Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The One Where I Sell Out My Wedding

In today's edition of Tablet, I tell the story of how I asked my mother to give me my wedding money in order to pay off some of my student loan debt. This should not come as a surprise to readers of this blog since I frequently complain about my money problems. Here's a snippet from "Something Borrowed":

As a 27-year-old, marginally employed freelance writer and part-time Hebrew school teacher, my income fluctuates wildly from month to month. After I send in my rent check and pay for food and other basics, there is often little left over. A few years ago, I was faced with a rather stark choice—pay my medical-insurance premiums or my monthly student loan bill, money that I had borrowed to pay for an MFA in creative writing, which I completed in the spring of 2008. (If you’re questioning the wisdom of pursuing a Master’s degree in something as woolly as writing, get in line behind me.) I went with my health over my debt and deferred the loans. But I wasn’t comfortable deferring them indefinitely. The interest was steadily accruing, and I was panicking.

Hope you enjoy the rest. And my apologies to any readers currently in an MFA program. It was only mildly useless for me. I'm sure it will turn out differently for all other degree recipients.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Tale of Two Passport Photos

Yesterday I wrote about how if I could turn back time (ala Cher), I would have de-Orthodoxized earlier (or at least temporarily) so I could've had a more "traditional" Birthright trip. Well, the reason this trip has been on my mind this week is because I just mailed my passport renewal forms since mine is set to expire this week.

New passport obviously means new pictures and so I went to Walgreens to take new unflattering head shots. The disinterested employee told me where to stand and to push my hair back so that my ears would be visible. I complied though I wondered my ears were so important to this image. I quickly glanced at the results and gave him permission to print them. "I guess it looks like me," I said.

But it didn't, not completely. I had just gotten a hair cut so the stylist had straightened. Odds are that when I attempt to cross a border in the future, my hair will be a frizzy, curly mess. Hope this doesn't confuse any of the customs agents in my future.

As I sat, waiting for my photos to be processed, I flipped through the pages of my old book, fingering the stamps from all the countries I've visited over the last decade -- Costa Rica, Nicaragua, the United Kingdom, and most recently, the entire Adriatic coast. And of course, Israel.

The Birthright trip when I was 18 was the reason I first applied for a passport. I was nearly done with my freshman year of college when I went to take the first set of photos. I had blown my hair straight for the occasion (again!) and back then, it was dyed blond. (My eyebrows were also chemically lightened because I was trying to fool and cut in a chin length bob. It was puffy but I thought it looked sophisticated. Back then I was still trying for classy. A few years later, I had all but given up the effort except when going on job interviews.

After about 20 minutes, I receive my new photos and scrutinize them more closely than I had before. As I already noted, the hair is sleek but also darker and longer than it had been ten years ago. The smile was almost as bright but not as straight -- back in college, I still diligently wore my retainers to bed, but had subsequently thrown them out because they smelled badly.)

But perhaps the most significant difference between 2011 and 2001 is the attire. At 18, I wore a cream colored sweater that hid my collarbone from view. And at 28 -- my neckline is much closer to my breasts than it is to my collarbone. And then I noticed something else on the new picture -- my red bra strap is sticking out. I will be living with this for the next ten years. But at least it proves my worthiness to get another shot at Birthright. I would so get it right this time around.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Birthright Done Wrong

Last week, Marc Tracy over at Tablet wrote about the effectiveness of the Birthright program, which offers young Diasporic Jews under the age of 27 the opportunity to go to Israel gratis. According to a study conducted by the program's organizers, (so trustworthy, impartial source) young Jews who go one a trip, "are a full 51 percent more likely to marry a fellow Jew. (Probably because they met them on their Birthright trip. I kid! Sorta.) Moreover, they are 35 percent more likely to consider marrying a Jew important, and any non-Jews they choose to marry are four times more likely to convert," writes Tracy of the study.

