfully, pulling some spices from a cabinet above her head. “No, I suppose I haven’t. Well isn’t that odd! With so many around here, they’re bound to die all the time.”

“But they haven’t,” I said solemnly.

She laughed, reaching to pat me on my curly brown head before remembering that her hands were dirty with chicken fat. “I’m sure they die, Caroline. Someone here must come and pick the bodies up before we can see them. Or maybe they migrate and die somewhere else. But they die just like every other creature does. Now stop worrying about their death and enjoy chasing them around while they’re still alive.”

She was always telling my brothers and me not to chase the ducks, so I knew that this last comment was said only to end the conversation, because she didn’t have an answer. From then on I stayed indoors or in the yard, safely away from the ducks at the lake. I was afraid of immortality.

I only returned to my old haunt of grass and sky and water when I was fourteen and desperately needed someplace to run away to. By then I’d forgotten the reason I had avoided it for so long, except as a sort of mysterious dark feeling in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps as a consequence of my staying inside all the time, I had become more aware of family politics, and the older I got the less I liked them. My oldest brother, Nate, was sixteen years old and had just hit that nasty age where he detested everything about his parents. He and my father would get into shouting matches that began at the most inconvenient times – in the middle of dinner, right before we had to leave for school – that could last for hours. When this happened I would run to my room, put on my socks and shoes, take my sketchpad into my sweaty hands, and listen by my bedroom door, trembling, for their voices to move to the kitchen. When I could hear that the coast was clear, I would make a break for the patterned glass door that led to the backyard, open it quickly, slam it behind me so hard that the glass nearly shattered, and sprint through the yard to the lake. There in the warm humidity I rediscovered the secret places I had known in my childhood, and sat and drew the sunlight opening itself on dark green leaves. The ducks didn’t bother me. They understood that I needed to be left alone.

Soon I was coming to the lake every day, and my drawings somehow transformed themselves under my shaking hands from pretty leaves and sunlight to scowling, angry faces. Everything was twisted in my head. The lake didn’t seem real anymore. It was just a dream world to escape to. I imagined it was a drug, something fake and hard and pretty to abandon reality to. And in a way it was. I left behind my younger brother, Connor, who had stopped being shocked by the fighting and instead sat on the couch watching Nate and Dad watch with blank eyes, as though he was watching television. I left behind my mother, who tried to outshout them in her soft voice, to plead with them, to somehow separate them so that they’d just shut up and give her some peace. I left my father, whose angry screams escalated with pain at the near-fatal wound of being hated by his own child, at the terror having failed in a way beyond forgiveness. I left Nate, whose hatred twisted his mouth and brought tears from his eyes, who couldn’t believe he had been born to such a stupid excuse for a man, who couldn’t forgive his father for being detestable. I escaped. I abandoned them all to their terrible fates.

One day my sketchbook fell from my fingers with a plop into the water. I had been staring absently into the sky, which was a fake child-bright blue. I had been hating it. And the sketchbook had slipped, slowly, from my loose fingers…I watched it fall. I didn’t notice it falling, as I watched it.

It should have floated away, bright white with symbolic innocence; or it should have sunk; it should have done anything other than what it did. It sat there on the surface of the lake, water slowly washing brown debris over it. It grew dirtier and dirtier, a foot from where I sat on the grassy slope, swishing back and forth in the murky water. I stared at it. I got up and moved away, up towards the shady space between two pine trees that only I knew existed. I sat there for awhile. Then I got bored. I had nothing to do without my sketchbook. I lay down and stared at the stagnant branches plastered against the sky. I closed my eyes. I opened them again. I had nothing.
I got up and walked back down to the lake. My sketchbook was still there, looking like a drowned piece of trash. I stepped ankle-deep into the water, bent down, and picked it up. It bled muddy water between my fingertips. The top page, an image of a grinning face with demon eyes and spittle flying from its mouth, leered up at me. I stood there in the lake, feeling my toes start to wrinkle. I still had nothing.

That was when I saw the duck.

It was a pile of matted black feathers, heaped on the surface of the brown water like a crumpled shirt. Its white head, barely visible under the water-logged pile, was dirtied to a shade of gray. Most shockingly, its beak was gone, leaving behind only a blood-encrusted stump in the middle of its ugly face. I had a sudden, vivid image of Nate grabbing the duck by its neck and forcing its beak to the ground, hate sneering across his mouth, and grinding, grinding, grinding…

I twisted to the left and threw up. The vomit made a liquid sound as it hit the water.

Then I ran, padding up the grass with still-wet feet, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. I ran back to the hidden place between the two pine trees, grabbed hold of a trunk, and began to climb. My legs kicked desperately away from the ground. The lake was no escape anymore. I needed to fly away, like ducks do, like the ducks were supposed to do when they died, so that we couldn’t see them. We weren’t meant to see them like that.

Pine needles whipped my face, and I dropped my sketchbook for the second time that day. There was a muffled thunk as it hit the ground.

Florida

Today is Sunday, the nineteenth of April.