Anyway, the Tablet writer, who was lightly griping about the fact that he has not yet been placed on a trip though he has applied in his final year of eligibility, humorously noted that the Birthright trip is perhaps best known for "hooking up" as the kids these days are wont to say. This means that I did my Birthright trip all wrong.

People often ask me about my transition out of Orthodoxy. They ask if I have any regrets and when I'm feeling most reasonable and nuanced, I say no. It was a process and it couldn't in any way be rushed. But when I think back on certain wasted opportunities (i.e. my Birthright trip), I wish that I had de-Orthodoxized much earlier, say at 18 when I went to Israel for the first time on a certain sponsored trip.

I did not hook up on the tour bus as we zipped around the country for ten days. I was still shomer negiah (silly, silly Dvora) and wore only skirts. I even rode a donkey in a skirt (wearing a pair of pants underneath). So Birthright organizers, I know that I've already been on a trip and am too old (28) to be eligible, but can you make an exception and let me go again so I get things right this time? If you don't let me, I might not meet a Jewish spouse or accidentally make Jewish babies.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A different kind of Israel news

The news coming out of Israel this week has been tragic, nauseating, frustrating, etc. Well, that's only if you read the New York Times. Thank God we gymnastics fans care about political actions and current events only as so far as they impact the sport. The fall of the Soviet Union was significant for us because of the defunding of the sports programs and the flight of coaching talents to Western countries. Romania's post-Communist upheaval resulted in the temporary closing of Deva, the national training center, which anyone who watched the NBC coverage of the 1992 Olympics heard mentioned every time a Romanian athlete mounted an apparatus.

Well for those of us looking for a reprieve for the current news out of the Middle East, International Gymnast Magazine has a reprieve -- an interview with Felix Aronovich, who competes for Israel and Penn State.

Aronovich in the "other" blue and white.

They do not ask him about the Green Line, settlements or East Jerusalem. It's all pure gym talk. They mentioned the influx of former Soviet/Russian gymnasts to Israel, which has resulted in success for the Israeli gymnastics program. Aronovich is a native of Ukraine but immigrated when he was 2 so he can be safely called an Israeli gymnast. (To date, the most successful Israeli gymnast, Alexander Shatilov, winner of the bronze medal on the floor exercise at the 2009 Worlds, did a significant portion of his training outside of the country.)

Though I am always pleased to see an Israeli gymnast profiled (see my work for Tablet on Noam Shaham), the interview is a bit tepid. Next time John Crumlish, ask the athletes about politics. I would love to see Aliya Mustafina take a question about Vladimir Putin or a Chinese girl answer one about her country's monetary policy. Or an American gymnast explain away the lack of health care in this country. Not really gymnastics related but it certainly would be more interesting than hearing another account of hard work and training.

I guess what I'm saying -- get some better quotes out of these kids. They must have more interesting personalities than the glimpses we get to see.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

They tried to make me go to rehab...

But I said, "I would if I had medical insurance," or "but the co-pays are too damn high!" Take your pick. I'm not headed to rehab anytime soon, mostly because they don't have coffee rehab clinics and that's the only chemical addiction I suffer from. "Yes, my name is Dvora. I'm a writer and a coffee fiend." How original.

As Winehouse in all of her beehive glory.

This year for Purim I dressed up as Amy Winehouse. From the reaction I received at megillah reading and subsequent parties, I believe I did a great (if not perfect) job of portraying the hot mess of a singer. True, my eye makeup wasn't sufficiently trashy. (I really laid the eyeliner on thick -- it took several tries with makeup remover to get it off.) And yes, I flashed a smile with all of my teeth. And no, I didn't try crack before the festivities began. I guess I'm not Method enough.

This costume was great fun to wear and surprisingly easy to put together. All that I had to purchase were the tattoos (multi-pack from Ricky's) and the wig, which was a steal off of Amazon. (If I was still Orthodox inclined and planned to cover my hair upon marriage, I would insist in wearing this wig as a sheitl. I would be the coolest woman on the other side of the mechitza.) I already owned everything else. Yes, Amy Winehouse is an easy costume if you've already got a Semitic face and an appropriately slutty daily wardrobe. Or perhaps I should say, "hodrobe."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Virtual Visitation Rights

I spend a lot of time writing personal essay (as you know), twisting the events of my life into arcs and narrative with beginnings, middles and ends. Sometimes I think I do this because I'm lazy -- it is much easier to search your memories for stories then to go out and find them. (And report, record, transcribe.) Sometimes I think I write them because I actually think I'm interesting enough to merit that level of introspection and navel gazing. Oy.

Last spring, I wrote a personal essay about my father's unsuccessful attempt to friend me on Facebook, which I oh-so-cleverly called, "Father Facebook." I sent it to various publications in an attempt to get it published in time for Father's Day in June. No takers (though I did get some lovely rejections).

Unsure of what to do, I showed it to some of my writer-friends. (All of my friends are hyphenates -- dancer-friends, Jewish-friends, crazy-friends.) Though they all liked it one of them astutely suggested that what was most interesting about it wasn't me but the idea of using Facebook in child-noncustodial parent situations. She suggested I take that idea and report it out.

Thankfully, I took her suggestion and found other people much more interesting than myself to speak to and the result is in this weekend's New York Times Style section. You can read the article here. Do it quick before it goes behind the pay wall!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Writer, Interrupted

It's a tough world out there for writers. I know that this is old news and I'm hardly the first writer to say as much. I hope you'll forgive me for this redundancy. I'll try to be a bit more original throughout the rest of this post.

For the last few years (even more if you include graduate school), I've tried to establish a career as a writer with varying degrees of success. At some points, I felt like I was just on the brink of a major step forward, something that would lead to a more sustainable paycheck and lifestyle, and all I had to do was work a little harder and I would clear the hump. Alas, that never happened. (Again, I know that my experience is not particularly unique in this regard.)

Since the start of the (secular) new year, I've been grappling about what to do about this situation. Should I continue trying to "make it" or should I investigate other career options that are less dependent on chance? Should I look for something that could realistically support my cheap, stereotypically Jewish lifestyle or do I continue to hope that I will one day defy the odds?

These thoughts became even more pressing when I turned 28 at the end of January. All of the sudden 30 seemed imminent. I didn't want to continue supporting myself in the same way in a couple of years time. (My money scheme has been a combination of writing, tutoring, teaching Hebrew school and even occasionally, dog walking.) Add to that the fact that I actually had significant medical problems in the fall with my ribs and spine, some of which have persisted to the present. I realized that I need a salary with benefits. Simply making just enough to cover your expenses each month is not a solid long term plan.

So this is where I am, on the verge of admitting at least partial defeat. I will no longer try to write for a living (though I will finish up the articles I already have pending). I know that this sort of narrative is not the kind that great books or Hollywood movies are built upon. It would be very dispiriting to watch a film in which the protagonist, after several years of effort, rationally weighed her options and decided to go with Plan B (and not the emergency contraception. That would be a different sort of movie).

Before I drown in self-pity, I need to acknowledge that I know that I have a lot going for me and that my relative penury over the last few years has been my choice. I wanted to try to earn my income in a shrinking industry that is ultra-competitive. I came from a solidly middle class background and received an excellent education. I possess two degrees from prestigious institutions and programs. I can certainly find a job that will provide a decent (though not great) salary and benefits. I just won't be doing what I've been trained to do, what I've hoped to do since I was a kid. But I guess we all have to grow up sometime and I'm glad that I'm getting around to it before I turn 30.

Yet even though I am mostly reconciled to this new plan, a part of me hopes that just as I'm about to close the door on this career, someone will give me a reason to reconsider. I know, I know -- again with the movies. I'm not the lead in some romantic comedy about to fly away when the the love of my life stops me at the airport with a bouquet of roses. (Not at the boarding gate these days with all of the security restrictions. I guess it would have to be at luggage check in. Much less romantic that way if you ask me.) But that is not the sort of thing that happens to me -- not with men and not with editors. Anyway, I'd prefer a bouquet of cash.