Today was a beautifully exhausting day. It was probably all the heat. It’s starting to feel like summer here again. I can barely even handle walking all the way around the lake mornings like I usually do. It’s probably the last time I’ll feel the slow, burning dawning of a Floridian summer. My sixth grade brother is going to Sea Camp with his class for the next couple of days. The humidity, the heat, the salty stickiness of the ocean – it’s the very epitome of Florida. Anyway I woke up pretty early this morning and had a good day and now I’m tired and don’t feel like writing. Good night.

Another Portrait

Today is Sunday, April 12th.

Drew is short, but that’s not the first thing you should know about him.

When he was in tenth grade, Drew had an epiphany. Like most important revelations, this one took place in the bathroom.

What he realized, he will tell you in an impassioned voice, is that there are important things in life and unimportant things, and when one makes a list of those things from most important to least important, money will come in dead last (as a means to get to something more important, of course, money is useful – but money for its own sake is worthless). School will come in second to last. Drew will raise his arms, gesturing fervently to make you understand. The most important thing is finding your passion and following it. Nothing else can possibly matter as much as that.

After his revelation, Drew stopped bothering to get good grades in school. He likes to call himself stupid.

Drew has had two girlfriends, both of whom are still sensitive subjects, but especially the last one. If you mention her name in passing, he will look up as if it was his name you were calling, and stare at you with guarded and wounded eyes.

Drew will answer any question you ask in as much detail as possible, and he is an amazing storyteller. If you are bored one day, walk over to him and ask him how his life has been going lately. Once you get him started, he can convince anyone of anything, so long as he believes in it. He does not, of course, answer the questions that you don’t ask.

Drew will always make fun of himself first.

At an early stage in his pubescent life, Drew decided that he cares about the world. The world is not a happy place, and Drew would sit and think about it and sometimes cry because no matter how much he does, he knows that he is not even making a dent in the seething horror that life can be.

It must be assumed that at some point Drew shelved these thoughts and set about doing as much as he could to change things, ignoring the fact that some things are too big to be changed.

Drew loves to know your personal business. He has warm hazel-brown eyes that crinkle around the edges with something that looks like understanding. He is always moving, but when he sits still, he listens with as much passion as he does everything else. He loves to mention your personal business too, blurting out veiled references in front of everyone you know. He will wink at you as you blush and stutter, and he will enjoy the secret that you share. If it is your secret, you may not reciprocate that enjoyment.

Drew is always sure that he is right. He believes every word he says. If you stick around him long enough, you will too.

I like to listen to him talk. The way he weaves his words is a thing of beauty. It’s like a song, and orchestra, a crescendo of thought and feeling.

Drew sings, too. Not very well, but that doesn’t matter if you put enough enthusiasm into it. With as much enthusiasm as Drew has, you can do anything.

A Story of Soulmates

Today is Sunday, April 5. Michali helped me come up with the ideas for some of this:

This is a story of two soulmates.

Abe had had a long day at work. He was tired and slightly pissed off, a feeling that only increased when he went to his favorite coffee shop to find that there were no empty seats. He ordered his vanilla-bean latte with whipped cream, countering the judgmentally raised eyebrow from the girl behind the counter with a mutter of, “Sometimes real men like things sweet, okay?” and took a seat on the floor besides the counter.
He hadn’t gotten halfway through his first sip before the applause began. He spilled vanilla-bean all over his white button down, cursed once, and then slumped back in disgust. The girl behind the counter passed him a napkin.
“What in the name of all that’s holy is going on here?” he asked crossly.
“A gig,” she replied. “Sarah & the Rubber Band. They’re getting a popular nowadays. Haven’t you heard of them?”
He hadn’t. But the barista gave him another coffee for free, so he sat in his cold wet shirt and watched Sarah, all long legs and arms raised in exhilarated triumph, sing one rock song after another in a sweet, fake-macho voice. He couldn’t see her face from his seat on the floor. Sarah. She sounded beautiful.
She finished and walked away in a trampling of feet and more applause. He glimpsed her short red hair bobbing away and tried to get up but there were too many people in his way. As he drove home alone in the dark he wondered if he would have mustered up the courage to speak to her.