Aside from a better paycheck and benefits there are other things I am looking forward to. Coworkers, for one. I am a very social being and look forward to being surrounded by other people. I'm sure my friends on Gchat will be pleased to no longer find themselves standing in for actual human beings in an actual workplace. Also, it will be nice to not be entirely responsible for figuring out what I'm going to do all day every day from project ideas, planning and execution. I've always marched to the beat of my own drum but I'm now looking forward to the idea of being replaced as drummer. (Especially since I don't actually know how to play any instruments.)

Where does that leave this blog? Basically the same I think. Actually, I'll need this blog more than ever (and my other, upcoming web project -- stay tuned!) since I won't be writing in other places. So hopefully I'll post here with greater frequency. Don't worry -- you won't have to find another fix for Judaism-gymnastics-breaking.

Like you could!

A Very Tonya Purim

In honor of Purim (aka Jewlloween), which is yet another Jewish holiday where we celebrate escaping death (look Ma- no annihilation!), I'm reposting the article I wrote last year for Tablet about dressing up as Tonya Harding for Purim when I was 11. (Last year, the moon and Olympic calendars aligned perfectly and the ladies figure skating finals were the same week as Purim.) Here's a brief description of the unfortunate costume:

It was hardly an obvious costume choice for an Orthodox girl in Brooklyn. Rollerblading around the synagogue while brandishing a baseball bat, I wore a bright purple leotard over black leggings and rouged my cheeks to beauty-pageant standards. Though my collarbone, knees, and elbows were supposed to be covered (and not in clingy spandex) in keeping with Jewish law, I got around this restriction because I was still under 12 and had yet to enter formal Jewish womanhood, when dress guidelines went from suggestion to requirement. After my Tonya night, I thought, I would go quietly into adulthood, not minding the high necks and low hemlines I would have to wear.

Even at 11, I should've realized that I would never do anything quietly. Silly pre-adolescent girl.

(Read the rest here. Even if you have already read it. Do it again.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

So you think you want to be a rabbi?

This Xtranormal video, which was sent to me by a friend, features a young woman who wants to be a rabbi and the rabbi who gives her a long list of reasons to not pursue this career path.

In keeping with the theme of yesterday's post about the Nice (Single) Jewish Girl, my favorite part of the video is when the rabbi lays out the facts of dating while in rab school:

"If you are not married now or have a boyfriend, you will not find one in rabbinical school. All the men in your program will be wonderful but they will either be married or homosexual."

Ah. In rabbinical school as in life.

"You will not find a man outside of rabbinical school. Any man that meets you will consider dating a rabbi a lifestyle choice. You will be too religious for most Jewish men and no religious man will want to date a female rabbi."

I feel the same way about male rabbis. I don't want to date a professional Jew. (I'm already too much of one myself.) I all into someone who enjoys Jewish practice but I'd prefer it to be a hobby for them, something to do on the weekends like golf.

As for the wannabe's desire to have a pulpit in a major city, such as LA or NYC, the elder's response is: Do you know where Boise is?

So rabbinical school -- another career path I'm glad I didn't go down. Not that I needed a cheap animated video to show me that.

Nice Jewish Girl is back!

Back in 2005 when I was first starting to tip toe in the blogosphere as a reader, I was sent the link to Nice Jewish Girl, a blog penned by a frum woman in her mid 30s about the difficulty of being an Orthodox woman, single and sexually frustrated as she tried to keep the rules of shomer negiah, which prohibit even casual contact between the sexes if the parties are unmarried. Though I was over a decade younger than the protagonist when I read her site and had already decided that shomer negiah wasn't for me anymore, I definitely understood her struggle, if not the extent of her frustration.

I followed her journey, which eventually ended in her kissing a man (though not losing her virginity to him). And then Nice Jewish Girl disappeared.

Once or twice over the last 5 years I had wondered whatever became of her -- whether she married as she had hoped or gotten laid -- and even went back to her site to see if any updates had been posted. There were none.

Until now. Nice Jewish Girl is back and unfortunately, not much has changed. She writes:

I am now 40 years old, and I have never had sex. I have "made out" with one man, and that was more than 5 years ago.

Oy. Poor woman. But just as before, I enjoyed reading through this very lengthy post. She is very honest and forthright about how she feels about it all -- religion, Orthodoxy, God and sex. While part of her frustration is the lack of sex in her life, she also articulates other frustrations that are more general about Orthodoxy. Specifically (and this is one I've frequently brought up), she is frustrated that the things she was raised to want from a traditional lifestyle are only available in family form. So what happens if you're not fortunate enough to meet your mate when you are younger? As I've often said, the community doesn't really know what to do with you. So you follow the rules but the setting is all wrong and observance can feel isolating and stifling.

So much of what I value about the Torah was related to family life. The kind of Shabboses I wanted to spend with my own children, the way I want to celebrate holidays with my family, the values and memories I would like to share with a husband and pass along to future generations. Without any of those things invested in it – if my observance of mitzvos is only for me – then it all starts to feel more annoying. Shabbos is annoying – lonely, boring, and annoying.

She also discusses her changed attitudes toward sex:

As one's sexual frustration grows, it starts to weaken the threads that used to hold together "sex" and "specialness" in the mind. Sex becomes more and more of a simple primal need, like food or air, and eventually, if one does not eat or breathe, one will not care if the food is full of preservatives, or bland, or if the air is slightly polluted.

I, for one, am very curious to see where this all ends up for Nice Jewish Girl. I hope she doesn't wait five years to post again.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Goodbye, Lilith

This summer, I posted giddily on this site after I attended the New York stop (New Jersey actually) of the Lilith Fair. In high school and college, I was a huge Sarah McLachlan fan and desperately wanted to go to the show in the late 90s when it was at its zenith. At the time, I owned every Sarah McLachlan CD (and virtually every Natalie Merchant album, too) and would actually run on the treadmill to "Building a Mystery." (I fancied that song because it was up tempo for McLachlan and contained the word "vampire." I was going through my Buffy phase, too.) But alas, I was not able to go since a) none of my friends were fan and would go with me and b) the show was on a Saturday aka Shabbos, which meant something different to me at the time than it does now.

But this year, I was able to go with a couple of friends. Though we enjoyed ourselves, one of my friends did note that it "felt like a nostalgia act," sort of like opening a time capsule. It felt entirely out of phase with the year 2010 (though pleasantly so). It seems that the Lilith Fair creator agrees. Yesterday, which was International Women's Day, she announced that Lilith, the music festival not the midrashic character, is dead. (The Lilith of midrashic myth is probably still out there encouraging men to spill their seed in vain or whatever hijinks she gets up to.) She said:

“[It’s] about learning more from our failures than our successes, and it was a beautiful organic event that happened at a point in time when it was really needed. And bringing the same thing back last year really didn’t make any sense, in retrospect, without due diligence being done on how women have changed. Because in 12 years, women have changed a lot. Their expectations have changed, the way they view the world has changed, and that was not taken into consideration, which I blame myself for.”

Aw. Even though it felt stale, the concert did take me back to an angsty adolescence. It felt good to be standing there, 10 years after the fact looking back on that 17 year old who didn't think her life would ever get any better, and realizing that it had improved beyond her wildest expectations even if my medical insurance and bills have gotten worse proportionally.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Story of Menstruation

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Orthodox Union's abstinence education website for teens. As informative as the OU's page is, it fails to include information about women's reproductive system and menstruation. Maybe they're waiting for a girl to go to kallah class before her wedding to learn about such matters.