Sarah walked into a lone gas station in the middle of Arcadia, Florida. It was three o’clock in the morning. She sat down next to a woman with long dark hair, took a deep breath, and ordered a cup of black coffee. It tasted watery and fake.
“Your mascara’s running,” said the woman with the dark hair.
Sarah took a deep breath and swiped at her eyes. “Thanks.”
“That didn’t help,” said the woman helpfully. Sarah nodded and sipped her coffee in a peaceful silence for all of five seconds before the woman continued. “I’m Haggar. What’s your name?”
“Sarah,” Sarah muttered. “What sort of name’s Haggar?” She was sure the woman must have been asked that dozens of times before, but she felt like being annoying, and anyone trying to start up a conversation with her at three o’clock in the morning would just have to deal with that.
Haggar only smiled. “It’s an old one. And what’s wrong with you, dearie?”
Sarah glanced her over skeptically. Haggar looked to be about twenty-one, twenty-two – the same age as Sarah. No one that young had any right to be calling her “dearie.”
“Broke up with my boyfriend.”
“Ooh.” Haggar tutted sympathetically. “Nasty affair, was it? Lots of yelling and throwing things and all that nonsense?”
Sarah laughed, once. “Yes.” She laughed again. Suddenly, she couldn’t stop laughing.
“I’m sorry,” she said, gasping for breath. “But when you put it that way it just seems so- so pointless and funny.”
Haggar smiled. “Laughter’s the best cure, that’s what my mum always said. My boyfriend’s a bit of a downer himself. He’s liable to break up with me any day now.”
“Oh, I’m sorry!” said Sarah.
“Well, maybe he won’t,” said Haggar easily. “He might not mind living with someone he doesn’t love as much as you do, dearie. It’s not the end of the world, you know.”
Sarah gaped at her.
“Oh, no, don’t worry about what to say,” Haggar continued. “We’re being honest with each other now, you and me. You can always be honest with a woman with dripping mascara.”
Sarah shrugged. “Fine.” She took a deep breath. “I never loved Rob anyway. I was just bored, and he knew it. He wasn’t as okay with it as you are, though. He was mad. He was jealous of the man that doesn’t even exist – the one in my imagination. So he yelled and threw things, yes. And I yelled back, and then I left. That’s the end of our band, I guess.” She shrugged again, then asked suddenly: “What’s your boyfriend’s name?”
“Abe,” said Haggar. “He’s in the bathroom now. Picked up a stomach bug somewhere in Georgia. We’re heading back up north after tonight. It’s been quite a vacation, let me tell you.”
Sarah nodded. “Abe.” She drained the last of her coffee. “Thank you, Haggar,” she said. She got up and walked out at precisely the same moment that the door to the men’s room swung open.

Abe got home, opened the fridge, and found that they were not only out of milk, but also out of eggs, juice, and any semblance of an edible vegetable.
“Who wants to go to the store?” he shouted brightly. He didn’t have much hope – all the kids had grown out of the happy-to-hang-out-with-daddy stage and were fast approaching the more fashionable teenage we-hate-our-parents stage. But, unbelievably, an answer echoed from somewhere in the depths of the house.
“Wait for me!”
“Ish?” said Abe incredulously. His gangling fifteen-year-old burst out of the den, grabbed the keys, and raced for the car. Abe followed, rubbing his head. He found Ishmael in the driver’s seat and sighed.
“I’ve told you once and I’ve told you again. If you’re not willing to put the effort into getting your learner’s permit, you can’t drive,” he admonished sternly.
“Fine,” said Ishmael, flashing him a grin and sliding into the passenger seat, sending papers and sunglasses flying. He’s a growing boy, Abe reminded himself. He’s still getting used to being so big. And having him along certainly did make a trip to the supermarket considerably more exciting.
Sure enough, Ish careened the buggy down the aisles, grabbing this or that candy just like he had when he was a kid.
“Okay, okay, just one chocolate bar,” Abe conceded. “No, not the king-sized, just get the regular! Okay, we’re checking out now. Come on.”
Ishmael gave him a mutinous look before finally following him to the check-out line. It seemed as though the entire world had decided to go shopping that mundane Thursday evening; there were at least ten people in front of them. Abe could just make out the cashier’s slim white hands, deftly sliding the food across the scanner.
He was thinking absentmindedly about how one of these days Ish would stop listening to him, and then what would he do, when he realized that he’d forgotten the milk. It was almost their turn and the line was stretching ever-longer behind them.
“Ishmael, take my credit card,” Abe said. “Start putting the food up. I’m going to run and get some milk. If I’m not back in time, just pay and sign my name.”
“So I can sign your name, but I can’t drive the car?” Ish retorted.
Abe sighed. “We’ll discuss this another time, young man.”
He hurried back to the dairy section, grabbed a couple of cartons, and slammed them down just as Ish was about to swipe the card.
“This too,” he gasped at the cashier. But she was looking out the window, the back of her head, replete with short red hair, turned to him. The tag on her shirt said “Hi, my name is Sarah! How may I help you?”
“I think someone’s car is being stolen out there,” she said, still facing away from him.
Abe looked past her and gave a theatrical gasp. “That’s mine!” He hurried out the door.
Puffing forty-something-year-old though he was, he must have had some ounce of dignity left in him, because the robber took one look at him and ran away as fast as he could.
Abe stood there with his hands on his hips, catching his breath and feeling rather proud of himself, until he spotted Ishmael walking towards him, five bags of groceries on each arm.
“Look, Dad! I’m carrying all the groceries!” he cried. “What happened to the robber?”
“He ran off,” said Abe proudly.
“What a scaredy-cat,” Ish snickered, dumping the eggs offhandedly into the car. “I would never have run away.”
“Oh, no, not the eggs!” said Abe, with a sinking feeling in his stomach. He opened up the carton and carefully checked them for cracks. They were miraculously unharmed, but the sinking feeling remained.
“Am I forgetting something?” he asked as he climbed into the car.
“Nope,” said Ishmael cheerfully.
“I’m not sure…”
He drove home, trying unsuccessfully to figure out the cause of the missing feeling inside him, and all the while thinking of the cashier’s pale hands.