Well, thankfully in 1946 Disney put together this animated video that teaches young girls about "those days," as the narrator puts it several times.

(via The Frisky)

The video gets most of the information correct even if the animated "flow" looks a little bit like melted cheese. (Or maybe I thought that because of the overuse of "velvety." Makes me think of Velveeta.) And the narrator assures girls of the 40s that exercise is completely acceptable, encouraged even, during those days. "Just use common sense," the narrator notes as the girl speeds downhill on a bike without holding onto the handlebars. That is the sort of common sense I possess in abundance.

I do have a quibble with one part. When telling girls how to keep their menstrual cycles regular and predictable, she warns them to, "not to throw yourself off schedule by getting overtired, emotionally upset or catching cold." Um, check, check and check. If that was true, I would never get my period. When am I not overtired? (I mean, I'm writing this at nearly midnight.)

Overall, I think the OU would approve of this extremely wholesome video. Well, except for the part at the end when the animated menstrual girl dances with an animated boy. Cause we all know what mixed dancing leads to...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Another, better Jewish gymnast

There's been a lot of talk about the Orthodox Jewish gymnast, Amalya Knapp in the national press -- both ESPN and USA Today just ran stories about her this week. (Hello, that was so two weeks ago.) Anyway, I'd like to shine a light on another Jewish gymnast who had quite a successful weekend of competition even though she doesn't care when the Sabbath falls. Of course, I'm referring to national team member Alexandra "Aly" Raisman, who was a member of the 2010 World Championship team that won a silver medal in Rotterdam. At yesterday's American Cup in Jacksonville, Florida, Raisman placed 3rd in the all-around after a very stable, 4 for 4 performance.

Though Aly is a contender for the Olympics in 2012, she will definitely have a tough time making it since her weakest event is also where the Americans are weakest and might overlook her in favor of a stronger bars worker. (This has been a frequent topic of discussion on the gymnastics forums. Yes, there are gym message boards and I spend way too much time lurking on them.) I must admit I haven't always been a fan of this Jewess' gymnastics (try saying that 5 times fast) but she has won me over with her consistency in competition and humility in interviews. She is very open about what she needs to work on and who she admires. And she even denies herself some traditional Jewish food goodness for the sake of fitness and the sport. When International Gymnast interviewed her around Hanukkah, she reported that she wasn't eating any of those grease cakes we call latkes:

Raisman said her training schedule means she is unable to share in a traditional family dinner each night to celebrate Hanukkah...Raisman said she has been sticking to her own healthy meal after evening practice, forgoing any traditional holiday food like potato latkes.

Aw, poor Aly. I guess this means she won't be having any hamentaschen come Purim. Oh well. I guess she'll have to console herself with being one of the top gymnasts in the world.

Some more thoughts on the American Cup:

I LOVE Aliya Mustafina, the current world all around champion. (But instead of saying her last name properly, I want to call her "Musafa" like from the Lion King.) She gives the best "Bitch, I will cut you" face that I've seen since Svetlana Boginskaya began her 1989 floor routine with that fierce expression.

Aliya is on the left. American Alicia Sacramone is on the right.

And here is the originator, Bogi.

The commentators kept going on and on about how difficult Mustafina is to coach, how headstrong she is. Elfi Schlaegel, for her part, muttered "women" a few times when discussing Mustafina's behavior and temperament. (Thanks a lot Elfi, you self-hater.) But this is precisely what I like about her. A lot of times, the stories around female gymnasts are framed in such a way that you think that they're little kids and I adore Mustafina (and others like her, including Sacramone and even former Russian great, Svetlana Khorkina) who aren't afraid of showing their less than cuddly personalities and being brazen about their ambition. I know I just praised Raisman for her humility but I don't necessarily think that this is the only praiseworthy trait in an athlete. Mustafina is very tough, if not impossible to beat, when she hits, which she usually does. She knows this and owns it.